Log Rhythms - Season Two
For Divine Raquel
Sato stood on the upper level of the armory and looked around. "Lieutenant?" she called uncertainly. She spotted her objective by the starboard torpedo tube and quickly descended the stairs to join him there.
"What can I do for you, Ensign?" Reed replied, looking up from the datapad in his hand. It was early, and they were the only occupants of the armory.
"You placed a note in the comm files," Sato began. "Ensign Cormack received a communication from Earth in the mail download overnight." She wasn't sure why he'd requested this information, but curious as she was, she didn't feel she was in a position to ask.
"Thank you. Has it been routed to her yet?"
"No, sir. I was going to do the distribution first thing once I got to the bridge. I was just checking the comm logs before breakfast and noticed that it had come through, so I thought I'd let you know."
Malcolm looked at her, a ghost of a dry smile tweaking the corner of his lips. "You were just passing by, is that it?"
Hoshi shrugged, knowing she'd been caught; there was nowhere for her to go on F-deck but the armory. "It was an unusual request, sir. I Never mind."
"No. Go on. It's all right." He waited patiently.
"I know something happened with her family. I don't know what. Do you know if everything is okay?" Her concern and compassion were apparent in her dark brown eyes.
"I don't know. Nor does Stephanie."
Now Sato understood. The newly arrived message likely held the answer to her question. "Should I " She was hesitant to suggest it. "Should I delay the transmission, sir?"
"I have another idea," Reed said. He'd thought long and hard about what he would do when Cormack's family contacted her. "If you have no objection, I'd like to deliver it myself. You do occasionally hand-deliver datacards with people's correspondence, if I'm not mistaken."
"Then perhaps you'd allow me to deliver this one?" Noticing her hesitancy at this bending of protocol, he added reassuringly, "I won't read it. I simply don't think Stephanie should be alone when she reads it. You understand?"
"Yes, sir. Will you be on bridge duty this morning?"
"I'll have the datacard for you when you get there."
"Thank you, Hoshi."
Sato nodded. Before she turned to go, she asked, "Will you let me know if there's anything I can do?"
T'Pol glanced up, the scanner she'd been studying retracting silently into her console. "Captain," she said. "I believe I have located a suitable place to test the auto-pilot upgrades Commander Tucker and Ensign Mayweather made to Shuttlepod One."
"Excellent," replied Archer. "Let's see it."
The science officer transferred the data she'd collected to the bridge's main viewer. A schematic of a solar system appeared. T'Pol adjusted the angle and magnification to zoom in on the system's largest planet. When she had the desired view, she said, "It's a Class B gas giant with numerous satellites. The variations in gravitational force should be more than adequate to test the new systems."
"Any sign of life on those moons?"
"Initial sensor readings show nothing that might suggest a center of habitation, although scans are not complete."
"I'm not picking up any ships in the vicinity, Captain," put in Reed from the tactical station.
"Sounds like it should do the job nicely. What's our ETA, Travis?" Archer asked his helmsman.
"At our present speed, twenty-six minutes, sir," Mayweather replied.
"I'll let Trip know we've found him a playground." The captain rose from his chair and headed for the turbolift. He felt like a walk, and he liked delivering good news in person. "You have the bridge, Sub-commander," he said as he passed T'Pol.
Archer descended to E-deck and headed for Main Engineering. When he reached it, it only took a moment to find the Chief Engineer. Tucker was at the main control for the warp engine.
"Time to test those auto-pilot upgrades, Trip," the Captain announced, climbing the short flight of steps to Tucker's position.
"Yeah?" answered Trip. He turned to the captain, a grin on his face. He was excited to see how well the new equipment worked—and it didn't hurt that he'd be stretching his legs, as it were. It also meant Jon still trusted him with a shuttlepod. After Trip and Malcolm's little adventure the previous month, Tucker had been worried his old friend would never let him fly one again.
"Yeah. You think you can handle it without a real pilot along?"
Tucker was about to protest that he was a perfectly good pilot when he saw the smirk on Jon's face. "You almost got me," he admitted, chuckling.
"Go prep the shuttlepod. We'll be there in about twenty minutes."
"Yes, sir!" Archer descended to the main level while Tucker took a moment to scan Engineering with his eyes. "Hess!" he called to his second in command. "Take over here."
"Aye, sir," the lieutenant replied. She climbed up and replaced Trip at the control panel where he'd been monitoring plasma levels.
Tucker and Archer left Engineering and walked to the launch bay.
"Are you sure you don't want some backup?" the captain asked, more seriously this time.
"Nah. It's a straightforward test flight. I can handle it," Trip assured him.
"All right. I'll give you a hand with the prep."
The bridge was quiet in Archer's absence. There was little for most of the bridge crew to do beyond monitoring Enterprise's progress toward the system. Absently, Reed glanced at the promised datacard Sato had handed him when he'd arrived that morning. He'd set it on his console when he'd sat down. Now he unobtrusively tucked the card into his sleeve pocket and zipped it in. He would deliver it to Cormack as soon as possible. If all went well, that would be mid-day; he could catch her at lunch. It wasn't an ideal situation, but at least that way she would get it earlier than if it were routed to her quarters directly. Were that the case, she wouldn't see it until she was off duty. He had the sudden thought that it might be better to wait. He decided against it. Better to know sooner than later, and if it was bad news, he had the authority to grant her the rest of the afternoon off so she could take a little time to deal with it.
He hated to be the bearer of bad news, but if that was the way it had to be, he would accept it. Better Stephanie have a friend with her however things turned out. He wanted to believe everything would be all right, that the message from home contained good news. But it simply wasn't in his nature.
Yes, he thought resignedly. Lunchtime would be best.
"Captain, sensors are picking up a vessel approaching the shuttlepod," announced Reed from Tactical.
"Can you identify it?" Archer asked, turning in his chair to look at him.
The lieutenant's hands danced over the control panel, seeking the requested information, but he shook his head. "No. There's too much interference to get a clear image."
Archer turned next to his left and said to Sato, "Get me Tucker." The comm officer gave him a sharp nod when the line was open. "Archer to Shuttlepod One."
"Captain?" was Tucker's staticky reply.
"You're about to have some company, Trip. Sensors are picking up a small vessel approaching your position."
Trip's voice came back to him distorted and unclear. "Say gain, Cap—? I'm pick lot ference."
Sato worked to tighten the signal and clean up the transmission.
"There's a small vessel approaching your position," Archer repeated deliberately. "We haven't been able to identify it yet."
"It's no good, Captain," said Sato regretfully. "I've lost contact. The interference is too great."
"Can we hail the other ship?"
"We can try."
Archer couldn't mistake the tone of doubt in her voice. Sato obviously thought the possible success of this option was minimal. "Never mind," he said. "Try the shuttlepod again."
"Aye, sir." She once again focused on her equipment, sharp ears trained for any reply from the commander. "Enterprise to Shuttlepod One. Commander, please respond." She waited. Her voice was calm and firm, but her heart was pounding. "Enterprise to Shuttlepod One. Commander Tucker, do you read me?"
Leaving her to her task, Archer turned once more to his tactical officer. "Malcolm?"
"I detected weapons fire, and then both ships just disappeared," Reed said, fighting to keep the catch from his voice. He was only marginally successful.
"Last known position?"
His heart in the pit of his stomach, Malcolm replied evenly, "Approximately 50,000 kilometers, bearing zero-zero-three mark-two-seven, I think." At Archer's frustrated expression, he added, "I can't be more specific. It's the damned interference." It was less an excuse and more a sharing of the captain's irritation.
T'Pol spoke up. She finally had information she believed was useful. "Many of these moons have atmospheres containing selenium isotopes. That's most likely what's affecting our sensors."
"Trip's a good pilot," said Archer almost as if he was trying to convince himself of the fact. "If he was near one of those moons he most likely set down on it." He glanced back at T'Pol. "How many are there?"
Her reply was far from encouraging. "Sixty-two."
"Then we'd better start looking." With a resigned sigh, the captain turned to Mayweather. "Travis," he said. He didn't need to say more; the alert helmsman understood immediately.
"Aye, sir," Mayweather replied and input a course that would take them to Tucker's last known location.
"We'll search every moon," continued the captain, taking his seat, "even if we have to do it with binoculars." He looked over at Sato. "Keep hailing him."
"Aye, sir," she answered.
Without needing any prompting, Reed continued trying to scan through the interference. It was a long shot at best, but he couldn't simply sit there doing nothing until they reached their destination.
Five moons later there was still no sign of Commander Tucker. Malcolm's anxiety had increased exponentially with each one. Even the assistance of the Arkonians wasn't enough to bolster his mood. The antagonistic aliens had appeared shortly after Enterprise lost contact with Tucker. They were openly hostile and freely admitted the ship that had attacked Trip was theirs. However, they had agreed to help search the numerous satellites for the engineer and their own missing man. So far neither vessel had had any luck.
T'Pol emerged from the captain's ready room. She'd gone in to update him on their lack of progress. Her facial expression told Reed nothing about how the meeting had gone, but that didn't surprise the tactical officer. He had the passing thought that with such a good poker face she would have made an excellent security officer, had she chosen that route over the Vulcan Science Directorate.
The sub-commander crossed the bridge and sat at her station. "Time to our next destination?" she asked Mayweather.
"Seventeen minutes," he informed her.
The Vulcan nodded and returned to her scanners. She hadn't isolated her scans to the moons' surfaces and had found some disturbing evidence she wished to verify as soon as possible.
Seventeen minutes when nothing can be accomplished, thought Reed in frustration. He tried to relax a little, take a moment to put things in perspective. Out of the thirty-one moons they'd agreed to search, they had twenty-six to go. Presumably the Arkonians were making similar progress. With ten moons down, that was roughly seventeen percent of their search complete. He paused. As perspectives went it wasn't a comforting one.
Malcolm fought back a discouraged sigh. They would find Trip. He was alive, and they would rescue him. There was simply no acceptable alternative.
I'm not losing you, Trip, Malcolm thought with fierce certainty. I won't let that happen. Anxiously, he checked the time. Only ninety seconds had passed since Mayweather had announced their ETA. Damn.
Lawless popped into the mess for a quick snack. She needed a respite from the monotony of engineering, so when her break time came, she took it. Engineering was in a holding pattern. They were monitoring systems, but everything was running smoothly. There was little they could do to assist in the search for their missing chief and they were all stressed. It made for a very tense working environment.
Mae picked an apple from a bowl of fruit and got a glass of water. It wasn't much, but she was less hungry than bored. Worried as she was about her C.O., she knew it was completely out of her control. She didn't like it, but she accepted it—and she went looking for something to eat.
She was on her way out the door with her snack when she ran into her bunkmate. "Hey, Bonnie. How's it going?" she asked, coming back into the mess hall with the helmsman.
"Hey," replied the helmsman. "S'okay. Stellar Cartography's hopping this morning, what with all the moons we're looking at."
Mae followed her as Bonnie collected a mug and ordered up Earl Grey tea. "I'll bet. Personally, I'd rather just find what we're looking for and get the hell out of here."
Fraser's uncharacteristic ennui struck Lawless. "You haven't talked to Stephanie, have you," she said, already knowing she was right.
"Yeah and I could have done that exactly when?" replied Bonnie defensively. She claimed her filled mug and held it in both hands.
"Didn't have any."
"You're avoiding her."
"One meal doesn't mean I'm avoiding her!" But her protest was too vehement, and Mae saw straight through it.
"Meet me for lunch?" the engineer suggested.
Bonnie's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "You're having lunch with her."
"Maybe. Depends on what happens the rest of the morning. Maybe the Arkonians will get fed up and start shooting at us. Then neither of us will be free for lunch."
"Talk to her."
"There's nothing to say." Fraser brushed past Lawless and headed to the door. Mae had to hurry to catch her as she strode purposefully down the corridor.
"There's plenty to say!"
"Like, 'I'm sorry we fought.' Like like " Mae was fishing.
"Told you." They reached a turbolift and Bonnie hailed it. The door opened immediately, and she stepped inside. "See ya," she said as the door slid shut, leaving Mae thwarted and alone.
"God damn it!" the engineer swore. She looked down at the apple and glass of water, both untasted, which she still held. Suddenly she'd lost her appetite.
Reed listened with growing distress to T'Pol's announcement. Her conversation with the captain wasn't meant to include anyone else, but neither did they speak in a way that was intended to exclude the rest of the bridge crew. Consequently, he listened very carefully to what they said.
"It's a thermo-kinetic analysis of the moons," the sub-commander informed Archer. "Each of them undergoes extreme temperature variations during their orbits."
"Go on." Archer looked into the scanner where her diagram of the moons' orbits was running.
"At night it can drop to five or even ten degrees below zero."
"Doesn't sound so bad," Archer said, unknowingly echoing Reed's thoughts as he listened in across the bridge.
"During the day the temperature can rise to as high as one-hundred and seventy degrees."
The captain stiffened at her words as a lancet of fear for his missing friend struck his spine. He ceased his examination of the data she'd collected and stood up straight, looking his science officer in the eye. "We'd better hope Trip landed on the night side."
"And that we find him before the sun rises," T'Pol added.
"I'll be in my ready room." Archer crossed the bridge toward his office.
"Captain," said Reed as he passed. "May I speak with you?"
Archer paused only a moment before nodding. "Come on in," he replied.
Reed rose and followed him into the ready room.
When the door had shut, Archer sat behind his desk. "Have a seat," he said.
Malcolm had had enough sitting for one day. He was restless, and more inactivity would only increase his disquiet. "I prefer to stand."
The captain eyed him curiously but didn't argue. The lieutenant's tension was obvious in his face, in his stance, and even in the way his arms hung at his sides. Archer knew what caused it but asked anyway, "What's on your mind?"
"Commander Tucker," answered Reed, cutting to the heart of the matter.
"He's on all our minds, Malcolm, and we're doing everything we can to find him."
"I was thinking, sir, that if I took Shuttlepod Two we could expand our search—increase our chances of finding him before dawn."
Archer was unsurprised to learn that his tactical officer had overheard his conversation with T'Pol. "The shuttlepod's scanners don't have the range of Enterprise's."
"No, but I believe we could jerry-rig a booster that would temporarily improve their range. It wouldn't be pretty, but in a pinch I believe it would work."
"You figured that out based on your vast engineering expertise?"
Malcolm's jaw clenched. It took him a moment to realize the captain wasn't trying to disparage him, only play devil's advocate. "Sir, I have given this a lot of thought."
"I'm sure you have, Malcolm." Archer rose and came back around to the front of his desk; the formality he'd adopted when they entered the ready room no longer felt appropriate to him. He leaned against the desk, the heels of his hands resting on its top to either side of his hips. Malcolm was struck by the memory of a day over a year ago when Trip had stood there in exactly the same position. The similarity was almost eerie. Then he thought how the two men had been friends for a long time, and it made sense that they would have picked up some similarities of habit.
The tactical officer waited in silence while the captain considered his proposal. Reed didn't think his heart could sink any lower, but when Archer finally shook his head, he realized he was wrong. Malcolm's heart plummeted to the pit of his stomach. "Sir—" he began to protest.
"I won't risk losing anyone else," said Archer firmly.
"We only lost him because he was shot down," Reed argued.
"You don't know that. With all the interference in this region, we don't even know if the shots the Arkonian fired hit the shuttlepod."
"You heard the Arkonian captain. 'If your shuttle did encounter my patrol ship, your crewman is already dead,' he said. He was pretty damn confident that his man took down our pod." Malcolm's voice grew angrier with every word.
"If you believe that then you must believe Trip is already dead. And if that's the case, taking out another pod isn't going to do him any good," snapped Archer.
Reed froze. Archer saw a flash of fury cross his face before he clamped down on it and his standard mask of stoicism reappeared. The captain sighed wearily, cursing himself for losing his temper. He knew he'd gone past the point of devil's advocate, and that wasn't what he'd wanted to do.
"Malcolm," he said as calmly and reassuringly as he could manage. "I believe Trip is alive, and I know you believe it, too. But I won't risk sending a shuttle out looking for him. The risk to return ratio is just too great, and I honestly don't believe it would help. There are too many moons too far apart to make searching with a shuttlepod efficient." The Captain paused. He had a moment of ironic surprise as he realized he sounded a lot like his Vulcan science officer just then. He shook his head at himself and looked Reed in the eye. "We'll find him, Malcolm."
Reed wanted desperately to believe him. This was the Captain, Trip's best friend. He'd gotten all of them out of enough seemingly hopeless situations in the past year and a half that he had more than earned Malcolm's trust. If he said they would find Tucker, Malcolm had to believe they would. "Yes, sir," he said stiffly, unconvinced despite all his reasoning.
"Why don't you take a break?" Archer suggested. It was clear the stress was wearing on the younger man. "We've all been at it for hours, and everyone's had at least a few minutes to stretch their legs but you and T'Pol."
"No thank you, sir. I'd rather remain at my post."
"Ten minutes, Malcolm," countered the Captain firmly. "You can spare ten minutes. We won't reach the next moon for another twelve, so you won't be missing out on anything."
Still Reed tried to protest. "Sir—"
"Take a break. That's an order. Leave the bridge, and don't come back for ten minutes."
It was clear to Reed that Archer wouldn't be swayed this time. The Lieutenant hated it, but he nodded stiffly. "Yes, sir."
"Dismissed." As Reed turned to go, the Captain added, "And get something to eat."
Reed nodded and left the ready room. He crossed the bridge in silence until he reached the turbolift. There he stopped and looked at T'Pol. "I'll be back in ten minutes, Sub-commander," he informed her flatly.
Her only reply was a nod before he stepped into the lift and was whisked away.
The mess hall was deserted, which was fine by Malcolm. He didn't care to talk to anyone at that moment. He approached the case where the lunch leftovers were and peered into it apathetically. Although he'd eaten nothing since breakfast that morning, he wasn't hungry. He was too worried about Trip to think about food. But the Captain had ordered him to eat.
Technically, he told himself, he only ordered you to take a break. The eating was an afterthought. He was rationalizing and he knew it. Begrudgingly, he chose a small salad from the case and took it to a table. He picked at it with his fork, actually managing to swallow a half-dozen bites before giving up in disgust.
He checked the time impatiently. Barely five minutes since he'd left the bridge. "Damn," he muttered. Five minutes down, five to go. It wasn't long enough to accomplish anything, yet it was an interminable length of time to wait before he could return to his post. He couldn't bring himself to spend that time simply sitting there waiting.
Determinedly, he stood. Maybe a brisk walk around the ship would burn off some of his nervous energy, and at the very least it was something to do while time dragged past.
"Could this day be any longer?" muttered Cormack under her breath.
"Ma'am?" asked crewman Griffith, who was standing nearby monitoring the ship's defensive systems just in case the Arkonians decided to stop being helpful.
"Nothing," Cormack said, but she continued anyway. "You ever have one of those weeks? The kind where time seems to be running in slow motion and nothing you do makes it any better?"
The crewman considered her question. "Yes, ma'am."
"Well, I'm having one of those weeks."
"I'm sorry to hear that, ma'am."
Cormack gave him a wan smile. "Thanks, Ewan. I appreciate that."
Malcolm's relief at the sound of Trip's voice was tempered by the exhaustion he could hear in it. They'd found him just in time. The sun was rising over the moon where he'd crash-landed.
When Archer turned to Reed and ordered him to prepare the transporter, Reed reacted quickly. Unfortunately, Doctor Phlox was quicker. Only two steps away from his post, Malcolm froze as the doctor gave his prognosis should Enterprise transport the alien with Tucker. Reed tuned out all the medical jargon, but he heard what he considered the only important information.
"Transporting him will most likely be fatal," Phlox said.
Even then Reed didn't see a problem. He could transport Trip and deal with the Arkonian later—or better yet, let his own people deal with him. Despite the fact that they'd helped find the missing men, Malcolm couldn't forget that neither would have needed finding if only the Arkonian scout hadn't fired on Tucker in the first place.
Apparently Archer had similar ideas. "Archer to Commander Tucker."
"I'm still here, Captain." Trip's voice sounded even weaker than it had less than a minute before. Malcolm felt his gut clench in anxiety, his heart beating faster with his impatience to have the engineer safely back where he belonged.
Quickly, the Captain gave Trip the run-down of their dilemma. They could get him out, but they couldn't transport the Arkonian. "We'll try to find a way to get him back to his ship. In the meantime, I'm getting you out of there."
"No way, Captain. I'm not leaving him here."
Archer let out a frustrated sigh that was echoed by Reed. Only Phlox, standing immediately next to the lieutenant, noticed his reaction. Had the circumstances not been so dire, he would have been amused. Clearly Commander Tucker would be in trouble with both men when he returned.
"The temperature is rising quickly, Commander," put in T'Pol. "I estimate it will reach one-hundred and thirty degrees within the next hour."
"Let's get you home," Archer said. "Then we can worry about your friend."
Trip's voice carried more strength as he replied resolutely, "I'm sorry, sir, but I can't do that. Maybe there's another way."
Everyone on the bridge of Enterprise listened intently as Tucker outlined his plan. It wouldn't work on a shuttlepod, but he believed an Arkonian craft like the one that had shot him down could be modified to filter out the selenium isotopes that had played havoc not only with sensors, but with the engines of both little ships.
Reed was doubtful, as was Archer. However, the Captain had learned to trust Tucker's instincts where engineering was concerned. It was part of why he'd wanted him as his Chief Engineer. He gave a resigned sigh. "We'll talk to them, but I won't let you stay down there much longer."
"Understood," said Tucker.
The transmission had barely closed when Malcolm spoke up indignantly. "Sir!"
"Later, Malcolm." Archer looked over at Sato. "Hail Khata'n Zshaar," he ordered. In seconds, the alien captain appeared on the viewscreen. "Captain, we've spoken to our engineer, and he has an idea."
Tucker lay on his back, staring up at the increasingly bright sky. He thought about everything he'd done in the time he'd been with Enterprise. He listed things out loud, more to hear himself speak and remind himself he was still alive than because he thought his companion would understand. He didn't even know with any certainty whether or not the Arkonian beside him was still breathing.
"Hell of a ride, though" he murmured weakly. "Hell of a ride." He was fading and he could do nothing about it. His strength was gone. He was dehydrated and he felt as if at any moment the blood running through his body would boil, cooking him from the inside as surely as the heat was baking him from the outside. "Sorry, Cap'n," he breathed, barely above a whisper. "Sorry, Malcolm. I love you."
He shut his eyes against the rising sun. Then he opened them again, thoughts of his lover giving him the strength to hold on just a little bit longer. He'd worked too hard to give up now. He blinked sweat and dirt from his eyes, squinting into the sun. For a moment Trip wondered if he was hallucinating. The dark speck flying directly out of the blinding light could easily have been his imagination, or a mirage brought on by dehydration and the abusive heat. He pushed himself up to get a better look, forcing exhausted arms to hold him and aching eyes to focus on what he saw.
He reached out an arm and nudged his companion in the leg. "Zho'Kaan," he said with the little energy he had left. The Arkonian woke reluctantly. Trip pointed to the sky and spoke one of the dozen words he'd picked up from the alien. "V'dhoze." Ship.
"Lieutenant!" called Lawless.
Reed paused to let the engineer catch up to him. "Ensign."
"Have you seen Commander Tucker yet, sir?" she asked, falling into step beside him as he resumed walking.
"Only briefly." He hid his annoyance at having been immediately ousted from sickbay before he could so much as speak to Trip. He'd been stalling ever since, trying to find something to occupy his time until he heard from Phlox. His shift had ended long before Tucker's rescue, and Archer had made it clear Malcolm was expected to remain off-duty until the next morning. So he'd gone for his second walk that day, once again hoping to burn off some off the tension he'd carried for so many hours.
"So he's okay, right?" continued Lawless.
"A bit worse for wear, but Doctor Phlox assured me he'll be fine."
"Right on." Mae smiled. "Lieutenant Hess and the rest of the team'll be glad to hear it. I'll let them know. Thanks, Lieutenant!" She immediately jogged off back in the direction from which she'd come, waving her thanks as she disappeared around a corner.
"Of course," muttered Reed to himself, "I would like to be able to see for myself." Still, Trip was safe, and that was what really mattered. The fact that Malcolm hadn't yet reunited with him was an annoyance that would pass in time. It had better be a short time, he thought in irritation.
The voice was unmistakable despite the tired, raspy tone.
Malcolm turned, a smile cracking his grim visage. "Trip." Then he added admonishingly, "Phlox was supposed to hail me when he released you."
Trip shrugged. "I asked him not to. I wanted clean up before I saw you." He'd been in bad shape when he'd been brought aboard, and he knew the sight of him so battered and beaten would have caused his lover needless distress. Tucker had figured a little delay to wash and put on a fresh uniform would be worth it.
Malcolm approached the engineer and stood closely in front of him. Phlox had treated his injuries, but there was only so much the Denobulan could do about the split lip and black eye. Reed reached out a hand and cupped Trip's cheek, running a feather-light thumb over the bruise under the engineer's eye. "Your Arkonian friend give you that?" he asked, knowing it must be the case. "And this?" He moved his hand to trace the cut in Tucker's upper lip.
"Yeah. We had a minor disagreement," joked Trip, smiling with the uninjured half of his mouth.
"Apparently. I hope he looks equally abused."
"Probably not, but I was just going back to sickbay to see." Tucker enjoyed the closeness of his partner. He raised both hands, resting them on Malcolm's upper arms. He leaned in and gave the shorter man a soft kiss. "Wish it could be more," he murmured as their lips parted.
"There's time for more later," replied Malcolm with a gentle smile. Now that Trip was home safe, there was plenty of time for whatever they wanted to do. Which reminded Malcolm "Did you say you were on your way to sickbay?"
"Yeah. You want to come with me? I figured I should check up on Zho'Kaan, see if he's ready to go home." As he spoke, Tucker's fingers rubbed idly up and down Reed's arms. It felt good to have him so close again. One wandering hand felt something in Malcolm's sleeve pocket, and he paused. "What's that?"
"Hmm?" Distracted by his partner's touch, it took Reed a moment to understand the question. "What's what?"
"In your pocket." As Malcolm's eyes widened in horror, Trip felt panic grip him. "What? What's wrong?"
"I completely forgot. I was so worried about you, I completely forgot!" he exclaimed in dismay. He stepped back from his partner and zipped open the pocket.
"What?" demanded Trip anxiously.
"It's a datacard," answered Malcolm, pulling the item out. "For Stephanie. From home."
Understanding dawned on the engineer. He'd finally learned the details about the events back on Earth from Malcolm the previous night. "Oh! Is her sister ?"
"I don't know. I didn't look at the message," Reed said, slightly offended.
"No. No, of course not. You should go."
"I'm sorry." Malcolm was torn. All he wanted at that moment was to spend a quiet, private night with his lover. He'd been so anxious to see Trip, and now he had to rush off to deliver what could well be very upsetting news.
"I just don't want her to be alone when she sees it."
"It's okay," Trip repeated firmly. "I'll still be here when you're done."
"Thank you. You're a love." Malcolm gave him a quick kiss on the cheek.
"I know," the blond quipped, smirking. Then he added sincerely, "As long as I'm your love."
"You are," said Malcolm with a broad smile.
"Good. Now go on. Stephanie deserves to get her mail—whatever it turns out to say."
Malcolm kissed him once more. "You're right. I'm glad you're safe."
"Me, too. I hope Stephanie's sister's okay."
"Thanks. I'll let you know."
"Come find me when you're done?" asked Trip before Malcolm could disappear.
"I will," Reed assured him as he hurried off toward Cormack's cabin.
Tucker watched him until he turned a corner and went out of sight. He sighed. "It's good to be home."
Malcolm arrived at Stephanie's quarters quickly. He paused at the door, turning the datacard in his hands uneasily. Now the moment had come, he hesitated. He didn't know what news he brought. He only knew he didn't want Cormack to have to view it alone. But would she feel the same way? What would he do if she asked him to leave? Pull rank? No, he thought dryly. That would be the worst thing I could do. Maybe Cutler was there. If Cormack wouldn't let him stay, she still might allow her bunkmate to be there.
He couldn't stall any longer. He reached out and rang the chime.
The door slid open and he found himself facing an inquisitive Stephanie. She'd obviously recently come from the shower. Her long hair hung in untidy ringlets over her shoulders, dampening her gray t-shirt. She wore flannel pajama pants, and she was barefoot.
"Lieutenant? What's up?" She looked at him quizzically.
"Is Liz in?" he asked, surprising himself as well as Stephanie.
"No. Did you want to leave a message for her?"
"No." He was more than usually reticent, and Cormack grew concerned.
"What's going on?" she asked.
"I didn't come to see Liz."
"Then why did you ask for her?" Stephanie looked at him, now as confused as she was concerned. He held up a datacard, and she frowned at it. "What's that?"
"My mail?" It took a moment for his words to sink in. Her face grew very still. "My mail." Malcolm nodded. "Did you open it?"
Stephanie was actually disappointed. She felt it would have taken some of the suspense out of it if he already knew what the message contained. "Oh."
"I brought it for you." It was an asinine thing to say, and Malcolm cursed himself inwardly. Of course he brought it for her—he was standing right there with the damn thing in his hand. He held it out to her. "Here."
Reluctantly, almost as if she thought it would bite her, she took it. Stephanie stared at it for several moments, saying nothing. Malcolm could feel the fear and anxiety emanating from her.
"Would you—" they both said at the same time, then stopped.
"Go on," said Malcolm.
"Would you " Stephanie began again, but hesitated. She didn't want him to go. She didn't want to be alone when she opened the letter, but she felt foolish and almost rude asking him to stay.
Seeing her dilemma playing openly on her face, Malcolm said gently, "Would you like me to stay?"
Not trusting herself to speak, Stephanie pressed her lips together and simply nodded. She left the doorway and went to the desk. Malcolm followed her into the cabin, letting the door slide shut behind him. He watched as she sat and stared for a moment at the datacard in her hand. He wanted to help, offer to put the card in the computer for her, but he knew this was something she had to do for herself.
When Stephanie spoke, it was in a voice so low Malcolm wondered if she was even aware she was speaking aloud. "Ryn's a great cook, you know? No one anywhere in the system can make oatmeal chocolate chip cookies like my sister. Dad always called her Cookie because of it. She learned to make them from our grandma, but even Grandma's were never as good." Stephanie turned eyes shining with unshed tears on her friend and C.O. "I'll make 'em for you sometime," she offered, "but they won't be as good."
Slowly, Stephanie faced the computer. She raised her hand and slipped the card into the reader. A list of what it contained appeared on screen: one communiqué from her mother. She called up the message. Immediately the image of a woman with graying brown hair appeared. Her hazel eyes were bloodshot, and she looked like she'd been crying.
"Shit," breathed Stephanie. Instinctively she pulled one foot up under her and crossed her arms over her chest, hugging herself. "Shit."
The recording began to play. "Honey, I'm sorry it's been so long, but I didn't want to contact you until we knew something definite." A hard look crossed her face as she added, "I'm still angry with Marston and Gemma for sending that first message. They meant well, but I knew it was the wrong thing to do. They should have listened to me." Her expression grew compassionate. "I hope it wasn't too rough for you, honey."
"To hell with me! Get on with it, woman!" muttered Stephanie in impotent fear. She didn't notice as Malcolm stepped in close behind her. She didn't even feel it as he rested a supportive hand on her shoulder.
The recording of Stephanie's mother took a deep breath and smiled. "She's going to be okay." She gave a sob that was as much of laughter as tears. "Ryn's going to be okay. When she didn't wake up right away after the surgery, I was so scared The doctors said it'll be a long recovery, and she's going to have to work hard, but she'll be okay. We'll all help her—you, too. You're so far away, but you can help. You know she loves getting your letters. You should write more."
Stephanie snorted, almost laughing at her mother's scolding tone. It was comforting and familiar in the middle of the emotional outpouring of the rest of the message.
"I'll tell you more soon, but I want to get this sent right away. I miss you, honey." The tears welling in Stephanie's eyes mirrored those in her mother's. "We all miss you, and we love you. Good-bye."
The message ended and the screen went blank. Neither Stephanie nor Malcolm moved for over a minute. Time seemed frozen until Stephanie took a huge, shuddering breath and burst into tears. Immediately Malcolm knelt beside her, his hand still on her shoulder, offering comfort and support. Stephanie hadn't moved. She continued to sit with her arms around herself as her tears flowed unchecked down her cheeks.
Not knowing what else to do, Malcolm swiveled the chair so he could put his arms around her and simply held her while she cried. "It's all right," he murmured soothingly. "Everything's all right."
Stephanie released her death-grip on herself and transferred the embrace to her friend. She clung to him like a lifeline, sobbing openly on his strong shoulder. The relief was too much. She'd been so anxious and afraid that the unexpected and wonderful news was more than her system could handle.
Eventually her tears ebbed and she loosened her hold on Malcolm. He released her and she sat back in her chair. She sniffed, wiping vainly at her wet cheeks with her palms. "Your knees must be killing you," she said at last.
Malcolm sat back on his heels and shrugged. "I've been in worse positions for longer," he answered placidly.
"Still And I got your uniform all wet."
"It'll wash. Can I get you a tissue?"
"How 'bout a whole box?" joked Stephanie weakly. "There's one in the first drawer under my bunk. At the head of it," she added, pointing listlessly in its general direction.
Malcolm rose stiffly, wondering idly how long he had been on his knees. It felt like hours to his aching joints, but he wasn't about to admit it to Stephanie. He opened the drawer she'd indicated and found the box of tissue right in front. He pulled it out and shut the drawer. "Here you are." Malcolm held the box out to her.
"Thanks." Stephanie took it and pulled out a tissue. She did her best to dry her eyes with it, but quickly discovered it was too big a job for one little tissue. She withdrew another and mopped at her face. Finally satisfied, she got a third and blew her nose. "Bet I could win any beauty pageant you can name right now," she quipped, sniffing.
"I can't think of any, I'm afraid." He sat on the foot of her bed and looked her intently. "Will you be all right?"
Stephanie nodded. "Yeah. Ryn's okay. I'll be okay. It's just " She trailed off, her tired brain so full of swirling thoughts and emotions that she couldn't put them into words.
"It's all right. I think I understand. There's too much."
"Uh-huh." She nodded again. "Thank you."
Malcolm shrugged, feeling oddly embarrassed. He could think of nothing to say.
"No, I mean it," Stephanie insisted. "It means a lot to me that you were here for me—whatever way the news might've turned out."
"That's what friends are for," he replied simply.
"Yeah." She gave him a small, fragile smile. "Thanks."
They sat for a minute in silence broken only by Stephanie's occasional sniffs. It was she who finally spoke again. "You don't have to hang out. I'll be fine."
"It's all right. I can stay if you need me to."
"Nah." She shook her head. "Really. I'll be fine. Besides, I'm sure you have better things to do than sit here with me. After all " She looked at him slyly and he was pleased to see the familiar, mischievous sparkle had returned to her eyes. " your man is home. And seeing as he and I only made nice last night, I don't need you spoiling it by spending time with me when you should be looking after him. So shoo!"
Malcolm would have protested that Trip didn't need looking after, but it would have been a lie. It was obvious to him as well as Stephanie that the engineer did occasionally need a keeper. He chuckled. "All right." He rose. "But let me know if you need anything."
"I will. Right now I just need some quality me time, you know?"
Malcolm nodded. "I'll see you tomorrow."
"G'night." She raised a hand in good-bye as he left the cabin. The door closed after him, leaving her alone. She glanced around the room, suddenly at a loss for what to do. Then she started. "Well, duh! Idiot." She turned to the computer and typed a single sentence. She addressed the brief missive to Cutler and Lawless. She hesitated only a second before adding Fraser to the list. They hadn't spoken since their fight, but the helmsman deserved to get the news directly from her just as the others would. She added Kyrin Douglas to the list, and hit send.
That chore complete, she stretched and stood, yawning hugely. She collected the pile of used tissues and deposited it down the trash chute. "Better wash my face," she muttered to herself. "Again."
"Bridge to Captain Archer."
Archer snapped open the comm on his desk. "Go ahead."
T'Pol's voice came back to him. "The Arkonians have completed their final part of our agreement. Shuttlepod One has been towed aboard."
"Has Zho'Kaan been returned to their ship?"
"Then I guess it's time we completed our part of the agreement. I'll be right there." He closed the comm and rose, stretching as best he could in the small space of his ready room. He took a moment to straighten his uniform before stepping out onto the bridge.
It being well into Beta shift, Ensign Donnelly was currently at the comm station. Archer nodded at the young man and said, "Hail the Arkonian ship." As the captain rounded the side of his chair and stood behind the Ensign Tanner at the helm, the Arkonian Captain appeared on the viewscreen. "Khata'n Zshaar."
"Captain Archer," the deep-voiced alien replied evenly.
"Thank you for your assistance in rescuing our engineer and retrieving our shuttlepod." Khata'n Zshaar said nothing but nodded his head once. Archer tried one last time. "I hope any future meetings between our people yield equally mutually beneficial results," he said pointedly.
Now the Arkonian spoke up grudgingly. "I appreciate the aid your doctor gave my soldier."
It was enough to satisfy Enterprise's captain. He held back a gratified smile. He'd quickly learned the Arkonians weren't big on pleasantries, so he simply said, "Archer out." The image of Khata'n Zshaar was replaced by a view of the starfield and the Arkonian vessel. "Helm, put us back on our previous course. When we're clear of these moons, take us to warp two."
"Aye, sir," replied Tanner, laying in the course.
"Message," said Lawless from her seat at the computer. "One for each of us." She looked more closely. "From Stephanie."
Now Fraser perked up. She'd been half ignoring her bunkmate, pretending to concentrate on her book, but this was undoubtedly the news they'd been waiting for. "What does she say?"
Lawless opened her communiqué and read aloud, "Ryn's going to be okay."
"That's enough for now, don't you think?" Mae glanced over her shoulder at her friend.
"I suppose so." Bonnie shrugged noncommittally.
"You want to see if yours says more?"
The helmsman shook her head. "Nah. Probably just says the same thing."
"At least open it so she knows you read it."
"You do it."
"Then leave it. I'll open it tomorrow." Bonnie turned back to her book.
Mae rolled her eyes but made no further argument. Instead, she brought up a different one. "You should talk to her."
Bonnie sighed heavily. "Let it go."
"You don't know what I said to her the last time we talked."
"I don't care what you said last time. It's next time I'm talking about."
"We've been through this before," Bonnie said flatly.
"Yeah. Several times," agreed Mae. "Did you think we wouldn't keep going through it?"
The helmsman was annoyed, and she let it show. "I'd sort of hoped, yeah!"
Unhappy but resigned to having this conversation yet again, Fraser placed a marker in her electronic copy of Crossing Borders and set it aside. "I don't know what to say—and don't tell me to apologize! I'll apologize when I'm damn good and ready."
"Okay." Lawless's face remained neutral, but inside she was grinning. Her friend's words were a definite improvement. At least now she was actually planning to apologize to Stephanie. "You could tell her you got her message and you're glad her sister's okay."
"You are glad, right?"
"Of course!" exclaimed Fraser, shocked. "How could I not be glad? Shit!"
"Okay, okay. Just checking."
There was a brief silence during which Fraser hoped they were done and Lawless planned her next avenue of attack.
Before long Mae said, "You could take her her shoes."
Bonnie stared at her. "What?"
"Her shoes. From when she crashed here the other night. She left without them."
"Gee," spat Bonnie caustically, "I wonder whose fault that was?"
"You know I didn't mean that," Mae countered, frustrated. She shook her head. "Never mind. I'll take them myself. Now. I want to see her anyway." She rose and picked up the forgotten sneakers from their temporary home under the desk. "I'll be back in a few minutes."
"Whatever." Bonnie shrugged and picked up her datapad. Neither bunkmate looked at the other as Mae left the cabin.
When the door had shut, Bonnie set down the datapad once more. She knew she couldn't concentrate. Instead she rose and began preparing for bed. She doubted she could sleep, but she figured it was worth a shot. And she wanted to be able to pretend she was asleep when Mae returned so she wouldn't have to talk to her again that night. Well-meaning as she was sure Mae was, her interference was only making Bonnie's dilemma more difficult.
Out in the corridor, Mae walked quickly to Stephanie's quarters. She was pissed at her bunkmate, but there was nothing she could do. Damn woman's too much like Stephanie, she thought ironically. The more you push, the more she resists. Time to just let it go. They were idle thoughts; she knew she couldn't just leave the situation alone. Instead, she would approach it from the opposite direction.
She stopped before Cormack's door and rang the chime.
"Who is it?" came the reply.
Mae waited, and before too long the door opened. Before she could get a word out, Stephanie pulled her inside.
"Wha—?" The sight that met her eyes answered her aborted query. Several candles were arranged on a scarf on the deck between the two bunks. They were unlit, but each one trailed the smoke of a recently snuffed wick into the air. "Ah-ha."
"I needed to center myself," said Stephanie. "You know?"
"I get it," Mae replied, nodding. "I saw your message."
"I'm glad Ryn's gonna be okay."
"And I brought you your shoes." Mae held up the sneakers. "You left them yesterday morning."
"Oh. Right." Stephanie took the shoes and put them away in her locker. "Thanks. Have a seat?"
"No thanks. I don't want to keep you from your rule-breaking," she joked.
"Three lousy candles," protested Cormack. Then she laughed. "I get the reasoning behind the whole 'no open flames' thing, it's just a bit inconvenient sometimes."
"Admit it. You love breaking the rules." Lawless grinned.
"Of course I do! Isn't that what they're for?" the blonde replied in false innocence.
Now it was Mae's turn to laugh. "You're a nut." She paused as her smile faded and was replaced by a sympathetic and serious expression. "I'm really glad about Ryn."
"You said." Stephanie looked at her friend dubiously, wondering where this was going.
"Bonnie's glad, too. She wanted you to know." It wasn't the exact truth, but it was close enough.
Abruptly Mae changed her mind. She decided now was not the time to meddle with things between Stephanie and Bonnie. She'd said enough for tonight; she could save the next step for another day. "I better go. Alpha shift tomorrow."
"Right. Me, too. Thanks for stopping by. I really appreciate it."
"And thanks for the shoes," Stephanie added, remembering the delivery.
"No problem," repeated Mae, smiling. "See you for breakfast?"
"Right on. Good-night."
Stephanie locked the door behind Mae, then fished her lighter from its spot in her locker. Whispering a few words under her breath, she systematically relit the candles.
Malcolm entered Trip's cabin, surprised to find it dark except for the small lamp over the bed.
There was no reply.
He looked around. It only took a moment for him to spot the engineer. Trip lay in the bed, asleep. He'd clearly dozed off waiting for Malcolm to arrive. A datapad rested on his bare chest where it had slipped from his hand. Careful not to wake him, Malcolm picked up the pad and glanced at what was on screen—Foundation, by Isaac Asimov. He placed an electronic marker in it and turned off the pad before setting it on the nightstand.
Malcolm looked at Trip. He just stood there, studying the sleeping form of his lover. Bruises that had been hidden by his uniform were clear even in the low light—a patch of mottled brown and yellow on his ribcage, a dark purple area across his right collar bone. Malcolm shook his head in distress. He'd arrived at Trip's quarters with every intention of chewing him out for not letting Archer transport him back the moment they'd found him. While the evidence painted on Trip's body was in favor of Malcolm's argument, he couldn't bring himself to wake the engineer. Trip looked too sweet and peaceful as he slept, a slight smile on his handsome face. Mslcolm couldn't help but smile, too.
Quietly, he began to undress. They'd not had the chance yet to move some of Malcolm's things to Trip's cabin—the test flight and subsequent search precluding any domestic plans they'd had for the day—but Malcolm didn't mind. He sat in the desk chair to remove his shoes and socks, placing both under the desk. He stood again and removed his coveralls, hanging them in the closet. Next he pulled off his black uniform shirt. Folding it neatly, he set it on top of his boots. It was immediately followed by his bright blue skivvies. Finally, he turned out the bedside light and slipped stealthily under the covers.
Instinctively Trip shifted in his sleep toward the warm body next to him, wrapping a possessive arm around the shorter man. He mumbled something indistinct, and Malcolm chuckled.
"I love you, too," he whispered, knowing his lover didn't hear him. He gave Trip a tender kiss on the cheek. "Good night, Trip. Sweet dreams." He closed his eyes and soon drifted off to sleep.