Log Rhythms - Season Two
Author's Notes: Ensign Ari Cohn and crewman Virinder Singh belong to Squeaky Lightfoot and are used with her kind permission.
"Shift change," called Cormack as she descended the armory stairs. "What've you got?"
Griffith promptly handed over a datapad. "Everything's running smoothly at the moment," he informed her. "It was a quiet night."
"Groovy." She glanced at the data. "We like quiet nights."
"Yes, ma'am," he wholeheartedly agreed.
"You're relieved," she said, smiling up at the tall crewman.
"Thank you, ma'am." He departed, leaving her alone.
Cormack was in for a dull shift. Starfleet regulations dictated that the ship's armory be constantly manned, but with no alerts and no enemies in sight there wasn't enough to do to warrant assigning even two crewmembers. For once, though, she didn't mind being on her own. Admittedly the day went more quickly when there was lots to do or someone to pass the time with, but quiet suited her just fine today. She could take some target practice while running the usual routine scans and diagnostics.
She yawned, wishing she'd grabbed a second latté before coming on duty. She'd had three very late nights already that week, and it was only Thursday. Cormack grinned to herself. At least two of those three late nights were entirely recreational, she thought happily. Then she yawned again. "Damn," she muttered, once it had passed. Good thing Liz is staying in tonight. I can't have company when my bunkmate's home and I really need to get some sleep. The thought left her with mixed feelings. She frowned, almost pouting.
Get over it, chickie, she told herself firmly. Sex is great, but sleep is important, too. And right now you need the latter more than the former. "And I need some target practice even more," she added aloud.
She quickly set a series of diagnostic programs running on the phase cannons' systems. Then she turned her attention to target practice. She was just setting up a phase pistol and a plasma rifle with blank charges when the upper armory door opened. She glanced up, surprised to see it was Ensign Young. "Hey," she called up to him. "What's up?"
The red-haired man shrugged and leaned against the railing, looking down at her. "Nothing."
"You're off duty this morning, aren't you?"
"Then why aren't you sleeping in or something? I sure as hell would be." She finished prepping her weapons and then picked out a holographic target emitter.
He shrugged again, although Cormack wasn't looking at him. "What are you doing?"
"Target practice," she replied as she set the emitter for a simple timing sequence. She glanced up at Young once more. "There's squat to do here this morning, so I figured I'd make practical use of the time. You want in?"
"Sure," said Young half-heartedly. He quickly descended the stairs and got another phase pistol from the weapons locker.
"Here." Cormack tossed him a blank cartridge and he promptly swapped it with the live one.
Cormack took a moment to watch Young from the corner of her eye. She could tell something was eating at him. She wondered if she should ask about it or if she should leave him be. He's got to want to talk to someone, right? she postulated. Otherwise, why come here when he could be alone somewhere else? There was no other good reason for him to seek out company—not when she knew full well that he was as opposed to early mornings as she was.
All in good time, her mind told her. If he really wants to talk, he'll talk. I can't force it out of him. Well, she thought slyly, I could force it out of him, but I'm sure that would break a fair number of Starfleet regs.
She let that train of thought go and keyed on the emitter. The holographic target appeared and hovered a few meters in front of them. "Ready?" she asked.
The two ensigns trained their weapons and Cormack activated the sequence she'd preprogrammed. The target immediately darted about the armory, bobbing and weaving among the various obstacles the room provided. They began firing. A different colored light from the target indicated each weapon's hits. After one minute, the target ceased its movements and once again hovered before them.
Cormack picked up the emitter and checked the results. "Not bad," she commented.
"Yeah?" asked Young, coming up beside her and looking over her shoulder.
"Me. Not you." She handed him the device so he could see for himself. "You suck."
"Huh," he grunted noncommittally. "Must be tired. Let's go again."
"Whenever you're ready."
This time Young activated the target sequence. When the minute was up, he was the first to check the tally. He snorted in disgust and tossed the emitter on the table.
"What?" Cormack retrieved it and looked at the count. "Ouch." She glanced up at him. "Are you feeling all right?" she asked, only half in jest.
"I'm just tired," he answered defensively.
"Hey, that's cool. I get that. I’m pretty wiped this morning, too."
"Yeah. I can tell that by your crappy score," he said, his tone dripping sarcasm.
Cormack fought the urge to make a cutting remark back. "It's the caffeine," she joked instead. "I always shoot better hopped up on java."
"You want to go another round? I'll let you use my plasma rifle," she offered playfully, trying to get her fellow armory ensign to lighten up.
He shook his head. "No thanks. I should go. Leave you alone." But rather than leave, he leaned against the table and stared at his phase pistol, turning it over and over in his hands.
"Hey, you can hang out here if you want. I don't mind the company."
"Nah. I'll be in your way. I'll go." But he still didn't move.
I feel like I'm in "Waiting for Godot", thought Cormack. In her most absurdly sincere voice, she said, "Oh yes, you should go. I'm so very busy here that interruptions could cause the ship to be put at serious risk."
"You shouldn't joke like that. What if Lieutenant Reed came in right now?"
"If he came in right now," echoed Cormack, "I'd hand him Griffith's report from Gamma shift and call up the progress report of the internal diagnostics that are running as we speak. Then, if he asked, I'd tell him you and I were taking some target practice to keep sharp."
"And if he heard you making jokes about ship's security?" Young persisted.
"He'd probably tell me it was inappropriate. He'd be right, but I don't think he'd be too incredibly upset," she replied, hoping she was correct. Things hadn't been right between her and Reed since the explosion and plasma fire three weeks ago. However, she was fairly sure she was still a reasonable judge of her C.O.'s behavior. I hope. "I mean," she added aloud, "there really isn't anything going on right now."
"I suppose you're right." Young continued to stand there, idly examining the phase pistol.
They stood there in idle silence for several moments until Cormack couldn't stand it anymore. She shut off the target emitter and looked at him. "So what are you really doing here, anyway?"
"You're not here for target practice. You're not here for anything work related as far as I can tell because there's nothing work related to do. So what's up?"
Young met her open and inquisitive gaze and for a moment he actually considered telling her. He considered telling her that since he and Sato had broken up, he was having a very non-regulation affair with Rostov. He considered telling her that he couldn't sleep at night, even in Michael's company, because he kept having nightmares about the day of the explosion. He considered telling her that no matter how much he talked to Doctor Douglas about it, the ship's counselor just couldn't understand how he felt about having nearly died and he needed to talk to her because he knew she'd been there once herself. He considered all of it in the blink of an eye and then he dismissed it.
"Nothing. I'm gonna go." Young finally set down his weapon and headed up the stairs.
"I'll see you later," Cormack called after him before he could disappear out the door.
"Sure. See you."
At that moment alert lights flashed on the main and secondary control consoles. Young stopped at the open door and turned back. "What is it?"
Cormack immediately hurried to the main panel. "Hull plating just polarized," she said. "And we've jumped to warp 4.5. There's a vessel pursuing us. Unknown configuration, but the thing is huge."
As she spoke, Young descended to the lower level again and joined her.
"They're gaining on us," continued Cormack, a note of urgency in her voice.
"Why hasn't the Captain ordered a tactical alert?" puzzled Young, equally tense.
Cormack tapped in a series of commands. "I think he did. Internal sensors indicate Lieutenant Reed's trying to access weapons from the bridge, but it's no good. The systems just went offline." She worked to reinitialize the ship's armaments, but every attempt failed.
The ship slowed so suddenly that inertial dampeners couldn't completely hide the effect.
"Engines are offline now, too," Young announced. He accessed the external sensors, hoping to find the alien ship and determine its status. He came up empty-handed. Not only was the vessel not registering, neither was anything else.
"I think " he began and then stopped.
"What? What do you think?" demanded Cormack, glancing up at him over one shoulder.
"I think we're inside that ship."
"Check out the readings." He transferred the sensor readings to the upper screen so they could both see them.
"Helium, traces of xenon " she read aloud. "That's not space."
The comm chirped and they heard their C.O.'s voice. "Reed to Armory."
"Go ahead, Lieutenant," replied Cormack.
"Find someone to cover down there and get up to the bridge, Ensign."
"Young's already here, sir. I'll be right up." The comm clicked off and she looked at Young. "Although what either of us is going to do down here or up there is beyond me," she said dryly, her sarcasm masking her alarm.
A thrill of fear zinged along Young's spine. His voice was as steady as Cormack's, but his anxiety was written all over his face. "At least we'll be ready if the systems come back online," he replied determinedly.
"True. I'm outta here. You know where to find me."
Cormack arrived on the bridge to find T'Pol in command. "Reporting as ordered, Sub-commander." The Vulcan nodded and Cormack took her station. Before she even sat down, her attention was riveted to the main viewscreen. What it showed confirmed Young's supposition that they were inside the alien vessel. She shivered involuntarily. This is so not good, she thought.
"The Captain, Commander Tucker, and Lieutenant Reed have taken out a shuttlepod to conduct a closer examination of the alien vessel's interior," T'Pol informed her.
"Sub-commander," Sato said abruptly. "The atmosphere's changing. I'm reading Earth-like conditions, nitrogen and oxygen."
"Can you locate the source of the change?"
"No, ma'am. Sensors still can't pick up anything from the vessel."
"The only bio-signs I'm reading are the away team, ma'am," put in Cormack.
"Maybe the atmospheric systems are automatic," suggested Mayweather from the helm. "Like that repair station, remember?" His own memory of that station was sketchy and unpleasant. He hoped this ship wasn't something similar, but felt the possibility should be voiced.
"That is feasible," agreed T'Pol. "However, visual analysis suggests this technology varies greatly from that of the station."
Mayweather relaxed slightly at her words. "Yes, ma'am," he agreed readily.
Tense silence followed as they continued to monitor what little the ship's sensors could detect.
Archer's voice over the comm startled them all. "Archer to Enterprise," he called urgently.
"Go ahead," replied T'Pol.
"Tell Phlox to meet us at the decon chamber."
"Understood." She nodded to Sato to comply as the external comm closed. The ensign quickly alerted sickbay of the Captain's command.
Cormack puzzled it over in her head. Nothing on her screens suggested the need for Phlox's attention; even going through decon looked like it would be a simple formality. She wondered what had happened out there.
Archer stayed behind in sickbay after he'd sent Tucker and Reed off to work on reactivating the engines and weapons, respectively. He didn't want to upset either of them, but he needed to talk to Phlox more before he felt confident that his Chief Engineer was truly all right.
"You really think Tucker was simply hallucinating out there?" he asked the Denobulan.
"I told you it's a common response. He said the images were familiar ones—swimming with an old girlfriend, I believe it was?" Archer nodded and Phlox continued. "There's nothing to indicate any foreign substance in his system, and he's showing no residual ill effects. I suspect it was merely a mild form of space-sickness brought on by his perceptions of the interior of the alien vessel."
"What about that blue vapor?" the captain persisted. "It entered him. Malcolm and I both saw it. It went right through the EV suit helmet as if it wasn't even there. Then, when it left him, Trip said he'd been on the ceiling with the rest of them and swimming in Florida at the same time. How do you explain that?"
"At the moment, I can't. Captain," continued the physician placatingly, "I understand your concern, but right now there's nothing to be concerned about. Commander Tucker is fine. Now, should something enter him again, I'll do my best to deal with the problem."
Archer wasn't entirely satisfied, but he knew there was only so much he could reasonably expect under the circumstances. "All right. Thanks. "
Archer tried to weigh the balance between the old adage "No news is good news" and the saying "The silence was deafening." He was quickly learning that the silence weighed far heavier on his mind. Nothing untoward had happened since he, Tucker, and Reed had returned to Enterprise, but neither had any progress been made in restoring Enterprise's engines and weapons or freeing her from the alien vessel. They were at an impasse.
He knew Sato was working on communicating with the strange and potentially sentient wisps of vapor that hovered about the interior of the alien ship. So far she'd been unsuccessful, but if there was a way he was confident that she would find it.
Tired of pacing the tiny space of his ready room, Archer stepped out onto the bridge and approached T'Pol at the science station.
"Any luck pinning down those things out there?" he asked, fairly certain he already knew what her answer would be.
"None. I've tried scanning them on a variety of different wavelengths not standard for Starfleet sensors. All have been equally unsuccessful."
There was a slight edge to the Vulcan's voice. Archer wondered if she wasn't growing frustrated with their situation, too. He leaned over the console next to her to better examine the data on the monitor.
Before he could comment, however, he was hailed.
"Rostov to Captain Archer."
"Go ahead," he replied promptly.
"I'm sorry to bother you, sir, but I think there might be something wrong with Commander Tucker," the young man said uncertainly.
Archer glanced at T'Pol worriedly. "What do you mean, 'wrong'?"
Rostov sounded apologetic and almost embarrassed when he replied. "He was confused and, uh seemed to think I was his superior officer."
"I'll be right down." Without hesitation the Captain headed to the turbolift, but Rostov's next words stopped him in his tracks.
"He's not here, sir. He left engineering."
"Did he say where he was going?" Archer asked, returning to stand by T'Pol's station once again.
"No, sir. I'm afraid not, Captain."
Worry and frustration played across Archer's expressive face. He punched off the comm and opened a new line. "Archer to Commander Tucker." There was no response. He looked at T'Pol. "Find him."
The science officer input a search command and quickly came up with the result. "He's in the mess hall."
"You're with me," Archer informed her, heading again for the lift. "Hoshi, have Lieutenant Reed meet us there. You have the bridge, Travis," he called to the helmsman as the lift door shut.
"I'm really fine," Trip insisted for the umpteenth time as Malcolm escorted him to sickbay.
"You certainly didn't seem fine back in the mess hall," Malcolm countered, worry coloring his usually even tones.
"That wasn't really me."
Malcolm shot him a look that was clearly meant to say, 'Do you expect that to make me feel better?'
Trip sighed and tried to explain. "It was me, but only the physical me. The real me was all sorts of places."
"So you said. Hopalong Cassidy was it?" His concern for his lover came out sounding more like disdain. Malcolm hoped Trip wouldn't misunderstand how he really felt. "You're not helping your case here, you realize that. And the next time you decide to visit 'Lisa' perhaps you'd invite me along for an introduction."
"Malcolm—" But whatever he was about to say was cut off as they reached sickbay and Malcolm opened the door.
Phlox looked at them in mild surprise. "Back again?" he inquired, pulling a medical scanner from a pocket of his smock.
"Another one of those wisps entered him," Reed said bluntly.
"And has it gone?"
"Yes," Tucker answered firmly.
"Have a seat, please, Commander." Phlox gestured to a biobed and Trip sat. The Denobulan began to examine the engineer for the second time that day.
Annoyance and impatience played a game of one-upmanship on Trip's face. "Why doesn't anyone believe me when I say I'm fine?" he bemoaned, shooting a meaningful glare at Malcolm. The older man said nothing, but simply crossed his arms over his chest and waited for the doctor's pronouncement.
"You have been entered twice, Commander," Phlox pointed out as he ran his scans. "However, I believe it is safe to say that you are, indeed, fine now."
Trip continued to stare challengingly at Malcolm, who held his gaze. Reed knew he'd lost this particular argument, but he was glad of it. Still, there was something bothering him that he hoped Phlox could resolve. "Do you have any idea why he's been their target twice now? Why not possess someone else?"
"I don't believe it's a question of possession, Lieutenant," Phlox replied. "I have the impression it's more like displacement."
"Yeah," confirmed Trip, nodding.
"That doesn't answer my question," Malcolm pressed.
"I'm afraid I don't have an answer." The Denobulan looked apologetic. "I suspect it was chance that the Commander was chosen the first time, then I suspect familiarity was the impetus for the second exchange."
"Crossing." The armory officer suddenly recalled what the wisp had said when it had spoken through Trip. "It called it 'the crossing'."
"Interesting. Well it's definitely crossed back, so you're free to go, Commander."
Trip rose. "Thanks again, Doc," he said. "I've got a lot of work to do and I need to get back to it."
Malcolm fought back a frustrated sigh. "So do I." He'd had no success reactivating the ship's weapons. Even with the help of Ensigns Cormack and Young, they'd not been able to get a single system functioning. "Perhaps we'll both have better luck now that that alien ship has released us." But there was little conviction in his words.
"Lieutenant," said Young as his C.O. entered the armory. "Is everything okay, sir?"
"For the moment, Ensign," Reed confirmed. "What's your status here?" He descended to the lower level and joined Young at the main control console.
"Same as when you left, unfortunately."
At that moment Cormack's voice came over the comm. "I've got squat here, Ian," she announced disconsolately. "There's nothing physically wrong with the targeting mechanism. It just won't reinitialize."
"I'm coming out. There's nothing else I can do in here." The comm clicked off and a short time later she emerged from an open access panel at the aft of the armory. She was surprised and pleased to find Reed back so soon. Like Young, she had heard Archer's hail regarding Tucker's odd and unexpected behavior and she was glad the problem appeared to have been sorted out quickly. "Everything's cool with Commander Tucker, sir?" she asked.
"For the time being. Unfortunately there doesn't appear to be anything stopping these aliens from taking him, or any of us, any time they choose."
"Too bad the forcefield you developed can't encompass the whole ship."
"That had occurred to me, too, but there's no guarantee it would be any more effective than the hull plating." Neither Cormack nor Young replied; the Lieutenant was right. "We'd best get back to work."
The evening passed with no more success than the afternoon. The three of them were on the upper level going over yet another potential way to reinitialize the phase cannons when Reed finally really looked at the other members of his team. He wondered if he appeared as exhausted as they did. Then he decided he didn't want to know.
"You two get some rest," he said abruptly. "We've been at this all day and you both look as though you could use a break."
"With all due respect, Lieutenant—" Cormack began.
He held up a hand and stopped her mid-sentence. "Save it, Ensign. I know what you're going to say."
She nodded reluctantly, knowing it was a battle she wouldn't win.
"Crewman Griffith is due on Gamma shift in less than an hour. Perhaps fresh eyes will see something the three of us have been missing."
"Sir," Young tried to protest, too.
"No, Ensign. Take a break. Get something to eat, get some rest. We have no idea when the next attack will come or what form it'll take. You need to be sharp." He stared down his subordinates squarely, conveniently ignoring the fact that everything he said applied to himself as well as them.
"Yes, sir," they both replied, equally reluctant but aware their C.O. would brook no further argument on the matter.
The ensigns departed and Reed was left alone.
It was as if the entity had been lying in wait. For all Reed knew, it had been. No sooner had the others left than it appeared. He was lucky enough to catch sight of it reflected in a glass panel. He raced for the weapons locker on the lower level of the armory and grabbed a phase pistol, then immediately spun and fired at the invading wisp of vapor.
The gun's beam went straight through it with no apparent effect.
Reed made a beeline for the nearest exit. He hit the corridor at a run as the armory door slipped shut behind him. He didn't think it would stop the alien, but he hoped it would at least slow it down long enough for him to reach a turbolift. It didn't.
Not a dozen steps later, Reed froze. He felt the being enter his mind, but he was powerless stop it. The thing forced him out of his body despite all his efforts to fight it. He wondered fleetingly if it was the same entity that had inhabited Trip, but the thought vanished abruptly and suddenly he was looking down at himself from the ceiling. Malcolm didn't like what he saw. There was an unaccustomed sneer on his face that he was certain he never sported when he was himself.
Trip went back to Earth after making the crossing, he thought. Back to Earth and back in time. That suggests I can go anywhere I want, he continued, grasping for logic as the only tangible thing in his intangible state. I want to be right there. With that desire held firmly in his disembodied mind, he dove at himself—only to find a wall had been erected against his return. He battered at the wall, throwing himself against it repeatedly until, with a simple flick of his head, the new inhabitant of Reed's body tossed him off like so much lint.
Malcolm could only watch in frustrated impotence as his body leered at a passing female crewman and headed off to the turbolift. Well, I may not be able to do anything yet, but I'm certainly not going anywhere else. He resolutely followed his body into the lift, which was already occupied by another female crewman.
He soon wished he hadn't followed. The way the entity acted was so far from Reed's natural behavior that it made the incorporeal armory officer wince. I'll be lucky if she doesn't file sexual harassment charges against me! he thought in distress as the alien made incredibly inappropriate advances toward the woman. Had his cheeks still been his own he would have blushed furiously.
Fortunately the crewman seemed more annoyed than offended and quickly left him when they reached B-deck. Malcolm tried again to gain access to his body, hoping to catch the invading entity while it wasn't paying attention. He came up against the same barrier as before. He saw himself sneer again and this time he knew the sneer was meant for him. The alien had nothing but disdain for his helpless condition.
For the first time since being displaced, Malcolm wondered if he would ever regain his physical form.
People were taken all around the ship; Reed was simply the first.
"They've got Malcolm," Archer informed Tucker over the comm as he and T'Pol headed for the bridge. They had just witnessed the armory officer being locked in Reed's quarters by two of his own security personnel. "I need the ship ready to go on my command."
There was no mistaking the worry in Tucker's voice when he replied. "They're gonna give him back, aren't they?"
Archer couldn't lie to him, but he simply didn't have an answer. He settled on an enigmatic and unsatisfactory, "We'll see."
Rostov stood next to the Chief Engineer at the main engineering console, listening worriedly to the exchange between him and the Captain. A part of him wondered how long it would be before he or someone else in engineering was taken and what would happen when they were. He didn't have to wonder long.
While Tucker hailed Ensign Cook, Rostov went to prime the deuterium pumps as he'd been ordered. He saw the alien coming, but couldn't avoid it. "Commander!" he shouted from where he stood by the warp engine. It was all he could say before the alien entered his body and he was pushed out.
Tucker descended to the main deck quickly. He looked at the wide-eyed young man dubiously. There was no sign of what had caused the urgency he'd heard in Rostov's voice just seconds ago. "Something wrong?" he asked cautiously. When Rostov replied, he knew it was no longer the human crewman inside his body, but another alien like the one that had taken Tucker before.
He quickly hailed the Captain and told him what had happened. "I think you'd better get Malcolm " He paused, remembering that his lover was also no longer himself. " I mean, whoever's running security down here right away," he informed the captain.
Tucker kept one eye on Rostov while he waited for the security team that would take him and lock him in his quarters. He seemed harmless enough, standing and staring at the warp engine. Tucker had to remind himself that displacing another person's consciousness was more than enough to constitute a threat.
He heaved a sigh of relief when Cormack and Martinez arrived and lead Rostov away.
Rostov gave the security team no trouble as they escorted him to his cabin, although they faced a problem when they found his bunkmate there.
"What the hell am I supposed to do with him?" demanded crewman Singh. He watched as his roommate looked around the cabin as if he'd never seen it or its contents before.
"Nothing. We need you out so we can lock him in," replied Cormack. "Sorry."
The disgruntled crewman grabbed his boots and a datapad he'd been reading. "Fine. I'm sure no one will complain if I show up for duty half an hour early." Before he left, he glared at the other man. "Don't touch anything."
Rostov smiled back at him blandly and sat down on the nearest bunk. Unfortunately, it was Singh's. Singh glared at him again, shook his head, and then joined the security team in the corridor.
Cormack locked and security coded the door behind him. "If they get you, too, at least you'll have company when we bring you back here," she joked grimly.
Before Singh could reply, a wisp of blue vapor appeared through the bulkhead opposite the cabin door. Cormack was the first to spot it. "Run!" she shouted as she raised her weapon. The others needed no further urging. Martinez and Singh took off running in opposite directions. Cormack aimed her phase pistol at the wisp and fired. No effect. She quickly upped the setting to kill and fired again.
"Damn it!" she swore as the beam passed harmlessly through the thing and scorched the bulkhead behind it. Shoving the useless weapon into its holster, she tucked her head down and ran. There was a turbolift at the end of the corridor. If she could reach it, maybe she could get away. In a rare stroke of luck, it opened as she approached it and she dove inside, inadvertently tackling the person already within.
They landed with a thud and a grunt as the door closed and the lift continued upward.
"What the—?" gasped Ensign Snider as Cormack rolled off of her.
"Sorry. I—" The rest of her words were lost as the wisp suddenly appeared through the floor. It shot up to Cormack's face and enveloped it. She gasped as the thing entered her and her own consciousness was shoved roughly out.
There was a short silence before Snider spoke again. "Are you Are you all right?" she asked trepidatiously.
The disembodied Cormack watched from above as her head turned and she smiled pleasantly at the strawberry-blonde young woman. "I'm fine."
She rose to her feet as the lift came to a halt. Cormack stepped out, looking around as if uncertain which way to go. She made a choice and soon disappeared around a corner. Snider watched her, kneeling in the doorway of the lift, then sat back and let the door shut. She stood shakily and tapped the comm panel.
"Snider to the bridge."
Sato replied. "Go ahead."
"I think one of the aliens just took over Ensign Cormack. She was okay, then this thing I don't know It did something and she started acting kind of strange."
"How long ago?"
"Just a few seconds."
"Is she with you now?" Sato asked.
"No. She's on C-deck," said Snider. "I don't know where she's going."
"I'll let security know."
"Wait," Snider added quickly before Sato could close the connection. "Tell them to be careful. She had a phase pistol and I don't know if it was set for stun or kill."
There was a slight pause. "Understood."
It came as a relief to the non-corporeal Malcolm when his physical form was eventually confined to his cabin. There, alone, the invader in his body couldn't do any more damage. He consoled himself with the knowledge that T'Pol, at least, knew it wasn't really him when he'd approached her in her quarters. With her support, surely the crewman in the lift and the one before her in the corridor would realize it and understand, too.
I can't be the only one who's been displaced like this, Malcolm thought. I wonder what the captain will do if Trip manages to get the engines working again. Would he leave without us? It was a thought he didn't want to consider, but he felt he ought to.
He wouldn't have much choice no matter how many of the crew have been taken. What's that Vulcan saying? 'The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.' That's it.
He felt frustrated and powerless. It wasn't a feeling he relished. If he'd still had his body, he would have paced, but that wasn't an option. He continued to watch himself methodically exploring his cabin.
Unable to stand his inactivity any longer, Malcolm threw his essence at his body in a moment of frustration and rage. His physical form looked surprised and he felt a tiny crack open in the wall that kept him out. He fought harder.
You're not getting in, he heard a voice that was and yet was not his own declare.
So you say, Malcolm challenged back.
So I know. You have the whole universe to explore. Explore it.
The finality in the tone was echoed by the sudden sealing of the crack that Malcolm had been trying to access. He felt himself pushed away in an almost physical sense. His mind spun through space and time without direction or restraint. Malcolm forced himself to remain calm, but it was difficult in the face of his rising panic. He didn't like being out of control.
Out of control
He jerked to a stop and gasped. Malcolm looked down at himself, surprised to find he appeared to have a physical form again. It's all an illusion, he told himself firmly. Your body is back on Enterprise, inhabited by a hostile alien life-form.
Still, after the stories Trip had told, he had to wonder where and when he was. He looked around.
"Oh no," he said slowly. He knew exactly where he was and he had a sinking feeling in his gut that he also knew when.
He moved to the window, hoping to disprove his suspicion, but there was the undeniable view of London he remembered far too well. He knelt on the leather sofa and stared out at the cold Spring sunshine filtering weakly through high, gray clouds. This is not where I want to be. And yet he remained there, unable or unwilling to move from the spot.
Slowly he turned his back on London and looked around the room. The short wall on his left sported a small fireplace surrounded on both sides and above by shelves of books. The longer wall directly across from him boasted a huge painting and a single door, currently shut. The wall to his right held another closed door and yet more shelves, this time with a small number of framed photographs and a sloppy stack of sheet music. In the corner stood a guitar.
It was a day he'd never wanted to experience the first time; he certainly had no desire to relive it now. I've got to leave. But he didn't move.
A voice in a distant, locked corner of his mind spoke up for the first time in a very long time. It's your second chance.
He sat up a little straighter. What?
It's your second chance, the voice said again. You're being given a chance to fix what went wrong.
I haven't been given anything, he thought back angrily. I was forced out of my body and now I've been sent here, without consultation or consent. "This isn't where I belong anymore," he said aloud.
"Talking to yourself again, Malcolm?" asked a snide and slightly condescending voice. "That's a sure sign you're finally losing it, you know. Just as I suspected."
Rain began to patter lightly at the window behind Malcolm. He looked up and found himself staring at the one person he'd hoped never to see again as long as he lived.
Young knew he shouldn't be doing what he was doing, but that didn't stop him. It barely even slowed him down. Taking one last, quick look up and down the corridor to be certain he wasn't seen, he keyed open the security code on the lock to Rostov's cabin and went inside.
There was Rostov, or at least his physical form, seated on Singh's bunk. He looked up at the new arrival with no sign of recognition in his deep brown eyes. "Hello," he said pleasantly.
"Hey." The door slid shut behind the armory ensign. He continued to stand only one step into the room. "Michael?"
Rostov tilted his head to one side as if considering. "Yes," he said after a moment's thought. "I'm crewman Michael Rostov."
But it was abundantly obvious to Young that this wasn't really Michael. "No, you're not," he replied flatly.
"I " The alien in Rostov's body hesitated, then conceded. "No."
"So where is he? Michael, I mean."
"He is safe."
"That doesn't answer my question."
"I don't know exactly where or when he is."
"Then how do you know he's safe?" challenged Young, angrily taking a step towards the too quiescent Rostov. The other man only continued to look at him mildly.
"There is no danger inherent in the crossing, I assure you," he said. "If you would allow it yourself, you would understand."
"'Allow it'?" echoed Young snidely. "Like Michael and Lieutenant Reed and Cormack and all the others 'allowed' you to take over their bodies? Forget it.. I'm not 'allowing' anything and I want you to 'allow' Michael come back now." Young's tone was icy with the threat of fire underneath it.
Rostov's face grew pensive. "Is he valuable to you?"
If possible, Young's voice grew even colder. "What do you mean?"
"I don't understand the titles on your vessel. Is 'crewman' valuable?"
"As valuable as any other human life. Now give him back."
"But this one " He looked down at himself and then up at Young thoughtfully. "He is valuable to you, particularly. Isn't he?"
"I—" Before Ian could answer, Tucker's voice came over the comm.
"Tucker to Security," he said, urgency and frustration clear in his tone.
Gaze still locked on Rostov, Young reached for the comm panel by the door and punched open the line. "Young here, sir. Go ahead," he answered, eyes and voice unwavering.
"I need you in Engineering. They've got Lawless."
"Understood. I'll be right there." He closed the comm. "Next time I see you, it better not be you in Michael's body. Got it?" he threatened.
Rostov gave him an apologetic look. "I understand you," he replied, "but I can't promise you that."
Young wanted to stay and argue, fight it out with this deceptively pleasant alien, but he had a job to do. He shot one final glare at the other man and stormed out, securing the lock behind him before heading quickly to Main Engineering.
Stephanie wasn't on Enterprise anymore. Logically she knew it was impossible, but she couldn't deny that she now stood in the living room of her sister's house. She looked around. It was much like it had been when she'd last visited nearly two years ago. Watery sunlight filtered through the last of the leaves on the oak tree outside the big picture window, casting dappled shadows on the room. A fluffy black cat slept contentedly on the back of the leather sofa. Family photos lined the stone mantel above the fireplace.
She crossed to the mantel and looked at the pictures. There was the sepia-toned photograph of Ryn and Gemma dancing at their wedding. There was Kevin's portrait from his second birthday. There was the shot of Mom, caught up to her elbows in her garden and looking both annoyed and amused. Stephanie grinned. She'd set their mother up for that, telling Ryn to grab a camera and take the candid photo.
Her smile faded when she saw the next picture. Instead of the photo of their father that Ryn usually kept there, there was a picture of Stephanie. She regarded it with disdain. It was a copy of the official Starfleet portrait everyone had to have taken so their families could see how great they looked in their uniforms. She reached up and took it in her hand.
"Hey," said Ryn.
Stephanie spun around to face her older sister. Until that moment she'd assumed it was a dream. Admittedly a very vivid and realistic dream, but she was more or less used to those. But there was Ryn, leaning on a pair of silver canes and with her hair still growing out from the fire.
"I didn't hear you come in," she continued as if nothing was strange or at all amiss. She made her way to the sofa and sat down. She leaned her canes on the arm and reached out to pet the sleeping cat. "Pretty good picture of you, isn't it?" she asked, seeing the framed photo in Stephanie's hands.
"Where's the one of Dad?" Stephanie asked without preamble.
"I moved it. We're running out of room on the mantel. It's over there now." She gestured to a highly polished table in the corner.
Stephanie returned her own picture to the mantel and went to the table. There was the image she sought. It was a picture of Nicholas and his two daughters on the family sailboat. They were squinting in the bright light of the summer sun and they were laughing. She picked it up and looked at it. "I think it's the only picture Mom's ever taken where she didn't cut someone's head off," she said quietly.
"Yeah," agreed Ryn with a chuckle. She scooped the cat from the back of the sofa and pulled it onto her lap. The cat complained briefly before settling down and resuming its nap as she scratched it gently under its collar. "Did you see the picture of Lalita?"
Stephanie shook her head.
"It's on that end of the mantel, right next to you there. Take a look."
Stephanie held onto the picture of her father as she turned to look at the photo of her niece whom she'd never met. She smiled. "She's gorgeous," she said.
"Lots prettier than Kevin when he was that age, right?"
"I didn't—" She stopped short when she recognized the gleam in her sister's eyes; Ryn was playing with her. "You're never going to let me forget I said that, are you?"
"Of course not. Why would I let a juicy tidbit like that get away from me?" Ryn smirked at her.
"Because you're the good sister and I'm the evil one?" Stephanie offered as she crossed the room and sat next to her.
"You lost that title when you cleaned up your act back in university."
"I always knew there'd be drawbacks to going clean and sober. Can I have this?" she asked in a complete non sequitur, holding up the framed photo.
"The picture of us with Dad? No. I thought you had a copy."
Stephanie shook her head. "I did, but I don't know what happened to it."
"I'll send you one then," Ryn offered. "I have it on the computer and I'll send it with a letter tomorrow—assuming you're still on Enterprise and this is a dream like last time."
Stephanie shrugged and set the picture on the coffee table where she could look at it while they talked. "It's not a dream."
Ryn nodded slowly. "I got that impression, but I thought I should check. What's going on?"
"I don't really know. I'm not really here, but I'm here, eh?" She gave a disgusted snort. "Not that that makes any sense at all."
"It makes as much sense as meeting you on the boat the other month. But I know that was a dream."
"Yeah. Kind of." Stephanie looked down at the picture on the table. "That was a good day."
"Yeah, it was," her sister agreed.
Stephanie didn't seem to hear her. She went on softly. "It was the last time we were on the boat together before he died."
There was a silence punctuated only by the sound of the purring cat in Ryn's lap and the occasional gust of wind in the oak tree.
"I could go back," declared Stephanie abruptly. It was a sudden realization with a ring of truth to it.
Ryn shrugged. "You could, I suppose. Considering you're here when you shouldn't be here, I'm guessing something really bizarre is going on."
"That's the truth."
"When would you go back to? The day that picture was taken?"
Stephanie knew immediately that wasn't where or when she would go. "No." She met her sister's blue gaze with fire in her eyes. "No. I can go anywhere whenever I want. I'll go back and make him stay home that day—the day he died."
"You tried to make him stay the first time and it didn't work," her sister reminded her evenly.
"He'll listen this time. I'll make him listen." There was desperation in her voice. "He wouldn't listen because he thought I just had an overactive imagination. Now that I know I was right, I can make him stay."
"You're talking about rewriting history, Ephie," Ryn said, using the childhood nickname she'd not spoken since Stephanie had turned ten and declared it off-limits.
"I don't care!"
"Of course you do, but I'm not going to try to stop you." Ryn raised an eyebrow at her. "So you can wipe that look off your face like you want to kick my ass or something."
Stephanie looked away sheepishly, knowing full well that was exactly what she'd been thinking.
"Just don't be disappointed if it doesn't work this time, either."
"It'll work," stated Stephanie in a tone that challenged her to disagree again.
"For your sake, Ephie, I hope it does."
Ian sat heavily on the makeshift bunk. He looked at Ari who still stood by the railing. "I never thought we'd be stuck back in here," he said morosely.
Ari shrugged and sat down next to him. "Look on the bright side."
"The bright side? Let's see." Ian pretended to ponder the idea. "Twenty-four members of the crew have been taken over by alien life-forms and been locked in their quarters. The rest of us—minus Doctor Phlox—are stuck in the catwalk again, only this time we don't have a clue how long we'll be here or how to get rid of the 'bad guys'." He lowered his voice so his next words wouldn't be overheard. "Michael and Hoshi have both been taken and there's nothing I can do about any of it."
Ari looked at him sidelong. "You still care about Hoshi, don't you? In spite of you and you know."
Ian fixed him with a stare. "Out of everything I just said, you pick that to comment on? Do you really think now is the time to talk about my love life?"
"What else is there to talk about?"
"Anything would be preferable."
The pair fell silent, much like the rest of the sequestered crew. There were hushed mumblings all along the catwalk, but no one seemed interested in talking much.
"Maybe Doctor Phlox will come up with something soon," suggested Ari, his tone a mix of hope and doubt. "He and Sub-commander T'Pol figured out how to identify the taken crewmembers, after all. What's to say he won't come up with a way to take them back?"
"How come he's immune to these aliens, anyway?" Ian demanded suddenly. "Can't whatever's keeping him safe help the rest of us?"
Ari shook his head. "It's physiology, not psychology. He's just not compatible for this crossing thing the aliens are doing."
Further along the catwalk, a similar discussion was taking place between Liz and Bonnie.
"How are you holding up?" Liz asked the helmsman quietly.
Bonnie shrugged. "How should I be? Stephanie and Mae are your friends, too. How are you dealing?"
"They're my friends, yes, but neither of them is my girlfriend. I'm lucky. Travis is here in the catwalk; he's as safe as any of us right now. But Stephanie " She trailed off. They really didn't know where Stephanie was, although her physical self was locked up tight in the cabin she shared with Liz.
"Stephanie's going to be fine," Bonnie stated matter-of-factly.
"We don't know that," said Liz as gently as she could. "We don't know that any of us will be okay. I mean, there's no guarantee the osmium alloy in this nacelle will keep the aliens out indefinitely, and we can't stay in here forever."
"We don't have to. Everything will get sorted out and we'll be fine. We'll all be fine."
The sharpness in Bonnie's tone made Liz retreat a little. She didn't want to start a fight, but neither did she think it wise to hold onto blind faith as her companion appeared to be doing. "We don't know that," she repeated, still gently but with a ring of steel in her voice.
Bonnie turned hard green eyes on her. "I have to know that," she said rigidly. "I won't accept any other alternative. I may be helpless in this situation, but I refuse to be hopeless, too."
Liz recognized the stubborn set of Bonnie's jaw and she knew she wouldn't sway the other woman's firm resolve. In her heart, she didn't want to. Liz wanted to cling to hope as completely and undauntedly as Bonnie, but she was too accustomed to facing the reality of desperate situations. One couldn't work in sickbay without a strong grasp of the limits of human endurance, although so far Enterprise and her crew had been lucky and no one had been lost yet.
Yet, her mind echoed against her will.
Stephanie looked around her even though she knew precisely where she was. She was in her bedroom in her parents' house and the calendar on the desk told her everything else she needed to know.
She flung open her bedroom door and raced downstairs to the kitchen where she froze in the open archway.
There was Nicholas Cormack looking exactly as he had the last day she'd seen him alive, exactly the way she saw him in her dreams.
He hadn't noticed her yet and she reveled in the moment, just watching him as he sat at the table sipping his coffee and eating his toast with jam just like he had every morning she could remember. Only today he was going to die.
"Daddy-O?" she said, a slight tremor in her voice.
Nicholas turned and smiled at his youngest daughter. "Morning, Spitfire. What are you doing up so early?"
She shrugged, reluctant to speak up. "Where's Mom?"
"She had to go in early today. She said something about a dawn-blooming plant that she needed to observe."
"Oh." She leaned a shoulder against the doorframe and crossed her arms over her chest. While the adult Stephanie shouted at herself to tell him what was going to happen, the teenaged Stephanie finally worked up the nerve to say what was on her mind. "Daddy-O, you can't go to work today."
His smile turned to a concerned frown. "Why not? Are you sick?"
She shook her head. "No. But I had a dream last night "
"Ah. Another one of your dreams, eh?" His tone was warm but disbelieving. "When are you going to realize dreams are not real, Stephanie?"
"Sometimes they are!" she insisted. What am I doing? a part of her thought as the words came out of her mouth of their own volition. That's not what I wanted to say!
"Sit down." He pushed out a chair with one foot and Stephanie sat reluctantly. "I know you don't like what I do—"
"That's not true!" she protested immediately. "I think what you do is totally cool! It's what I want to do after college, you know that."
"All right, all right." Nicholas held up both hands defensively. "I stand corrected."
Stephanie's mind spun. This wasn't right at all. The whole scene was playing out exactly as it had the first time. But I'm an adult now! Doesn't he see? Can't he tell I mean what I say? That I'm not imagining this?
A terrible realization hit her. I'm not an adult now. She knew it without having to see for herself. She needed no mirror to tell her that her normally blonde hair was currently a bright and unnatural shade of red, or that the tiny frown lines between her eyes were gone, or that she was wearing the fleecy green bathrobe she'd gotten for her fourteenth birthday. I'm fifteen and there's nothing I can do to change what's going to happen today.
She looked at her father, pleading and fear in her eyes. "Promise me you'll come home tonight. You won't go out with the guys after work. You won't make any stops on the way. You'll just come straight home tonight."
Nicholas looked at her, bemused. "Spitfire, I—"
"Promise me!" she all but shouted at her father.
"All right. If it means that much to you, I promise. I'll come right home tonight. No delays, no detours. I'll just come home."
Stephanie nodded, exactly as she had that day, only now she knew it was a promise he wouldn't—couldn't—keep.
"You gonna be okay?" Nicholas asked.
She nodded. She couldn't do anything else.
"Okay." He rose, tossing back the last of his coffee and setting the empty mug on the table.
"I love you, Daddy-O," she said with every ounce of truth in her.
"I love you, too, Spitfire. I'll see you tonight," he said, leaning down and giving her a quick kiss on the forehead.
"See you." She continued to sit at the kitchen table as her father grabbed his heavy black coat and headed out the door.
No! screamed her adult self. Stop! Daddy-O, stop!! But it was too late. He was gone and she'd been unable to make him stay again.
No! No! No! No! No! No! No!
Malcolm looked around in shock. A split second ago he'd been sitting in the London flat he'd shared for six years before joining Starfleet. Now he sat in a small canoe on a pristine blue lagoon. A tropical breeze blew through his close-cropped hair and tingled on his damp skin.
Without warning, a figure appeared in the water next to the boat and splashed him playfully.
"Hey!" he exclaimed, raising an arm to shield his face from the spray.
Maddy laughed and took hold of the boat with one hand. "Come swimming with me!" she insisted. "I'm just going to keep splashing at you until you do."
Malcolm knew his little sister was telling the truth. She could be quite mercilessly determined when she wanted something badly enough. "I'm not coming in and if you keep splashing at me you're only going to swamp the boat," he pointed out firmly.
"So? We can swim to shore if we have to," she countered impatiently. "It's not that far."
The twelve-year-old Malcolm looked back to shore, shading his eyes with one hand. He was a reasonable swimmer—in the Reed family one had to be—but he didn't relish the idea of swimming to shore from his present location. "Far enough," he muttered to himself.
"Nothing." He lowered his hand and Maddy took the opportunity to splash him again. "Stop it!"
She only giggled and dove under the boat, coming up on the other side and sending yet another sparkling, wet wave at him.
"Maddy!" he shouted sternly. "I'm drenched!"
"So you might as well dive in!" she argued with her unwavering and indisputable child's logic. "Please?" She turned guileless blue eyes on her big brother.
The adult Malcolm watched from inside the eyes of his younger self and smiled. He knew he would give in to her; he always did. He never passed up a chance to make her happy if he could help it. The frequent relocations of their family seemed to bother her less than they did him and he felt it was his duty to make sure it stayed that way.
"All right," he finally acquiesced. "Just stop splashing at me." He quickly pulled off his sodden green t-shirt and draped it over the bench behind him, then made certain his swimming trunks were securely tied.
Maddy laughed. "You're so tidy," she teased. "You're in a canoe, Malcolm. Stop fussing about."
Malcolm didn't bother to argue the point. He rose carefully to his feet and leapt over the side of the boat into the water. He came up and treaded water by his sister, stabilizing himself with one hand on the boat just as she had earlier.
"That's better!" declared Maddy firmly. She grinned before diving under the water again and coming up several meters away. "Come on," she called, swiping her hair back from her face. In her bright pink and orange swimsuit, she looked like a small, free-floating coral reef bobbing about in the water.
"Come on where?" Malcolm called back. He was hesitant to leave the safety of the canoe—particularly when he could see no logical destination other than the distant beach.
"Just come on. I want to show you something."
"Show me what?" He looked around. "There's nothing out here but water."
"It's underneath the water, dummy," she declared as if he were a complete moron.
"Underneath?" Malcolm echoed in confusion. "What are you talking about?"
She gave him an exasperated look that was as clear as the crystal blue water around them. Malcolm relented as the elder Malcolm had known he would, as he knew exactly what Maddy had found.
He swam out to her and she grinned. "Take a deep breath and follow me," she ordered.
Still dubious, Malcolm complied. They both inhaled deeply and dove. To the young Malcolm's surprise, they didn't have to descend far to reach Maddy's discovery. They were above a sandbar that was barely two and a half meters below the surface. He gave her a quizzical look and she smiled back at him as they reached the bar.
It took only a moment of searching for her to find what she sought. She shifted a rock about fifteen centimeters in diameter and reached quickly into the sand below it. Malcolm's eyes widened when she pulled out a brilliantly colored crustacean. It looked like an ordinary crab other than its coloring, which was so vibrant it shone even under water.
Malcolm's breath was about to run out on him. He signaled to his sister that they should surface and she nodded back. Before kicking off, however, she carefully placed the crab back on the sandbar where it immediately scuttled under cover. Then she replaced the rock and the two of them headed up.
Malcolm's head broke the surface and he gasped in air—and found himself on the floor of his cabin.
Stephanie coughed and gasped. Her lungs felt as though she'd just sprinted a marathon and her head ached more than the worst hangover she could remember. It took a moment for her to take in her surroundings. When she did, she let out an inarticulate cry of anger and disappointment.
She was on the floor of her quarters back on Enterprise where she belonged. She hadn't changed anything.
She didn't have the strength of will to stand, so she simply pushed herself upright and leaned against the foot of her bunk. She pulled her knees up and wrapped her arms around them, letting her head fall forward.
She was still sitting there when Liz returned.
Liz knelt next to her and put a tentative hand on her shoulder. "Stephanie?"
Stephanie turned red-rimmed and puffy eyes on her bunkmate. It was obvious she'd been crying. She sniffed and wiped her wet cheeks with a sleeve. "Yeah," she rasped wearily, trying to act like nothing was wrong. "What happened?"
"It's a long story." Liz rose, took the box of tissues from above Stephanie's bunk and held it out to her.
"Thanks." Stephanie took several tissues and dried her eyes. "Gimme the abridged version?" she asked before blowing her nose.
"Sub-commander T'Pol discovered the aliens were lying to us about their intentions. The unaffected crew hid out on the catwalk. Phlox figured out that the wisps would be forced out if he flooded the rest of the ship with CO2 and suffocated everyone. Then the Captain blew up their ship."
"Oh," replied Stephanie flatly. Liz offered her a hand and she took it, gratefully accepting Liz's help to rise.
"We're going to sickbay. Phlox wants everyone who was taken to come in for a checkup," Liz said.
For once Stephanie didn't protest the order. She simply nodded and allowed her friend to lead her away.
Mae's first action after regaining her body and being released from sickbay was to shower. She knew it was a completely psychological response to the invasion she'd experienced, but she didn't care. The hot water had felt wonderful.
Now she was back in her cabin preparing for bed. She paused in toweling off her hair and listened. She thought she'd heard the door chime, but couldn't be certain. When it chimed again, she knew she hadn't imagined it. She couldn't think who it might be. She'd been to see Phlox, as she'd been told to do, and she wasn’t expected on duty until Alpha shift. It couldn't be Bonnie because she had gone to check on Stephanie.
And she wouldn't be ringing the bell anyway, thought Mae. She called curiously, "Come in?"
The door opened to reveal Ari Cohn standing awkwardly on the other side. "Hello," he said.
There was a brief pause while Mae stood there, towel in one hand, waiting for Ari to explain why he was there.
"May I come in?" he asked tentatively.
Ari entered the cabin and the door slipped shut after him. Another awkward silence fell and Mae became intensely aware of the fact she was fresh from the shower room and dressed in only her bathrobe.
"What's up?" she asked, trying to maintain a balance of informality and decorum.
"I I'm on my way to bed—" Ari stopped short, realizing too late that his words implied more than he'd intended. "I mean I'm heading off duty. We finished checking out everyone who was taken. Everyone's okay," he added for no good reason other than he didn't know what else to say.
"That's good, considering. I was almost afraid you'd come to tell me Phlox had missed something in his first examination of me," she said only half-jokingly.
"No! No," he hastened to assure her.
There was yet another awkward silence.
"So," said Mae eventually, "was that all you wanted to tell me?" She was still at a bit of a loss as to why he was there, although she had to admit she was quite pleased by his presence. She just wished she'd had a chance to dry her hair before he'd appeared on her doorstep. Mae ran her fingers through her damp locks, sweeping them back only to have them fall forward again, framing her face.
Ari had been about to speak, but was brought up short by her movement. It had been so casual, so instinctive, and so very lovely. He cleared his throat to try again and suddenly noticed she was in her robe. It stymied him to silence once more.
Mae noticed him noticing her and she flushed a little. Her free hand adjusted the front of her robe, making sure she wasn't treating him to more of a show than he'd already gotten.
This time her movement snapped Ari from his momentary stall-out. He looked suddenly away, eyes desperately searching for something on which to focus. Finally they settled on the floor in front of his feet. "I Sorry. I just wanted to make sure you're okay," he said hastily.
"You just said I was like everyone else who made the crossing."
"Yeah." It was all he could do to keep from digging a toe into the deckplating in embarrassment. "But " He forced himself to look up and meet her dark, inquisitive gaze. "I wanted to see for myself."
She was about to argue that he'd seen her in sickbay when Phlox had examined her, but she stopped herself in time. The light dawned on her at last and she felt her cheeks grow even rosier. "Oh. Thanks. That's sweet of you."
She smiled at him and Ari immediately smiled back. The look on her face was just the boost his courage needed. "Would you like to get breakfast with me tomorrow?"
Mae's smile widened. "Sure. Should I meet you in the mess hall?"
"I'll stop by here on the way if that's okay?"
"Yeah. That's great."
"Great!" Ari realized he was grinning like an idiot and decided it was probably time to go. "See you here tomorrow morning."
Ari quickly made his escape. The moment he was out the door and around a corner he paused, knees shaking slightly, and leaned against the bulkhead. He sighed in relief as his near-terror slowly ebbed.
A figure came around the opposite end of the corridor unexpectedly and he stood up straight. It was Donnelly.
"At ease, Ensign," the Irishman teased as he approached.
Ari chuckled and hoped it sounded genuine. "Right. You just startled me, that's all."
"So I guessed." He reached the other man and looked at him inquisitively. "You all right?"
"Fine," Ari answered too quickly. The last thing he wanted right then was Donnelly making inquiries. The comm ensign was far too intuitive for his own good in Ari's opinion. "I'll see you around," he said and began to walk away.
"Yeah. See you." Donnelly watched him go and smirked to himself. He had a good idea he knew just what had made Ari so jumpy. He chuckled and continued on his own way, whistling too innocently.
Ari caught a bit of the tune and picked up his pace. It was the unmistakable strains of a particularly insipid love song that had been inexplicably popular around the time Enterprise had left Earth. He didn't look back and he didn't stop until he was safely inside his cabin.
"So how's Mae?" asked Ian.
Ari jumped and turned to face him. He hadn't expected his bunkmate to be there.
Ian stood in the doorway to the lav with his arms crossed over his chest. He was clearly on his way to bed, dressed as he was in pajama bottoms and a loose white t-shirt.
"She's fine," Ari replied as his heartbeat slowed to something like normal. "What are you doing here? I thought you were going to check on Michael." He sat down on his bunk and took off his boots so he could avoid Ian's gaze.
"I thought about it. Thought about stopping by to see him and Hoshi, too." Ian crossed to his own bunk and pulled back the covers.
"So did you?"
Ian glared over his shoulder at his friend. "No. I didn't go see either of them. Okay? Happy?"
Ari looked at him and frowned. "Why would that make me happy?"
"Forget about it." He got into his bunk and pulled up the blanket.
"Okay, but only because I'm not going to let you ruin my good mood." Ari rose and stripped off his uniform, tossing the various pieces onto his bunk.
Ian's interest was piqued. He rolled onto one side and looked at his bunkmate. Despite himself, he asked, "Good mood?" His eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Mae's more than just 'fine', isn't she?"
Ari couldn't hide his pleased grin. "She's outstanding."
Stephanie and Bonnie sat at a small table in the empty mess hall, each with a mug of steamed milk in front of her.
"Feeling better?" Bonnie asked.
Stephanie shrugged. She wrapped her hands around her mug and hunched her sweater-clad shoulders defensively. "I guess," she replied flatly.
"You feel like telling me about it?"
"Please don't take this the wrong way, but no. I want to forget it ever happened twice." She glowered into her hot milk then sipped it. She took a remote sort of pleasure from the thick head of foam, but it wasn't enough even to put a dent in her grim mood.
Bonnie regarded her closely. She was certain Stephanie needed to talk about what she'd experienced during the crossing, but Bonnie would have to tread carefully if she was going to get the story from the close-mouthed woman. "Okay."
The two sat in companionable silence for a while. As Bonnie continued to watch her lover, she saw Stephanie go somewhere far away in her mind. She was gone for so long, the steam had ceased to rise from her mug.
Bonnie couldn't stand the quiet any more. She wanted Stephanie here now, wanted to reassure her that being back was a good thing. "I knew you'd be all right," she announced.
"Huh?" Stephanie had been lost in thought and was yanked back to the present by her lover's words.
"Liz had her doubts, but I knew you and everyone else'd be all right."
"Oh. Well, it's good you had faith in the Captain, I suppose."
"It didn't have anything to do with him," Bonnie contradicted. "I had no idea whether he would come through for the crew or not—even though he always has before. No." She shook her head slightly. "I just knew you'd come back."
Stephanie gave her a doubtful half smile. "Oh? And how did you know that?"
Bonnie returned the smile teasingly. "You were bound to find a way. You're too damned stubborn not to."
They both chuckled, although Stephanie's laughter was tinged with melancholy. "Thank you."
"You're welcome. Now tell me what you're thanking me for."
"For believing in me. For being here for me." She reached a hand across the table and took Bonnie's in it.
"There's nowhere else I could be," Bonnie replied sincerely. She looked deeply into Stephanie's hazel eyes, seeing in them her gratitude and sorrow. Whatever she went through, she thought, it must have really sucked. I wish I knew how to fix it.
Stephanie returned her gaze steadily. "I went to the day my dad died," she announced quietly, as if she sensed Bonnie's thoughts.
"Shit, why?" the younger woman asked before she could stop herself.
"I thought I could change things, but I was wrong. Really, really wrong."
Bonnie squeezed Stephanie's hand in sympathy. "I'm sorry."
With nothing more to say and no way to fix the problem, Bonnie did the one thing she could think of to try and cheer Stephanie up. She rose, leaned across the small table, and kissed her tenderly on the mouth.
When she sat back down, Stephanie's eyes were bright. She smiled through unshed tears. "You're wonderful, you know?"
Bonnie smirked a little and answered coyly. "I know."
Stephanie laughed. "And you're not at all smug or egotistical," she joked.
"Never." Bonnie grinned and was rewarded with the same from Stephanie. "Better now?" she inquired hopefully.
"Better now," her lover echoed.
"So where—or when—did you go?" Trip asked Malcolm as the two prepared for bed. The silence that met his inquiry caused Trip to look over at his lover. "Malcolm?"
"Hm?" The armory officer pulled himself from his musings. "Oh. I went back to Earth," he replied uncommunicatively. He finished undressing down to his blues and chucked the rest of his clothes down the laundry chute.
When Malcolm didn't elaborate on his answer, Trip prompted him. "You want to be a little more specific?"
"Malaysia." He headed into the lav and picked up his toothbrush. "I was on a boat with my sister." He began cleaning his teeth, forestalling further discussion.
Unsatisfied with his answer, Trip followed him. "And?"
Malcolm gave him a falsely puzzled look, his mouth full of toothpaste.
"I'll wait." He crossed his arms and leaned a shoulder against the door frame.
Malcolm took his time. He really wasn't keen to have this conversation. He didn't mind talking about having seen Maddy on what had been a particularly good day of their childhood, but he had no intention of mentioning his first stop on his visit home. Frankly, he would rather have forgotten about it than share it with anyone—even Trip.
He rinsed his mouth and replaced his toothbrush in its holder. "Excuse me," he said pointedly, and Trip moved out of the doorway, letting him back into the cabin.
"C'mon, Malcolm," the younger man prodded. "I told you about the barbecue."
"You did. I'm surprised Lisa wasn't there."
Trip frowned. "Are you gonna throw that in my face for the rest of forever?"
Malcolm sighed. He hadn't meant to be snappish or bitter. He was letting his own insecurities rule his judgment and he knew it was wrong. "I'm sorry," he said sincerely. He took a deep breath as he sat on the edge of the bunk. "We were out in a canoe. I think I was about thirteen, maybe twelve. Maddy had found something under the water and she took me to see it."
"Under water?" asked Trip in surprise. He knew Malcolm wasn't a fan of deep water. "How far out were you?"
"I don't know. About a kilometer or a little more. But it turned out there was a sandbar below us only a few meters down. She'd found this amazing crab. It was brightly colored, mottled blue and green and red. I thought at the time that it looked like an alien life-form." He chuckled wryly, remembering their encounter with the Hipon—a large, sentient, and telepathic species of crustacean. "It was beautiful."
"That sounds great." Trip finally finished undressing, trading his uniform for a pair of pajama pants. He noticed Malcolm looking at him. "You don't mind just sleeping tonight, do you?"
"No." Malcolm shook his head and rose to his feet. "I'm too exhausted for anything else right now." What he didn't tell his lover was that his first stop "home" was what had him so wound up and worn out. He changed into his nightclothes as Trip turned on the bedside light and turned off the overhead.
"It has been a helluva day," agreed Trip.
They climbed into the bunk and Trip shut off the small light. The cabin went dark with just the stars to brighten it ever so slightly. The pair snuggled up together with Malcolm spooned in Trip's arms.
"I'm glad you got to have some fun while you were out," the engineer said softly. He rested his cheek against his lover's hair, enjoying the feel and smell of it.
"You, too," answered Malcolm, happy Trip couldn't see his face. He doubted he could have hidden his pained expression in spite of his years of practice at that very thing. "I love you, Trip."
"Love you, too, Malcolm."
Stephanie tossed and turned in her bunk. No matter what she tried she couldn't get comfortable. The events of the day haunted her conscious mind, keeping her from sleep. She wanted nothing more than to banish all thought and just sleep for a month. The steamed milk she'd had while talking with Bonnie was supposed to have helped, but she felt as awake and restless as she had before drinking it.
Her sympathy for Mae's occasional bouts of insomnia multiplied exponentially as the minutes ticked by. She wished she dared turn on a light, but she didn't want to risk waking Liz. Much as she felt she'd lucked out by being assigned Liz as a bunkmate, she desperately wished her friend had chosen to spend tonight with Travis. It would have made the time pass so much more quickly if only Stephanie could turn on some music or read a book. Anything to take her mind off of reality.
She glanced at the bedside chronometer. Green numbers glared at her—0221. She sighed, punched her pillow a couple of times, and rolled over yet again. Her mind spun and nothing she did could calm it. Every time she tried to focus on something, her thoughts inevitably returned to the day her father had died. Reliving it as she had had brought the old memories into sharp relief. She couldn't shake the image of him as he'd left the house that morning, promising to come home right after work.
Then she remembered something he'd said to her in a dream not very long ago. They had stood together on the family sailboat and he'd looked sad but also strong and resolute. "I only ever broke one promise in my life. I'm not going to break one again—especially not a promise to you," he'd said, wrapping his arm around her. It had almost felt as if he were really there, alive and warm and holding her.
Stephanie shifted position again, physically breaking her train of thought through the movement. I don't need to go there, she told herself firmly. There was no way for her to judge the passage of time other than by rolling over and checking the chronometer, so she did. She sighed heavily. 0242. Shit. She laid back and stared out of the small port at the passing stars.
I can't do this anymore.
Quietly she pushed back the covers and slipped out of bed. She padded barefoot to her locker and withdrew her robe. She slipped quickly out of the room, crossing mental fingers that the brief exposure of light from the corridor hadn't disturbed her bunkmate. But moments passed and she heard nothing on the other side of the door. With a nod of satisfaction, she donned her robe and headed off to the mess hall.
I should go to sickbay, she thought as she walked along Enterprise's silent corridors. Phlox would give me something but Phlox would ask why I needed it so, no. Not going there. Maybe another mug of warm milk will do the trick, though, eh? her mind continued, unconvinced and unconvincing. At least it'll kill some time.
To her surprise the mess hall wasn't deserted as she'd expected it to be at that hour. A lone figure sat at a table by the window, staring out into space. The lights in the room were dim but she knew immediately who it was—Ian. She hesitated briefly in the doorway, not wanting to disturb his solitude, but neither did she plan on leaving without what she'd come there to get.
She picked up a mug and set it under the drinks dispenser. A score of alternate drink possibilities passed through her mind, but she stuck with her original plan. "Steamed milk," she ordered quietly. As the mug began to fill, she glanced over to see if he'd heard her, only to catch him looking at her, then quickly looking away. Okay, she thought, he doesn't want to talk.
Stephanie waited for her drink in silence. When it was ready, she took it from the pad and went to leave.
With one hand raised and ready to open the door, she hesitated. She really had intended to go, but for whatever reason she instead lowered her hand slowly and once again turned to look at the lone figure by the window. He doesn't want to be bothered, her mind insisted.
Then why did he come to the armory when he was off duty yesterday morning? another part of her countered.
It was an argument she couldn't win without also losing, so she gave up trying. We don't have to talk, she said to herself as she crossed the room. But that doesn't mean I can't at least keep him company.
She reached the table without Ian ever looking her way, although she was certain he could see her dim reflection in the port as she approached. She sat across from him and set her mug on the table, wrapping her hands around it and staring out at the stars.
They sat that way for several minutes—long enough for Stephanie's steamed milk to cool to a comfortable drinking level. She sipped at it and wished it at least had a couple of espresso shots in it, even though that would have defeated the purpose entirely.
When Ian finally broke the silence, she was surprised. She'd begun to think she would actually finish her drink and leave without either of them ever saying a word.
"What was it like?" he asked, continuing to stare out the port.
"Oh." It wasn't what she'd guessed and she was glad she hadn't answered too readily. "The exchange itself? Or do you mean after that?"
"From what I heard, after a person made the crossing they could go anywhere. Time, place, whatever."
"Well yeah. I think so. I mean, that seemed to be what happened to me." She wasn't sure why he wanted to know. It certainly couldn't have been what had brought him to the armory the previous morning. That had been before they'd encountered the ship of non-corporeal aliens.
He met her reflected gaze. "Where or when did you go?"
She considered the question carefully even though it sounded straightforward enough. There had to be more in it than simply curiosity, otherwise this conversation could have waited for daytime.
"I went home," she answered at last.
"Home," he echoed. He looked away and focused again on the stars.
"Yeah. I saw my sister." She watched his face across the table and in the window. It was a strange double image, but the bitterness was clear in both. Stephanie made a decision. "Then I went back."
"Back in time to the day my father was killed."
Ian started ever so slightly and Stephanie suspected she was on the right track. His next words, however, made her doubt.
"You didn't go back to that alien ship? The one where The one that collapsed while you were still on it?"
"Gods no. I wouldn't relive that day for anything," Stephanie responded with quiet vehemence. "That day seriously sucked."
Ian chuckled once mirthlessly. "Yeah. I can see how it would," he said ironically. Finally he turned to face her directly. "But if you had gone there " He hesitated.
She waited, but he didn't go on. "If I'd gone there what?" she prompted eventually.
"Isn't it " He struggled to find the right words to explain what he was thinking. "Wouldn't you If you'd gone to that day, maybe you could have changed it. Made it so you got out before "
"Before I died?" she finished for him. Ian nodded and Stephanie shook her head. "I couldn't."
"Couldn't what? Go there? But you said—"
"I couldn't have changed anything." She stared down into her mug and watched several tiny bubbles in the foam pop as the liquid continued to cool. "Why do you think I went back to the day my dad died?" she said, looking back up at Ian. "That's not a day I ever wanted to relive, either, except to change how it ended. But I couldn't. I was there, sure, but I couldn't do anything differently than I had the first time."
Ian's expression didn't change, but she could see disappointment in his pale eyes.
"The crossing wasn't any kind of blessing, Ian," she said softly. "It was an invasion. Maybe some of the other crewmembers who were taken will tell you otherwise. I know Commander Tucker seems to have had a great time on his visits home, so to speak, but I'm also pretty sure he doesn't have the baggage you or I are stuck with. I could be wrong, but I don't think so."
Ian was silent for several seconds, digesting and assimilating everything she'd said. He knew his next question was none of his business, but it didn't stop him asking. "How old were you when your dad died?"
"I was twelve. There was an accident when he was out on the range."
"The range?" Stephanie asked, brow furrowed. She'd known his father was dead, but the cause wasn't the sort of information kept in Starfleet's general personnel records. "What? You mean the firing range?"
Ian gave another humorless laugh. "No. He was a cattle rancher. When I say the range, that's the kind I mean."
"Oh." This was news to her. She knew Ian was from Alberta, but it had never occurred to her to connect him with the many ranching families in that province.
"Never would have guessed, would you?" he said dryly, correctly surmising what she was thinking.
"Honestly, no. You just don't seem like a farm kind of guy."
"I'm not. Why do you think I left?" Now that he'd begun talking, it was as if a dam had burst. Ian found himself telling her things he'd only ever told Ari—and Ari was his best friend. "I wasn't cut out for ranching. That was pretty obvious really early on." He looked down, then out the window, then back at Stephanie. "My dad was a great guy, but he knew I'd never make it in his line of work. But it was okay because he always had my older brother. He's a born cattleman. He and my mom can handle the place just fine without me; they've been doing it since I left, and that was when I was seventeen. Hell, I was so eager to get out of there that I didn't even apply to the universities in Edmonton or Calgary or anywhere in Alberta, even though UA Edmonton has a great chem program."
"You went to NSU Halifax, right?" Stephanie vaguely recalled something of the sort although she couldn't remember where she'd learned it. "They're supposed have a great chemistry program, too."
"They do. And I got a scholarship and everything," he answered with a mix of pride and bitterness.
It was Stephanie's turn to laugh mirthlessly. "I was into a different kind of chemistry when I started college." He gave her an inquisitive look and she mimed a cocktail glass in one hand.
"Ah," said Ian. "That explains a couple of things."
"Only a couple?" joked Stephanie. "Try harder."
Ian smiled slightly. He appreciated her honesty and sense of humor on most occasions, and both were particularly welcome just then.
They sat in companionable silence for a while. Both found it a pleasant change from the tension that had filled the air when Stephanie had first sat down. She continued to drink her warm milk until the mug was empty. Then she looked into its vacant depths in mild annoyance. "Guess that's my cue to try and get to sleep again," she said, her voice laden with doubt about her possible success.
"That's probably a good idea," agreed Ian. They both stood somewhat reluctantly and headed to the door. "I " Ian began then hesitated. "Thanks."
Stephanie looked at him, a melancholy expression on her face. "You're welcome. See you in the morning?" she said as they stepped out of the mess hall and into the corridor.
"See you in a few hours," he replied more specifically.
"Ugh. You're right. Let's hope we both spend the intervening time in brief but blessed sleep."
"Amen. Good night."
"Good morning," Stephanie countered wryly, and Ian chuckled.
They parted, each heading to her or his own cabin. Both found their roommates sound asleep, fortunately undisturbed by the problems plaguing the minds of the two armory ensigns.
Stephanie and Ian slipped into their bunks and before long each of them drifted off into dreamless and untroubled sleep.