Log Rhythms - Season Two
Stephanie was happy to have the day off. Phlox had released her from sickbay only minutes ago with strict instructions to take it easy for the rest of the day. For once, the ensign didn't complain; she was ready for a day out of sickbay, but not quite ready for a day back on the job.
She entered her cabin and found it empty. The 'message waiting' light was flashing on the computer. She eyed it dubiously.
"Check the damn messages," she muttered to herself. "If you don't, that little light will drive you nuts." She sank into the chair and began to review the messages. Unsurprisingly, they were all for her. "At least there are only five of them."
The oldest one was a letter from home. Stephanie saved it to read later--when she no longer had the threat of other communiqués hanging over her head. She hated that sort of suspense.
The next two were armory updates. She skimmed them, looking for anything important enough to warrant deeper reading. There was nothing that couldn't wait.
The fourth was an invitation from Mae for another Girls' Night a week from Saturday. She quickly checked the duty roster for the relevant date before responding. Her reply consisted of two words. "I'm in."
The last message was from her bunkmate. Stephanie was surprised. It was rare when they had to leave each other notes; they usually saw one another on a daily basis. "Not today, apparently," she said, smiling as she read the message.
Liz was spending the night with Travis. Apparently she'd planned far enough ahead that she wouldn't even need to stop by the cabin to pick up any essentials before heading over to his quarters this evening. According to her message, Liz knew Stephanie had been released from sickbay, and thought maybe her friend would appreciate a quiet night to herself.
Stephanie laughed. While it was true she was looking forward to being where no one else could just walk in, where she was in no danger of being disturbed by doctors, she was sure this was simply Liz's excuse for spending the night with her man. "Silly girl. She should know she doesn't need excuses as far as I'm concerned."
The comm chimed, startling her. Her first instinct was to hide from the hail, claim later that she'd been asleep and missed it, but then the caller identified herself.
"Lawless to Cormack."
Stephanie snapped open the line. "Go ahead, lady," she replied brightly.
"You sound better."
"I feel better. Tired still, but oh so much better."
"Good. You think you'll be feeling well enough to meet for dinner tonight?"
"Sure. Any idea what's on the menu?"
"Not a clue," answered Mae. "But it's got to be better than hospital food, right?" she joked. All the food on Enterprise came from the same galley.
"I'll be happy just to be eating at a real table," replied Stephanie dryly. "What time?"
"Will 1900 hours work for you?"
"I'm off-duty. Any time works for me."
"Right on. I'll meet you at your place at 1900."
There was the familiar sound of the connection closing, and Stephanie was once more left in blessed silence. She had the whole day ahead of her in which to do nothing but relax and recuperate. She kicked off her boots and sat back, slouching comfortably in the desk chair. With one hand, she lazily reached out and hit the button that would open the saved letter from home. With luck, there would be ample baseball updates and perhaps even the Cordelia's Sisters and Hoolie-gans albums she'd been promised.
"Captain, are you sure you can't use me for this mission?" Tucker asked. The engineer's question bordered on a plea. He'd been feeling antsy for the past week, and he really wanted to go planetside and stretch his legs.
"It's just a simple information gathering mission, Trip," Archer told him. "We'll only be down there a few hours. Besides, it's a pre-warp society. The fewer people we send, the less chance there'll be for any cultural contamination."
Tucker was disappointed, but there was little more he could do. He was about out of arguments for why the captain should bring him on this particular mission.
Archer eyed him suspiciously. "Is there some special reason you want to visit this particular pre-warp society?" he asked.
"It's just I haven't seen one since we visited the Akaali homeworld, and that one was even pre-industrial. I just thought it might be interesting to see the contrasts."
"I see. So your desire to come stems entirely from anthropological interest." Tucker shrugged noncommittally, and Archer continued. "It doesn't have anything to do with the fact that I'm bringing Malcolm."
Another shrug. "It is on my list," admitted Tucker, chagrined.
Archer smiled. He'd guessed as much when he'd announced his plans for the landing party and Tucker had immediately requested permission to come with them. "You wouldn't have time for any real R&R, Trip. It's going to be a lot of walking, a lot of looking around and making notes "
"I'm good at taking notes." He knew he wasn't going to win this one, but he felt he had to give it one more try.
"Trip." Archer gave him that look he saved for occasions like this one--the raised eyebrows, tilted head, slightly scolding look for when he was done humoring his old friend. "One security officer and one communications officer. That's all I'm bringing this time."
"Yes, sir." Tucker tried not to appear too dejected. "Have fun."
Tucker hesitated just a moment more, hoping against hope that the captain was just yanking his chain and was split seconds away from relenting. It was a wasted effort. He gave one last nod of defeat and left the ready room.
Once alone, Archer laughed softly and shook his head. "Next time," he promised the departed engineer. "Next time, you can come."
The big topic of conversation at nearly every dinner table was the planet they orbited. The crew had limited information--just what a few had managed to cull from sources on the bridge and in the science departments. A pre-warp culture on the verge of a war, they said, not unlike Earth of about two centuries ago.
"Have you heard anything else?" asked Stephanie over her plate of rama chicken and rice.
"Not a thing," said Mae.
"Maybe Bonnie knows something."
Mae shook her head. "She didn't have bridge duty today. She just has a half-day shift in stellar cartography this evening."
"Damn." Stephanie was disappointed at this news on two levels.
"It's a moot point, anyway," Mae said. "The landing party should be back by now."
What the pair didn't know was that the landing party had returned only to discover they'd left something behind.
Malcolm was frantic, but he tried with every ounce of his being not to show it. He'd been mentally kicking himself ever since he'd discovered the loss of his communicator. The fact Hoshi had narrowed down their search area was of little consolation to the Brit. Now he and the captain were returning to the planet, risking cultural contamination for the second time in a day, all because of his carelessness.
A large part of him wished Captain Archer had taken Trip up on his offer to come with them and help in the search. A half smile crossed the armory officer's face as he remembered his partner's words.
"I'm a regular bloodhound," Tucker had said as Reed and Archer stepped into the turbolift.
But Archer had said no.
"We're approaching the landing site," the captain said, pulling Reed back to the present. "Any sign of a welcoming committee?"
Reed checked the scanners. "No, sir. We appear to have avoided detection by their military aircraft, and the landing site is deserted."
"Good. I'm taking us down."
"Any word from the landing party?" asked Trip. He was in Main Engineering, but he was finding it hard to concentrate on work. He figured a quick call to the bridge might settle his mind. He was wrong.
"Nothing yet, Commander," Sato informed him. She sounded tense and concerned. Her tone only served to heighten Tucker's own anxiety.
"Shouldn't they have checked in about half an hour ago?" he asked, although he already knew to the minute how overdue their hail was.
Trip made up his mind. "I'll be there in a minute," he informed her.
On the bridge, Sato closed the comm and turned to see an inquisitive T'Pol looking her way. "Commander Tucker's on his way up."
"I heard. I am simply puzzled as to what he thinks his presence here will accomplish," T'Pol said. "It won't make the landing party report any sooner."
"No, Sub-commander," agreed Sato. She didn't bother to try to explain to the Vulcan that, while it might not do any material good, it might make Tucker feel better.
Stephanie awoke from her dream gasping for breath and sweating. She sat up and reached out a shaking hand through the darkness and turned on her bedside light. She pulled her knees up, wrapping her arms tightly around them. Slowly, her breathing slowed.
She was glad Liz wasn't in tonight. Stephanie would have hated to wake her with yet another disturbing dream; the exobiologist had had enough of her own lately, although they seemed to have passed. Stephanie wasn't so lucky.
She tried to remember what she'd been dreaming. Ropes and scalpels, jefferies tubes and emergency lighting were the only things she could be sure of. Everything else stubbornly eluded her conscious mind.
"This is really getting old," Stephanie muttered angrily to the empty cabin as she threw back the blankets. She rose, stretching muscles tensed from dreaming. A quick glance at the chronometer told her it was still the middle of the night. She shook her head in annoyance. "First night back in my own bed, and I can't even enjoy it."
She quickly used the lav, then got herself a glass of water, drinking it down without stopping for a breath. She was wired; she knew she wouldn't be able to sleep for a while. Instead, she fished her big, hardbound copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare from its cubbyhole. She climbed back into her bunk, adjusted the covers, settled the heavy book on her knees, and turned to her favorite comedy. With luck, she'd be out by the time Dogberry made his first entrance, and there was no one to be bothered if she fell asleep with the light on.
Things on the planet had gone from bad to worse. Not only had they been unable to retrieve the missing communicator, they had also lost a second communicator, two scanners, and worst of all, a phase pistol.
That's what happens when you're arrested and imprisoned as enemy spies, thought Malcolm sardonically.
He and Archer both stood, silent as stones, in the prison cell. Neither man had spoken in a long time, not since Malcolm had said in a moment of desperate optimism, "I'm expecting a rescue party to come barging through that door any moment." That was well over an hour ago. By the tactical officer's estimate, they had less than thirty minutes left before they would be hanged.
Malcolm supposed he shouldn't have been surprised when the alien general had announced their impending execution, but it had hit him like a physical blow all the same. He'd been standing in the darkest corner of the cell, the same corner where he stood now. His feet ached from all the walking done earlier and all the standing about more recently, but he was disinclined to move. His mind reeled with everything he'd left undone aboard Enterprise. There was a status report due and duty rosters that needed reviewing. He'd planned to do some work on the phase pistols. (Their beams had a limited distance before they lost cohesion; he'd hoped to improve their range.) There were all sorts of things his replacement would need to know, and he'd never get the chance to pass on his knowledge.
Most of all, he regretted that he'd never get the chance to say a proper good-bye to Trip. He and Archer had rushed off so quickly in search of his missing equipment that Malcolm hadn't said so much as, "See you later." Now he wouldn't see him later. He wouldn't ever see him again.
Malcolm took a slow, deep breath, forcing down the lump that was growing in his throat. He was relieved when Archer spoke.
"I forgot to ask Hoshi to look after Porthos," he said softly.
Reed wasn't sure he'd heard him correctly. "Sir?"
Archer was leaning against the bars of the cell. He'd been standing there for at least half an hour, Malcolm judged. The captain turned his head enough to look in the tactical officer's direction. "I forgot to ask Hoshi to look after Porthos. We left so quickly, and I never expected to be gone so long. I hope she thinks to feed him. It's the middle of the night on Enterprise, and I didn't get the chance to feed him while we were back. He's probably pretty hungry by now."
Reed didn't know what to say, doubted there was anything to say. "Yes, sir."
There was another silence as Archer regarded the younger man. "How are you doing?" he asked finally.
"I'm fine, sir," replied Reed shortly, his voice rough.
"I'm sorry, Malcolm."
The words surprised Reed. Surely the captain didn't blame himself for their predicament? It was Reed who had lost his communicator; it was Reed's stories of genetic enhancements that had put them in their current predicament. Sure, the lies had convinced their captors they weren't aliens, but it was those same lies that had decided them to execute the captives. As far as Reed was concerned, there was no one to blame but himself.
"Captain, I--" He stopped short. What could he say? "It's not your fault, sir," he said. The words sounded lame even to his own ears, and he wondered if Archer would believe them.
"I'm responsible for my crew, Malcolm. I'm sorry I let you down this time," Archer said. He moved from the cell door to sit on one of the uncomfortable sleeping pallets. "I wish I could apologize to Trip, too, before But it's just you and me now. So, I'm sorry," he repeated firmly.
Reed was at a loss. He wanted to protest. He wanted to say something to make the Captain understand that he didn't hold him responsible. But he couldn't find the words and he suddenly realized that wasn't what Archer needed to hear at that moment anyway. Archer needed absolution, and Reed was the only one who could give it to him.
He finally pushed away from the wall, muscles complaining at the movement after such long stillness. He sat on the corner of the nearest pallet and looked at his captain. "Apology accepted, sir," he said quietly.
Archer's slumped shoulders relaxed ever so slightly. Unable to speak, he simply nodded his thanks.
The past ninety minutes had flown by in a haze for Commander Tucker. He and Mayweather had been working on their rescue plan like men possessed. Unfortunately, the Suliban cell-ship stubbornly refused to cooperate. Every time Trip thought he had the cloaking generator figured out, something would go wrong. He was fast losing his patience.
"All right," he said to Mayweather. "Take all the weapons and any defensive systems not related to the cloak offline. We'll reroute the power to the cloaking generator."
"All of them?" Travis asked. They were planning to fly the small pod into hostile territory. Even with a working cloak, he wasn't keen on the idea of going in defenseless.
"All of them," repeated Trip.
The younger man nodded and set to work.
They worked silently, side by side. Every moment that passed caused Trip more worry and frustration. He was beginning to hate this cell-ship. They'd had it on board for over a year, and in all that time the one system he hadn't been able to figure out satisfactorily was now the one system they needed more than any of the others.
"Damn it," he muttered angrily under his breath.
"Commander?" asked Mayweather, concerned.
"Nothing, Travis. It's just time's getting short, and if this doesn't work, I don't know what will. I'm out of ideas."
"It'll work, sir," Travis said confidently.
Trip looked at him. It wasn't often he found himself in the position of pessimist, but the helmsman's optimism at that moment far outstripped his own. He had a sudden memory of being stuck in Shuttlepod One with Malcolm.
They'd been talking about everyone left behind, and Trip had expressed his plans to tell Hoshi's family how much of an asset she'd been to the mission. Malcolm, in the midst of recording heartfelt yet oddly impersonal letters to a slew of exes back in San Francisco, had suggested Trip would want to record letters of his own later.
Trip's claim that he'd tell them in person had caused Malcolm's usual reserve to weaken a bit. It was the first time Trip could remember Malcolm actually talking back to a superior officer, and for all that it was a mild rebuke.
"You know, your treacly optimism is beginning to get just a little bit tiresome," Malcolm had informed him.
Right now, Trip would have given anything for even a fraction of that optimism, treacly or otherwise. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "You're right, Travis," he said resolutely. "It'll work." He stepped down out of the ship and walked a few paces away before turning back around to look at it. "Turn it on."
There was a moment of breathless anticipation while the ensign engaged the cell-ship's cloaking device.
"Well?" Travis asked from his seat in the pod. "Is it working?"
Trip's eyes narrowed as he stared intently at the ship, or rather, at Travis sitting in the ship's cockpit, suspended in mid-air. It was a disturbing but highly gratifying sight. He grinned. "Yep. It's working."
His grin was matched by Mayweather's. "Then let's get going!"
Trip jogged the few steps to the comm panel by the door and hailed T'Pol. He didn't hesitate once she'd acknowledged the call. "We're ready to go, Sub-commander."
"I'll be there momentarily. T'Pol out."
At that moment, Malcolm couldn't have cared less about cultural contamination. All he wanted was to be out of there and safe in Trip's arms back on Enterprise.
The guard slid the noose roughly over Malcolm's head. Malcolm couldn't help flinching at the feel of it, at the tension as it was tightened around his neck. He briefly contemplated closing his eyes, but decided against it. Whatever was coming, he wanted to see it.
There was a rushing noise abruptly followed a strong, hot wind. Malcolm blinked rapidly as the dirt of the courtyard was kicked up and blown into his eyes. He looked around and found his own confusion mirrored in the face of his captain. They turned at the sound, not entirely unfamiliar but still unplaceable in either man's mind. Then the oddest apparition appeared.
It was an arm, inexplicably floating in mid-air and aiming a phase pistol. With two shots fired and two guards down, the arm was followed by the figure of Trip. Close behind him was T'Pol. They continued firing at the guards who had taken cover and begun to return fire. T'Pol kept Trip covered as he raced up the steps to the gallows.
Archer felt the cold metal of the knife as it cut through the bonds around his wrists. Once loose, he reached to pull the noose from his neck as Trip cut Malcolm free.
The next two minutes were a blur for Malcolm. Someone--was it T'Pol or Trip?--had pressed a phase pistol into his hand. After a split-second check to make certain the weapon was set to stun, he'd started firing. Despite all the chaos, a thought struck him, and he looked at Archer who was crouched next to him behind the gallows platform.
"Sir, the phase pistol, our equipment," he said over the sound of gunfire.
Archer paused only a moment. "Don't leave without me." Malcolm nodded and laid down covering fire as the captain worked his way back into the building.
One by one, Malcolm, Trip, and T'Pol raced across the open compound to the cloaked and waiting cell-ship. While its exterior was invisible, Malcolm could see the bottom of the cockpit and someone's feet inside it. Setting his sights on those feet hovering about a meter above the ground, he put his head down and ran. He could hear the guards' gunfire increase, but so did the covering phase pistol fire from his rescuers. In seconds, he reached the pod and climbed inside.
"Good to see you, Travis," he said a bit breathlessly as he identified the owner of the feet.
"Welcome back, Lieutenant," replied the helmsman.
Malcolm balanced himself as best he could and, catching T'Pol's eye from across the compound, began to lay down more covering fire. Once she was with them, they repeated the process for Trip. The engineer climbed in, making the small cockpit that much more crowded. Malcolm didn't mind in the least--although he'd have preferred being squished by the bulk of his lover rather than T'Pol's slim form.
Trip peered out of the cell-ship, eyes trained on the door through which the captain had disappeared. "Come on," he muttered nervously. He fired almost offhandedly and took out another guard. "Come on There he is!"
Archer was in the doorway, pockets bulging and a set of files pressed to his chest. He shot two more guards before racing toward the pod. He handed the files off to Trip, who then grabbed his hand and hauled him bodily into the ship.
"Let's go!" gasped Archer, as the hatch sealed behind him.
Reed hadn't yet cleaned up since his return to the ship. Phlox had passed him and the captain through the bioscans as quickly and easily as he had earlier that day. The doctor had also offered to treat Reed's few small injuries, but Malcolm was impatient to see Trip. The rescue party had dropped off Reed and Archer back at the shuttlepod--still blessedly undiscovered--and the trio had returned in the cell-ship while the pair flew the pod back to Enterprise.
Once aboard, Malcolm had gone immediately to Trip's cabin, but the lovers' reunion wasn't quite what Malcolm had been hoping for. Instead of a heartfelt embrace, the blond man had held out a hand to keep him at a distance. At Malcolm's puzzled questioning, Trip explained.
Malcolm couldn't hide his astonishment. "You cloaked your arm!?" he exclaimed, incredulous.
"Not on purpose! I took a jolt from the cell-ship's cloaking generator and well you can see the results for yourself. Or not see, I suppose." Slowly, almost as if he were embarrassed, Trip pulled off the glove Phlox had given him to reveal nothing.
Malcolm stared in disbelief. "But it's there. I saw you fire a phase pistol--with outstanding accuracy, I might add," he said with an approving smile.
Trip returned it with a small half-smile of his own. "Thanks." Then his smile faded. "But I don't know what I'm gonna do about this." He wiggled invisible fingers, then remembered Malcolm couldn't see them. His shoulders slumped and he sat heavily, letting his hand fall to his lap. He yanked off his boots and tossed them negligently in the direction of the closet, then pulled his feet up onto his bunk and leaned against the bulkhead. Idly, he played with the empty glove.
"How long has it been like that?" Malcolm asked him, taking a seat on the edge of the bunk.
"Hours," answered Trip morosely.
"Has it gotten any better?"
"Haven't checked in a while." Here he shot Malcolm an ironic look. "Been kind of busy."
Malcolm chuckled. "Yes, you have. And I'm very glad. Now come on, roll up your sleeve. How far did you say the cloaking went?" When it was clear Trip wasn't moving, he reached over grasped the engineer's wrist just at the cuff of his sleeve. He undid the cuff and pushed the sleeve back.
"It was up past my elbow," Trip told him unenthusiastically.
"Hmm. Well I can't get your sleeve that far," announced Malcolm, "so undo your uniform and take your shirt off."
"Don't argue. Just do it." At Trip's stubborn look, he tried another tactic. "Humor me, please?" he asked sweetly. "I've had a hell of a day."
Trip let out a brief, mirthless chuckle, but did as he was told. As it turned out, he was glad he'd given in to Malcolm's request; while his forearm and hand were still cloaked, his elbow was once again visible. He bent the joint a number of times, marveling at its return. He smiled.
"That's better," Malcolm said, noticing the smile.
Trip looked at him and nodded. "It sure is," he agreed, meaning his arm. His eyes finally focused properly on his partner. Once he'd known Malcolm was safely back aboard, Trip's thoughts had returned to his own invisible predicament. Now that it appeared to be correcting itself, he remembered Malcolm was hurt.
He reached out his left hand--the one he could see--and turned Malcolm's head a little to one side. He hissed at the clear sight of the split and swollen lip. "Ouch," he said in sympathy.
"It's not so bad."
"Sure it's not," said Trip, knowing it was untrue. "What'd they hit you with?"
"Butt of one of those automatic guns of theirs." He didn't add that they'd used it first to slam him in the gut. The memory caused him to unconsciously place a hand over the area of his midriff where they'd hit him.
Trip saw the move and misinterpreted it. "You hungry?" he asked, and released his gentle hold on Malcolm's chin.
Then realization dawned on the engineer. He pulled his shirt back on and stood abruptly, zipping up his uniform. He crossed the room in three quick strides.
"What are you doing?" asked Malcolm, startled.
"Putting my boots on," Trip informed him. He sat at the desk and pulled them on.
"Because we're going to sickbay."
Malcolm watched him, recognized the firm set of his jaw and the determined look in his eye. "This isn't an argument I'm going to win, is it." It wasn't a question. As such, Trip didn't bother to answer it.
He stood. "Let's go, Lieutenant."
"Good morning, Lieutenant," said Cormack, then abruptly stifled a yawn.
"Up late last night?" her C.O. asked pleasantly.
"Yeah, but not in a good way."
Reed chuckled. "I'm sorry to hear that."
"Thanks," replied Cormack, fully aware of the teasing she was getting. There were those who wouldn't have caught it, but to the ensign it was more than clear. "We can't all be as lucky as you," she added dryly.
He chuckled again. "I suppose not," he agreed coyly.
Cormack shook her head. "I didn't expect to see you here this morning," she continued, hoping to draw the conversation away from her solitary and sleepless night. She'd heard about the eleventh-hour rescue of the Captain and Reed. Had she been in their situation last night, she'd have been happily hiding in her bed at this moment, trying to forget the whole thing.
"It's better than sitting around," said Reed. "Besides, I have a report to write to Starfleet, and there are some new security protocols to work on. However, I wanted to check in here first to see how everything was going."
"Fine, fine," Cormack assured him, yawning again. "Sorry."
"You did get your coffee this morning, didn't you?" he asked, lightly teasing.
"Yes, sir. I guess I should have gotten more."
"Why were you up so late last night, anyway?"
"Really?" He was doubtful. "You certainly look as though you could sleep now."
"Yeah. No. It wasn't insomnia. I kept having bizarre dreams last night." She shrugged. "Probably should go for less spice on the rama chicken next time," she joked.
"Apparently. Are you going to make it through the day?" Reed gave her a concerned look; she really did appear to be all but asleep on her feet.
"Actually " She hesitated. It was such an unprofessional request she hated to ask it.
"Yes?" prompted the lieutenant.
"Would you mind if I just ran to the mess hall and grabbed another latté?" Cormack blurted out. "I'll be back before you know it."
"Go. Get your fix. But be back here A.S.A.P. I need to get to work on that report."
"Aye, sir. You'll never miss me." She climbed the steps to the upper level where she paused. "Thanks!" Then she disappeared out the door.
Reed smiled to himself at her departure, shaking his head in amusement. Then, just out of curiosity, he checked the time. How long would it take the ensign to get to the mess hall, get her drink, and return to the armory? No time would be definitive of course; too much depended on external elements like how long the turbolift took to arrive and the possible line at the drinks dispenser.
Apparently, Cormack encountered neither of these delays. She was back, latté in hand, in under four minutes.
"Well done," said Reed as she descended the open metal staircase. "I can't say for certain, but I'd guess that was a record," he joked.
Cormack took a deep breath and let it out. "Thank you, sir. I'm very proud," she quipped in return. "But seriously, Lieutenant, thanks. I'll be good now."
"Why do I doubt that claim?"
She gave him a mock-offended look. "I'm always very good!"
Reed considered responding, then stopped himself. "I'm not going near that," he declared.
The ensign laughed. "Probably a good choice."
"All right." The Tactical Officer took one more look around the quiet armory. "If you have everything under control here " He was rewarded with an ironic look from Cormack. He smiled. "Then I'll leave the armory in your capable hands. Just try not to spill coffee on anything."
"Of course not, sir! It's far too valuable."
It took him a split second to realize she meant the coffee and not the equipment. He shook his head. "I'll see you later, Ensign."
"Yes, sir." She raised her drink as if toasting him. "Have fun with that report."
"Oh yes. I'm looking forward to telling them all about my visit to the planet who's culture we just damaged beyond hope of repair."
"It's not that bad, is it?"
"I don't suppose we'll ever find out. Excuse me, Ensign."
Reed headed up the stairs and out of the armory.
"You're making very good progress, Commander," Phlox said heartily.
"I'm glad you think so," Trip said.
His arm was definitely beginning to make its reappearance, but not in any way he would have expected. Instead of all fading back in at once, or a gradual reemergence that spread from his elbow down toward his fingers, the limb was returning in bits and pieces. Patches here and there were randomly revealing themselves. Every time he checked, there were more. Right now, a large section of the inside of his forearm was visible, which wouldn't have been so bad if he couldn't see the actual inside of his arm from the opposite side. He shuddered, rolling his sleeve back down over the offending appendage.
His hand was also beginning to reappear, but in a slightly less disturbing way. His thumb and ring finger were fully visible, but the rest of the hand remained stubbornly absent from view. "I'm getting real sick of this glove," he said, pulling the item on.
"Patience, patience. There is no reason to believe your hand and arm won't fully reappear if you just give them time."
"You sure there's nothing you can do?"
Phlox gave him a chiding look. "We've had this conversation more than once," he reminded his patient.
"I know, I know," said Trip, defeated. He hopped off the biobed and headed to the door. "Thanks, Doc."
"I'll see you this afternoon," replied the Denobulan.
"Yep. 17:00. I'll be here..." He waved his gloved hand in the air. " mostly."
"Are you coming home tonight, or are you spending another night with your man?" Stephanie asked her bunkmate over dinner.
Liz smiled coyly. "I'll be out tonight," she replied.
"Good for you! Live large."
Stephanie paused, her glass of water halfway to her mouth. She set it back down. "That just brought me images I so did not need to have in my head."
"What are you doing tonight?" her bunkmate asked, deliberately changing the subject.
"Sadly, I have nowhere else to be, so I'll be staying in. Actually, Ryn sent me the new Cordelia's Sisters and I'm planning on just kicking back and enjoying it."
"That's great! Did your sister happen to send the new Hoolie-gans album, too?" Liz asked hopefully. She liked the Wiccan punk band, but the violent Celtic fiddles of the Hoolie-gans had won her over the first time she'd heard them.
"Nope. The release got delayed. Now it's not due until December."
"It is," agreed Stephanie. She took a bite of her lasagna, then made an odd face.
"What is it?" asked Liz.
Instead of answering, the blonde scooped up another forkful of the steamy pasta dish and held it out to Liz. "Does this taste right to you?"
Dubious, Liz took the bite and chewed it thoughtfully. She swallowed and said, "It tastes kind of bland to me."
"That's what I thought. That's not like Chef."
"Maybe he's just having an off night."
"Maybe. How's the soup?" Stephanie gestured to her bunkmate's dinner selection.
"Huh. Oh well. As my mother always said when she produced an uninspiring meal, 'It will sustain life.'"
"Did that happen often?"
Trip rang the chime to Malcolm's quarters.
"Come in," called the lieutenant. The door opened to reveal the engineer, and Malcolm looked at him in mild surprise. He rose and approached him. "Since when do you knock? You know you're always welcome here," he said, wrapping his arms around the blond and kissing him hello.
"Wasn't sure you were home," said Trip once he'd been released from the embrace. He took a step back and held up his hand. "Look."
Malcolm smiled. "Good as new."
"Almost. Take a closer look."
Malcolm did as requested, peering intently at the hand. "That's certainly an unusual effect," he said at last.
"Yeah," agreed Trip. He held his hand up to his face and, closing one eye, squinted through the last remaining patch of cloaking--a small "hole" just below his index finger. "Sure is a weird perspective. Wonder what it'd look like if I took a picture through it?"
"I don't have a camera."
"I could get mine. It's in my quarters." He continued to stare through the window in his hand, sighting on various items around the cabin. When his gaze landed on Malcolm, he smiled. "You're good to look at through any perspective," he said, lowering his hand.
"Thank you." Malcolm returned the smile. He took Trip's hand and laced his fingers through the engineer's. "Were you going to go get your camera?" he asked. He began kissing his partner's fingers one by one.
"Uh it can wait."
"Good." He let go and moved quickly to the desk where he'd been working when Trip arrived. "I have some new security protocols I want your opinion on before I show them to Sub-commander T'Pol tomorrow morning."
Trip stood momentarily stunned. The abrupt change of mood had caught him completely unprepared. "You're so mean!" he exclaimed, but his words held no malice. He approached Malcolm at the desk.
"I'll make it up to you. Just take a look at this and tell me what you think."
"Then can we get back to what we were doing just a second ago?"
"Absolutely," promised Malcolm.
"All right." Trip sat at the desk and began to read.
It was late when Cormack finally bothered to check the time. "Shit!" she exclaimed to the empty cabin. "I should go to bed." She reached out to shut off the music, but paused. She'd spent the entire evening listening to the new album her sister had sent. One track in particular intrigued her. It was a new arrangement of a cover song they'd done when she'd played with Daughters of Lear. That track was rerunning now. She figured she'd turn the recording off when the song ended.
She bounced a little to the fast beat of the piece until the guitar riff during the bridge caught her attention. She cocked her head, listening intently. When the final verse started up, she quickly paused the recording, backed it up, and played the section again.
"That's so cool," she muttered, playing it back a third time. "Huh."
She happened to catch a glimpse of her bedside chronometer again at that moment. "Turn the music off, Stephanie," she told herself firmly, then followed her own command. She quickly changed into her pink pajamas and headed to the lav to brush her teeth, humming the guitar riff the whole way.
Reed looked up from the armory's main console. "You're late, Ensign."
"Yes, sir," said Cormack contritely. "Sorry, sir."
She'd slept through her alarm. It had taken a hail from Lawless, wondering why she hadn't met her for breakfast as planned, to wake her. By then less than five minutes remained until her shift began. Cormack had pulled on a clean uniform, grabbed a ponytail holder, and run out the door. The lift ride to F-deck was just enough for her to corral her wild hair into a quick braid. She'd wrapped the band around the bottom as she stepped into the armory.
"Get a toolkit and a communicator," Reed ordered flatly.
"Yes, sir." The ensign gathered the equipment from a locker, wondering as she did so what joyless task she was about to be stuck with. It had to be a day when there were people here, didn't it? she thought, glancing surreptitiously around and counting half a dozen crewmen. Every one of them avoided looking back at her. Of course.
Cormack was thoroughly annoyed with herself. It was her own damn fault she was late. She'd lost all track of time listening to the new Cordelia's Sisters album last night. She still had the guitar riff from one particular song in her head, in fact. It didn't help matters that she'd been up much of the night before that with strange dreams.
And I've had no coffee. It'll probably be a good thing if the lieutenant sends me into a jefferies tube where I can't spread my lovely mood, she thought morosely.
"Sir," she said, returning with the toolbox in one hand and the communicator in the other.
"Power relay R-97 is in need of replacing. I was going to contact Engineering and have them send someone to deal with it, but you can handle it." He handed her a new power relay. Cormack quickly tucked her communicator into a pocket before taking the piece of equipment from him.
"Thank you, Lieutenant."
Cormack headed off to the starboard side of the armory. She had to set down her burdens in order to remove the access panel there. Hands once more full, she stepped in and worked her way to power relay R-97. When she finally reached it, she set the toolbox and new relay to one side and opened the panel to reveal the malfunctioning equipment. A quick scan showed that R-97 was completely burned out. Lovely. No wonder Malcolm's so annoyed. Without this puppy running, we're stuck without targeting scanners for the phase-cannons--unless we want to reroute half the systems.
She pulled out her communicator and flipped it open. "Cormack to Armory."
She was surprised to hear crewman Martinez respond. "Go ahead."
"I'm here, Juliana. Can you confirm there's no power trying to run through this busted relay?"
"Just a moment." There was a pause before Martinez said, "Confirmed. All clear."
"Thanks." Cormack set the communicator aside, but left the comm line open. She fished a sonic driver from the toolkit and began to disengage the dead relay. She didn't realize she was humming until Martinez commented on it.
"Are you humming?" the crewman's hushed voice came through the line.
"Huh?" Cormack replied, startled. "I guess so. Sorry. Where'd the lieutenant go, anyway?" she asked.
"Staff meeting on the bridge."
"Oh." Cormack continued to work in silence--or so she thought.
"You're humming again, Ensign," Martinez informed her, an amused tone in her voice now.
"Damn. I am, aren't I? Sorry. I'll just close the comm line until I need you again. How's that sound?"
"That's probably a good idea."
"Come on," joked the ensign, "I don't suck that much do I?"
"Not at all. It's simply that it doesn't sound like my kind of music."
"Yeah," Cormack was forced to agree. "Wiccan punk isn't everyone's cuppa java. I'll let you know when I'm done in here. Cormack out."
"Fraser to Lawless."
Mae's head jerked up. She'd been so engrossed in the phase coil she was aligning that the hail caught her completely by surprise. She reached into her pocket and pulled out her communicator. "Lawless here. What is it?"
"Lunchtime. Don't you remember?" her bunkmate asked. "We're meeting for lunch today so I can ask you about that thing?" The way she said "thing" implied more specifics than Fraser wanted to reveal over an unsecured comm.
"Right on. Sorry. I lost track of time. I'll be right there in five minutes."
"Good. Fraser out."
Lawless looked longingly at the phase coil. She wanted to get its alignment just right. She hesitated for a brief second, then shook her head. "After lunch," she said to herself. "It can wait half an hour."
Cormack didn't bother to return to finish her duty shift that afternoon. The strains of the song that were stuck in her head had her completely mesmerized. She couldn't think about anything else.
Alone in her quarters, she listened to the song yet again. She'd set the computer to continually loop the section that so fascinated her. Unconsciously, she began to finger the strings of an imaginary guitar, trying to work out the riff.
"This isn't working," she said to the room after several unsuccessful minutes. She abandoned her air-guitar and searched the cabin, looking for something, anything that could simulate the neck of a guitar.
"Damn it! Nothing!" An idea struck her. "The Quartermaster!"
Leaving the music playing, she hurried out and went in search of the ship's quartermaster.
"What did Hoshi call this again?" Bonnie asked, taking another bite of the delicately flavored soup.
"Oden," answered Mae. "It's one of those dishes that's completely different depending on who makes it, but it's always called the same thing--like sukiyaki."
"Yeah, but I still like my dad's better."
"Don't say that to Hoshi. She seems kind of defensive. Did you see her talking to Lieutenant Reed and Commander Tucker?"
"No. I didn't notice. Listen," said Lawless suddenly, setting her spoon down. "I need to go. There's a project I'm working on, and I really need to get back to it."
"But I never got to ask you about what I wanted to ask you about," protested Bonnie, glancing surreptitiously around the mess hall.
Mae hesitated only briefly. "I really need to go. How about we meet for dinner? You can ask me then." She rose.
"But--" Bonnie wanted to argue, but it was too late; Lawless was already half way to the door.
"Dinner," the engineer called back over her shoulder.
Bonnie could only nod, although she was sure her bunkmate didn't even notice. She sat alone, finishing her lunch and thinking. I suppose I could do my own research in the meantime. There must be something in the personnel files at least. Not really what I'm looking for, but it's a place to start. I just need to get past the clearance codes
She'd gotten no satisfaction from the quartermaster. For some reason he was completely absorbed in making a pair of boots. He informed her that he'd already resequenced the soles twice, and he simply didn't have time to deal with her request right then. If she could come back in a day or two, he might be done with his current project, but he couldn't make any guarantees. Stephanie had thanked him ungraciously and left.
"What the hell's so important about a pair of boots?" she wondered aloud as she strode along the corridor. "Fine. If he won't help, I'll do it myself. I don't need a real guitar, after all. I just need the neck and the strings and the front." Her mind made up, she headed to Main Engineering.
Once there, she found the person she was looking for was currently somewhere in a jefferies tube in the starboard nacelle. "Damn." She looked at Dillard, who had given her this unhelpful information. She supposed she could ask him. It wasn't as if the items she wanted to borrow weren't open to anyone who knew how to use them. She would simply have felt better asking a close friend. "I don't suppose you could let me borrow a laser micrometer and a plasma torch, could you? I only need them for, like, an hour or two?"
Dillard shrugged. He had his own stuff to deal with and couldn't be bothered to care. "They're in the locker over there," he informed her, pointing to the storage unit in question.
"Thanks." Cormack quickly collected the tools. The laser micrometer was just what she needed to find the right size pieces of disilicon polymer to simulate the neck and front of a guitar. With luck, she could also find a suitable substance to be used as mock-up strings. If not, she would just have to resequence something. She had to figure out the fingerings of that riff.
Humming, she headed off to the ship's stores.
Liz was all prepared. Soft music played; two glasses of red wine waited patiently on the nightstand; the cabin lights were dimmed romantically. She wished she had some candles. Briefly, the exobiologist considered running to her cabin and borrowing a couple of Stephanie's. She was sure her bunkmate wouldn't mind. Even one would add tremendously to the mood. It was irrelevant that open flames were prohibited unless one could get permission from Captain Archer.
She checked the time and did a quick mental calculation. Liz sighed, disappointed. There wasn't time. Travis should be getting off duty at that very moment. Assuming he left the bridge right now, there was no way she could put her uniform back on, get to her cabin and return to his with the candles, and then change back into her red silk nightgown before he arrived.
"Oh well," she said to the empty cabin. "This will just have to do. I have the important elements, anyway. Well," she amended, "most of the important elements." She looked at the chronometer. "Come on, Travis. I'm waiting."
Stephanie didn't stop when the blisters formed on her fingers. She paused momentarily, cursing herself for being so out of practice that her calluses were years gone, then shook out her fingers and continued to play through the pain.
She kept playing when the blisters broke. It wasn't until her fingertips began to bleed, turning the strings and the board below them sticky, that she stopped. She cleaned up the makeshift guitar neck and used the first-aid kit in the lav to treat her wounds. Then, liquid bandages over the pads of the damaged fingers, she sat back down to play.
All the while, the same recording played in the background.
Liz awoke to find herself still alone. She checked the time, surprised to find she'd actually slept through the night. Of course that meant she hadn't gotten what she wanted and now she was supposed to go on duty. "Not good, Liz. Not good."
She'd been unable to concentrate on her work all of yesterday. Her usual delight in how her experiments were progressing was strangely lacking. She couldn't focus. Admittedly she hadn't gotten much sleep the night before, but it had been for all the right reasons. Liz smiled, remembering.
But what happened last night? she wondered in frustration. Where's Travis?
Clearly he'd never returned last night. Liz had fallen asleep waiting for him. He'd been scheduled to upgrade the navigation sensors yesterday, and she supposed it was possible the job was taking longer than expected.
But not all night! He has other obligations, thank you very much!
Liz sat up and threw back the covers of Travis's bunk. Rising, she pulled on the silky red robe that matched the nightie she wore, and sat at the computer.
No messages. That's not like him at all.
She quickly ran a search to find her missing lover.
"Sickbay? What's he doing in sickbay?" she murmured aloud, puzzled. Her expression grew concerned. "I hope he's all right! I have plans for that man!"
She rose from the desk and tied the belt on her robe as she headed for the door. It felt as though her whole body was humming with electricity. She had to get to Travis.
Phlox glanced up as the door to sickbay opened. "Ah! Hello, Ensign," he said pleasantly. "Come to assist?"
"Assist?" asked Liz. "Assist in what?"
"Ensign Mayweather's surgery, of course." The Denobulan gestured to the biobed where Travis lay sedated.
"Do I look like I came to assist in your surgery?" asked Liz a little sharply. She was beyond impatient. She wanted Travis, and she wanted him now.
Phlox took in her minimal attire and paused. "No, you don't," he answered. "But there's an extra surgical gown in the cupboard if you'd care to put it on."
"No, thank you. I have other plans for Ensign Mayweather, if you don't mind." She approached the biobed determinedly and looked down at Travis's slack face. "Wake up!" she ordered. He didn't respond. She grasped his strong shoulders and shook him none too gently. "Wake up!" she repeated more forcefully.
"Now, now, Ensign," interrupted Phlox, putting a hand on her arm. "Shaking him is hardly going to help his condition."
That made Liz pause. "Condition? What condition? Is he all right?"
"I don't know yet. That's what the surgery is meant to find out."
"But can't it wait? I won't take long, I promise. Just wake him up, and you can have him back as soon as I'm done with him."
"I'm afraid that's out of the question."
"But I need him right now. Awake would be preferable, but I can manage if he's not. I've been waiting for ages! We haven't had sex in " She quickly checked the time. " over thirty hours."
"Isn't this something you can handle on your own? Humans have a long and rich history of masturbation techniques," said Phlox. "I could provide you with some reference material if you like."
"It's not the same," Liz assured him firmly. "Now please, can I have him for just half an hour? I'll give him right back. I swear."
"No, I'm afraid not." The doctor shook his head stubbornly.
"Okay. Fifteen minutes."
"Unacceptable!" Liz grabbed Travis once again and shook him hard, shouting in his face, "Travis, wake up!"
"That's enough of that!" exclaimed Phlox. He picked up a hypospray--the same one he'd used to sedate Mayweather, in fact--and pressed it to Cutler's neck. Immediately, she went limp and collapsed over Travis's recumbent form. "That's better," the Denobulan said. He picked her up and carried her to another biobed where he strapped her down securely on the off chance she woke up while he was in surgery. "Sleep tight, Ensign," he said with a smile, then pulled the curtain around the medical bay.
"Now, where was I?" he muttered to himself. "Ah yes!" He went to the cupboard and donned a surgical gown.
T'Pol's departure had left Reed alone in the armory once again. He'd really expected better things from the Vulcan Science Officer. Not only had she not had the clearance code he'd sent to her station, but she admitted she hadn't even been to the bridge in several hours.
Honestly, who can you rely on when discipline is so lax you can't even trust a Vulcan to stay at her post? he thought, disgusted. That's another thing I'll have to discuss with the captain--assuming he is still captain after Starfleet hears about what's been going on here.
He was distracted suddenly by a red flashing light on his console. "Security breach!" he exclaimed. "There's a traitor on board! I knew something like this would happen. It's a damned good thing my new security protocols are active. Perhaps now Captain Archer will take my recommendations more seriously," he continued to mutter, his fingers dancing over the console as he tracked down the source of the breach. Someone was trying to access the classified section of the ship's personnel files, but who?
"Almost got it," said Fraser.
At that moment, the cabin door whipped open.
"What the--?" she exclaimed.
She got no further as Lieutenant Reed charged in, phase pistol drawn. "Freeze, Ensign!"
"Lieutenant? What's going on?"
"You're under arrest!" Reed declared.
Fraser tried to protest that she hadn't been doing anything wrong; she was just trying to find out some information. She never got the chance. She stood, but didn't make it one step before the Tactical Officer fired. Fraser crumpled to the ground, stunned.
Reed quickly secured her hands in front of her and then stepped to the computer to see how far she had gotten in her subversive activities. He tensed when he discovered she'd been only one level away from breaking into the classified personnel files. He quickly locked down her terminal so no one else could access her decryption codes. He would examine them later himself.
"So much for that, Ensign Fraser," he said to her unconscious form. "If that's your real name."
He knelt, rolled her onto her back, took hold of her cuffed hands, and pulled her up. He grasped her waist and lifted her over one shoulder in a fireman's carry. "It's off to the brig with you," he declared. "Then it's time for a surprise drill for the rest of the crew."
Archer was having serious trouble focusing. He tried to keep his mind on what he was doing, but it kept drifting back to the preface he was supposed to be writing for the biography of his father. Trip had called it long-winded. It's not long-winded! his mind argued. There's just so much to say.
T'Pol's voice came to him through the haze. He was on the bridge. He was piloting the ship. And this time T'Pol's warning wasn't just another course correction. Archer looked up at the screen. "I see it."
There was a huge asteroid dead ahead. They couldn't go around. As he watched, an intense gravitational shear pulled the rock apart. For a moment he thought they'd make it through one of the rapidly widening cracks, but he was wrong. A splinter at least twice as big as Enterprise was still directly in their flight path.
"We need phase-cannons," he said, his voice strained.
"They take too long to charge," T'Pol said. Nevertheless, she rose and moved quickly to the tactical station.
Several things happened at once. A piece of asteroidal debris struck the ship as T'Pol crossed the bridge. The ship rocked with the impact, and she staggered a step before catching herself on the railing. At the same moment, Lieutenant Reed's Tactical Alert siren began blaring.
Regaining her balance, T'Pol finished her trip to Tactical. She shifted Reed's unconscious form to one side so she could access the console. Her eyes widened at what she discovered. "All weapons are online," she informed the captain over the screeching of the siren. "It must be part of the new security protocol."
Archer didn't care why the weapons were active. He only cared that they were. "Fire!" he ordered.
T'Pol fired both forward phase-cannons. A direct hit split the oncoming behemoth, but it wasn't quite enough. She quickly aimed and fired another burst. The last giant shard shattered, and Archer guided Enterprise through the space where it had been.
"Could you shut that off?" he asked. It was hard enough to concentrate without a noise like a dyspeptic bagpipe screaming in his ears. The silence when T'Pol cut the siren was a brief but sweet moment of peace. "How much longer?"
"Less than ten seconds," the Vulcan said.
I can do this, Jon thought. He continued to clutch the controls in a veritable death grip.
"Five more seconds."
And suddenly they were clear. The screen before them showed nothing but blackness speckled by millions of pinpoint sparkles of light.
Still not willing to trust that they were safe, Archer asked, "Any more surprises?"
"Nothing on sensors."
He looked at her, wondering when she'd returned to her own station. He shook his head and decided it really didn't matter.
Archer heard a noise to his right and looked over in time to see a dazed Trip just pushing himself to a kneeling position on the floor. The young blond looked at him groggily.
"Did we get some good pictures of the black hole?" Trip asked. Then he squinted as his brain registered his muscles' protest at moving after lying so still for so long on the hard deckplating.
Over at Tactical, Malcolm groaned. He levered himself upright and blinked several times, trying to identify where he was and what he was doing there. "Captain?" he said, spotting his C.O. at the helm. "What happened?"
"It's a long story," Archer replied. He rose and moved to help Trip to his feet.
"Thanks, Captain," the engineer said.
"I recommend everyone make a stop by sickbay before his or her next duty shift. There will be a command staff debriefing at " He paused, momentarily stymied, then looked over at T'Pol. "What time is it, Sub-commander?"
"2214, ship's time," she informed him.
Archer nodded knowingly; he didn't want to let on that he could really use a date to go with that time. "In that case," he continued, "debriefing at 0900 tomorrow morning."
Phlox pressed a hypo against Liz's neck. The ensign's eyelids fluttered open and she looked up at him, confusion written on her delicate features.
"Phlox? What am I doing here?" she asked, looking around. She sat up and rubbed a sore spot on one wrist. Her eyes widened in surprise. "Was I strapped to this bed?"
The Denobulan looked as embarrassed as she'd ever seen him. "I'm afraid so. My apologies, Ensign," he said contritely. "I can only say in my defense that I wasn't myself when I sedated you."
Not knowing what else to say, Liz said simply. "Apology accepted." Slowly, her memory of what had happened returned. "How's Travis?"
"He's fine," said the man in question, poking his head around the screen that separated the biobed from the rest of sickbay. A smile quirked Travis's lips at the sight of his lover, disheveled and very sexy in her short red nightgown and robe. "You look nice."
Liz glanced down at herself. Her cheeks flushed and she looked at Phlox. "Could I borrow that surgical gown you mentioned earlier?"
Stephanie came to on the floor of her cabin. She hadn't a clue how she'd gotten there. Slowly, she rolled over onto her back and pushed herself up against the side of her bunk. The same 32 bars of music she'd been listening to for days were still playing.
"Fucking hell," she murmured. She reached out a hand and shut off the noise. The silence was positively blissful and she took a moment to bask in it.
She rubbed her fingers against bleary eyes.
"Ow! Shit! What the hell?" Stephanie looked down her hands. The nails of her right hand were split and torn, but it was nothing compared to the damage to her left. Her fingertips were swollen and cracked. Clearly she'd bandaged them at some point, but the synthetic sealant had long since worn off. Now her split skin was crusted with dried blood and puss. "Oh gross. That is disgusting!" She caught sight of the neck of the mock-up guitar, equally scummed with her bodily fluids. "I take it back. That is disgusting."
With her less damaged hand, she gingerly picked up the pseudo-guitar, intending to toss it into the trash to be resequenced into something more useful and less absurd. But she paused. "Is it bad enough to count as bio-hazard waste?" she wondered aloud. "Probably."
Gripping the neck and body as firmly as she could, she broke the thing over one knee, ripping the ends of the strings from the base. She discarded the body of the guitar form in the waste chute and wrapped the dangling strings around the neck.
She flexed the fingers of her injured hand, wincing. "Well, I need to go to sickbay anyway. I'll get rid of you there," she told the mass of plastic and wires.
Reed and Tucker were on their way to sickbay when they encountered Cormack going in the same direction.
"Hello, gents," she said. "I see you're headed my way."
"Captain's recommendation," Reed explained. "You?"
Cormack held up her left hand. Both men winced at the sight. "I know. It's totally nasty. I feel like a little kid." She opened her eyes wide, adopting an innocent expression. "You wanna see something gross?" she said in an excited, childlike voice, and wiggled her fingers.
Reed chuckled, and even Tucker cracked a smile.
"What's that thing?" the engineer asked, pointing at the item in Cormack's other hand.
"An experiment that went terribly wrong," she answered enigmatically. "It's as disgusting as this." She waved her injured fingers again. "So I figured it was best disposed of with the biological waste."
Tucker looked at her dubiously. "Now I think I don't want to know."
"That's a good choice, sir," Cormack informed him.
They'd nearly reached sickbay when there was a hail for Lieutenant Reed. He backed up the few steps to the nearest comm panel to respond.
"Sir, we've just discovered a prisoner in the brig," Ensign Young informed him, his bewilderment obvious in his tone.
Neither Tucker nor Cormack had ever seen Reed look so aghast. "Let her out!" he ordered. "Immediately!"
"We can't, sir. The lock's been encrypted to your voice command."
Reed leaned his head against the bulkhead. He'd have laughed at the absurdity of it if he hadn't felt so bad about what he'd done. He took a deep breath to collect himself before responding. "All right. Tell her I'll be right there. Reed out."
"What the hell was that about?" asked Tucker.
"I was a bit overzealous in implementing my new security protocols," answered Reed abashedly.
"Yeah, I know. I heard the alarm. And if I remember right, you told me I took so long to respond that " Here Tucker paused, savoring the moment of teasing his partner. "What were the exact words? Oh yeah. 'If this were a military situation you'd be taken out and shot,'" he quoted.
"At least I didn't slam you against a bulkhead," countered Reed, a small smile turning up the corner of his mouth.
"Only 'cause I beat you to it."
Both men chuckled. Cormack eyed them both doubtfully.
"Tell me you were crazy at the time," she requested.
"Most decidedly," answered Reed, still laughing.
"Good. Because you two are my perfect couple. If you start fighting, I think my world will implode. Now, if you'll excuse me," she continued, oblivious to the reactions of the other officers, "I have an actual reason for wanting to get to sickbay."
"And I have a prisoner to release," said Reed, shaking himself from his momentary reverie. "I'll meet you in your quarters, all right?" He caught Tucker's gaze to make sure his lover had actually heard his question; Tucker seemed oddly distracted.
"Yeah. Okay. I'll meet you there," the blond man affirmed.
Reed smiled and turned to go back the way they had come.
"Hey, Lieutenant," Cormack called after him. Her curiosity won out briefly over the stinging pain in her fingers. "Who'd you throw in the brig?"
"Ensign Fraser," he called back. At Tucker's and Cormacks's astonished looks, he just shook his head. "I'll tell you later." He stepped into the turbolift and was gone.
"I wonder what Bonnie was doing that the lieutenant locked her up?" wondered Cormack as she and Tucker continued toward sickbay. She intentionally referred to Reed by his title, not wanting to make Tucker uncomfortable by using his given name.
"No idea," the commander said. "She must've been doing something he considered a security breach. He's been pretty focused on that Tactical Alert of his."
"We've all been pretty 'focused' lately. At least Lieutenant Reed's obsession was a useful one. Mine?" She snorted self-deprecatingly and glanced at what she carried. "Not so much." And it'll be a damn long time before I listen to that song again, she added to herself.
Tucker nodded in understanding. "I know what you mean," he agreed, thinking of his own fixation on building the captain a completely new chair when all the old one really needed was a little adjusting. Then it hit him. He knew exactly what he needed to do to the captain's chair. He laughed.
"Nothing." He shook his head. At least the measurements I took of the captain actually turned out to be useful, he thought, even if it wasn't the way I planned to use them.
They reached sickbay and entered it. A number of crewmen were already there, either lying on biobeds or standing waiting for their turns. Surreptitiously, Cormack disposed of her burden into the bio-hazard waste chute before returning to stand by Tucker and wait.
He glanced down at her. "You could probably legitimately jump the line, you know," he said. "You've got the proof you need treatment right there." He pointed at her hand.
"Nah. I've waited this long. I can handle a few more minutes. Besides, it's pretty much just a dull throb unless I try to flex my fingers."
"You sure?" Tucker was doubtful. He was no medic, but the sores on her fingers looked pretty gruesome to him.
"Yeah," Cormack assured him. She took a chance and leaned a little closer to him, and said conspiratorially, "I'm hoping I'll still be here when Lieutenant Reed checks in. Otherwise, I'm not going to get to find out what happened with Bonnie until tomorrow, and I hate waiting."
It was the third time in as many minutes she'd called Malcolm by his title. The nuance wasn't lost on Tucker; he realized she was doing it for his benefit. "You don't have to keep doing that," he said quietly, not looking directly at her.
"Sorry." Cormack immediately straightened up, misunderstanding.
"Not that." Tucker sighed wearily. "You don't have to keep saying 'Lieutenant Reed.' You know his name. You use it when you talk to him off duty."
"I don't un--" she started to protest, but he cut her off.
"Sure you do. You don't have to use his title just 'cause you're talking to me. I know you're friends."
Cormack paused, thinking. She decided to take another chance. "I thought you were my friend at one time," she said. "I don't know what changed."
"Neither do I," admitted Tucker. "But until I can figure it out, there's not really anything either of us can do."
"I can't help?"
He shook his head. "I don't think so."
"Okay." It was an admission of defeat, and Cormack hated saying it. "But you'll let me know. When you figure it out, I mean," she added. "You'll let me know, right?"
"Sure." He finally made eye contact with her and nodded halfheartedly. He doubted that time would ever come.
Cormack nodded back, trying to plaster a hopeful expression on her face. She could see the doubt in his pale blue eyes; he'd never been good at hiding his emotions. She smiled, but it didn't reach her eyes. "Okay," she repeated.
Fortunately, they were rescued at that moment by Phlox. "Which of you is next?" the Denobulan asked them, looking from one to the other.
"Take the ensign first," said Tucker. "She's hurt."
Phlox turned his concerned gaze to Cormack. "Ensign?"
She held up her hand. "I had a run-in with a guitar riff," she announced.
Her words caused both of her companions pause for different reasons. "I'm going to pretend I understand what you're talking about," the doctor said. "Please come with me." He led her off to a free biobed where she sat so he could treat her wounds.
Even from across the room, Tucker could see her wince as the doctor cleaned and treated her damaged fingers. He found himself flinching in sympathy more than once. When he realized it, he forced himself to look away--just as Malcolm entered.
"Hey, Malcolm," said Trip, pleased.
"You still here?" the tactical officer remarked and smiled. "This is a pleasant surprise." He put an arm around Trip's waist, and the taller man leaned into his touch. It felt right, comfortable.
Cormack glanced up when she heard the door open and smiled as she witnessed the brief exchange between the two men. But an unexpected wave of melancholy caused her smile to fade slightly.
"Everything all right, Ensign?" Phlox asked her.
"What? Sure. I'm good."
"That's a matter of opinion," quipped the physician.
"Why doesn't anyone believe me when I say that?" she demanded in mock indignation.
"Because," answered Reed, who had caught their conversation out of the corner of his ear, "you are a known troublemaker."
Cormack wanted to protest, desperately searching for a reasonable argument to refute this claim. She found none. She settled for a little retribution instead. "See if I get you anything for your birthday this year," she said, jabbing a finger in Reed's direction.
"I'm not expecting you to," he informed her lightly. "After all, you couldn't top last year's gift."
"Oh! Oh, that's a challenge! You heard it." She looked at Phlox, Tucker, and anyone else who would make eye contact with her. "The man has thrown down the gauntlet."
Reed laughed. "I have done no such thing," he denied.
"You keep thinking that all you want. I know better."
"Nope." She held up her free hand to forestall his arguments. "I accept your challenge."
"We're more than two hundred light-years from Earth," Reed reminded her.
"Irrelevant. I'll figure something out."
In truth, Reed was curious now. It was less than a month until his birthday. If she didn't already have something planned, he couldn't imagine what she could come up with in that limited time and with such limited resources. His eyes narrowed as a possibility occurred to him, and he looked at her intently. She wouldn't, would she?
Cormack smiled at him innocently.
"You're finished, Ensign," Phlox informed her. "You're free to go."
She hopped off the biobed. "Thank you, Doctor," she said in her most polite voice. "I appreciate your care. Good night. Gentlemen," she added with a nod as she passed Reed and Tucker.
The couple watched her go.
Malcolm waited for the doors to shut before speaking. "Now I'm scared."