Log Rhythms - Season Two
Log Disclaimer: Paramount's characters are theirs. My characters are mine. Ensign Ari Cohn is Squeaky Lightfoot's and is used with her kind permission. Isn't it nice how everyone gets along so well?
Hoshi stretched languorously and rolled onto her side in her bunk. Ian's pale eyes opened and he looked at her groggily for a split-second before smiling. "Morning," he said, suddenly fully awake.
"Good morning," she replied, returning his smile easily.
He pushed himself up onto one elbow and looked down at her. Her head was cushioned by the pillow and her dark hair pooled around her face, framing it. Even first thing in the morning she's beautiful, he thought. "How did you sleep?"
"Mmm. Very well, thank you. You?"
"Fabulous." He grinned winningly.
"Good." She sat up, letting the covers fall away to reveal her small, firm breasts. She leaned in and kissed Ian sweetly, slowly. When she pulled back, her dark eyes met his fair ones and she smiled appreciatively. "I had a wonderful time on our date," she said huskily.
"So did I."
Still smiling, Hoshi slipped gracefully from the bunk and padded naked to the closet. Ian remained in the bed, enjoying the view of her gently swaying hips and perfectly shaped ass. He felt a twinge of disappointment as she withdrew a robe and slipped it over her narrow shoulders, tying it around her slim waist.
She turned around to face him. "I have to get moving," she informed him regretfully. "I'm on Alpha shift bridge duty."
"You can be a little late, can't you?" Ian shifted onto his back, resting his head on his folded arms. Even from where she stood across the cabin, Hoshi couldn't miss the profile of his erection tenting the sheet.
"I'm sorry. There's a staff meeting first thing this morning." Her tone was apologetic but final.
"It wouldn't take too long," he tried again.
She approached him, picking up the scattered pieces of his clothing as she went. She set them on her pillow. As she knelt on the bunk her robe gapped open tantalizingly, revealing a hint of the luscious flesh he'd so enjoyed the previous night. She leaned across the bed and whispered teasingly in his ear. "Where would be the fun in that?" Then she pushed away and stood straight, smiling down at a bewildered but still hopeful Ian. "Thanks. I had fun." Hoshi sashayed to the bathroom and closed the door.
A few moments passed and Ian wondered if she would come back. When she didn't and he heard the shower running, he realized he'd been dismissed. She expected him to be gone when she emerged. He lay there for several more seconds, refusing to believe it was true. It's a joke, his mind insisted. She's just teasing me. Trying to get me more worked up. But as the shower continued to run, he knew he was only fooling himself. He had to admit it—she'd blown him off. It was tough to fathom, but as he rose and dressed in last night's civvies he knew it was true.
Well okay. It was one night. That's cool. That's what you wanted, right? No strings. You've never liked clingy women. But no matter how he tried to convince himself this was just another one-night fling, he knew it wasn't true. As he sat on the edge of the bunk to pull on his shoes, he remembered making love to Hoshi. For once he didn't think of it as having sex, but actually making love. Their bodies had meshed together so well, and he remembered how wonderful it had felt to wrap his arms around her as she moved on top of him.
The shower stopped abruptly, jerking him from his reverie. He stood. "Better go," he muttered disconsolately. He took one last look around Hoshi's quarters, wondering if he'd ever have the chance to share them again. Then he stepped out into the corridor, the soft whooshing of the closing door sounding funereal in its finality.
In her bathroom, Hoshi was stalling. She'd taken a little longer with her shower than normal, wanting to give Ian sufficient time to dress and depart. If he was still there when she came out, she was pretty sure she'd end up being late for her shift. She toweled herself off and dried her hair slowly, brushing through the long strands to remove the remaining tangles. She felt a pang of guilt about how she'd treated Ian but pushed it aside. He was expecting a one-night stand, she reminded herself. She didn't know it for a fact, but judging from Young's past reputation and his recent behavior, she believed she was correct. We both got exactly what we wanted last night, she concluded confidently.
She glanced to one side of the mirror at the chronometer set into the bulkhead. "Whoops!" she exclaimed. If she didn't hurry, she really would be late for the staff meeting. Crossing mental fingers that she was alone in her quarters, she stepped out of the bathroom.
The cabin was empty. Ian was gone.
A flush of disappointment surprised her with its intensity. She ignored it and quickly donned her uniform. Checking the time once more, she decided she had just enough leeway to grab tea and toast before going to the bridge.
Archer and his Alpha shift bridge crew gathered around the strategy console in the situation room. Even Tucker was there that morning, curious to learn about what the ship's sensors had detected.
T'Pol called up an image of a solar system. "This is the system we're currently approaching," she began. "There are four planets, including a gas giant with several natural satellites."
"That sounds uncomfortably familiar," said Tucker. His unscheduled adventure while testing shuttlepod auto-pilot upgrades was still all too clear in his memory. Reed nodded in agreement, and Archer gave both men an amused glance.
The Vulcan ignored them all and went on. "The third moon is uninhabited, although it has a breathable atmosphere and a climate not unlike that of the northeastern region of South America."
"Brazil," said Hoshi. "Do you mean it's like the rain forests of Brazil?"
"I think I'll stay home." The comm officer had fond memories of teaching in Brazil before joining Enterprise's crew, but the fondness didn't extend to the local habitat.
Archer gave the young woman a sympathetic smile before turning his attention back to his science officer. "Are you suggesting what I think you're suggesting?" he asked.
"I am suggesting that the moon may provide an opportunity to study a large number of plant and animal species," T'Pol confirmed.
"I'd guess that's a 'no'," muttered Tucker in a dry tone.
T'Pol continued, choosing once again to ignore the Commander's comments. "With further study it might also prove a reasonable location for shore leave."
Trip tried to hide his look of surprise. He failed, garnering smirks from both Ensign Mayweather and Captain Archer. Lieutenant Reed refrained from responding, deciding instead to save the incident to tease his partner with later.
"Time to the system?" Archer asked.
"At current speed, two-point-three days."
Archer looked around the table at his officers, gauging their reactions to this news. Their expressions ranged from cautiously hopeful to barely suppressed excitement. He turned to Travis. "Lay in a course, Ensign," he said with a grin.
"Ensign Bonnie Fraser, personal log: I suck. I broke a promise to myself, and if I can't even keep a promise I made to me, how the hell am I ever gonna keep a promise to someone else? I hurt Stephanie, and I haven't done a fucking thing to make it better. I don't know if I can make it better." Bonnie paced the deck of her cabin as she talked, rarely looking up from the gray flooring. "Mae's gonna kill me. I'm sure Stephanie hates me. Not that I've talked to her to find out—I'm too fucking chicken-shit for that," she berated herself vehemently. She abruptly stopped moving and stood in the middle of the room, staring angrily at the bare wall. She was silent so long the computer eventually chirped at her, reminding her it was waiting for her to continue.
The fiery-tempered helmsman glared at the computer. "Pause recording," she spat. There was another chirp as it complied. She began pacing again, muttering to herself. "Fuck. This sucks. This sucks, and I'm a fucking idiot. Computer," she continued more loudly, "end recording and use encryption code caribou-lambda-two-seven."
A final chirrup from the computer confirmed her request had been followed.
Fraser flopped unceremoniously onto her bunk and stared at the ceiling. Minutes passed as she lay there, thinking, frowning, stewing. Impatiently she sat up again, ideas of working out her frustrations in the gym in her mind. She rose and went to her locker, but paused. "How much you want to bet Stephanie's there now?" she muttered to the empty room. She glanced at her bedside chronometer. Yeah, bet she just got there, too, so it'll be an hour or more until she's gone. Huh. She's probably beating the hell out of the punching bag and wishing it was me at this very moment. Caution and curiosity took her to the computer where she input a search for the armory ensign. Bonnie snorted derisively when she discovered her guess was at least partially right; Cormack was in the gym. "Okay. Fine." She returned to her locker and reached into the back. There in a dark corner was something she hadn't used in a long time.
Fraser pulled out the item and unrolled it onto the desk. It was about 125 centimeters long, twenty-five centimeters wide, and stood barely one centimeter high. When she'd gotten her assignment to Enterprise, she'd debated with herself long and hard about whether or not to bring the thing along. It took up a fair chunk of space even when rolled up, and how often did she expect to use it? Now, despite the fact she hadn't touched it in months, she was glad she'd elected to bring it on her tour of duty.
Bonnie sat in the chair and pulled it up to the desk. She tapped in the start code on the white and black keys, and the electronic keyboard responded by chiming middle-C three times. The thing didn't have the range or the overtones of a real piano, but it was a hell of a lot better than nothing at all. Bonnie wiggled her fingers over the keys in anticipation and began a slow series of scales. She was painfully out of practice, but the even repetition of warm-up exercises was soothing and distracting all at once. Her thoughts calmed as her hands moved up and down the keyboard. Before long she moved smoothly from her warm-up into a simple song, then a more complex one, eventually losing herself in the complex brilliance of J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations.
Travis, Liz, and Hoshi sat together at a table in the mess hall. "I thought Mae and Stephanie were supposed to join us," Mayweather said as the trio tucked into their dinners.
"Mae got stuck in engineering and Stephanie's working out," answered Cutler.
"Again? That's the third time she's blown us off this week."
"Is she all right?" asked Hoshi, concerned. "She's been pretty quiet since she and Bonnie had that fight. Do you have any idea what happened?" It was no secret Cormack and Fraser had had a falling out, but no one seemed to know exactly what had caused it.
Liz nodded reluctantly but remained silent. She had a very good idea what had happened. In fact she was fairly certain she knew more about it than anyone—aside from the two women who'd been there at the time. What she didn't know was why Bonnie had become so distant afterward.
Understanding dawned on Travis's face. "You can't say."
"No, I really can't."
"Is there anything we can do?" he asked, and Hoshi nodded her support.
The exobiologist gave them both a wan smile. "Maybe you could keep an eye on either of them when you're around them?"
"You're not worried Stephanie's going to do something ?" Travis trailed off, his implication obvious.
"I don't know. I wouldn't have thought it six months ago, but it's still so soon after that whole horrible mess with her sister getting hurt." Liz paused, thinking, trying to put into words what she'd witnessed since the sudden, inexplicable split between her bunkmate and Bonnie. "Sometimes I think she's fine. She laughs; she gets angry. Normal stuff. But other times she just functions. It's as if she shuts down. Emotionally, I mean. It's almost Vulcan-like."
Hoshi nodded knowingly. "Which is fine if you're a Vulcan "
" But Stephanie is way too human for it to be fine for her," Liz finished.
"We'll keep our eyes open," the comm officer said, including Mayweather in her offer. "Travis and I have bridge duty with her tomorrow," she added.
Liz grimaced. "I bet bridge duty with Stephanie and Bonnie hasn't been fun lately."
"I'm glad to say I wouldn't know," commented Travis around a bite of lasagna. "I only ever work with Bonnie in Stellar Cartography."
"Actually," said Hoshi, considering, "I don't think I've been on shift with both of them since before we left Dekendi Three. That's odd, because the schedule usually works out so the three of us are on the bridge together at least every ten days or so." She shrugged dismissively and took a bite of her risotto.
An idea occurred to Mayweather suddenly, and he voiced it. "Do you think we should mention any of this to Lieutenant Reed?"
"I've asked myself that several times lately, and I just don't know," Liz answered uncertainly. "I hate the idea of going behind her back to her C.O., but he's her friend, too. You both know him better than I do. What do you think?"
"He may have noticed on his own," Travis suggested. Liz gave him a doubtful look. "What?"
"He's a guy. I love men, but as a rule they're not the most observant about certain things." She glanced at Sato for confirmation, and the other woman nodded again.
"I've decided not to take that personally," quipped the helmsman.
Liz smiled teasingly. "Good." Then her smile faded. "But it's true."
"I know it is. But Malcolm's more observant than most people, I think. There's a reason he's in security." He had a momentary flashback to an exchange between Ari and Ian the night of their bet, and he smiled wryly at the memory.
"What's that about?" asked Liz, catching the look.
"Just remembering something. It's not important."
"So? Do we tell the Lieutenant or not?" Hoshi asked.
It was Mayweather who came up with a solution. "I have an idea. I'll try to find out what he knows. If he has noticed what's going on with Stephanie, maybe we can combine information."
"That sounds reasonable, and tactical," Liz added wryly. "In the meantime, I'll talk to Mae. She's Bonnie's roommate after all. She could well know something we don't."
Travis nodded again. With that subject decided, his mind turned to another couple. "Speaking of Lieutenant Reed " he began.
The women waited. When he didn't continue, Liz prompted him. "Yes?"
"What is it?"
"No. Never mind."
"No. What? Now I want to know."
"Me, too," interjected Hoshi curiously.
"Nothing. Forget it."
"Travis " both women threatened at once, then laughed at each other.
The helmsman glanced surreptitiously around to make sure no one was within earshot. Liz and Hoshi followed his gaze in puzzlement until their eyes met across the table once more. "Do you know if he and the Commander moved in together?" he asked in a hushed tone.
Liz was astounded. "Are you kidding?"
Hoshi began to laugh and Liz joined her. "So much for your no gossiping rule!" the comm officer said.
Travis had the decency to look chagrined. "It's not gossip. I just wondered."
"And what on Earth would make you wonder about that?" she countered, still chuckling.
"Just something I thought I saw, but I must've been mistaken." He sat back, deciding to let the matter drop.
Unfortunately for him, Liz had other ideas. She smiled too sweetly. "Shall I ask around?" she offered innocently. "Stephanie might know something about it."
"Or the quartermaster!" Hoshi interjected as inspiration struck. "If he's gotten a request for a larger bed for either of their quarters, we'll have your answer."
"That's an excellent idea!" agreed Liz.
Travis felt the heat rising in his cheeks. "Okay, okay. Let it go now," he requested, embarrassed.
"If you're sure "
"Okay." But the women continued to smirk. Feeling particularly roguish and not willing to let the mood pass, Liz directed her attention to Hoshi. "So how was your date with Ian?"
Hoshi's smile wavered but she forced herself to remain cool as she replied. "Fine, thanks."
"Just fine?" persisted the exobiologist and was gratified to see her prey blush.
"Very fine," amended Hoshi. She fixed Liz with a look she hoped would quell her friend's curiosity—at least until they were no longer in mixed company.
Travis was quicker than his lover, catching the expression on the comm officer's face. "I think I don't need to hear this," he said with certainty.
"It's not gossip if the information comes from the primary source," Liz teased him.
"I don't care. I just don't need to know."
Liz's dark eyes sparkled with mischief, but she finally let the subject drop. A sidelong glance at Hoshi confirmed that the younger woman would fill her in on all the details later.
It was another quiet day in the armory. In fact it was so quiet that Reed had given Griffith and Martinez the rest of the shift off. There's no point in all three of us being bored and trying to look busy, he thought. There really was nothing to do. Every single security system had been aligned, calibrated, rotated, or inventoried. Malcolm idly rubbed at a smudge on the main console with the cuff of his uniform.
"This is absurd," he muttered to the empty room. He couldn't stand there twiddling his thumbs all day. I suppose I could get in some target practice. He strode purposefully to a weapons locker and removed a phase-pistol. With expert efficiency, he removed the live power cell and replaced it with a blank cartridge. Next he took out a holographic target emitter. He set it for three fifteen-second rounds with a three-second pause between each round, and activated it. The spherical target shimmered to life in the air a few meters away. The emitter gave him a two-second warning before it began counting down.
Reed fired repeatedly as the target bobbed and wove, moving randomly around the armory. When the time was up, it stilled and returned to its starting position. Malcolm lowered his weapon and went to check the results of his session. He frowned. His hit-to-miss ratio wasn't what he wanted it to be. Hm. I guess it's a good thing I have some free time right now. I clearly need to do this more often.
He reset the emitter with a new set of specs and began again. He was in the middle of a long, complex session when the upper armory door whooshed open. Instincts running high, he immediately turned his weapon on the intruder, but held off firing.
"Whoa!" exclaimed Trip, putting up his free hand. "Just bringing you the phase converter you asked for," he added. He held out the silver case he carried.
Malcolm lowered his weapon and deactivated the target. It shimmered slightly as it vanished. "You startled me."
"Apparently." Trip lowered his hand and approached, descending the metal staircase to the lower level.
Reed put the phase-pistol's safety on, despite the blank charge, and set it down next to the target emitter. "Are you certain you're in the right department? I didn't ask for a phase converter," he stated as the engineer placed the case on the worktable.
"I know you didn't. It was just an excuse to come visit. There's absolutely nothing going on in engineering today. We're down to polishing the control consoles."
A wry smile turned up the corner of Reed's mouth. "I did a bit of that myself," he admitted. "So, you were bored and you brought me a present, is that it?" He smiled wider at Tucker's chagrined shrug.
"Not exactly," the younger man falsely denied. "Wish I had something more interesting to bring you, but I was kind of limited by what was on hand."
"Your unexpected visit is quite sufficient without gifts."
Trip grinned. "Sweet-talker," he teased. He leaned against the worktable and rested his hands to either side of his hips. "So, pretty quiet in here, too, huh?"
"Excessively." Malcolm leaned on the table next to him, crossing his arms over his chest. He wanted to reach out and touch the engineer—just place one hand over the other man's—but they were on duty. Even without anyone else there he felt an open display of affection would be inappropriate.
"Maybe there'll be something interesting when we get to that system of T'Pol's tomorrow," suggested Trip. "Or maybe we'll get lucky before that and someone'll start shooting at us," he added jokingly.
"That's a bit more excitement than I'd like," countered Malcolm, knowing his partner wasn't really serious. "Although I wouldn't say no to a blown relay or a fried connector circuit. Something innocuous and easy to repair."
"I hear ya." Tucker nodded. "I suppose we ought to just enjoy the quiet while it lasts." He edged slightly closer to his lover until only the width of his hand separated them.
"It is a refreshing change, I'll admit." Malcolm was aware of Trip's nearness, felt the almost electric tingle of his presence. The slightest shift of his stance would bring him into physical contact with the engineer. But he didn't move.
"So you were taking advantage of the peace and quiet to do some shooting?" asked Trip, just a hint of wry humor coloring his tones.
"It was a useful way to pass the time. And it turned out I needed the practice."
Trip looked sidelong at the dark-haired armory officer he loved so much. A smile curved his lips as he subtly admired Malcolm's profile, his strong jaw, sculpted cheekbone, sharp nose. "I hope you were using blanks. You came awful close to shooting me when I walked in."
Malcolm glanced at Trip and smiled as he caught the younger man's appreciative gaze. Tucker flushed slightly and turned his head to look forward once more. "I wouldn't have shot you," Reed said.
"Looked like you came pretty close," his lover accused lightly.
"Trust me. I would never accidentally shoot you." Now Malcolm, too, gazed straight ahead.
"I seem to remember a certain moment in a certain shuttlepod "
"That wouldn't have been accidental. I gave you fair warning of my intentions, and I made absolutely certain the phase-pistol was set to stun."
"That was real thoughtful of you." Tucker edged the tiniest bit closer to Malcolm, shifting his arm back on the table so it was just behind Malcolm's hip. Neither man turned his head but continued to watch the far wall of the armory as if there was something fascinating hanging there.
"I do try."
The two were silent for several moments, contemplating the plain gray paneling of the bulkhead.
"I suppose I should get back to doing nothing in my own department," Trip said eventually. But instead of leaving he slid even closer to Malcolm until their thighs were pressed against one another and his hand rested behind the shorter man's far hip.
It was all Malcolm could do not to turn suddenly and pin the engineer to the table. He wanted nothing more than sweep the few bits and bobs from the workbench and ravage Tucker right there and then. "Commander," he said, a hint of warning in his voice—although warning about what and to whom, he wasn't entirely certain.
"Yeah Lieutenant?" rejoined Tucker, not moving. A tiny glance out of the corner of his eye showed him Malcolm was feeling the effects of their tight proximity just as much as Trip. He slipped his hand around his lover's hip, letting it rest there lightly, seeing what the armory officer would do.
Malcolm took a deep, steadying breath. Oh, this has to stop now, he thought. It's incredibly unprofessional—never mind the possibility of being caught. The horror of facing a reprimand from the Captain eased his growing arousal somewhat. It wasn't enough to overcome it completely. If this kept up, he knew not even his high personal standards of professionalism would stop him from fucking Trip right there in the armory. "You really ought to go," he said tensely.
"You really want me to?" asked Tucker, already knowing the answer.
"No. But you need to go, now."
Trip made as if to push away from the table but instead pivoted so he was facing Malcolm, leaning against him along the full length of his body. He rested his hands on Reed's lower back and pulled him in so their erections were pressed hard against one another. He inclined his head, bringing his lips tantalizingly close to the other man's and asked, "You're sure about that?"
Reed resolutely kept his arms crossed over his chest, pinned between himself and his lover. It took every ounce of his will power—helped along by the mortifying mental image of having to explain to Captain Archer how they were caught making love on duty in a public area of the ship—to respond. "Yes. I'm sure."
Tucker's disappointment was immediate and obvious. "Damn. I really thought I'd got you for a second there." He stood upright and stepped away. His glance fell on the case he'd brought with him. "I think I'll take that back," he said, retrieving the item. He held it slightly awkwardly directly in front of his body, hiding the bulge in his pants.
Malcolm gave him a sympathetic but somewhat teasing smile. "Just imagine what it would be like if we'd been caught by a subordinate and then reprimanded by the Captain," he suggested. "It's working fairly well for me."
Trip grimaced. "That helps, but it ain't gonna do the whole job. Promise you'll meet me in my quarters immediately after shift, and I might just be able to hang on the rest of the afternoon."
"You have my word," agreed Malcolm sincerely.
Tucker just nodded and turned to go. He climbed the steps awkwardly, the seam of his coveralls cutting uncomfortably into his groin. He took a moment to readjust himself before stepping out of the armory.
Malcolm watched him go, the rear view as he ascended the staircase too irresistible to ignore. He regretted letting Tucker go the moment the engineer was out of sight. Like Trip had only moments before, he adjusted himself, mentally cursing the designer of the unnecessarily form-fitting one-piece Starfleet uniforms.
There are times, he thought with bitter irony, where my professionalism is a down right pain in the arse.
Mae entered the darkened mess hall. She was in the mood for a midnight snack and had heard there was cherry pie to be found. She was surprised to see another figure there at that late hour—until she recognized the familiar form of her friend Stephanie. Cormack stood at the drinks dispenser, seemingly frozen in mid-activity. Lawless took a moment to observe her. The rift she'd experienced with Bonnie was obviously having detrimental effects on the blonde. Even in the dim light Mae could make out the uncharacteristic slump of the armory ensign's shoulders. Her hair was loose and wild, and one strap of her pajama top had fallen down.
Mae approached her. "Hey, buddy. What's up?" she asked in as casual a tone as she could manage.
Stephanie started. "Hey! I didn't see you come in."
"I heard there was pie."
"Oh." Cormack nodded distractedly. When it was clear Mae was waiting for her own explanation for being there, she added, "I couldn't sleep. Thought maybe some steamed milk would be good."
Lawless glanced at the drinks dispenser, noticing the glass tumbler on its pad. "You might want something with a handle in that case."
"Huh? Oh, yeah. Dunno where the hell my brain was." She removed the glass and traded it for a mug. Placing it on the pad, she ordered, "Steamed milk with honey and cinnamon." There was an awkward silence as the pair waited for it to fill.
It wasn't long before the quiet got to Mae. "Is everything okay?" she asked, knowing the second the words were out what a stupid question it was.
"Fine." Stephanie shrugged and claimed her drink.
"You want to sit? You can keep me company while I eat, assuming there really is pie. Hang on." It took Lawless only a moment to find what she sought. She claimed a piece of pie and placed a mug under the drinks dispenser. "Decaf coffee, blonde and sweet." As it filled, she smiled at her friend. "Can't beat cherry pie and a damn fine cup of coffee," she quipped.
"S'pose not," Stephanie agreed listlessly. She stared down into her mug of steaming hot milk, wishing it had something stronger than honey in it and knowing exactly where her brain had been when she'd first placed a tumbler under the dispenser. "Listen, I'm gonna go back to bed."
"C'mon," coaxed Mae, "just hang out with me. There's nothing sadder than eating alone in the middle of the night."
The armory ensign cocked her head to one side and fixed her friend with an apathetic gaze. "You have a point. I'll stay."
Mae picked up her coffee and the two sat at a small table by the windows. Cormack alternately stared into her drink, out at the stars, and across the table at Mae, never seeming to focus on any of them. Lawless kept a surreptitious eye on her friend as she ate. She hated seeing Stephanie like this, especially when she was sure she knew what was necessary to make her feel better. Mae wracked her brain for something useful to say but came up empty.
The pair sat in silence for several minutes. Mae slowly munched her pie. She didn't want to eat too quickly, hoping something helpful would spring to mind if only she could stall there long enough.
"This sucks," Stephanie muttered eventually, startling the engineer from her thoughts.
All Mae could do was agree. "Yeah."
Stephanie looked at her in surprise. "Oh. Guess that was outside voice, eh?"
"Yeah," Mae said again. "That's okay."
"I don't know why I'm so " The blonde woman searched for just the right words. " totally fucked up by this," she concluded at last. "I've had lots of one-night stands. Probably a lot more than I remember," she added with bitter humor. "Kinda comes with the territory of 'drunken musician,' you know?"
Mae only nodded, not trusting herself to speak. She could name one one-night stand she knew her friend didn't remember, but she'd promised Bonnie she wouldn't tell. Of course that was before she went all silent treatment, she thought angrily.
"I just thought she really liked me," continued Stephanie mostly to herself.
"She does," replied Mae gently. And I'm going to kick her ass for being such a dumbshit, her mind added.
Cormack looked at her friend and Lawless was struck by how desolate she appeared. Dark circles ringed hazel eyes that lacked their usual sharpness and spark; the corners of her mouth curved down even when no emotion was expressed on her face. "You look like hell," Mae commented.
Stephanie gave her a mirthless half smile. "Like I said. Can't sleep."
"Have you asked Phlox for something to help?"
"No. Stupid, eh? I'm too busy wallowing in self-pity." There was nothing to say to this, so Mae remained silent and continued to eat slowly. Eventually Stephanie let out a mammoth sigh. "I’m gonna go now. See you for breakfast?" she asked as she rose lethargically. Her steamed milk was untouched and no longer steaming. "It's gonna be early. I'm scheduled on the landing party tomorrow."
"Right on. I'll be here. Sleep well."
Cormack left the mess hall and Lawless continued to sit there, sipping thoughtfully at her coffee. When she'd judged enough time had passed that there was no possibility of running into her friend in the corridor, she too departed the mess hall, heading for her cabin.
Bonnie was there when she arrived. The helmsman was dressed in her pajamas and laying on her bunk, listening to Rowan's Circle. At her roommate's arrival, she glanced over and then away. "Hey," she said indifferently.
Mae crossed to the computer and shut off the music. "I've had it."
"Huh?" Bonnie looked from her to the computer and back again quizzically.
"I'm done. I just spent the last twenty minutes with Stephanie." At the armory ensign's name, Bonnie looked away once more. Mae fixed her with a glare and continued angrily. "You haven't said a word to her since we left Dekendi Three, and she doesn't have a clue why. She's miserable, and you are, too—whether you'll admit it or not. Enough's enough. I'm done keeping your secrets. If you don't talk to Stephanie, I will."
Now Fraser sat up, taking a full interest at last. "You wouldn't."
"I would. If she doesn't know the whole truth by midnight tomorrow, she will by breakfast the next day."
"But you promised!"
"That was before you shoved your head up your own ass! The only thing that'll stop me now is you telling her first."
"She's off the ship tomorrow! You've got to give me more time!"
"You've had more than enough time. And she won't be gone all day. I'm sure you'll manage."
Bonnie knew from Mae's furious expression and sharp tone that the engineer was dead serious in her threat. "Please " she began, but trailed off, not knowing what she wanted to say. She was torn up inside. The distance she'd deliberately placed between herself and Stephanie was eating at her. She hated it and she hated knowing it was entirely her own fault. If she'd been honest with Stephanie in the first place, if she'd resisted the temptation of the blonde woman's advances in the alien forest, even if she'd come clean immediately afterward If, if, if! she thought bitterly. "Fucking ifs!"
Mae was completely surprised by the vehement declaration. "What the hell?" she demanded.
"Twenty-twenty hindsight," spat Fraser. "Doesn't matter."
"So are you going to do it?" Lawless was determined. She wouldn't leave her bunkmate be until she had a definite answer.
"All right, I'll do it." Bonnie's tone was belligerent, but Mae took the helmsman at her word.
"Good." Without further comment, Mae turned the music back on. As chance would have it, the track was a depressing one full of weeping guitar and mournful violin.
"Shut it off," said Bonnie. Mae complied and the room fell silent. Bonnie laid down and rolled onto her side facing the bulkhead, effectively ending further communication.
Lawless prepared for bed without either woman speaking another word. When she was ready, she shut off the cabin lights and climbed into her bunk. It was a long time before she fell asleep.
T'Pol and her team had collected a great deal of data over the past two days. The moon they'd been studying had a wide variety of plant and insect life but minimal mammalian, reptilian, or piscine lifeforms. In short, it appeared to be safe. While T'Pol would have preferred another few days studying the moon from orbit, she had learned long ago the limits of Captain Archer's patience in such matters. A preliminary survey team had already been selected, and they gathered in the launch bay as soon as Enterprise established orbit.
Mayweather hailed the bridge from the pilot's seat of Shuttlepod One. "We're ready to go, Captain," the helmsman announced.
"Have a safe trip. See you in a few hours," came Archer's reply.
"Yes, sir." Travis closed the comm and took a quick glance around the crowded shuttle. Certain his six passengers were settled as comfortably as possible in the small space, he guided the shuttlepod out of the launch bay.
T'Pol recapped their assignments during the short journey to the surface of the moon.
"Lieutenant Reed, you will accompany Ensign Cutler and crewman Novakovich. Ensign Cormack, you will be with crewman Doyle and me. Each team is to check in with Ensign Mayweather every twenty minutes. We'll rendezvous back at the shuttlepod after four hours."
Everyone acknowledged their understanding and agreement.
The ensuing silence was finally broken by Travis. "I have the landing site in view."
"Take us down, Ensign," said T'Pol.
Mayweather landed the ship expertly. He ran a final check of the moon's atmosphere before releasing the pod's starboard hatch. One by one, the cramped crew climbed out into the damp, sticky heat of the tropical moon. Cormack was the last to emerge. She took the cases of equipment Mayweather handed her and passed them to the waiting science crewmembers. Finally he handed her two backpacks containing first-aid kits, water, and other emergency supplies. She gave one of these to Lieutenant Reed, who thanked her and joined his waiting team. Cormack shrugged into the remaining pack.
"See you in four hours," she said to Mayweather.
"Have fun," the helmsman replied, clearly disappointed that his visit to the alien sphere would be confined to the clearing where the pod now sat.
"Ensign Cormack," said T'Pol. It was obvious from her tone she was ready to depart.
Cormack looked over her shoulder at the waiting Vulcan. "Coming, Sub-commander." Cormack took a split second to glance back at Mayweather. "Hope you brought a book." She grinned and jogged the few paces to where T'Pol and crewman Doyle waited, one hand resting comfortably on the phase-pistol at her hip.
Travis watched until both teams disappeared into the shadows of the surrounding jungle. Liz is right, he thought, considering Cormack's teasing parting comment and comparing it to her stoic silence during their flight to the moon. Half the time she seems fine, the other half she just functions.
Cormack hadn't expected their mission to be particularly exciting, but she still wasn't prepared for the mind-numbing boredom that accompanied the collection of botanical specimens. It was worse than one of the "educational family fieldtrips" her mother had insisted on when she and Ryn were children. Ryn had always loved it, sharing their mother's fascination with green growing things. Stephanie was as bored now as she'd been then. She liked plants as a general rule; she simply didn't understand the tremendous fascination they held for others. For her the childhood fieldtrips had served the greater purpose of getting to spend time with her father. After he'd died, she'd refused to go on them.
Now she found herself actively looking forward to her regular reports back to Mayweather. They were only the briefest exchanges to let him know where the team was and how they were progressing, but at least it was a moment to talk to someone who wasn't hyper-focused on the local flora and arthropoda. And it was a moment to distract her from her own gloomy musings. It was hard enough to keep her mind off of Bonnie when she was busy; when she was bored, it was impossible.
Bet Liz is having a great time, she thought, waving a hand in front of her sweat-damp face to disperse a cloud of tiny insects. She loves her bugs.
A few kilometers away Cutler was indeed absorbed in her study of the local insect population. She was eagerly fishing another small specimen jar from her equipment case when she heard a shout from Novakovich. Immediately she and Lieutenant Reed were on the alert. They reached the crewman in seconds.
"What is it?" demanded Reed, weapon drawn and eyes scouring the area for any potential threat.
Novakovich was shaking out his hand sharply. "Something bit me," he explained. "It's probably nothing. It just took me by surprise."
Cutler wiped the sweat from her forehead with a sleeve. "Lieutenant, may I have the first-aid kit?"
"It's not that bad," protested Novakovich as Reed removed his pack and passed it off to her.
Cutler took it and fished out the kit, withdrawing the medical scanner. "Let me see," she said, indicating the crewman's injured hand. Novakovich held it out and she examined the small wound on his index finger.
Reed finally holstered his weapon, but he remained wary. "Did you see what bit you?" he asked.
"No," Novakovich replied. "I was collecting a sample." He pointed with his free hand to the plant he'd been carefully digging up to be taken back to the ship. Immediately Reed knelt next to it, examining the area carefully with both eyes and scanner.
"You'll be fine," Cutler pronounced, releasing her colleague's hand. "I'm not registering any foreign substances in the wound, but we should bandage that up before you go digging in any more dirt." She once more reached into the first-aid kit.
"I think I found what bit you, crewman," announced Reed.
"You did, sir?" Novakovich asked. He was curious to find the culprit, as he'd seen nothing.
"Mm-hmm." The Lieutenant very carefully lifted one of the wide leaves of the plant. There, almost invisible against the green background, was a large, green beetle-like insect.
"Oo!" exclaimed Cutler, her eyes widening in excitement. "It's gorgeous! We should take it with us."
Reed agreed with her but not for the same reason. "It would be wise to take it back so it can be checked for any toxic properties our scanners might miss. One can't be too careful."
"Can you finish with my hand first, please?" Novakovich requested.
Cutler gave him a chagrined smile. "Sorry, Ethan. Hang on."
"I'll get the insect," offered Reed. He gently lowered the leaf and went to the exobiologist's equipment case for a specimen jar.
Cutler finished cleaning and patching Novakovich's bite while Reed collected the bug that had bitten the crewman. The Lieutenant stowed the new specimen with the rest.
"Well," he said, "let's hope that's the most excitement we have while we're here."
"What a beautiful flower!" exclaimed crewman Doyle. "That violet-colored one on the branch there. Do you see it, Sub-commander?"
"I do," the Vulcan replied evenly. "Unfortunately, I see no way to collect it on this visit. It will have to wait until another survey team can come more prepared."
Cormack closed her communicator, zipping it into her sleeve pocket before joining the pair staring up into a huge, broad-leafed tree. "Report completed, Sub-commander," she announced as she had every twenty minutes for the past two-plus hours. "Ensign Mayweather says there's nothing going on at his end of things. What are you looking at?" She brushed damp tendrils of hair from her face and looked up, trying to see what had so caught the others' attention.
"There is an intriguing specimen above us," T'Pol informed her. She turned away from the unattainable goal. "Unfortunately, it is too high to reach. Perhaps another team can bring the equipment needed to collect it."
Doyle gave a disappointed sigh. "It looks a lot like a vanda orchid from here, but with a racemose inflorescence that runs along a vine rather than a more solid stem. Do you see how it wraps around that branch? I'd love to get a closer look."
Cormack didn't pretend to understand what the crewman was talking about. "You want me to get it?" was all she asked.
Doyle looked at her with hopeful gray eyes. T'Pol's expression was less confident. "It is over five meters up," she said evenly.
Cormack began to slowly circle the tree, assessing the possibility of climbing its rough surface. "No worries," she replied as she rounded one side. "There's a lower branch here, and the root structure and the deep bark should make it easy to climb. I'll be able to pull myself up here then come around to this one over here," she added, continuing around. She raised her voice so she could be heard clearly from the other side of the behemoth. "Then the one you're looking at is just a little farther. Come take a look." Cormack poked her head back around the massive trunk and waved the others over.
T'Pol and Doyle joined her in the shadow of the tree. Doyle wiped a sleeve over his face. He was finding it more and more difficult to ignore the heat and humidity as the morning progressed. He told himself it was cooler here in the shade, but he found himself unconvincing.
T'Pol appeared unaffected by the heat, although privately she found the humidity uncomfortable. She considered Cormack's proposed route up the tree. "You're certain you can traverse this safely?" she asked the ensign.
"Yes, ma'am. Used to do it all the time when I was a kid." Cormack crossed mental fingers. She didn't want to appear too eager, but the distraction provided by climbing the tree would very welcome. She was antsy with nothing to do but look at the scenery and think how hot and sticky she felt.
Doyle was already prepared. "Here," he said, handing Cormack a pair of blunt-nosed clippers. She took them and passed the backpack she wore over to him in exchange. "We don't need a huge piece, but if you could get a section that has at least half a dozen of the blooms, that'd be great." He was obviously as excited by the prospect of the new specimen as Cormack was at the chance to climb the jungle giant.
She grinned at him as she zipped the small cutter into a pocket. "I'll see what I can do," she said. The trio moved back to the side of the tree with the lowest branch. Cormack surveyed it carefully, picking her intended path. She climbed carefully up the wide-spreading root structure to the trunk itself, then began feeling out hand and footholds in the rough bark. It wasn't long before she stood on the first branch.
She quickly caught her breath and continued her climb to the next limb. T'Pol and Doyle followed her progress with critical eyes, both walking around the huge tree in order to keep her in sight.
Cormack peered intently up at her target. "It almost looks like the vine is growing down from the higher branches," she called. "You see? Weird." Not expecting a reply, she resumed her climb and finally reached her goal. She sat down astride the heavy branch, using her thighs to keep hold of it. It reminded her of the one time a childhood friend had tried to teach her to ride a horse. She'd failed dismally, but Cormack found it gratifying that she could actually put what little of the technique she knew to good use now. "I'm going to see if I can find the end of this vine," she announced to her companions on the ground.
"Do not take any unnecessary risks," T'Pol called back. "You don't know how much extra weight the limb can hold."
"Yes, ma'am," agreed Cormack. She stood where she was next to the trunk and bounced ever so slightly to test the limb's sturdiness. "It feels pretty solid here. I promise I won't go any farther than I feel is safe."
"That is acceptable."
It was slow going from there. Cormack stepped carefully away from the trunk. The limb was quite wide at its base and narrowed only slightly as she made her way out along it. She watched her feet when she could, not wanting to crush any of the vibrant purple blooms unnecessarily. Of course, she thought placing a foot between two coils of vine, if it comes down to me or it, I pick me. Ah-ha! "I think I see it!"
Down on the ground, T'Pol and Doyle were having some difficulty keeping the ensign in sight. Sprawling branches from nearby trees intermingled with those of the tree where the orchid grew. Their broad leaves obscured the view from below.
"Be careful!" called Doyle. He squinted up, trying to pick out the blue of Cormack's uniform amidst the greens, browns, and purples of the foliage.
"No worries," Cormack shouted back confidently. She sat down on the limb, once again gripping it between her legs. The branch was just narrow enough for her to hook her ankles underneath for extra security, which she promptly did. She fished the clippers Doyle had given her out of her pocket. "I'm going to cut the vine, and then unwrap the cut part from the branch," she announced so her companions would know what she intended. "Then I can drop it down for you to catch." She released the safety lock on the clippers and slipped the fingers of her left hand around a bare section of the vine, pulling it from the limb enough to get the blades around it. It was a tight fit. "It's really hanging onto the branch," she called. She cut the vine. A thin trail of clear liquid oozed from the cut, sealing both ends in seconds. Cormack watched in fascination. "Cool." She locked the clippers once again and returned them to her pocket.
Next she began the task of unwinding the severed vine. It wouldn't give up its hold easily. She grunted with effort as she slowly peeled it from the rough bark. "This thing's really determined," the ensign informed the waiting scientists. She managed to get nearly half a meter off the branch before the unexpected happened. Instead of hanging limply, the freed end of the vine writhed out of her grip and waved about in the air. It looked like nothing so much as snake to the startled ensign. She reached out a hand to catch the creeper, but instead it caught her. It wrapped itself around her left arm and clung there.
"What the hell?" exclaimed Cormack. She pulled on the vine, trying to free her captured limb. She twisted her arm in the opposite direction from the spiral of green tendril, but the plant held on and began to constrict. The feeling rapidly left her fingers at the same time her arm started to sting. She guessed whatever the vine used to cling to the tree was either burning or biting its way through the fabric of her uniform.
Fighting back a wave of panic, she fished with her free hand for the clippers. She got the pocket unzipped and had the tool in hand but between her growing fear and the sweat brought on by the jungle heat, the clippers slipped from her fingers. "Heads up!" she shouted instinctively, hoping no one was directly below her.
"Ensign Cormack," T'Pol called up to her. "What is happening?"
"The vine's wrapped itself around my arm!" Cormack shouted back. Against all good sense, she tugged again and felt the tendril tighten. She pulled one more time, panic giving her added strength. The vine held. Unfortunately her own hold on the tree limb didn't. Her frantic yanking pulled her off balance and she fell.
"Ensign!" shouted Reed at the same time Novakovich cried out, "Liz!"
The exobiologist flailed her arms frantically in a desperate attempt to maintain her balance. It wasn't enough. The stone she'd trusted to hold her weight shifted unexpectedly. Her foot went out from under her and she tumbled sideways off the low stone ledge and into the lake.
The men raced to the water's edge. "Liz!" called Novakovich again.
Cutler came up spluttering. She spat out a mouthful of murky water, a look of deep disgust on her face. "Ugh! Yuck!" She fought her way to the rocky shore where her companions pulled her out.
"Are you all right?" Reed asked her as he helped her to her feet.
"Yeah, I'm fine. I'm just a different sort of wet and smelly than I was before I fell in," Cutler replied. She pushed her sodden hair away from her face with one hand. In the other she still held the scanner she'd been using to study a particularly fascinating centipedal insect before she'd slipped. She held it up. "I'm afraid the scanner's shot, though."
Novakovich took the dripping device and shook it, dislodging myriad tiny droplets of dirty water.
"Thank you," said Reed dryly, wiping several drops of spray from his cheek.
The crewman gave him a mortified look. "I'm sorry, sir!" he exclaimed.
Reed shook his head. "It's all right, crewman," he assured the young man. "It was almost refreshing in this heat."
"I think Liz is right about this scanner," Novakovich continued, hoping to change the subject. "But we won't know for sure until it has time to dry out."
"I don't think anything's going to dry out with this humidity," said Cutler. She plucked uselessly at her soaking wet uniform.
"I think perhaps we should cut our visit short." Reed eyed the exobiologist questioningly. "But I leave the decision up to you, Ensign."
Cutler sighed. "How long do we have until we're supposed to be back at the shuttlepod?" she asked.
Reed didn't need to check the time; it was less than five minutes since he'd last checked in with Mayweather. "About an hour and a quarter."
Again Cutler let out a heavy sigh. "Well, it's probably a good time to head back anyway." She was disappointed, but they had a good array of specimens already—enough to keep her busy for quite a while. "Let's go."
Only the vine's vise-like grip kept her from plunging to the jungle floor. It pulled Cormack up short and she screamed as searing pain tore through her shoulder.
"Ensign!" shouted T'Pol urgently.
Cormack couldn't reply. She gulped in air, trying to quell the mind-numbing agony that ran from her shoulder to her elbow. Where the vine held her forearm, the limb had thankfully gone from burning to completely numb. Gaining a modicum of control, she looked around and then down. She was dangling at least three meters above the ground.
An eerie calm descended on her. The pain of her shoulder receded to inconsequential background noise. Her eyes told her T'Pol and Doyle were speaking, but her ears tuned out the sound. Her brain began to analyze her options and shortly settled on one. With her free right hand, Cormack drew her phase-pistol. The movement caused her to turn in lazy circles, but she took no notice. She took careful aim at the creeper just below where it left the tree limb. She inhaled, held the breath, and fired.
Cormack hit the ground with a heavy thud and a scream. The scream was followed by a huge intake of breath and lengthy string of colorful invective. Immediately, her companions were beside her, helping her to sit up.
"That fucking hurt," she gasped, finally managing an actual sentence.
T'Pol ignored the comment. "We must remove the vine," she said coolly. She looked at crewman Doyle. "Find something to act as a new host."
Doyle nodded and began a search of the surrounding area. It didn't take long for him to find a good-sized stick, which he brought to the waiting Vulcan. T'Pol took it and, starting with the trailing end—the end that was already searching for something to hang onto—began to wrap the vine around it. The creeper immediately began twining itself around the branch. Every twist caused a new stab of pain along Cormack's arm. She clenched her teeth and concentrated on breathing.
When all the loose section of the plant was securely around the branch, T'Pol began to pull the rest of it from Cormack's arm. The ensign's hand was white from the constriction. Fabric tore as T'Pol removed the vine, and blood seeped from underneath it.
"Ensign," said the Vulcan as she worked. "Am I hurting you?"
Cormack looked at her, her face even whiter than her normal deep space pallor. She tried to focus on T'Pol, but the pain in her shoulder and arm caused her vision to blur at the edges. Finally she ground out a strained, "Yes."
The Sub-commander glanced over at Doyle. "Get the medical scanner," she ordered.
Doyle nodded and fished in the necessities pack for the first-aid kit. He found the kit and opened it, quickly pulling out the medical scanner. T'Pol had just finished removing the vine from Cormack's arm when he spoke up. "Here, Sub-commander." He held out the device.
The Vulcan took it and examined the injured woman. "Ensign," she said, meeting the Cormack's pained gaze and holding it. "Your shoulder is dislocated."
"I'd kinda figured that ma'am," Cormack replied. She returned her gaze to her forearm resting at an unnatural angle on her lap. Her focus narrowed to where the vine had been, and she watched her blood slowly saturate her torn sleeve. The limb tingled as feeling gradually returned. The combination of sight and sensation was almost hypnotic, and much less painful to think about than her shoulder.
T'Pol turned once again to Doyle. "Get me a hypospray of local anesthetic and an antibiotic," the Vulcan told the crewman.
"Yes, ma'am." He promptly loaded a hypo with the appropriate drugs.
T'Pol returned her attention to the ensign. "It's necessary to immobilize your arm."
"Whatever you say," Cormack replied tightly, not looking up.
"Crewman, the hypo," ordered T'Pol. Doyle handed it over and the Vulcan injected it into Cormack's neck. The ensign relaxed slightly as the narcotic spread through her system and her breathing and heartbeat slowed to a normal pace.
Finally, Cormack took a deep breath and let it out. "Better," she said.
T'Pol reached over to the first-aid kit, pulling it into easy reach. She took out a roll of bandages. "Can you raise your right arm, Ensign?" Cormack nodded and lifted the uninjured limb high enough for T'Pol to get under it. With the help of Doyle, she wrapped the bandages tightly around the ensign's torso and injured left arm, securing it to her side from shoulder to elbow. That done, T'Pol reached once more into the first-aid kit and withdrew a bandage cutter. Slipping it under the cuff of Cormack's sleeve, she cut away the torn and bloody fabric to reveal the arm underneath it. It was obvious where the vine had gripped the limb; a spiral of swollen flesh slowly oozing blood wrapped around Cormack's arm from wrist to elbow.
The ensign swallowed hard at the sight. "That's not pretty," she commented tensely.
"The swelling and discharge are natural reactions to your injury, Ensign," replied T'Pol, not understanding. She found the disinfectant and sprayed the cleanser over Cormack's injuries.
Cormack sucked in air through her teeth, her eyes watering in response to the sudden stinging pain. "More drugs please?" she asked tightly.
"Crewman," said T'Pol, retrieving the hypo and handing it to him.
"I don't know " Doyle began to protest. Medicine wasn't his forte; he stuck to plants rather than people.
T'Pol looked at him steadily. "You can apply the hypospray, or you can bandage this arm."
Doyle swallowed against rising nausea. "I'll take the hypo," he said, accepting the instrument. He'd passed his emergency first-aid re-certification in July, but only by the barest of margins. The yearly task was never a pleasant one for him. He crossed mental fingers as he placed the hypo against Cormack's neck and released another dose of medication.
"Thank you," the ensign said gratefully. She decided not to watch while T'Pol bandaged her arm, instead staring out into the jungle foliage. "Not nearly as much fun as my last time off the ship," she muttered mournfully. "Although that one didn't end real well either."
T'Pol heard her but determined she wasn't seeking a response. She finished her first-aid and sat back. "Can you stand?" she asked.
Gingerly, Cormack shifted onto her knees. "Yeah. I think so."
T'Pol rose and reached out a hand. Cormack took it and was helped to her feet. As soon as her hand was free again, she used it to cradle her injured arm against her body. While Doyle cleaned up the remnants of the first-aid, T'Pol took out her communicator and hailed Ensign Mayweather.
"Go ahead, Sub-commander," Travis replied, surprised to hear her voice instead of Cormack's.
"We are returning now. Inform the other team to meet us at the shuttlepod as soon as possible."
"They're already on their way. They had a minor mishap. Lieutenant Reed said it wasn't anything too serious."
"Then they have been more fortunate than we. Be ready to depart as soon as we're all aboard and alert Enterprise to have a medical team waiting. We should be at your position in fifteen minutes. T'Pol out." She shut the communicator. "Do you think you can manage the walk?" she asked Cormack.
The ensign nodded. "I'm good as long as the drugs last. Wait!" Suddenly remembering something, Cormack looked frantically at the ground around her. "My phase-pistol has to be here. We can't leave it."
"Got it already," declared Doyle. He held it up. "I found it when I was cleaning up. I put the safety on," he added, proud to have remembered his training with the weapon after months of not using one.
T'Pol collected the first-aid kit and returned it to the pack. "Crewman, can you carry the equipment cases?"
"Yes, ma'am. Umm " He paused, not sure what to do with the phase-pistol. Wordlessly, T'Pol took it from him.
"Let's go," she said.
The others were all waiting for them when they reached the shuttlepod. Novakovich and Doyle stowed the equipment as Reed and T'Pol helped Cormack into the pod.
"Have you alerted Enterprise to our situation?" T'Pol asked Mayweather as she sealed the pod's hatch.
"Yes, ma'am. Doctor Phlox is standing by." Mayweather ignited the thrusters. The little ship lifted into the air and they were soon out of the moon's atmosphere.
"What happened?" asked Cutler as she pulled out a medical scanner and inspected Cormack's injuries.
"I fell out of a tree," Stephanie replied through clenched teeth. The anesthetic she'd been given was slowly receding in the face of the pain. She glanced up, noticing her bunkmate's soggy condition for the first time. "What happened to you?" she demanded, happy for the momentary distraction.
"I fell into a lake," Cutler answered, embarrassed.
"Hell of a day, eh?"
The exobiologist only nodded in reply.
Phlox peered pleasantly through the window into the decon chamber. He flipped open the direct comm line. "You're all free to go except Ensigns Cutler and Cormack," he announced.
T'Pol was the first to leave the chamber, striding purposefully through the open door. Close behind her were Novakovich and Doyle. Mayweather was about to follow them but paused to give Liz an encouraging smile. "See you soon," the helmsman said. Liz nodded and returned the smile.
Cormack looked up from her seat on the floor as the others filed out. "But—" she began, but couldn't complete the protest. She felt miserable; the pain of her injuries made her dizzy just sitting there. She hadn't been able to remove her uniform like the others, and the added discomfort of the wrinkled and sweaty fabric only made matters worse.
"It's all right, Ensign," Phlox assured her, his voice now coming through the comm and the open door in a strange sort of stereo effect. "You don’t have to stay in decon."
"Good," answered Cormack and Cutler in unison. The exobiologist went to help her friend to her feet, but Phlox stopped her.
"Don't do that. You're staying put, Liz," Phlox corrected. "But I want Ensign Cormack in the imaging chamber right away."
"What?" Cutler exclaimed.
Lieutenant Reed, the last to reach the door, stopped and turned back. "I'll take her," he said to Cutler. He went to Cormack and carefully helped her to stand. The ensign gasped and bit the inside of her lip to keep from crying out as the movement jarred her injuries. Tears welled up in her eyes at the stab of pain, and a fresh wave of dizziness hit her.
Liz turned to glare at Phlox through the window. "Why am I stuck in here?" she asked as the door slid shut behind the armory officers, leaving her in isolation.
"You picked up a parasite in your aquatic adventure," Phlox informed her. "I've synthesized the appropriate remedy. Please come here."
Resigned and a bit annoyed, Liz approached the window. "Is this going to be one of those gels?" she inquired dubiously.
"Yes, it is." A tray under the window slid open, revealing a container of yellow-gray gel made a sickly green by the blue lights of the decon chamber.
Liz sighed. "At least you could have left Travis in here to give me a hand," she groused half-heartedly, opening the container.
Phlox merely chuckled indulgently. "If I did that, I suspect the thirty minutes I intend to keep you in there might increase substantially."
Blushing furiously, Liz turned away from the window. "I can manage, thanks."
"Then if you'll excuse me, I have another patient to see to."
Cutler's eyes widened. Irritation at her own predicament had temporarily driven her bunkmate's plight from her mind. "I'll be fine," she said hurriedly, once more facing the doctor. "Take care of Stephanie."
"I always do." Phlox smiled and closed the comm. When he turned around, Cormack was laying on the diagnostic bed with Reed waiting beside her. "You're free to go, Lieutenant. I can handle things from here," the Denobulan said pleasantly.
"Yes, Doctor," answered Reed. He looked down at Cormack. "I'll see you soon," he promised her before padding barefoot from the room.
"All right, Ensign," said Phlox. "Just a quick visit to the imaging chamber."
"S'okay, Doc. No more claustrophobia, remember?" she reminded him in a strained voice. "Just do this so I can have more pain meds, please."
As Phlox had promised, her time in the chamber was brief and it was promptly follow by another, stronger analgesic. Cormack relaxed as the drug worked its magic. "Thank you. You're gonna put my shoulder back now, right?" she continued hopefully. She yawned, adding, "It's kinda creeping me out."
When the Denobulan physician didn't immediately reply, Stephanie grew concerned. The expression on his face as he examined the scanner's findings was even more disturbing than his silence.
"What's up?" she asked, wishing she had the energy to sit up and look for herself. The pain-killer she'd received was powerful and she found herself losing focus easily.
"There's an opioid-like substance in your blood," Phlox answered at last.
"Opioid?" This was a new one on Cormack. She was having enough trouble concentrating through the drug haze without Phlox throwing new vocabulary words at her. "Whazzat?"
He finally looked away from the readouts and down at his patient. He guessed that any scientific explanation would be lost on the ailing ensign. He chose to go with a simple if not entirely accurate answer. "A type of narcotic. It appears to be concentrated in your left arm, but it's spreading. Still," he continued matter-of-factly, "it's not moving so quickly that it can't wait while I reduce your shoulder." He pulled a bandage cutter from a nearby cabinet. "T'Pol splinted it well, I must say," he commented as he sliced through the bandages holding Cormack's arm against her side. The ensign was so mellowed by the anesthetic that she didn't even flinch as the limb was released. It easily slipped the tiny distance to the diagnostic bed.
"It's good to see you're so relaxed, Ensign," Phlox quipped; the analgesic hypo had in fact included a muscle relaxant. He felt the injured joint through the fabric of her uniform, determining the best angle at which to proceed. "Ah, there we are," he muttered as he found what he sought. He took hold of Cormack's arm just above the elbow. Placing the heel of his free hand against her armpit, he pulled on the ensign's arm at the same time he turned it slightly counter-clockwise. He gave a nod of satisfaction as the bones slid back into place.
"How does that feel?" he asked her.
Cormack looked blearily up at his face. Her pupils were narrowed and her eyes were glassy. "What feel?"
The doctor's expression grew concerned. The drugs he'd given her were strong—she had a high tolerance for pain-killers and he'd treated her accordingly—but they shouldn't have affected her to such an extent. He realized it had to be the opiod reacting with the analgesic. "Exactly what happened down there?" Phlox inquired. He pulled out his handheld medical scanner and examined Cormack with it as she spoke.
As clearly as she could, Stephanie related the incident of her climb and subsequent fall from the huge tree. She knew she wasn't entirely coherent, but she couldn't seem to care. "The flowers were sure pretty," she said as she finished her tale. "Orchids." Her eyes closed sleepily and she smiled, remembering the rich purple color of the blossoms.
"Did you bring the vine back?" Phlox asked, pulling her drifting thoughts back to the present.
"Hmm?" She almost opened her eyes, but gave up trying.
It was clear to the doctor that he wasn't going to get an answer from her. Without a word, he reached over her head to the comm panel and opened a line. "Phlox to Sub-commander T'Pol."
"Go ahead," came the Vulcan woman's well-modulated tones.
"I need the vine—the one that attacked Ensign Cormack."
"It did not attack the ensign."
"No, I'm sure it didn't," he conceded. "But I need the specimen as soon as possible, please." He closed the connection and looked down at Cormack. "Ensign!" he barked.
Her eyes flew open, but her gaze was cloudy. "Wha—?"
"Stay awake!" Phlox dashed to a cabinet across the room. He searched only a moment before finding what he sought. He loaded a hypospray with clear green liquid, rushed with it back to the diagnostic bed, and immediately injected it into Cormack's neck. She was too far out of it even to blink in reaction. He scanned her again. Not satisfied with what the results, he gave her another shot from the hypo. This time he achieved the readings he sought. It was a stop-gap only, but it should hold long enough to get the plant he needed.
"What—?" Stephanie tried again, but was unable to formulate her question.
"Just stay awake, Ensign. That's all you need to think about. Understand?" He held her face in his hands, forcing her to look up and meet his gaze. "Understand?" he repeated.
At that moment, Sub-commander T'Pol entered sickbay. She was dressed in a clean uniform and one would never have guessed to look at her that she'd been in decon barely ten minutes before. "Doctor—" she started.
Phlox released Cormack and turned to face the science officer. "Do you have the vine?" he interrupted her.
T'Pol was taken aback. It was unusual for the Denobulan to be so abrupt. "No, although the coordinates of the tree where we found it are recorded. Why do you need it?"
"It released a powerful opiod when it attached itself to Ensign Cormack's arm. Given time I could likely find a suitable antidote, but it's spreading more rapidly than I realized. If I can get a sample of the plant, finding the antidote will be much easier and quicker."
"I'll see to it immediately."
As soon as she'd gone, Phlox opened another comm and hailed the day's on-call medical assistant. "Phlox to Ensign Cohn."
"Go ahead, Doctor," came the reply in Cohn's light baritone.
"Please report to sickbay immediately."
"I'll be right there."
"Damn," snarled Tucker. He looked over at his companion. "Sorry, Sub-commander," he said with genuine regret, "but I can't get a transporter lock without more data." Between the coordinates of the tree and the genome of the orchid, he'd thought he could track down the branch T'Pol sought. It was frustrating to find he was wrong.
T'Pol nodded. As always no emotion played on her sharp features. Transporting the vine had been an uncertain possibility, but she had thought the chance worth taking. Unfortunately it appeared it would be necessary to take a shuttlepod down to the moon to retrieve it. She opened a comm line. "T'Pol to Captain Archer."
"Go ahead," Archer replied.
"A return to the surface is necessary. Doctor Phlox requires a sample of the vine that poisoned Ensign Cormack, and we cannot lock on with the transporter."
On the bridge, Fraser's ears pricked up at the unexpected communication. As T'Pol continued to speak, the helmsman sat frozen. She'd heard nothing about Stephanie being poisoned, and the news hit her like a sucker-punch to the gut.
"Understood," the Captain continued. "I'll have a pilot meet you in the launch bay."
Now Bonnie moved, turning to look over her shoulder at Archer, assuming and hoping she would be the pilot he sent. For a split second she was sure the Captain was about to order her to go, but then Commander Tucker spoke up through the comm.
"Captain, I'll fly the shuttle."
"All right," agreed Archer, "but I want you to stay with the pod when you get down there. Malcolm will accompany T'Pol to collect the specimen."
Trip wanted to argue, but time was wasting. "Yes, sir."
Archer closed the line. T'Pol and Tucker quickly made their way to the launch bay where they were met by Reed and crewman Novakovich.
The young scientist spoke up immediately. "I brought the containment equipment you'll need, Sub-commander," he said. Reed was already loading the case into the pod as the crewman continued. "Are you sure you don't need an extra pair of hands on this trip?"
"We got it covered, thanks," Tucker informed him.
Novakovich nodded. "Good luck." He hurriedly ascended the steps to the upper level and joined the waiting crewman in the control room.
Tucker climbed into the shuttle followed closely by T'Pol. The Vulcan sealed the hatch and sat at the starboard station. Reed was already settled at the port station.
Tucker opened a line to the bridge. "We're ready to go, Captain," he said.
"Hurry back," Archer replied.
The launch bay doors slid open and Trip took the pod out.
Liz was frustrated. She couldn't see Stephanie from where she stood, and only by pressing her face against the window and squinting to one side could she make out the form of Phlox. It was starting to make her neck hurt. Then Ensign Cohn crossed her light of sight and she called to him through the comm. "Ari!" He approached the window. "How is she?"
"She's resting comfortably," the medical assistant replied.
"Resting comfortably," echoed Cutler. "That means nothing and you know it." Cohn stiffened at her sharp reply and Liz immediately regretted her tone. "I'm sorry. I'm just worried. I don't like being stuck here while my friend is sick."
"I understand." He took pity on her helpless state. "We got her uniform off of her and cleaned her up. Her shoulder has been immobilized and I replaced the bandages on her arm. Right now Doctor Phlox is studying the blood samples we took."
"Thank you," sighed Liz, grateful for the update.
If Phlox had overheard any of their conversation, he made no sign. He looked up from the neutron microscope—installed during their stay at Dekendi Three—and stretched. "There's nothing much to be done right now, I'm afraid," he announced to the two ensigns.
"What about the Regulan bloodworms?" called Cutler through the comm. "You said they're excellent for clearing toxins from the blood."
"I've already tried that."
Cutler shot Cohn an accusing look for withholding this piece of information. "And?" she persisted.
"Two of the three I applied are dead, and the prognosis for the third isn't encouraging."
Liz blanched. "What?" Again she looked at Cohn, the only person within easy view. He gave her a small apologetic shrug as if to say, That's why I didn't mention it.
"They were able to slow the spread of the poison, but that's all. It has a particularly complex pathology." The disappointment was clear in his usually upbeat voice. He rose and crossed the room to Cormack's bed, passing beyond Cutler's limited line of sight. Ensign Cohn followed, leaving Liz essentially alone once more.
"What are you doing?" she queried impotently.
"Patience, Liz," came Phlox's even reply.
The physician checked Cormack's vitals and snapped his fingers in front of her face. "Wake up!" he shouted, causing Cohn to jump.
The armory ensign opened her eyes and stared at Phlox groggily. Her pupils were pinpricks and she seemed unable to focus on anything. "I'm awake," she mumbled indistinctly. "Y'don't have to shout." She shivered under the light sheet that covered her. "Cold."
Phlox frowned at this new development and looked over at Cohn. "Get a blanket, Ensign." Immediately the medical assistant complied and fetched a blanket, placing it carefully over Cormack.
"Let me out of here and I'll keep her awake," suggested Cutler, overhearing enough to get the gist of what was going on. "Then you two can focus on finding the antidote."
"Another ten minutes, Liz."
"Then get someone else to help you. Call Mae or Hoshi. Or Bonnie!" That ought to keep Stephanie awake, she thought with grim humor. "One of them must be off duty right now." Cutler crossed her fingers that she was right on this point.
"That's an excellent suggestion." He turned once again to Cohn. "Hail the officers and see if one of them is free to assist us."
"Yes, Doctor," the ensign replied.
Phlox returned to the microscope to continue his analysis of the alien narcotic. "I hope Sub-commander T'Pol returns with that sample soon," he muttered mostly to himself.
Cohn reappeared in the decon chamber window. "Which officer would you recommend hailing?" he asked Cutler. A tiny corner of his mind argued about whether or not he hoped she would suggest Ensign Lawless. He ignored it. His own worries were irrelevant in the face of the patient's needs.
Liz wanted to tell him to call Bonnie, but she knew the helmsman wasn't the best choice right now. "Try Ensign Lawless first, and if she's not available try Ensign Sato." Cohn nodded his thanks and was about to follow her instructions when she added quickly, "Ari, wait. How much longer do I have in here?"
Phlox heard her and beat Cohn to the answer. "Nine more minutes."
"Archer to T'Pol."
It was Reed who replied. "Her hands are full at the moment, Captain." He glanced at the Vulcan who was just sealing the severed branch with the orchid vine in a case.
"How long until you can get back up here?" continued Archer.
A nod from T'Pol confirmed Reed's assumption that their mission was complete. "We'll be back at the shuttlepod in less than ten minutes," he said, collecting up the remaining equipment.
"Good. We're leaving orbit as soon as you're aboard Enterprise. Archer out."
On the bridge, the captain turned to his comm officer. "Ensign Sato, alert me the moment the shuttlepod is aboard."
"Aye, sir," Hoshi replied.
"Ensign Fraser," Archer continued, "lay in a course to Paan Mokar, and be prepared to go to warp 4.5 on my order."
"Yes, Captain," answered Bonnie, immediately plotting a course.
"I’ll be in my ready room."
Stuck in the middle, thought Archer in frustration as the ready room door closed behind him. He sat at his desk and began to review the data on the disputed territory of Paan Mokar—or Weytahn, as the Andorians called it. He found nothing to help him with the job ahead. Everything he read led him to the belief that the Vulcans and the Andorians both had a reasonable basis for claiming the planet. There wasn't going to be an easy answer to the conflict. You can't really have expected one, he said to himself. They haven't reached a compromise in a century.
"So why do they think I can help?" he muttered to the empty room. He sat back in his chair and rubbed at tired eyes before focusing once more on the computer screen.
A comm chirp eventually broke the silence. It was followed by the voice of Ensign Sato. "Bridge to Captain Archer. The landing party is aboard."
"Good. Have Fraser take us to warp."
The comm closed and almost immediately he felt the ship go to warp speed. Beyond that initial jump to warp only Commander Tucker claimed to be able to feel the increase in Enterprise's speed; Archer simply accepted that his orders would be carried out and they'd shortly be traveling at warp 4.5.
He turned back to his research with a resigned sigh. There's got to be something that'll help me find a solution, he thought, but even his optimistic nature couldn't suppress his doubts. Unable to focus however, his turbulent thoughts leapt from the Vulcan-Andorian conflict to the battle being waged in Enterprise's sickbay. I hope Doctor Phlox has an easier time with his problem than I do with mine.