"Oh my gods!" exclaimed Stephanie.
Liz started. She was familiar with her bunkmate's propensity for sudden outbursts; that didn't mean she was always prepared for them. "What?!"
"I'm gonna be an aunt!"
"Oh!" Liz relaxed. "Congratulations."
"Thanks. I had no idea Ryn and Gemma were even thinking about having another baby." She sat back in the desk chair. "Oh my gods," she repeated more quietly.
The message had arrived several days ago, but Stephanie had put off opening it. She'd been too tired the night she first noticed it, and since then she'd been very busy on a number of projects. Between working with Lieutenant Reed on the force field project and assisting in training the crew on the safe use of the phase-pistols, her time had been quite thoroughly filled. Now, she was regretting the delay. Ryn and Gemma were likely wondering why she hadn't yet responded to this momentous news. I'm surprised Mom hasn't sent me one of her "friendly inquiry" messages, she thought.
Quickly, she finished reading the missive, relaying certain salient points to her roomie. "Ryn's due in May. Oh! They're having a girl this time so they didn't need Marston as their chromosome donor. That's cool."
"Uh " Liz looked up from the journal she was studying. " are you sure you're not entering the realm of too much information here?"
"What? No. Unless it bothers you?" She glanced over her shoulder at her friend.
Liz shook her head. "No. I'm an exobiologist, remember?" she teased lightly. "I just didn't want you giving away family secrets. Who's Marston, anyway?"
"So he supplied the necessary Y last time?"
"Yeah. He's a great guy! I'd've married him if he wasn't already married."
"Really?" Liz was surprised. She'd never heard Stephanie talk about this man, and she'd never heard her talk about marriage; now she was getting both in the same sentence?
"Nah. Not really. But he's definitely a keeper. His wife's pretty cool, too. I met her at Ryn and Gemma's wedding."
"So, are they picking out names yet?" Liz asked.
"I doubt it. That's not their style." Stephanie gave the letter one more quick skim to be sure her assumption was correct. "Nope. No mention of names. They won't pick one until the kid's born. That's what they did last time."
"Yeah. Gemma says you can't name a kid until you've met it."
"That makes sense in an odd sort of way," said Liz, considering it carefully.
Stephanie gave a small shrug. "I can see her point, but the lack of preparation disturbs me."
"I don’t know," Stephanie admitted. "It just seems wrong."
Liz laughed. "Well, if you have a baby you can name it whenever you want."
"Gods no! That is so not going to happen."
"No. Kids are all well and good as long as I can give them back to their parents when they stop being well and good. Besides, I'm not the nurturing type."
Liz eyed her bunkmate. After a moment, she said, "Are you serious?"
"Absolutely!" Stephanie nodded emphatically. "There's a reason I went into weaponry and security," she added dryly. "As for kids, well, I can handle my nephew for about an hour or two—as long as he's happy. But when he gets tired and cranky, I'm at a complete loss. That's when he gets handed back to his moms. Speaking of whom " She turned back to the computer. " I really need to send them a letter before my own mom sends me one asking why I've been remiss in my sisterly support duties." The last was said with light irony.
"Do you need me to be quiet so you can record it?"
"No thanks. I think I'll follow Ryn's old-fashioned sensibilities and type it."
"Oo! How quaint!" quipped Liz, making Stephanie laugh.
"Hey, she's pregnant. I might as well do something I know she likes, and for some reason she really likes written letters."
"To each her own."
"Yeah. I'll take a compressed video file any day, but it's the least I can do. Hell, this many light-years away, it's the only thing I can do." She adjusted the computer keyboard and began to type.
"I'm showing a plugged nitrogen valve," said Lawless, examining the readout on her screen. "I'll check it out."
"All right," agreed Tucker. "Watch the seal. Remember what happened to Hank."
"Yes, sir," agreed the ensign emphatically. The crewman in question had been rerouting just such a valve when the seal blew, burning his hand and face. His injuries had been minor considering what might have happened, but she didn't care to experience it for herself. She collected the necessary tools and headed to the upper level.
Tucker moved to the central engineering station. He was checking on the dilithium alignment when a hail came through from the planet surface.
"Archer to Tucker."
"Go ahead, Captain," the engineer replied, hitting the comm button.
"You interested in a little camping trip?"
"Malcolm and Hoshi are on their way back to Enterprise. We won't be needing a translator, and Hoshi wasn't inclined to stay. Malcolm's gathering up what we need to spend the night. You care to join us?" The smile was audible in Archer's voice; he knew his chief engineer well enough to know what his response would be.
Trip grinned. "I'll get my camera. Tucker out." He closed the comm and looked around. Spotting Lieutenant Hess, he practically leapt down to the deck and hurried over to her. "I'm heading down to the planet," he informed the startled woman. "You're in charge until I get back."
"Yes, sir," she replied with a smile.
"This time, don't break the ship," he teased as he headed out. The last time he'd left Engineering in her hands, a damaged alien vessel had completely taken out the starboard door to Launch Bay Two. It had nothing to do with the lieutenant, but he enjoyed ribbing her about it nonetheless.
"No, sir." Hess shook her head at his departing figure.
Lawless descended to the main deck at that moment. "Where's the Commander going?" she asked.
"Planetside," the lieutenant replied.
"Oh. Lucky him." Her C.O. gone, she instead gave her report to his replacement. "I finished rerouting that nitrogen valve," she informed Hess.
"Good. Commander Tucker was planning on running diagnostics on the impulse engines this afternoon. We might as well get started."
Trip was trying to be nonchalant, but Malcolm could tell he was edgy. Finally, the engineer broke the silence. "That bore worm you and Hoshi mentioned," he began. "Does it really crawl into your ear to lay its eggs?"
Malcolm fought back a smirk and kept his eyes trained on his instruments. "That's what the Eska said," he replied. "And I assume they'd know; they have been hunting on this world for nine generations."
"Huh." Trip sat back in the navigation seat.
"Five minutes to the landing site."
"I'm surprised there's actually a piece of ground down there with room to land this thing." Trip eyed the readouts on the thick jungle foliage, a doubtful look on his face.
"Captain Archer found a spot," Malcolm said.
"Captain Archer can land a shuttlepod with his eyes closed," Trip countered.
"Are you questioning my piloting skills?" inquired Malcolm with the slightest touch of mock offense in his voice.
"Not at all." There was a small pause before Trip added, "I'm questioning your landing skills." The two men laughed. "Tell me more about the Eska."
"There's nothing more to tell," Reed said. "You already know as much as I do."
"And you're really going hunting with them in the morning?"
"Yes." Something in his partner's voice made him ask, "Is that a problem for you?"
There was silence as Trip thought about it. "Kind of," he admitted.
"Would it help if I told you I'd promised the Captain I wouldn't kill anything?"
"Yeah," said Trip, surprised at his own reaction to the news. "It does."
"There's the landing site up ahead." Malcolm pointed it out.
Trip stood and peered out the front port, leaning against the back of the pilot's seat. "That's it? I think I'll sit down again."
"Ye of little faith," muttered Malcolm, but he was smiling.
"Hang on," Lawless looked across the table at her friend. "Captain Archer, Sub-commander T'Pol, Commander Tucker, and Lieutenant Reed are all down on the planet?"
"Uh-huh," Cormack confirmed.
"Who the hell's running the ship?!"
"I assume Travis is at the helm."
"Travis doesn't even out-rank us!"
"No, but he's the Alpha-shift helmsman. He's had the bridge before."
"Yeah, but they're going to be down there a while."
Cormack chuckled. "It's Beta-shift now, anyway. I expect the same people who are usually running the ship at this hour are doing so right now. You're just annoyed because it's delayed the gaming session we were supposed to have tonight."
"Well partly," Lawless begrudgingly admitted. She took another bite of her hot fudge sundae.
"Man, that looks good," said Cormack, eyeing it covetously.
"It is. You could have one, you know."
"No. I wanted something warm tonight."
"If you say so, but sometimes it pays to lose an argument with yourself."
"I've been wanting ice cream all week," Lawless explained. "But I kept telling myself I didn't need it. Of course when you're having actual discussions with yourself—out loud, I might add—that's when it's time either to give in or make an appointment with the ship's counselor. I decided it was simpler to just eat the ice cream."
"Now that's the kind of logic I can follow." They laughed.
"Enjoying your evening, I see," said a pleasant tenor voice.
Cormack glanced up and smiled. "Hi, Kyrin," she replied. "Join us? We were just discussing the relative benefits of ice cream versus psychotherapy."
"I expect I could formulate an opinion on that," the psychiatrist answered with a smile. "Although my answer might just put me out of a job." He pulled up a chair and sat.
"Have you met Ensign Lawless?" asked Cormack, indicating her friend.
"Mae Lawless, Doctor Kyrin Douglas."
The doctor held out a hand, and Lawless quickly wiped off the bit of chocolate she'd gotten on her fingers and shook it. "Pleased to meet you," Douglas said.
"Not hungry?" asked Cormack. She took a sip of her hot cocoa, slurping a little of the whipped cream that topped it.
"Actually, I'm starving," he answered emphatically. "But I'm meeting Liam for a late dinner. He should be here any minute."
"Liam? You mean Donnelly from communications?"
"Mm-hmm. Do you know him?"
"I've not met him, but I've heard Ensign Sato say good things. She thinks he has a good shot at becoming an officer at the next review."
"That would make him one happy camper." Douglas smiled broadly.
"Yeah, well. It's not up to Hoshi. He's got to pass the exams first."
"He will. Ah! And speak of the handsome devil." The young communications crewman had just entered the mess hall. "Excuse me, ladies." The psychiatrist rose, caught Donnelly's glance, and waved. Even across the room, they could see Donnelly's eyes light up. He grinned and approached them.
"See you, Kyrin."
"Nice meeting you, Doctor," added Lawless with a smile.
Douglas simply nodded and quickly moved to intercept his date.
"He'd better hope Donnelly makes ensign at the reviews," said Lawless under her breath.
"I know," replied Cormack just as softly.
According to Starfleet regulations, there was no fraternization allowed between officers and enlisted crew members. There were several reasons why, and they were all good ones. However, as long as relationships were kept platonic, it was a non-issue. Cormack had her doubts about this particular relationship, but believed Douglas was smart enough not to let it get that far—at least, not yet. Should Donnelly pass the officers' review, though, all bets were off.
She smiled to herself. She liked seeing people happy and hoped this pairing would work out well.
"What are you grinning at?" Lawless asked.
"Nothing." Cormack sipped her cocoa.
Reed rose from his seat by the softly crackling campfire. "I suppose I'll turn in then," he said. He gave Tucker a pat on the shoulder as he passed him.
"Sounds like a good idea," the engineer agreed, recognizing the signal he and his lover had established on their brief flight from Enterprise to the planet. He stood.
T'Pol, too, decided it was time to rest and silently headed to her own tent.
"I'll think I'll sit up for a while," said Archer.
Trip chuckled. "Have fun." He turned and followed Malcolm to their tent.
Archer nodded and smiled, acknowledging the barb. There was no real reason to stay up, he knew. It simply felt good to get out. He would have liked a little sunlight but that being an impossibility on this night-enshrouded planet, he settled for what he could get and was happy for it. Fresh air, green leaves, the light breeze that gently fanned the flames of their campfire—every little thing was something to enjoy. He leaned back against the log and stared up at the stars.
Inside the two-man tent they were sharing, Trip and Malcolm talked softly.
"Come on," purred Malcolm. "Haven't you ever wanted to make love outdoors?"
"Sure," Trip whispered, "just not with my Captain only ten feet away!" He tried quickly to come up with another argument that might keep his unexpectedly frisky partner at bay. Who knew Malcolm would find the present circumstances so arousing? "Besides, we're not really outdoors."
"Close enough. It's too dangerous to go out into the jungle, anyway. This will do nicely." Malcolm stepped closer and began unzipping Trip's jumpsuit.
Trip grabbed his hands before they could get too far. He knew if they did, he'd be lost. "Malcolm!"
The dark-haired man just chuckled deep in his chest and pressed up against his lover, gratified to feel Trip's involuntary response. He leaned in a little harder. "Yes?"
"They're going to hear us!" Trip protested, but didn't pull away.
"Then you'll just have to be very, very quiet."
Trip hoped it was too dim inside the tent for Malcolm to recognize the flush that suddenly colored his cheeks. He knew he was the more vocal one of the pair; he didn't need Malcolm reminding him. "What about T'Pol?"
Malcolm frowned. "What about her?" While he personally had no problems with the Vulcan woman, he didn't care to be reminded of her while he was trying to get Trip as hot and bothered as he was himself. He didn't find the science officer conducive to the mood.
"Even if Captain Archer doesn’t hear anything, those ears of hers are bound to. Besides," the engineer tried yet another tactic, "don't you have a hunt to go on in a few hours? You want to be well-rested for that."
"I'd sleep better if " he tilted his head to one side and whispered something into Trip's ear.
The younger man shivered a little, both in response to the suggestion and at the tickle of warm breath on his neck. He realized then that he still had hold of Malcolm's hands, and the tactical officer wasn't trying to get away. Instead the lieutenant continued press against him, his thigh finding just the right slow rhythm of movement.
With a desperate force of will, Trip released his hold and took a step back. He could see the look of disappointment flicker across his lover's face. Taking a deep breath, he willed his heart to slow its pace to something approaching normal.
"I want to," he said very softly. "I really, really want to. I just don't think "
Malcolm took advantage of the incomplete thought. "That's right. Don't think. There's no need. Just relax and enjoy." He took a small step forward, halving the distance between them. Trip didn't back up. Malcolm smiled. Slowly, he reached out again and took a gentle hold of the engineer's zipper. "That's it," he murmured tenderly, easing down the zip. "You do want to, right?" He looked into Trip's pale blue eyes made nearly translucent by the light of the small lantern. Not trusting himself to speak, Trip simply nodded.
Malcolm smiled again. Reaching the end of the zipper, he slipped his hands inside the collar of Trip's uniform and slid it gently over the strong, broad shoulders. He could feel the muscles under the fabric of the soft, black shirt. For a moment, he felt he couldn't wait and wanted to yank the impeding garment off his lover's body. But he refrained. How often would this sort of opportunity present itself? It was rare enough that he wanted to take the time to savor every second. So he restrained the impulse, took his time.
For his part, Trip stood mesmerized. The sight and smell and feel of his partner undressing him, gently caressing him was like liquor; it made him giddy, and good sense quickly fled. Worry about being overheard was wiped out and replaced by the near sensory overload caused by Malcolm's touch. They could have been surrounded by half the crew, but his universe had been reduced to the tent around him and the man before him.
"T'Pol! Trip, Malcolm!"
The shout shattered his world.
Malcolm's head slumped against Trip's shoulder. "Damn," he muttered. He let go of his lover and stepped back, grabbing his boots from where he'd left them. He immediately sat and slipped them on.
Trip fought to pull his brain back from where it had gone. He took a deep, shuddering breath and looked around the tent, trying to regain some sense of reality.
The cry came again. "Tucker! Lieutenant Reed!"
"Shit!" Trip exclaimed under his breath. He immediately pulled his jumpsuit back up. Shaky hands fumbled with the zipper before he was able to pull it up. "Captain?" he called, stalling as he straightened his uniform.
Malcolm shot a quick, regretful glance at his partner and determined they were both presentable enough for him to open the tent flap. He did, stepping out into the eternal night of Dakala. Trip quickly shoved his feet into his boots and followed him.
"So, what do you think?" asked Malcolm softly. He rolled onto one side in the sleeping bag and looked at his lover.
Trip continued to stare up at the ceiling of the tent, nearly invisible in the darkness. "I don't know. I still think he must have seen something."
"But don't you think he could have been dreaming? To see a human woman here where she couldn't possibly be, and for her to be dressed in a nothing more than a nightgown "
"Captain Archer's just not the kind of person who imagines stuff like that."
"How do you know? You can't get inside his mind."
"No, I can't." Trip turned his head to meet Malcolm's gaze. "But I've known him a long time. I know what kind of man he his. He wouldn't make up a story like that. Who'd believe him if he did?" he added pointedly.
"I believe that the Captain believes what he's told us is true," the tactical officer said gently, not wanting to anger his partner. He knew Trip had a protective streak where Archer was concerned. "But look at the reality. We're light-years from Earth. Travis reported no other ships in the vicinity. Where could she have come from? How did she get here?"
"You're starting to sound like T'Pol," muttered Trip with distaste. He looked back up at the ceiling.
Malcolm let the comment lie. Trip's dislike for the science officer—and Vulcans in general—was a subject for another discussion. "I just don't think we should rule out the possibility the Captain was imagining her, or hallucinating even."
"None of our scans picked up any toxins that might have caused hallucinations," the engineer argued stubbornly.
"Our scans might have missed something. They're not infallible."
Trip said nothing. He agreed with Malcolm on all the points he'd made; he also believed what Archer had said he'd seen. Without more evidence either way, he couldn't reach any conclusions. "We should get to sleep," he said finally.
Malcolm nodded slightly, acknowledging both what his lover had said what had remained unspoken. "Good night." He laid back and closed his eyes.
They lay there in silence for several minutes. Malcolm was just beginning to drift off when he felt Trip move. The engineer shifted onto his side and slid an arm around his lover's waist. Malcolm smiled, wrapped an arm around him in return. "Sleep well," he whispered.
"Sato to Doctor Phlox."
He tapped the nearest comm panel. "Phlox here," replied the Denobulan promptly.
"Emergency call from Captain Archer. He says to prepare for one casualty."
Cutler looked across at Phlox, the question in her mind the same as in his. "Who is it?" he asked.
"One of the Eska. Commander Tucker and Lieutenant Reed are bringing him to Enterprise now. ETA six minutes."
"Understood." He closed the comm and picked up the med-kit he kept prepared for just such emergencies.
"Can I help?" asked Cutler. "I'm not a triage nurse, but "
"But you're an outstanding exobiologist. I expect your skills will be most helpful."
Tucker and Reed allowed the medical team to whisk the injured Eska away without impediment. Reed had done his best to keep the wounded man from bleeding to death as Tucker piloted the shuttlepod back into the belly of Enterprise. Now they were both happy to leave the work of healing him to the professionals.
"You didn't see anything?" Trip asked Malcolm as they locked down the shuttlepod.
"No. Shiraht and I were tracking the drayjin. The others split off to follow another trail. Damrus suggested it was only a sensor ghost; he didn't want to lose the drayjin by allowing all of us to chase something that might not even be there." He paused in what he was doing, considering the exchange. It hadn't seemed strange to him then, but looking back on it he couldn't help but wonder if he'd missed something. "Maybe there is some sort of hallucinogenic substance down there. Something our sensors couldn't detect."
"I don't think so," Trip said firmly, shaking his head. "Whatever attacked Burzaan, it wasn't a hallucination or a sensor ghost."
"Quite." Malcolm looked at the engineer thoughtfully. "You don't suppose there's a connection between this attack and whatever it was the Captain saw, do you?"
"I can't imagine what or why."
"Nor can I. But I'm not a big believer in coincidences."
"Either way, the sooner we get back down there the better I'll feel."
"Worried about the Captain?"
Trip shrugged, trying not to appear as anxious as he felt. It didn't work. "That obvious, huh?"
"I've never seen him like this." Trip stopped working and sat on the pod's aft bench. "He's seeing things that can't be there, and he knows they can't be there." He paused for a moment, making a quick decision. "While you were out on the hunt, he disappeared," he confided.
"What?" Malcolm hadn't heard this. In the flurry of activity after the attack, he'd barely had time to react. It hadn't crossed his mind to ask what the rest of the landing party had been doing.
"I was taking some pictures of the volcanic vents and he just wandered off. When T'Pol and I found him, he was just standing there in the jungle, looking kind of lost. He said he was taking some scans, but "
"You think he was following that woman again."
Trip nodded. "He told me earlier he was drawn to her. Said it was like he couldn't control himself."
"I don't like the sound of that," said Malcolm seriously.
"No." Tucker looked at him. "You see why I want to get back down there."
"We can't do that until we hear from the doctor."
"Can you finish up here?"
Malcolm looked surprised, but nodded. "Sure."
"I'm going to check on our guest."
Tucker's brief visit to sickbay left him with more questions than he'd had when he arrived. He returned to the launch bay to find Reed still working on the shuttlepod.
"What did you find out?" the lieutenant asked. He'd completed the shuttlepod post-landing checks while Tucker was in sickbay; now he was running the standard pre-launch check. He wanted everything ready so they could go the moment the doctor declared his patient fit to travel.
"Burzaan's going to be okay, but it'll be a few hours before we can take him back down to the planet," he replied, frustrated. "Maybe we could leave now and come back for him later."
Reed shook his head. "I don't think his friends would be too pleased at that."
"Why do you say that?"
"I think they'd see it as another delay to their hunt. If we wait here, we can take him back as soon as he's cleared by Doctor Phlox. If we return to the planet, there's the added delay of flying back up here to pick him up, then the trip back down You get my point?"
"Yeah," agreed Tucker grudgingly. "I get it."
"Besides, I'd rather not take any chances that might anger the Eska."
Trip glanced at him, confused. "What do you mean? They haven't shown us any hostility up to now."
"No. But they haven't really welcomed us with open arms, either."
"They invited you on their hunt," the engineer pointed out.
Reed shook his head. "I invited myself. They just agreed to let me tag along."
"I don't see the difference."
"It's just a feeling I have. I think they figured if they let us join them, it would raise fewer questions than if they asked us to leave. I wonder if it really was drayjin we were hunting," he added reflectively, sitting back in the shuttlepod's pilot seat.
"You know, I think you were right before," said Tucker.
"Right about what?"
"I think maybe there is a connection between the Captain's mystery woman and the attack."
"Doctor Phlox found cellular residue in Burzaan's wound. He said it was in what was the term he used? Chromosomal flux. Said it was trying to mutate into something, but the cells didn't know what."
"I still don't see the connection."
"This may sound a little crazy, but what if that drayjin you were hunting wasn't just an ordinary sort of wild pig? What if it was something pretending to be a pig?"
Reed sat up a little straighter as he followed where Tucker was leading him. "You think there's something down there that can change its shape at will?"
"Sure would explain a lot."
"But how would it know to change into a human woman? It can't have seen one."
"Except Hoshi," Tucker pointed out.
"Then why doesn't this woman look like Hoshi? And why would the Captain say he recognized her?"
"I don't know. I'm just tossing out ideas here."
The two sat in silence for several moments, each caught up in his own thoughts. "I bet the Eska know what's going on," said Reed eventually.
"Yeah," agreed Tucker. "But why do I think they aren't going to be real forthcoming with the information?"
Cormack grabbed a cookie and joined her friends at the mess hall table. "Okay, now we can start." She sat.
"Okay," said Cutler. "Let's recap. You've defeated the aliens who attacked you and you've just docked with the damaged transport, Royal Albert. Everybody on the same page?" There were nods of assent and a general murmur of agreement from everyone at the table. "Great. How do you proceed?"
Mayweather spoke up as the leader of the team. "Have we confirmed the seal on the air-lock?"
"Yes. It's good."
"Then I say we open the door."
"Order of entry?"
"I'll go in first."
"Right behind ya, big guy," quipped Cormack, munching her cookie.
"Barbarella's going in as well. If we have to move an injured man, it'd be good to have the strongest one there to do it," put in Lawless.
"In that case, I'll stay with the ship," said Novakovitch. "Somebody needs to keep things running while the rest of you play hero."
"In that case " Cutler picked up a datapad from the small pile she'd accumulated during the course of the days-long game. She activated it and handed it to Mayweather. "This is who you're meeting."
Lawless and Cormack rose and leaned in over the helmsman's shoulders to get a look. There were images of five people on the small screen. Mayweather zoomed in on the first one and read the related information. "This is the Captain?" he asked.
"Who is this really?" Lawless wanted to know. "I don't recognize him as anyone on board."
"He's my uncle," said Cutler. "He's a commercial pilot, so I thought he'd be an appropriate choice."
"Don't I get to see this?" Novakovitch wanted to know.
"Not until Rust does," answered Cutler, meaning his character in their game. "You stayed on Rescue Ranger, so you don't get to meet anyone until your teammates bring them aboard."
It made sense. Novakovitch looked mildly annoyed, but let it go.
"Done?" Mayweather asked, glancing at the women behind him. They both nodded, and he selected the second picture.
Cormack laughed. "That's Mac!" she exclaimed.
"I didn't have a whole lot of resources," Cutler replied. "Those baseball games were quite handy, and he looked most like a navigator to me."
"He looks like a second baseman to me, but I love your choice."
The trio quickly read through the information on the newest character and the passenger transport's current mission.
"What's this 'galactic cultural exchange program'?" asked Lawless.
"Just keep reading," advised the Game Master.
They moved on to the final picture, and Cormack froze. Cutler noticed the reaction and waited to see what her bunkmate would do. Standing next to her, Lawless tried not to react to the image on the screen. She'd known a little of what Cutler had planned—after all, it had been her idea—but she'd not had a clue how the joke was going to play out.
"Three Sisters," read Mayweather, oblivious to the subtleties going on around him. "They're a band?" He skimmed further down the screen. "Oh, I get it. Masha, Olga, and Irina—from Chekhov." He looked more closely at the picture. "Does the one on the left look familiar to you guys?" he asked, and glanced once more at Lawless and Cormack.
Slowly, Cormack looked at Lawless who was still trying desperately to keep a neutral expression. Then she looked down the table to Cutler. Liz was having better luck as she was already in GM mode and had her game face on. Mayweather and Novakovitch exchanged puzzled looks. Novakovitch shrugged.
There was a charged silence.
Finally, Cormack spoke. "I will so get you for this," she said quietly.
Cutler smiled sweetly. "Whatever do you mean?" she asked in mock innocence.
"Hmm," said Lawless. "You're right, Travis. The one on the left does look awfully familiar."
"And you, too." Cormack directed this at Lawless, continuing her thought.
"Me?" inquired the engineer, falsely ingenuous.
"Oh yes, you."
"Oh my god!" exclaimed Mayweather, finally catching on. "That's you!" He stared, wide-eyed, at the blonde woman.
"What?" Novakovitch stood and reached across the table, grabbing the pad from the helmsman's hands. He scrutinized the picture, occasionally glancing back at Cormack for comparison. "You're right! It is!"
"How the hell did you get that picture?" Cormack asked.
"I could tell you," said Lawless with a mischievous grin, "but then I'd have to kill you."
"You should live so long and be so lucky," countered her friend. A thought occurred to her. "You didn't get this from Lieutenant Reed, did you?" she demanded.
Her friends looked at her, curious. "No," said Cutler, first to find her voice. "Why would he have this?"
Cutler and Lawless made eye contact across the table, both making mental notes of this new bit of information.
Novakovitch was still staring in amazement at the picture. "When was this taken?"
"A lifetime ago." Cormack snatched the pad away from him, startling the science crewman. "Are we going to keep playing? Or did you even bother to come up with anything beyond this?"
Cutler was taken aback at her bunkmate's harsh tone, but then she spotted the barest hint of an evil grin on Cormack's face. She wasn't really angry; but she was definitely dangerous. For the first time, Cutler wondered if she and Lawless hadn't gotten themselves into more than they'd bargained for.
The GM decided to fight fire with fire. "Oh there's plenty more game ahead," she said. She gave a challenging smile and was rewarded with the same from Cormack.
"Bring it on."
The gaming session had broken up just as Archer entered the mess hall. If he was surprised to see five members of his crew packing up datapads and dice at this late hour, he didn't show it. Although he did raise an eyebrow at Travis.
The young man smiled a little sheepishly. "Evening, sir," he said.
"Little later than 'evening,' Ensign," Archer replied.
"Uh Yes, sir." He nodded and made a hasty exit after the rest of the group.
Archer shook his head, bemused. He'd heard something about the role-playing game being carried on, but hadn't encountered it in person before. It made him wish he had the opportunity to escape reality once in a while, too. It would have been a pleasant change to face down fictional enemies on mythical worlds, rather than dealing with the real thing.
His discovery of the true nature of his mystery woman on Dakala and of the Eska's intentions toward her and her people ate at him. He'd been able to learn a lot from Damrus and his companions. They called the creatures wraiths—beings that could turn into anything, that could read your mind and deceive you—and the Eska hunted them. They didn't believe the wraiths were sentient beings; Archer disagreed. He was determined to find a way to stymie the Eska's hunt.
The meeting he'd had with his senior staff had left them all with much to think about. He hoped the doctor could put the information Archer had given him together with what Phlox himself had discovered from the cellular residue he'd collected, and come up with a solution.
It was quiet in the cabin shared by Ensigns Cutler and Cormack. Stephanie wasn't inclined to break the silence, and her bunkmate took that as a cue to do the same. Liz wasn't sure whether this was a good thing or a bad thing. Finally, she couldn't stand it any more.
"Are you really mad?" she asked.
"Hmm?" Stephanie looked at her distractedly. "What?"
"Are you really mad?" Liz repeated.
She thought carefully before answering. "No." She shook her head. "I'm damn curious to know where you got that picture and how you found about the band, but I’m not mad."
Liz eyed her closely. She wasn’t sure, but she thought her friend was smiling just the slightest bit. Unfortunately, she was unable to tell if it was in mirth or in anticipation of revenge. Better not to ask, she decided. And better to remind her that the blame should be shared. "Mae learned about the band. She wouldn't tell me where she got the information, though."
"Really? Interesting. Whose idea was the game?"
For a split second Liz considered pinning more of the blame on her partner in crime, but she didn't have it in her. "It was Mae's idea, but I came up with the specifics," she admitted.
"Interesting," repeated Stephanie, nodding to herself as she processed this new information.
"We're going to get it, aren't we?" asked Liz resignedly.
"Why would you say that?"
"I'm not a big one for holding grudges. I’m too lazy for that; it takes too much energy."
Liz was doubtful. It was true she'd never known her bunkmate to hold a grudge or seek revenge. But there's a first time for everything, she thought. "You can't make me believe you're not even slightly angry about this."
"As long as you and the others keep your mouths shut, I don't see any reason to be angry." Stephanie shrugged. "You got me. Fair and square. I've got to admire the effort put into it, not to mention the patience. How long have we been gaming? And you managed to keep the secret the whole time? Well done."
She sounded sincere, but Liz couldn't help feeling uneasy as the two finished preparing for bed. "Good night," she said warily.
"Good night," replied Stephanie in a suspiciously pleasant tone.
Liz shut off the light and crawled into her bunk. She had the distinct and nasty feeling that revenge, when it finally came, would be as unpleasant as it was unexpected.
"Did you and Captain Archer get everything taken care of down on the planet?"
Trip nodded. "Yep," he said, smiling. "The masking agent Doctor Phlox made worked like a charm. Looks like the Eska are going to have some poor hunting seasons from now on."
"Or until they learn to modify their scanners to get around the masking agent," pointed out Malcolm.
"What have we discussed about being pessimistic?" the blond man chided gently.
Malcolm had to chuckle. "I'm being realistic. Eventually, their technology will catch up and they'll be able to hunt the wraiths again."
"Maybe by then the wraiths will have figured out another way to hide themselves."
They both laughed. "Are you staying the night?" asked Malcolm. He'd already been ready for bed when Trip returned from Dakala for the last time. The engineer's arrival on his doorstep had been a pleasant surprise.
"I think I better not," Trip answered regretfully. "Neither of us has gotten a lot of sleep the past couple of nights."
"Neither of us has gotten a lot of anything else the past couple of nights, either."
"True. But I better go. I'll see you in the morning."
"Good night, then." Malcolm gave his lover a long, slow good night kiss. "Pleasant dreams," he added, opening the door and directing the now befuddled engineer out.
"Uh no problem there," Trip finally managed to say.
Malcolm's only reply was a sweet smile and a gently shut door.
Damn! thought Trip, bemusedly. He did it to me again! He kissed me stupid. He shook his head and willed himself to walk away. It was difficult, but he forced himself to return to his own cabin. Malcolm's kiss had left him so aroused that he was afraid he was going to have to ask Doctor Phlox for something to help him sleep. Fortunately, the excitement of the past few days and the long sleepless nights had pretty well worn him out. He was asleep moments after his head hit the pillow and his dreams were very pleasant indeed.
End Log 20
As of 1 Sept 06: