The lights of the room were dimmed in testament to the lateness of the hour. It didn't bother the five people who sat at a table in a secluded corner by the windows. They looked on intensely as one of their number spoke.
"So this hephestium? It's in the asteroids, and that's what's disrupting our sensors?" asked the narrow-faced young man.
"Correct," the brunette woman at the end of the table replied.
The blonde at the opposite end spoke up. "Is it having any effect on our weapons?" she asked.
"Is there any way we can modify our sensors to function through the interference?" the man spoke again.
"Possibly. Who's going to give it a try?" The brunette eyed them all as they leaned their heads together over the table, muttering quietly and comparing notes.
They reached a conclusion. "Unk and Rust are going to work on it together," said Novakovitch firmly.
"And Barbarella is taking over the comms while they do that," put in Lawless quickly.
"And Kiki has one eye on the sensors—for what it's worth," added Cormack. They'd been caught out before by a surprise attack while no one was watching—a product of her own dismal luck quotient. She would have gladly sacrificed some of her dexterity to bolster her luck, but Cutler hadn't allowed it. You rolled your character and took what you got, she'd told Cormack; it was part of the game.
"Okay," said Cutler, game face unwavering. "Ethan, give me your intelligence and luck quotients combined. And Travis, the same from you."
"Eleven," answered Novakovitch promptly.
"Fifteen," said Mayweather.
The Game Master handed three six-sided dice to Novakovitch. "Roll."
"Do I want high or low?" he asked, taking the dice.
He nodded, shook the dice between cupped palms and tossed them out on the tabletop. They rolled to a stop and he added them up. "Fourteen," he announced triumphantly.
Cutler collected the dice and added a four-sided to the mix before passing them over to Mayweather. "Roll."
"High?" Mayweather asked.
He shook them in one long-fingered hand and tossed them on the table. "Nineteen."
"In that case " Cutler checked her notes. " not only do you manage to modify your sensors to screen out the hephestium, in doing so you've increased their general efficiency by six percent." She kept her face impassive but inside she was shaking her head. Mayweather seemed to have a magic touch with the dice that evening. Everything she'd thrown his way he'd managed to turn to his, and consequently the team's, advantage. It was worrying her that the game might be getting too easy for them.
Time for another sneak attack? she pondered, but decided against it. Too obvious and too soon after the last one. At their current rate, they'd find their target before long. They would still have to figure out how to rescue the group, but that was only half the fun as far as she was concerned. Cutler had been patient thus far, not wanting to let the joke go too soon. Lawless had stressed how practical jokes were so much more fun when they were so very unexpected.
"Am I getting anything on sensors now?" Cormack asked, breaking her bunkmate's train of thought.
Cutler glanced at her notes. "You're not, but Unk is."
Cormack nodded. Unk had the highest luck quotient; it made sense he'd be the one to find what they were looking for.
"So what am I seeing?" Mayweather asked.
"An energy signature for a damaged warp engine and five life signs."
"Great. Transferring the coordinates to the helm."
"In that case," put in Cormack, "I'm laying in the course. Any more nasty surprises ahead of us?"
The GM considered her decision carefully. "You'll just have to wait and see."
Novakovitch and Lawless had been consulting in the meantime. "I'm taking over at the comm," announced Ethan. "If we're finally going to talk to these people, we should have someone intelligent do it."
"Hey!" protested Lawless, although she knew he was only teasing. "Barbarella may not be smart, but she can lift heavy things!"
The others laughed and Cutler bit back a comment on how handy that would be when they met up with their objective. "So." She turned to Novakovitch. "Are you doing anything at the comm?"
"I'm hailing them," he answered, mimicking her tone.
"In that case, you're getting a response. A male voice says, 'This is passenger transport Royal Albert requesting immediate assistance. Our pilot is injured. Engines are off line, and life support is failing. Please respond.'" She looked at Novakovitch expectantly.
At that moment, Mayweather spoke up. "Hang on, everyone," he said. "It's time to call it a night." There were various protests from the other players. "Hey, you made me the timekeeper. I'm just giving you the facts."
"He's right," Cormack begrudgingly agreed. "I cannot afford another night like last time. Especially with Lieutenant Reed back on duty tomorrow."
"Crap. I forgot about that," said Lawless. She was already on her feet. "I have a status report to finish before tomorrow. It's due in to Commander Tucker at 0800." She picked up her datapad, making sure her record of all the events of the evening's gaming session were safely stored before shutting it off. The other players and the GM did likewise.
"So, are we on for tomorrow?" Cutler asked.
Mayweather gave her a funny look. "No. Movie night tomorrow. Remember?"
She and Travis were supposed to have a date for dinner and the movie. She'd completely forgotten. "Sorry! I lost track of what day it was," she admitted.
"Let's just plan the next session for Monday," said Stephanie. "That sound good?"
"Sure," agreed Liz quickly.
"Works for me," said Mae.
Stephanie turned to Travis and Ethan. "Guys?"
"Fine by me," Ethan readily replied.
"Yeah, that's fine." Travis hadn't looked away from Liz, who was looking a little apprehensive.
Stephanie gave her bunkmate an inquisitive glance. "You coming, Liz?"
"I'll catch up."
"Okay." She turned to go, accompanied by Ethan and Mae.
Left alone in the half-light of the mess hall, Liz returned Travis's gaze evenly. "I'm sorry I forgot about our date. But, no harm done, right?" she added cheerfully. "If I'd forgotten tomorrow that would have been a problem."
"Yeah. Like last time?"
Liz sighed. "How many times do I have to apologize for that? It was a busy week in my department. I was exhausted, and it slipped my mind. Can we please let it go?"
The helmsman shrugged noncommittally. "Sure. Whatever."
"If it were nothing, you wouldn't have brought it up." She looked at him, saying gently, "Travis, If you don't tell me when something's wrong, how am I supposed to try to fix it?"
"Do you even want to?" he asked sullenly.
"How can you even ask that?" She was beginning to get irritated.
"How many other dates have you forgotten and then remembered at the last moment? It just makes me wonder where I fit in your list of priorities."
"You know what? I'm not having this conversation right now. I care about you, and I care about our relationship. I admit it's not been perfect up to now, but no relationship ever is. The point is that if it's worth having, it's worth working at. So when you're ready to talk about this like an adult instead of a sulky teenager, you know where to find me." She brushed past him and out the door, leaving Travis standing in petulant silence.
It was a short walk back to her cabin, and she was still fuming when she arrived. Stephanie was there and already in her pajamas. She was standing at the computer desk, reading as she brushed her teeth. At Liz's expression, she quickly stepped back to the lav and rinsed out her mouth.
"What happened?" she asked.
Liz was emptying her uniform's many pockets and didn't look up. "Nothing," she said, knowing it wouldn't satisfy her bunkmate any more than it had satisfied her when Travis said it.
As ever, Stephanie's response was more direct than her own had been. "Bullshit. Tell me what's wrong." She sat on her bunk and waited.
There was a long pause as Liz methodically put away her things. Finally, she sat and pulled off her boots. "Please explain to me why, despite my better judgment, I decided to date a fellow crewmember."
"Because that's all there is on board?"
Liz responded with a glare. "Funny."
"Sorry. Can I try again?" Receiving a neutral shrug in reply, she continued. "How about because he's a good guy and you wanted someone to be with?"
"Maybe," Liz begrudged. "He is a good guy, it's just that sometimes he seems so young."
"He's a man."
This time she got a sardonic smile in response. "True."
Unexpectedly, the door chimed. The women looked at each other. "I'm not expecting anyone," said Stephanie.
"I have a guess it might be for me." Liz stood and stepped to the door. She opened it to reveal a somewhat contrite looking Travis. "Hello," she said coolly.
"Umm." His eyes flickered uncertainly past Liz to Stephanie who had risen and was now standing unintrusively but obviously behind her bunkmate. Travis quickly looked back at Liz. "Can I talk to you? " he asked hesitantly.
"Of course." Liz didn't move from her position in the open doorway.
"In private?" Stephanie raised an eyebrow, frowning. Travis caught the look out of the corner of his eye and added quickly, "Just for a minute."
Unaware of the silent exchange Liz stepped toward him, forcing him back out into the corridor. She let the door shut behind her. "All right, talk."
"I just want to apologize," he said contritely. "I guess I overreacted a little."
Liz wanted to protest the "little," but she refrained.
"I'm just not real good at this whole thing. I don't have a lot of practice." He was fidgeting, shifting his weight from one foot to another. He wouldn't meet Liz's steady gaze.
Then it dawned on her. "Travis, am I your first girlfriend?" she asked softly.
"No!" he quickly protested. "Well, not exactly."
She waited patiently. Eventually, Travis continued.
"There's not a lot of social contact when you're on a freighter run. There were other kids on the ship, but when you grow up together like that, it's more like extended family and you don't you know " He left the sentence unfinished, his implication clear. "We'd occasionally meet up with other ships and trade information, supplies, sometimes just company. It was always fun to hear a new story from someone." His face lit up momentarily at the memory. "It could get pretty dull listening to the adults tell the same stories again and again. Anyway, I met a few girls that way, growing up. But it was never anything that lasted. You'd just have time to make a friend, then one or the other of you would have to go."
There was silence as what he said sank in. When Liz spoke, it was quietly. "I guess I should have thought of that." At his startled look, she added, "That you were so isolated growing up."
"It was different when I got to Starfleet training, but " He trailed off, not certain of what he meant to say.
"Didn't anyone catch your eye there?" Liz asked, gently teasing. "You're a handsome guy. Surely they were lined up around the block for such a catch."
"Well, of course." He gave her a grin, his old cheerfulness and confidence slowly returning. "I mean, there were a couple " Then the uncertainty returned. "But the point is, you're the first woman I've ever felt like this about. And I guess I don't quite know what to do."
"I don't know what to tell you. Every relationship is different, and all you can do is hope you don't make the same mistakes twice."
"That's not real comforting," Travis said.
"I know. But it's the best I can do." There was another silence as they regarded each other. It was Liz who broke it. "You should go. It's late."
Travis nodded. "Are we still on for tomorrow?" he asked doubtfully.
Liz smiled. "Of course. Just because we had an argument doesn't mean you're getting out of our date," she joked and was rewarded with a bright smile from the helmsman.
"Okay. Good. I'll see you tomorrow."
She reached up and pulled him into a tender good-night kiss. "Sweet dreams," she said, and slipped back inside her quarters.
Stephanie was waiting impatiently for her. The door had barely shut when she spoke up. "So?"
"Better," answered Liz with a smile.
Lieutenant Reed was in good form that morning. He smiled as he entered the Armory, surprising one or two crewmen with what was for him exuberance.
"Good morning, Lieutenant!" said Cormack cheerfully, noting the smile on his normally more impassive visage.
"Good morning yourself," he replied, approaching her. "You're unusually jocund this morning."
"Look who's talking. You're hardly Lieutenant Stoic, yourself. You're looking a lot better than when I checked in on you in sickbay."
"I slept well." He smiled again, thinking just why he had slept so well.
"I had two lattés," Cormack announced buoyantly.
They exchanged a laugh, once again surprising the few crewmen in the room. "All right, fill me in on what I've missed the past few days."
Cormack handed him a datapad. "There's a status report. Otherwise, there's not much to tell you. It's been pretty routine around here."
He took the datapad and glanced at it. "That's good news."
He caught something in her tone he couldn't quite identify. "What is it?"
"Just thinking about Engineering. I don't think Commander Tucker's going to be quite as happy this morning."
Tucker felt his good mood rapidly disappearing. "The whole door?" he exclaimed.
"I'm afraid so, Commander," replied Lieutenant Hess.
"How long before we're going to have to get the Captain to drop us out of warp for the install?"
"A day and a half."
"All right. I'll look over your report and let him know. Maybe we can find something interesting for astrometrics to investigate before we have to slow down. If we can keep the Captain busy, it'll keep him out of our hair," he said, only half joking.
"Yes, sir," Hess replied evenly. She returned to oversee the team working on the new launch bay door.
Lawless entered Engineering and made a beeline for Tucker. "Good morning, Commander," she said.
"Mornin', Mae," he answered in something less than his usual chipper tone.
She noted the difference and proceeded more cautiously. "Everything okay, sir?"
"Just this whole thing with the launch bay door," he said scanning the information Lieutenant Hess had provided. "I'm beginning to wish I hadn't gotten out of bed this morning." There was more truth in his statement than the ensign could have guessed. He sighed.
"This might cheer you up," she offered, holding out a datapad. "It's my status report. I think I've found a way to increase the efficiency of the plasma constrictors."
"That sure does improve my morning." Tucker took the datapad, setting the one from Hess on the workstation counter. Slowly, as he skimmed the document, his good mood returned. "Great work, Mae. This looks real promising."
Lawless practically beamed. "Thank you, Commander."
"I'll let you know when I've had a chance to read it through."
Trip was in luck when it came to distracting Captain Archer. In a meeting with the captain that afternoon, he learned they were scheduled to begin study of the Arachnid Nebula in just two days.
"Perfect," the engineer said with a smile. "We should have that door installed long before the folks in astrometrics are done mapping that thing."
"How's the work coming on that?" Archer asked.
"Proceeding apace, as Malcolm would say," quipped Tucker.
Archer gave him an odd look. "Would he?"
"Sure. Haven't you heard him say that?"
"No." Jon considered his old friend surreptitiously over the datapad he was reviewing. The document was something to do with the plasma constrictors, but he could focus on it in detail later. Meantime, it occurred to him to wonder just what had passed between his Chief Engineer and his Armory Officer while they were stranded in Shuttlepod One. He'd received reports from both of them that explained much of the technical side of the trip. Putting that together with what T'Pol had learned about the micro-singularities, he had a full account of what had happened.
On the personal front, though, he still had questions. He could only imagine what it was like for them: believing Enterprise and her crew to be lost; believing they would die in only a few short days, drifting so many light-years from home. He'd faced death on more than one occasion, but never like that. To see it laid out in front of one, seemingly inevitable—what must it have been like? There were questions he sincerely wanted to ask, but it was outside possibility. Whatever had transpired between the officers was their business and theirs alone. Should either of them choose to discuss it with him, he would feel honored to be so trusted.
"This looks promising," Archer said, indicating the datapad.
"That's what I said," agreed Trip. "I was thinking that while we explore that nebula might be a good time to work on the modifications. We won't be needing the warp engines right then anyway."
"Sounds good to me." This time when the captain regarded the engineer, it was directly. "So," he began almost cautiously, "how are you doing?"
"Captain?" replied Trip. The sudden serious tone in Archer's voice made him wary.
"After what you and Malcolm went through, I just wondered how you're doing."
Trip realized his apprehension was unwarranted. Jon was his friend as well as his Captain; his concern was natural, and Trip appreciated it. "Good. I'm not saying we didn't have some nightmare moments, but I'm doing pretty okay."
"How about Malcolm?"
He gave a small shrug. "You'd have to ask him, but I think he's doing fine, too." It was an opportunity. Trip's mind spun, trying to decide if it was an opportunity he wanted to take.
He decided it wasn't. He wanted to, and he knew he could trust Jon with his life—it was just that Trip and Malcolm had agreed to keep things quiet for the time being. Their relationship as it now stood was too new to share. Trip was still uncertain how long it would last or where it would take them. He knew what he wanted, but with his history the last thing he needed was to get his hopes up too high. To go shouting out his happiness to anyone, even Jon, might curse it. He couldn't take that chance. Damn, Trip, he thought. And you called Malcolm a pessimist? I think I should apologize for that. He smiled a little, considering possible "apologies."
"I'm glad to hear it," Archer said. "But if you ever need to talk to someone "
"I know." Trip gave him an appreciative and understanding nod. "Thanks, Captain."
"All right. Well " Archer shifted the conversation back to a more professional note. " if that's everything, you're dismissed."
"See you at the movie tonight?" Trip asked as he stood.
"I don't think so. I've got a lot of reports to go over. Thanks for adding to the stack, by the way," he said ironically, indicating Lawless's report on the plasma constrictors.
"Always happy to lend a hand," the engineer answered with a devilish grin.
"Remind me why I hired you?"
"I think I've overstayed my welcome. Excuse me." Trip made a hasty exit, but not without shooting one more smirk over his shoulder at his friend.
"You going to the movie tonight?"
"I'm thinking not."
"Really? But it's Notorious. I thought you loved that film."
"I do. I'm just not up for it tonight." Stephanie took a bite of mashed potatoes, savored the hot, buttery flavor. "No one does garlic mashers quite like Chef," she said, sighing appreciatively.
"Mm-hmm," agreed Mae. "Good thing neither of us has a date tonight."
"Too true. Never thought I'd be happy about that."
"So how come you're not going to the movie?"
"I just feel like staying in tonight. Besides, Griffith loaned me a copy of Portrait of the Artist. I haven't read it since high school, and somehow I'm just in the mood for it."
"That's a bad sign. Any time you're 'just in the mood' for James Joyce, something must be seriously wrong," Mae wisecracked.
"Some of us happen to like James Joyce," Stephanie gibed back. A movement across the mess hall caught her eye, and she glanced over.
"What?" said Mae, looking over her shoulder in the same direction. Travis and Liz had just entered, holding hands and laughing. "Oh. Looks like they're past whatever was bugging Travis last night." She turned her attention away from the couple.
"Yeah. I don't know what it was about, but he stopped by our cabin to talk to Liz after the game broke up last night."
Stephanie, too, returned to her meal. She took a bite of meatloaf. "What is it about meatloaf and mashed potatoes?" she said with another happy sigh.
"Comfort food," replied Mae, enjoying her own. "My dad always made great meatloaf when my brother and I were kids."
"My mom made lousy meatloaf, and she always whipped the potatoes too much for my taste."
"Then maybe you just like them."
"Nah. That's too easy," argued Stephanie lightly. She was enjoying the friendly banter. "It must be some sort of deep psychological need. Or maybe race memory."
"What race would that be? My ancestors were from Japan, and yours were from Ireland," Mae pointed out over a forkful of potatoes.
"Good point. How about the Human race?"
Mae tipped her head toward a far table. "Then explain Doctor Phlox." The Denobulan had made the same dinner choice they had and appeared to be enjoying it just as much as, if not more than, they were.
"You win. It's comfort food." Stephanie smiled.
They ate in silence for a while, listening to the random quiet chatter of the people around them. There was an occasional burst of laughter from one table or another, and folks would glance up curiously and return to their meals. All in all, another quiet night for the Enterprise crew.
"You sure you don't want to go to the movie?" Mae asked. "Ingrid Bergman beats out James Joyce anytime, in my opinion."
"Hmm. It is Bergman, isn't it?" she asked rhetorically. Stephanie considered her options. "What the hell? James will still be there tomorrow."
This time Trip had come prepared. He had a number of tissues stashed in the pocket of his jeans. He was bound to need them; it was an Ingrid Bergman film. First, though, he felt he should warn his date.
"Look," he said quietly as they made their way to the ship's Rec. Center, "there's something I should tell you."
A bit concerned at the tone of his voice, Malcolm looked at him. "What?" he asked, trying to hide his trepidation.
"I always cry at Ingrid Bergman movies."
Malcolm stopped in his tracks. "What?" he asked again, this time in disbelief.
"I know it's goofy," said Trip, coming to a quick halt beside him. "It's just she always gets me. I thought I should warn you before we get in there."
Malcolm tried not to smile, but he couldn't help it. It was just so damned endearing.
"Aw, now you're going to laugh at me, aren't you?" Trip asked, a little embarrassed.
"No, I'm not." Malcolm fought to school his expression but failed once again. He noticed the flush starting to color the engineer's cheeks. "I'm not laughing at you," he said sincerely, finally getting his facial muscles under control. "I just didn't know you were that kind of guy." Now the color in Trip's cheeks darkened, and Malcolm realized his words hadn't sounded as he'd intended. "I mean," he added hastily, "it's not important. It's just a surprise. That's all. I think it's charming." He paused suddenly as a group of crewmen passed by, also heading for Rec. Center. When he continued, it was in a more subdued voice. "I've never cried at a movie. Never let myself, really. Frankly, the idea scares me."
Trip started, but had to hold his response as more people passed them. Finally, the corridor was clear once more. "What do you mean, it scares you?"
Another interruption, and then Malcolm spoke again. "Let's not talk about it here," he said. "It's a bit like Heathrow at the moment."
"You're going to explain later, though. Right?" Trip was curious and very puzzled by Malcolm's confession. He just couldn't wrap his brain around it. What was scary about crying at a movie? Especially one starring the naturally heartbreaking Ingrid Bergman? his mind added defensively.
The tactical officer shrugged. "Sure. But it's stupid, really," he added self-deprecatingly.
"No, it's not," Trip was quick to say. "Nothing about you is stupid. Stubborn, sure. Irritating, occasionally. But never stupid." He finished off his short list with a grin and was rewarded with one of Malcolm's subtle smiles. "Come on," the engineer said easily. "Or all the good seats'll be gone."
The crowd broke up slowly, some to go on Gamma-shift duty, but most to turn in for the night. Stephanie lost sight of Liz fairly quickly; the exobiologist and her date disappeared almost immediately after the movie's credits rolled. She wondered idly if she'd see her bunkmate again that night. A sly smile crossed her lips.
Suddenly, Mae grabbed her arm, startling her from her thoughts. "What the hell?" exclaimed Stephanie.
The pair remained seated while those around them stood and filed out of the Rec. Center. Stephanie tried to see what had caught her friend's attention in such a potent fashion, but could make out nothing extraordinary in the scene.
"What?" she asked finally.
Nearly everyone had left, and the two of them still sitting there was beginning to look odd. The steward in charge of post-show clean up gave her an unobtrusive but inquisitive glance. She returned it with an equally baffled look and a one-shouldered shrug.
At last Mae released her grip, shaking her head. "Nothing," she said.
"Nothing? I'm going to be bruised for a week and it's for 'nothing'?" Stephanie asked less angrily than her words implied.
"Sorry. I just thought I saw something but I think I must have imagined it. Let's go." She stood, followed closely by Stephanie.
"What was it?" the blonde woman asked as they left the Rec. Center to the care of the steward.
"Nothing important. It just surprised me is all. And like I said, I probably just imagined it."
"Mae " There was a definite note of threat in her voice.
Mae stopped, took a cautious look up and down the corridor. Assured they were quite alone, she said in an undertone, "This'll sound crazy, but " Another furtive glance. " for a second, I could have sworn Commander Tucker and Lieutenant Reed were No. It's stupid," she concluded in a more normal tone. She shook her head, embarrassed.
"Must I beat it out of you?" Stephanie inquired politely. She hadn't seen anything unusual herself, but she knew the men were trying to keep their relationship under wraps. If Mae had seen something, others might have as well. It was imperative she know what it was—in case she needed to be ready to squelch rumors.
"Fine. It looked like they were holding hands. Satisfied?"
"Really?" Stephanie added just a touch of skepticism to her voice. She shrugged dismissively. "Weird."
"Exactly. I must have imagined it," the engineer reiterated emphatically.
"You want to get a drink?" asked Stephanie, picking the first and easiest change of topic to come into her head. She had the information she wanted; it was time to move on.
"You buying again?" queried Mae.
Stephanie gave her a mock exasperated sigh. "I suppose," she drawled. The two laughed. "Come on. I hear a Cosmopolitan crying out your name."
"So, are you coming in?"
"Well, after so gracious an invitation "
Trip hung his head and smiled wryly. Looking Malcolm in the eye, he asked graciously, "Would you like to come in?"
Malcolm chuckled low. "Yes, please," he answered with a smile.
Trip opened the door to his cabin, and the two went in. "Have a seat," the engineer said. Malcolm did—on the bunk. Trip crossed his arms and stood with his back to the closed door. He scrutinized the lieutenant, his head tilted to one side.
It wasn't long before the silence and the look became too much for Malcolm. "What is it?" he asked against his better judgment.
"You going to tell me about what you said earlier?"
Malcolm was confused. "What did I say?"
"About not letting yourself cry at movies," prompted the engineer. He'd gone through most of the tissue he'd brought, and now he wanted to know how his lover had managed to stay dry-eyed through the whole film.
Malcolm realized he was trapped. Normally, he wouldn't have minded. The surroundings were comfortable and the company certainly amenable, but "I'd forgotten about that," he stalled.
"Uh-huh." This time it was laced with skepticism.
In fact, he had forgotten his earlier admission. "No, honestly," he protested.
Malcolm thought back on the evening. While Trip sat next to him silently weeping a veritable fountain for the characters on the screen, he had remained not unmoved, but undemonstrative. He'd agreed to explain. Apparently, Trip felt now was a good time.
"You remember now, right?" The younger man was gentle but relentless.
Malcolm could hardly deny it. "Yes."
Trip waited in patient silence.
"All right. It's not that important, really," he said dismissively. A quick glance at Trip showed he didn't believe him. "I just don't share my emotions very readily. You know that—probably better than anyone."
"That's not really an answer," Trip said. He uncrossed his arms and sat on the bunk next to Malcolm. "They're just movies. Why's it such a big deal?"
Malcolm looked at him, lips pursed in irony. "That's my question, too."
Trip relented. "Okay, okay. Forget I brought it up," he said shortly. He stood. Malcolm rose, too. The engineer eyed him for several seconds. "Were you going somewhere?"
"You I thought you wanted me to go."
"Why would you think that?" Trip was truly surprised.
"They way you spoke just now," continued a confused Malcolm. "You sounded angry."
Trip realized his mistake. He shook his head. "I'm not angry, Malcolm. I'm a little frustrated, maybe. I did say you can be frustrating at times," he teased lightly.
"Actually, I believe the word you used was 'irritating'," the tactical officer said dryly. "And stubborn."
"And stubborn!" Trip latched onto the word. He'd tried lightening the mood, and it hadn't worked. Fine, he thought. "I was just trying to learn a little more about you, Malcolm. I might know more than most people, but that doesn't mean I know a lot. I'm still trying to figure you out," he continued more gently. "So far, the more I've learned, the more I love you. I don't expect that to change—no matter what I end up finding out."
Malcolm was struck dumb. Only the little voice in his head was coherent enough to react. Didn't see that coming, did you? it asked, already knowing the answer. Eventually, his voice caught up with his thoughts almost. "I don't know what to say I'm sorry."
"Don't be sorry," said Trip sincerely. "I'm not mad. I just don't want to be shut out, you know?"
He was right, of course. Malcolm couldn't deny it; he was falling into an all too familiar pattern. Wasn't that the problem with every other partner you've ever had? his mind pointed out.
Not every one, he argued with himself. His thoughts leapt to one in particular.
No, the little voice said bitingly, you didn't push him away did you?
It was a little late for that, he spat back.
Unaware of the bitter dialogue going on in Malcolm's head, Trip simply waited. He watched Malcolm, who continued to stand there in indecisive silence. Finally, he could stand the silence no more.
"Malcolm." Malcolm started, drawn back out of himself. Trip caught his gaze and held it. "What's going on?" he asked pointedly.
The dark-haired man shook his head a little to clear it. "Memories," he said after a pause.
"You want to tell me?"
The temptation was huge, and Malcolm almost gave in to it. Trip could see it in his eyes; then he saw the moment pass. Malcolm shook his head sadly. "No." It was a solemn, low sound.
Trip gave a short nod. Give him time, he told himself. He'll tell you when he's ready. It wasn't easy. When he saw a problem, his instinct was to try and fix it—it was part of what made him such a good engineer. But sometimes forbearance was the best choice. He'd made enough mistakes in his life to finally learn that he couldn't just plunge into a human problem like he could an engineering one.
"Okay," he said. "So what do you want to do now?" There was no anger in his voice—just a gentle inquiry and an offer.
Hoping he'd heard right, Malcolm said, "I'd like to stay." It was more request than statement.
"Good," answered Trip tenderly. "Because I don't want you to be alone any more."
Tucker had known the next week would be a busy one—he just hadn't figured on it being this busy. He was sitting at an engineering console trying to prioritize everything that had to be done. It was a normal Monday morning process, but ordinarily it was only his own ship he was dealing with. The arrival of the Vahklas was a serious spanner in the works of what'd planned to do that week. At least we got that launch bay door taken care of, he thought. But so much for working on the plasma constrictors.
He was glad he'd not been invited to dinner with the captain of the Vulcan ship. Archer and T'Pol had hosted him and his second in command the previous evening. Tucker shook his head in sympathy for what he guessed must have been a particularly tedious evening for his old friend. He himself had been lucky enough to have dinner and a quiet evening with Malcolm instead. Definitely much more fun. He smiled as he thought back on it.
Startled, the commander looked up into the face of Ensign Lawless. "Mae," he said, "what is it?"
"I have the results of that diagnostic you asked for on the Vahklas's propulsion systems." She handed him a datapad with the information.
Tucker took it and skimmed the data. "Man. What a mess." He gave a sigh of resignation. "It's like something out of the Starfleet training programs. You remember those 'worst-case scenarios' they like to test you with?"
"Yes, sir," replied Lawless without enthusiasm.
"Guess we better get to work. The Vulcan engineer is supposed to be here any minute. Might as well go meet him at the gate."
Even having been warned that these weren't normal Vulcans—T'Pol called them V'tosh ka'tur, "Vulcans without logic"—he wasn't prepared for the smiling, round-faced man who came aboard.
"I'm Kov," the man said pleasantly. "I'm Chief Engineer aboard the Vahklas. Are you Commander Tucker?"
"Yeah," answered Tucker, pulling himself together after the initial shock. He held out a hand. "Pleased to meet you."
Kov looked at the outstretched limb curiously before realization seemed to strike him. "Of course! I've heard of this custom." He took Tucker's hand and shook it firmly—a little too firmly for Tucker's liking.
Disengaging himself from Vulcan's strong grasp, he tried to discreetly massage the feeling back into his fingers. "Please follow me," he said, and led the way to Main Engineering.
In the Armory, Lieutenant Reed was conducting a brief staff meeting.
"Ensign Young," he said to the ginger-haired man, "there are still a number of people on the crew who haven't been checked out on the phase-pistols. I know we don't have many of them, but I want every person on this ship to know how to use one. You never know when it might be necessary, and it will minimize the possibility of accidents. I've compiled a list of everyone who hasn't yet been cleared." He handed Young a datapad. "I want to you to start making this list shorter. I know it's going to take some time, but get a team to assist you. I want everyone cleared as soon as possible. I've already gotten Captain Archer's okay for you to use the Rec. Center for training."
"Yes, sir," replied Young.
Reed turned to Cormack. "I have another project for you. I've been working on analyzing the data Commander Tucker and the engineering teams brought back from the Estvali vessel. I'm hoping we can use the information to create our own energy barrier similar to the ones they used. You were there a lot." Only Cormack was attuned enough to Reed's moods to recognize the subtle undercurrent of irony in this statement. "I'm hoping your memory of the time you spent there will help shed some light on it."
"Yes, sir," Cormack answered.
"All right. Any questions?"
"Sir?" spoke up Young.
"You want everyone cleared on the phase-pistols?" he asked uneasily.
"You can skip Porthos," replied the lieutenant so dryly that Cormack didn't think Young caught the joke. "Otherwise, I want everyone."
"Anything else?" There wasn't. "Dismissed."
Young turned and departed, desperately trying to figure out how he was going to convince Chef to take time away from his precious galley long enough to learn how to use a phase-pistol. He mentally put the reputedly temperamental man at the bottom of the list.
Reed turned to the Armory's main station. "Come take a look at what I have so far," he said to Cormack. She joined him at the console. "I've had to give up trying to decipher the scans you took when you were in their holding cell."
"I'm not surprised," said Cormack. "I was amazed we actually managed to record anything." The force field that had kept her and the rest of the away team confined to the cell had been set on some sort of fluctuating frequency. It had taken an enhanced prototype scanner Commander Tucker and Sub-commander T'Pol had designed to register even that much information on the barrier.
"Instead, I believe we're going to have better luck with the scans of the containment fields they used in their engineering section and throughout the ship," Reed continued. "Despite the limited scanning times, there appears to be more solid data there."
"I agree." Cormack had gone to a lot of trouble getting much of that data. The Estvali guarded their technology with a tight fist; she'd only been able to manage the occasional surreptitious scan of various equipment and systems while the engineers worked. Any protracted scans would surely have set off alarms on the technologically advanced ship.
"I'm sure Commander Tucker's priority would be on the information you got on their warp engines," Reed said dryly, "but I'm intrigued by these force fields. They seems to function like the one our team encountered on Rigel 10." He called up the data. "I've collected the data from the different scans you and the other members of the away team were able to collect while you were on the alien ship. I'm not positive, but there appear to be a number of different energy signatures here."
Cormack examined the screen intently. It had been several weeks since she'd seen any of the data from the time they'd worked with the Estvali; it took a minute to refresh her memory. "You're right," she said at last. "I wonder if they were running at different levels of intensity?"
"You mean a higher level of containment in one area than another?"
She nodded. "Yes, sir."
"That would be useful," muttered Reed appreciatively. He leaned in next to her. Tapping several buttons on the console, he called up two sets of figures and ran them side by side on the screen. He pointed to the one on the left. "This one was taken in engineering at what Trip said was their warp core. This one " He indicated the data on the right. " you took when you were in their sickbay."
"I recognize it. That was a challenge to get," she added to herself, remembering.
Reed caught the comment out of the corner of his ear. "What were you doing in their sickbay, anyway?" he asked curiously.
"Burned my hand. Kind of accidentally on purpose, if you know what I mean."
"Why?" He was surprised and puzzled.
"To get a look at their medical equipment," answered Cormack matter-of-factly.
The lieutenant regarded her with a furrowed brow. "That was a dangerous way to go about it."
She shrugged lightly. "It seemed the most expedient way at the time."
Reed let the matter drop for the moment. He hadn't personally observed any self-destructive behavior on Cormack's part, but this information bore remembering. The last thing he wanted was a security officer who tended toward unnecessary risks. He wondered briefly how her sessions with the ship's counselor were going. He set the thought aside; this wasn't the time to ask.
"You got a relatively lengthy scan of the sickbay containment field," he said. "Let's start there."
It was a weary group who sat down to game that evening. Stephanie and Mae had been going non-stop in their respective departments all day. Travis had worked an extra shift on the bridge by his own choice. He'd been enjoying the Arachnid Nebula on a number of levels, never having had the opportunity to navigate anything like it while aboard his parents' freighter. Things had been quieter in Life Sciences, but Liz and Ethan were still a bit worn out with the general excitement and added activity brought on simply by having visitors on board.
Liz surveyed the bleary-eyed group closely. "Does everyone really want to do this tonight?" she asked.
The four players looked at one another. They were all obviously tired, but it was equally obvious that no one wanted to be the first to admit it and delay yet another gaming session.
Taking their silence as an okay to proceed, Liz spoke. "All right. When last we left our intrepid adventurers, they were on the verge of actually connecting with their target." She checked her datapad. "You received the following hail: 'This is passenger transport Royal Albert requesting immediate assistance. Our pilot is injured. Engines are off line, and life support is failing. Please respond.' How do you proceed?"
Ethan checked his own records. "I'm at the comm, so I'm going to respond to their hail."
Liz waited. "So," she prompted finally, "respond."
Ethan gave a small sigh. This wasn't his favorite part of role-playing, but he went along with it. "Transport Royal Albert, this is Rescue Ranger," he said giving the name they'd come up with for their fictional vessel. "Can you give us your exact coordinates?"
Liz replied, "Acknowledged, Rescue Ranger. Transmitting location. Please hurry." Then she reverted to her role as Game Master. "He's sending the coordinates."
"I'm programming them into the con," said Stephanie. She stifled a yawn. "Plotting a course. How long until we expect to reach them? We ought to give them an ETA, after all."
"That all depends." Liz handed her a four-sided die. "Roll."
Stephanie took the die dubiously, but complied. "Four."
"Then it could be a while. Who's monitoring the sensors?"
"Unk is," said Travis, sitting up a little straighter in his chair. "What have I got?"
"Two alien vessels approaching from around the large asteroid to port."
"What kind of aliens? Same as before?"
"What's the total of everyone's luck quotients?" Liz asked.
The players compared notes and quickly arrived at a total. "Fourteen," announced Travis.
Liz picked up several dice and rolled them behind her datapad so the others couldn't see the result. "No."
"Damn," said Stephanie wearily. She tried to hide another yawn but failed.
"You shouldn't have done that," said Mae, responding in kind.
"We can do this another night," offered Liz as the yawn made its way through the group—including herself.
This time, when the players regarded each other, they came to a new conclusion. "I think that's a good idea," said Travis. "The Vulcans are only supposed to be with us for a few days. We can pick it up after they go."
Liz nodded. She didn't like having to delay yet again, but better that than spending hours with a sleepy team. It was bound to be time wasted if they continued as they were. "All right. Let's set a tentative date of Friday." She saved the few changes they'd made that evening and collected up the dice as the gathering broke up.
Travis came around to her end of the table and leaned over, planting a light kiss on Liz's cheek. "Sweet dreams," he said softly.
Liz smiled. "You, too."
Everyone said good night and headed off to their quarters. Stephanie waited for her bunkmate to gather her things. "Sorry to spoil the fun," she said as they walked to the cabin they shared.
"It's okay. I'd rather wait than waste an evening trying to keep everyone focused when we all just want to get some sleep."
Stephanie nodded at the logic but was too pooped to offer a coherent reply. They arrived at their quarters and went inside. There was a "message waiting" light blinking on the computer. "Who's it for?" asked Stephanie.
Liz checked the screen. "You."
"Is it marked ‘urgent'?" She began to undress.
"Good. I'm going to bed."
It was lunchtime when Malcolm next saw Trip. The lieutenant was taking a brief break from the Armory and stopped into the mess hall for a mug of tea. As he waited for the mug to fill, he noticed the engineer seated at a table with one of the Vulcan visitors. He didn't know what they were talking about, but something had drawn intrigued and amused looks from the surrounding tables, and he could see Trip shrink down a little in his chair. His interest piqued, Malcolm collected his mug of tea from the drinks dispenser and headed over.
He cleared his throat to get their attention. "Am I interrupting anything?" he asked politely.
"No. Please join us, Mister ?" the Vulcan engineer replied, waiting for Malcolm to fill in the blank for him.
"Reed," the tactical officer offered with a smile. "Malcolm Reed." He took a seat and set his datapad on the table.
"Kov," the Vulcan said in return. "We were just discussing Vulcan mating rituals."
Not sure how else to respond, Reed said simply. "Oh," and glanced at Trip. The engineer gave a small, somewhat embarrassed nod of agreement.
Oblivious, Kov continued. "Most of my people are extremely uncomfortable talking about such things. Vulcan males are driven to mate once every seven years," he said in an instructional voice.
"Seven years?" exclaimed Trip, unable to stop himself.
Malcolm added a more subdued, "Frightening." He and the commander shared a knowing look, which went unobserved by the Vulcan.
"Over the past few years, we've been developing methods to accelerate the mating cycle," explained Kov.
Trip gave another small nod, started to speak, then thought better of it. He and Malcolm exchanged another sidelong look, and Malcolm could see the engineer was blushing ever so slightly. Trip glanced at the remains of his lunch then over at Kov's empty plate. "You up for seconds?" he asked, happy to change the subject.
"I've had enough, thank you," replied the rotund Vulcan. "Back to work?" Trip nodded once more, and he and Kov stood. Malcolm rose with them, fighting back a smirk. "A pleasure meeting you, Mr. Reed."
"Likewise," the tactical officer replied. He sat again as the pair departed, chuckling quietly to himself. He was going to have fun teasing Trip about this little encounter later.
Later. It was certainly going to be that. Malcolm knew the chances of spending any free time with his lover were slim—primarily because his lover had no free time. Trip was already being run off his feet trying to coordinate the repairs to the Vahklas while still keeping Enterprise running smoothly. He was in for a long week—and it was only Tuesday.
Reed sighed and turned his attention to the datapad he'd brought with him to read on his break. There were few who would call studying alien energy barriers a break, but at least he was sitting down. He was having trouble concentrating, though. The brief interlude with Tucker and Kov had sent his mind wandering—and it seemed to have no inclination to wander back. He'd been staring at the same data set so long his tea had grown tepid. He took a sip and made a face. Giving up on the tea and the break, he decided to put the project away for the rest of the day.
Determining it was too noisy in the mess hall, he stepped out into the corridor and found the nearest comm panel. He opened the comm and said, "Reed to Ensign Cormack."
"Go ahead, Lieutenant," came the reply from the Armory.
"Unless you've had some stunning revelation in the last fifteen minutes, I suggest we shelve the energy barrier study until tomorrow."
Cormack tried not to let the relief show in her voice as she replied. "No revelations here, sir. I think that's a good idea."
"We'll get a fresh start on it tomorrow. Why don't you see if Ensign Young needs help with the phase-pistol training."
"I'll be on the Bridge if you need me. Reed out." He closed the comm and, tucking his datapad into a pocket, headed for the Bridge.
Down in the Armory, Cormack opened a new comm line. "Cormack to Young."
There was a brief pause before the response came through. "Young here. Go ahead."
"Do you need any help with the phase-pistol training?" she asked.
There was another pause. "Really?"
Cormack was surprised by his response but said, "Yeah. I'm free. Could you use another set of hands?"
"Absolutely." His reply was so emphatic she wondered just what the deal was. "I'm in the Rec. Center."
"Be there in a few. Cormack out."
She was barely inside the room before Young handed her a datapad. He and two tactical crewmen were instructing three sciences crewmen in the safe use of the phase-pistols. "Could you maybe start on scheduling this group of people?" he said.
Cormack looked over the list. The first name on it was Chef. "Oh thanks," she replied flatly.
Young tried to give her an innocent smile but failed dismally. Cormack just shook her head at him. "I do this and you owe me. Big time."
"You actually schedule and clear Chef on these things," he said, indicating the weapon in his hand, "and I'll work your next half-shift day."
"Next two," countered Cormack.
"All right," Young caved. "Next two."
Tucker had done what the Captain had asked, but he sincerely doubted it had done any good. Kov had been quite explicit in his desire not to contact his dying father. How was Trip supposed to convince him otherwise? They'd developed a friendship in the short time they'd been working together, but that was no guarantee he would have any more success reaching him than Archer had.
But he'd tried. His own childhood story of regret and a lost opportunity had seemed to have some small effect on the Vulcan engineer. Trip couldn't help thinking there must have been more he could have said. Maybe if he gave Kov a different side of the argument—a story about taking a risk and how it turned out to be the right thing to do
Maybe tomorrow, he thought. Since he'd spoken with Kov about his father, the Vulcan had been more reserved around him. Tucker didn't know if that meant he was offended or if he was just thinking over what Trip had said. Either way, he didn't think he'd have any better luck if he pursued the subject right away.
Instead, they continued their work on the Vahklas's faulty injector.
"That looks like it should do it," Trip said when he got the diagnostic results back.
"I'll test fire the port thruster again tonight to be certain," replied Kov. His tone would have seemed normal had it come from another Vulcan, but for the V'tosh ka'tur, it was too flat and unemotional.
Too logical, Trip's mind said. He didn't like it. Ignoring his resolve to let the matter lie until the morning, he said, "It's getting on to dinner time. Care to join me in the mess hall?"
"No, thank you. I should return to the Vahklas. The sooner I do, the sooner I can run the test."
"Right." Trip nodded at the logic of it. "I'll walk you back to the airlock."
"That's not necessary."
Tucker gave another small nod of acquiescence. "Okay. Let me know if you have any more trouble with that injector."
"I will. Good evening." The Vulcan turned to go. He was about to descend the ladder from the high catwalk when he paused and turned back. "I'll think about what you said."
This time, Trip smiled a little when he nodded. "I'll see you tomorrow."
It had been a long and tedious day. Cormack had spent much of her duty shift tracking down the people on the list Young had passed on to her. She'd managed to get everyone scheduled for the needed weapon training except for Chef. The temperamental man had put her off every time she'd tried to speak to him—even when she'd showed up personally at the door to his galley. He'd made it abundantly clear he had no time to spare for her and her "nonsense."
Now, she was on her way to the gym to blow off some steam. Lawless was supposed to meet her there for some weight training and a little yoga. All of engineering had been working overtime to get the Vulcan ship's engines and several other systems repaired, and Mae had said she was desperate for a break from it. They'd found a whole hour when neither of them was expected to be anywhere and were taking advantage of the time.
Stephanie entered the gym to find Mae already there and stretching out. "Hey," she said.
"Hey," answered Mae, releasing her stretch. "Weights first or yoga first?"
"Weights," Stephanie decided. "I need to work out some frustration before I can relax enough for yoga." She tossed her yoga mat and towel to one side and grabbed a pair of hand weights.
"Why? What happened?" Mae joined her at the rack of weights and picked out a pair for herself.
"Don't ask." Stephanie claimed a bench and began a slow series of upper body exercises. "Chef is the most stubborn person I've ever met," she declared suddenly.
"Coming from you, that's saying something," teased Mae.
"Ha ha," came Stephanie's somewhat strained response. "Be nice or I'll drop a weight on you."
"You sure you don't want to do the yoga now?"
"Yes. If I don't burn off some irritation first, I'll never be able to focus. Tell me about your day."
"It was pretty good, actually," said Mae. "We've finished up work on the Vahklas's propulsion systems. They should be good to go whenever they're ready."
Mae chuckled suddenly.
"What?" asked Stephanie.
"I just remembered something."
"So tell." She was ready for a laugh after the frustrations of her day.
"Commander Tucker was talking to Kov, the Vulcan engineer, this afternoon. I have no idea what it was about, but I'd swear it looked like the commander was dancing."
"Dancing?" Stephanie stopped her repetitions to stare at her friend.
"Just for a second. But I swear that's what it looked like."
She joined in Mae's giggling. "Well, was he any good?"
The pair burst into laughter just as the gym door slid open. Malcolm paused momentarily in the open doorway. Squelching the feeling that he should turn around and walk quickly the other way, he stepped inside and let the door close behind him.
"Ladies," he said with a nod. He sat on the bench and began the ritual of taping his hands and feet before attacking the large punching bag.
"Evening, Malcolm," said Malcolm through her dying laughter.
He eyed her from across the small gym. "I'm almost afraid to ask "
"Don't," she said hastily. "Really."
Still curious but willing to take her at her word, he gave a small nod of compliance. "How did the training go today?" he asked instead.
Stephanie moaned and let her shoulders slump, the extra weight of the dumbbells emphasizing the pose.
"Not well, I take it?"
She stood up straight as she answered. "Honestly? I think it's going to take a direct order from Captain Archer just to get Chef out of the galley—never mind getting him to agree to the training."
"The phase-pistol training?" put in Mae.
"Have you been cleared yet, Ensign?" Malcolm asked.
"Not yet, sir. I'm scheduled for tomorrow afternoon."
"Yep," agreed Stephanie. "And assuming you don't suck, you should be good to go before the day is out."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence," the engineer replied sarcastically.
"Don't worry," said Malclom. "It's not so difficult. I'm sure you'll do fine."
"Thank you," Mae answered—sincerely this time. She shot a dirty look at her snickering friend.
"Sorry," said Stephanie, not in the least apologetic. "I'm just teasing."
Mae bit back a retort. While Stephanie seemed perfectly comfortable trading insults in front of a superior officer, she wasn't so sure. Instead, she changed the subject. "Spot me?" she asked, gesturing to the bench with the larger barbell.
"Sure." They put away the hand weights and shifted to the bench. They'd only just adjusted the bar to the wieght they wanted when the hail came.
"Dr. Douglas to Ensign Cormack."
Giving Mae a puzzled look, Stephanie crossed the room to the comm panel and responded. "Go ahead."
"It's 1715 hours. Has there been a change in schedule I'm not aware of?" the ship's counselor asked pleasantly.
"Oh crap!" exclaimed Stephanie. She glanced at her companions. "Is it Wednesday?"
They both nodded as Douglas said, "Yes."
"I'm sorry. I totally forgot. I'll be there in five minutes."
"That's fine. Douglas out." The comm chirped as the connection was severed.
Stephanie gathered up her towel and mat as she spoke. "I'm sorry, Mae. I just spaced on the appointment."
"It's okay," the engineer assured her. "I can save the weights for another day."
"I can spot you," offered Malcolm suddenly.
"That's okay—" Mae began to protest as Stephanie said enthusiastically, "Would you? Great! Still on for breakfast tomorrow?" she asked Mae as she hurried to the door.
"Great," she said again. "And thanks, Malcolm!" she added as she disappeared out the door.
"You really don't have to," said Mae, a little flustered. She knew Lieutenant Reed was a friend of Stephanie's, and Mae had spent social time with him as well—but always in a group, never on a one-on-one basis. She wasn't quite sure how to behave.
"It's no trouble," the tactical officer assured her. "Are you ready?" He moved around to the head of the bench and waited.
"I guess. Thanks."
Rushing through the corridors, Cormack was unaware of the awkwardness she'd inadvertently created for the engineer. She paused at her quarters just long enough to ditch what she carried and grab a datapad before hurrying to Douglas's office.
"Come in," he called when she rang the chime.
Cormack entered and sat on the small couch. "Sorry," she said. "I've been so busy, I didn't realize what time it was."
"Or what day," he teased.
"Yeah. That, too," she answered with a rueful grin.
"Have you been keeping a dream log like I suggested?"
"Yeah." She held up the datapad she'd brought with her. "For what it's worth. It's just the same thing over and over."
"That in itself bears consideration. You wouldn't be having this dream over and over if there wasn't a reason."
"I suppose that makes sense." She gave a noncommittal shrug. Cormack held out the datapad, and Douglas took it.
He skimmed through the entries she'd made. Getting to the most recent one, he stopped and read it more closely. "This is the first time you've ever expressed any feeling the dream left you with."
She shrugged again. "First time I've felt anything."
"And this was " He checked the date. " last night."
Cormack nodded. "Fourth time in a week," she said.
"Is there anything else you can remember?"
She shook her head. "I keep trying, but it fades really fast when I wake up. You can see for yourself," she added, gesturing to the datapad he still held. "I'm really not sure if there's even anything else to remember."
He looked over the information once again, considering. "Perhaps it's not that there isn't anything, but that there is nothing."
If Cormack's brain hadn't already been muddled, it certainly would have been after that. "Huh?"
"Listen to what you've written." He recounted back what she'd recorded in the datapad. "It wasn't dark or light. You don't know if you were standing or sitting or possibly floating. The space around you could have been vast or very, very small. There was nothing you could use to orient yourself, not even a color you could name. The only distinguishing factor was the cold."
"I still don't get where you're going."
The psychiatrist tried another tactic. "What's beyond the boundary of the universe?" he asked.
"Nothing. Or another universe. Depends which theory you believe."
"Let's assume it's nothing."
"Okay." Cormack was trying hard, but was having a tough time following where the doctor was trying to lead her. And her natural impatience wasn't helping. She wanted him to cut to the chase, but she knew that wasn't the way he worked.
"All right. It's nothing," he reaffirmed. "So what is it, exactly?"
"What do you mean, what is it? It's nothing." She could feel her minimal patience slipping away. "Void. Absence of everything." Cormack's hazel eyes widened slightly, and she trailed off.
"Stephanie?" Douglas asked, concern clear in his voice.
"There's nothing," she answered quietly, staring into the middle distance. Abruptly, she stood. "I have to go," she stated simply.
Startled, Douglas rose with her. "You just got here."
"I have to go," she repeated in a strangely unemotional voice. "Thanks for your help, Kyrin. I'm okay now."
He was at a loss. "Where are you going?" he asked. Slowly, not wanting to startle her, he stepped out from behind his desk.
"I don't know. But we're done, so I'm just going to go." She slipped out the door and disappeared around a corner.
Douglas tried to catch her, but was too slow. He looked up and down the corridor, saw no one. "Stephanie?" he called out, but got no answer. He stepped back into his office and hit the comm. "Douglas to Lieutenant Reed."
There was a pause before the puzzled reply came through. "Go ahead, Doctor."
"I don't want to alarm anyone, but Ensign Cormack just left here rather suddenly. She was in a disturbed state. I'm not sure where she's going or what she may be going to do, but I think it would be best if we found her as soon as possible."
Reed remembered what he'd learned the other day about how she'd intentionally hurt herself just to get a look at the Estvali medical equipment. If she was in that state of mind again, he needed to know. After all, she had access to all the ship's weaponry. "What do you mean by 'disturbed'?" he asked.
"She was unusually calm, dispassionate. I'd even say unemotional. I know it doesn't sound like much, but "
"I understand. Reed out." He closed the connection. Reed sat and began to quickly pull the tape from his feet and hands.
"What's going on?" asked Lawless. She hadn't been able to keep herself from eavesdropping when she'd heard Cormack's name mentioned.
"Nothing to worry about, I'm sure," replied Reed. He stood and, tossing the wadded tape into a trash chute, headed for the gym door.
Lawless caught up with him a few steps into the corridor. "Is Stephanie okay?"
"I don't know."
"Lieutenant, please tell me what's going on. She's my friend. What happened? Maybe I can help."
Not slowing his pace, he glanced over his should at her. "All right. Come on. We're going to the Armory. We can use internal sensors to find her."
Oblivious to the commotion she was causing, Cormack continued to move purposefully through the ship. She wasn't thinking about where she was going, didn't notice the people she passed or the startled looks she got from several of them. Instinctively, her feet were taking her where she needed to be.
The lift door slid open and she stepped out onto D-deck. Skirting Main Engineering, she found the panel she wanted and, checking to make sure she was unobserved, she pulled it off and slipped inside the bulkhead. She secured the panel behind her and crawled down the cramped jefferies tube.
Several meters in, she reached a junction and climbed the ladder. At the next level, she doubled back. She finally stopped several twists and turns later. She took a deep breath and sighed it out. The sensors couldn't see her here, she knew. The radiation signature from the warp engines was too dense for them to penetrate. She was alone. Now she could think.
"I can't find her," said Reed angrily. He'd scanned the whole ship twice and still come up empty-handed.
"Could she have gone over to the Vahklas?" suggested Lawless.
The lieutenant checked the ship's logs. He shook his head. "No one's been through the airlock in the past three hours. And the shuttlepods are all accounted for."
"You don't suppose ?" Lawless let the idea hang in the air.
" She'd use the transporter?" Reed finished for her. His fingers flew over the console. After a moment, he let out a relieved sigh. "No. It's not been activated for days."
"Then she has to be here somewhere!"
"I'm open to suggestions, Ensign."
The comm line chirped, and they heard the unmistakable voice of Commander Tucker. "Tucker to Reed."
"You got a minute, Malcolm?"
"I'm afraid not, Commander," he replied. "I'm in the middle of something. Is it urgent?"
"No," he said, puzzlement evident in his voice. "It can wait. Do you need a hand?"
"No, thanks. I've got it under control."
"All right. Tucker out."
The line closed with another chirp. Reed looked at Lawless. "Now that I've said I have it under control, perhaps we'd better figure out how to keep me from becoming a liar."
Lawless's eyes widened as a thought struck her. "I have an idea."
Tucked into her hiding place, Cormack simply sat with her knees pulled up close to her chest and her arms wrapped tightly around them.
"At least I won't have that dream again," she muttered with a tiny, mirthless giggle. "Kyrin said if we could figure out what it meant, it would go away. Well, it'll go away now."
She remembered it all now.
It wasn't like she'd heard. It wasn't like what she'd read about—stories of people's 'near-death' experiences. None of it was true. There was no bright light and no voices. No welcoming embrace of Goddess or God. There was nothing there.
This was what she had hidden from herself for over three months. This was what had caused her to panic in the large medical scanner, and before that in the tiny jefferies tube so much like the one in which she now took refuge. This was the thing she hadn't been ready to cope with and so had subconsciously manifested it as claustrophobia. As she sat there, her mind examined and understood the rationalization, the transfer of fear from something huge and incomprehensible to something simple and quantifiable. After all, she'd been wearing an EV suit when she'd died. How much more confined could she have been? Claustrophobia made sense.
Her brain continued its analysis. She hadn't always followed Wiccan teaching, it reminded her. Why should it be so difficult to discard it again now? She'd grown up with no particular religious education and had only come to it in college. There she'd met Lynn and Noel with their quirky and unlikely combination of punk sensibilities and an unswerving devotion to their Goddess. What she'd learned from them had made sense at the time—indeed, it had made sense up until that fateful trip the to abandoned and disintegrating alien vessel.
So what if there's nothing there? her inner voice said reasonably. That doesn't mean there's nothing here. And it doesn't mean there's nothing beyond there.
She sat up straighter. "What?" she said aloud. "That makes no sense." But as she considered it, it did make a small sort of sense.
"You're rationalizing," she told herself furiously.
Why? her mind asked. Just because you didn't find anything doesn't mean there isn't anything to find.
Cormack considered this carefully. "So you're saying I was looking in the wrong place? I was dead. Where the hell else was I supposed to look?"
She had no answer for herself. Still, it seemed wasteful to just discard beliefs she'd held for nearly ten years of her life based on one brief moment.
"You're rationalizing," she repeated, but without the anger this time.
She looked around the place where she sat and slowly released the hold she had on her knees. "Huh," she grunted, taking in the full meaning of her surroundings and her lack of reaction to them. "So much for the claustrophobia."
Cormack started at the sound. She glanced down the tube to her left where the sound seemed to originate.
"Stephanie?" it came more urgently this time.
"Here," she called out in return.
Lieutenant Reed appeared at the nearest junction, crouching uncomfortably in the tight space. "Are you all right?" he asked.
"Good, because I want to know what the hell you were thinking!" he replied angrily. "We're getting out of here, and then you're going to explain just what you were doing and why I shouldn't put you on report." He was relieved more than anything at finding her safe and whole, but that relief allowed him to be angry with her.
"Yes, sir," she answered almost meekly. She knew she was in trouble. She'd behaved incredibly foolishly, and she wasn't sure she could explain why.
Back out in the corridor, she stood silently as Reed hit the comm panel and hailed the ship's counselor.
"I've found her, Doctor," he said. "May we borrow your office for a few minutes?"
"We'll be there shortly." He closed the comm. "After you." He gestured for her to precede him.
Leading the way, she asked quietly. "How did you find me?"
"You can thank Ensign Lawless."
"No," he reiterated. "I mean you can thank Ensign Lawless. If she hadn't figured it out, I'd have had to send teams to look for you, and that would have caused quite a stir. As it is, this incident has been kept quiet so far, and you're going to get an opportunity to convince me it should stay that way."
When he heard Cormack's explanation of her actions, Reed couldn't bring himself to report her. He realized that what she had been going through, what had caused her to act the way she had that evening, stemmed from the away mission they'd gone on together. It was a mission for which he'd chosen her and on which he'd nearly lost her. Despite the conversation he and the Captain had had at the time, he couldn't help feeling he was responsible. So he decided to let tonight's incident go. Cormack's actions hadn't endangered the ship or anyone aboard. There was no good reason to put it on her record. There were only four people who even knew anything had happened, and that was the way it was going to remain.
Having finally cleaned up and changed out of his work-out gear, he headed down the corridor toward Stephanie's cabin. It was late for dinner, but he hadn't eaten and he knew she hadn't either. He reached her door and rang the chime.
"Who is it?" called Stephanie.
"It's Malcolm. May I come in?"
"Just a second."
He thought he could hear her bustling about, but before he could be sure, the door opened.
"Hey," said Stephanie a little breathlessly.
"Hello." He caught a whiff of something in the air. His eyes narrowed. "It smells like smoke," he said flatly.
"Really? I don't smell anything."
He glanced past her into the cabin. "You've been burning candles. Why? You know there's a rule against open flames on board."
"I've got the Captain's permission to use them for Wiccan holy day rituals," protested Stephanie hastily.
Malcolm was a little taken aback. "I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't realize. I didn't mean to interrupt you."
But Stephanie couldn't keep up the deception. "You're not." Her shoulders slumped a little as she admitted, "It's not a holy day."
His face hardened again. "Then why?" he repeated. "After what's already happened today, why would you go and do something else that could get you in trouble?"
"I " She sighed, trying to put into words what she was feeling. "I needed I don't know. I guess you'd say I needed an affirmation, you know? I needed to refocus." She stopped, unable to explain what she meant.
"It's all right," Malcolm said finally. "Forget it. I never saw a candle burning, so what evidence do I have? Besides, that's not why I stopped by."
"Yeah, what are you doing here?" She smiled so he'd know she didn't really object to his unexpected visit.
"I came to see if you were hungry. Some of us didn't get dinner tonight," he teased gently.
Stephanie hung her head sheepishly. "Um, yeah. Least I could do is buy you dinner, right?" she joked.
"Something like that." Malcolm gave her his usual wry smile.
"Okay. You don't mind being seen with me looking like this?" she asked, indicating her particularly informal attire.
Malcolm considered her baggy sweatshirt and loose, cotton pants he was pretty certain he'd seen her sleep in when they were quarantined together. He only had one suggestion. "You might want some shoes."
"Good point," she agreed readily. "I show up in the mess hall barefoot and I'll never win Chef over." She quickly sat and slipped on a pair of shoes. "He has little enough respect for me when I'm in full uniform."
"Tell you what. I'll personally see that Chef is cleared on the phase-pistols."
"Really?" She was sorely tempted. "No. Thanks." She stood, shaking her head. They stepped out into the corridor and headed for the mess hall.
"If I can do it, Young said he'd take my next two half-days."
Malcolm laughed. "That's the second wager you've made in a month."
"And I won the last one," she reminded him. "But, if I can't do it by the end of the week, does your offer still stand?"
He thought about it. "All right."
Stephanie smiled. "Cool."
It was late when the door chime rang unexpectedly. Trip blinked through the darkness at the bedside chronometer. The illuminated numbers told him it was 0033. "What the hell?" he muttered. He'd had enough trouble getting to sleep that night; now this?
It had been a day of ups and downs. On the positive side, they'd completed the work on the Vahklas. On the negative, his conversation with Kov had left him feeling frustrated and powerless. He'd hoped to meet Malcolm for dinner that evening to cheer himself up, but the lieutenant had been strangely distracted when he'd hailed him. Trip had wondered what was up, but figured it was another thing that would have to wait until morning—which was why he was having such trouble sleeping.
The door chimed again.
"Coming," he called. He pushed back the bedclothes. He turned on a light and squinted at the sudden brightness. "This better be an emergency," he muttered, knowing if that were the case whoever it was would have used the comm. He pulled on a robe and answered the door.
The rude comment he was about to make died on his lips. "Malcolm?" he said instead.
"Sorry to bother you," the tactical officer said uncertainly.
"No bother," said Trip, mystified but no longer upset at the late night disturbance. "Come on in."
Malcolm stepped inside, and Trip let the door shut behind him. "Did I wake you?" Reed asked.
The engineer gave a small shrug. "Not really."
"I couldn't sleep either. It's been a rather stressful day. Too many things on my mind, and they wouldn't stop. I thought maybe if I had someone to keep me company " He trailed off.
Trip regarded him, trying to guess what his lover needed more—talk or distraction. He guessed the latter.
"Looking for something to distract you from all those thoughts?" he asked suggestively.
Malcolm blushed, a faint rose color rising in his cheeks. "Something like that," he admitted.
"I'm not sure I've ever seen you blush before." Something tickled the engineer's memory, but he couldn't quite pin it down. He decided it could wait for another time.
"It doesn't happen often," Malcolm said firmly.
"That's a shame." Trip smiled coyly, eliciting a similar response from Malcolm. "Wonder what I can do about that?"
"Don't even think it," Malcolm said threateningly.
Trip gave him his best disappointed look. He stepped closer. "No?"
"Can I think about this?" the engineer asked softly, taking his lover into his arms.
"Maybe." Malcolm fought back a smile.
"Or this?" Trip nibbled at an earlobe and was rewarded with a shiver he could feel run though Malcolm's whole body. "Or this?" He continued his exploration along Malcolm's jaw line and down his neck, surreptitiously sliding the robe off Malcolm's shoulders. It fell in a puddle at his feet. Malcolm shivered again and let out a low moan. Trip chuckled deep in his throat. "Like that, huh?"
"Oh yes," Malcolm was just able to gasp out.
"Good." Reaching under his lover's loose shirt, he pulled it up and off, tossing it negligently to one side. "Don't move," Trip ordered. He gave Malcolm a lascivious smile and said nothing more. Instead, he planted supple kisses across the shorter man's collarbone, every now and then punctuating his attentions with a nip of his teeth. He chuckled, again, low in his belly when Malcolm started slightly and gasped. Inexorably, he made his way along every inch of exposed skin, his lips, teeth, tongue, and hands all finding little ways to titillate his lover and drive him to distraction.
Trip paused in his tender ministrations and looked into Malcolm's deep blue eyes. "Now," he said softly, "just what was it that was bothering you?"
Malcolm grinned. "Can't remember," he said.
"Good," repeated the fair-haired engineer. He reached out and shut off the light.
End Log 19
As of 1 Sept 06: