Special Thanks – This time my thanks go to Dominic Keating. I've borrowed a quote from one of his convention appearances. It made me laugh so hard and provided such a precise image, I just couldn't resist using it.
Liz was waiting in sickbay when they arrived. Had she not assisted Doctor Phlox in preparing Lieutenant Reed for the covert operation, she'd have been taken aback by his alien appearance. The Suliban make-up was as convincing as it was unattractive. Don't be so narrow-minded, Liz, she chided herself. A Suliban might find him quite handsome.
Then she saw Travis. Her relief at seeing him was overshadowed by concern at the injuries he'd sustained. Her first instinct was to hurry to help him, but Phlox and the Captain had it under control. They helped Mayweather to the main diagnostic bed where he sat gratefully.
Travis caught Liz's worried expression and silently thanked whatever guiding spirits might be listening that she'd not seen him immediately after he'd been beaten. The Tandaran guards were good at what they did; he knew firsthand. "It's not as bad as it looks," he said reassuringly.
"I'll be the judge of that," Phlox put in. "Lie down."
Mayweather laid back on the bio-bed, which the doctor then slid into the large medical scanner. He shut the door and let the machine do its work. Moments later, he opened the door again and the bed rolled smoothly out. "Well," Phlox said, examining the results on the overhead panels, "you're right. No internal damage, no broken bones. It shouldn't take too long to get you cleaned up."
"Speaking of which " began Reed hopefully. "I could use some help getting out of this damn make-up. You wouldn't believe the way it itches."
"Patience, Lieutenant. The injured come before the merely uncomfortable," the Denobulan said lightly. He turned to Cutler. "Ensign, see to the Captain while I treat Mr. Mayweather.
"Yes, Doctor," answered Liz at the same time Archer said, "I'm fine."
"There's been enough self-diagnosis here today. Now please have a seat over there so Ensign Cutler can run a full scan."
"Yes, sir," replied the captain with a hint of friendly irony. Liz collected a medical tricorder and scanned her C.O. "What's the word, Ensign?"
"Low iron count," pronounced Liz, examining the results, "as well as several other minerals and vitamin C. Nothing a hypospray and a few well-balanced meals won't cure." She smiled and went to collect the injection in question. "This is a simple vitamin and mineral supplement," she explained as she pressed the hypospray to Archer's neck and released the mixture. She stepped back when she'd finished. "Unless Doctor Phlox wants anything more ?"
"I'm satisfied, Ensign," said Phlox, not looking up from treating Mayweather. "You're free to go, Captain."
"Thanks," he said, including both the ensign and the doctor in his acknowledgment. He hopped off the bio-bed, happy to be released. Archer wanted nothing more than a hot shower and a hot meal, and he intended to find both as quickly as possible. "Good work, Travis," he said as he passed the young man. "You, too, Malcolm." He gave his Armory Officer a smile and a pat on the shoulder.
"Sir," answered Reed, pleased at the praise but not wanting to let it show.
"I'm ready to get you out of that make-up, Lieutenant," offered Cutler.
His relief was evident on his face even through the mottled green mask. "Thank you!"
Archer chuckled and went on his way. Several meters down the corridor, he ran into Commander Tucker approaching quickly from the direction of the landing bay.
"Captain!" exclaimed Trip. "I was just coming to check on you all. I talked to T'Pol. She says everything's under control topside."
"That's good to hear," replied Archer.
"So, you okay?" It was clear his concern was genuine, but it was equally clear he was impatient to be elsewhere.
Archer bit back a grin, knowing full well where his old friend wanted to be. "I'm okay," he said. "Travis has seen better days, but the doctor says he'll be fine, too."
"Good good." Trip nodded, rocking back and forth on his heels, antsy.
This time, Archer couldn't keep from smiling. "Malcolm's in sickbay. Ensign Cutler's getting him out of the prosthetics. He made quite a convincing Suliban."
"Yeah, but I'll be happy when he's himself again. It's pretty weird when your partner looks like a Suliban."
Archer laughed. "I can only imagine."
"Hello, Captain, Commander," said Cormack pleasantly, startling both men.
"Ensign," Archer replied with a surreptitious glance at Tucker. The engineer seemed to be fine with the possibility that their conversation might have been overheard, so the captain let it go as well. "If you'll both excuse me, I hear a hot shower calling my name." He gave them a brief smile and went on his way.
"Can I do something for you, Ensign?" asked Trip.
"I just thought I'd pop into sickbay."
"Checking up on your C.O.?" joked the engineer.
"Come on, Commander," she replied just as teasingly. "Tell me you're not doing the same thing."
"Yeah, well "
"Thought so." She grinned. "Walk with you?"
Tucker wasn't sure why, but he didn't want her accompanying him just then. "Sure," he answered against his desires. They continued toward their common destination. "The Captain said he's fine." They both knew which "he" the engineer meant.
"That's good. I bet he's itching to get out of that Suliban get-up," Cormack said with a chuckle. She had no idea how true her statement was.
"You know, we're probably going to be in the doc's way."
"Probably," agreed Cormack amiably. "But I'm used getting on Doctor Phlox's nerves."
"Oh?" In spite of himself, Tucker was curious.
"Oh yeah. Malcolm hasn't told you about it? I'm not the most patient of patients, I'm afraid."
Before he could question her further—specifically on why "Malcolm" would know anything about it—they arrived. Cormack reached out and gave the release a good smack, and the door to sickbay slid obediently open.
Phlox was just helping Mayweather into a sitting position, his various injuries treated. On the other side of the room, Cutler was carefully peeling the prosthetic mask off of Reed.
"I'll be with you in a moment," the doctor said.
"No hurry, doc," replied Tucker.
Reed emerged from his mask and took a deep, thankful breath. "That is so much better!"
"We're not done yet," Cutler reminded him. She began to work on his hands, using a gentle solvent to remove the glue that held the Suliban gloves in place.
"I know, but at least now it doesn't itch."
"Yeah, but you lost your looks," teased Trip, coming to stand beside him.
Content to see that her C.O. was fine, and not wanting to intrude on their meeting, Cormack approached Phlox and Mayweather. "How're you, Travis? You look like you've been through the wars."
"No. Just the internment camp," was the helmsman's tired reply. This got him a concerned glance from Liz, but she said nothing and kept to her task.
"You'll be fine in a few days," the doctor said reassuringly. "Right now, the best thing you can do is get a meal and a good night's sleep."
"Does it have to be in that order?"
"Good. I'm exhausted." He rose and began to leave.
Liz paused in what she was doing. "Excuse me a moment, Lieutenant," she said. She caught Travis at the door. Putting a tender hand on his arm, she said softly, "I'll bring you some dinner later. How would that be?"
He gave her a grateful smile. "I'd appreciate that."
"I'll walk with you," offered Stephanie, more for her bunkmate's sake than the helmsman's. "I expect I'm about two seconds from getting shooed out of here, anyway." She exchanged a quick look with Liz who mouthed a silent thank you. Stephanie gave her the barest of nods and a smile that went unobserved by Travis. "You better finish what you're doing over there," she said, glancing at Reed who was waiting less than patiently. "I hate it when my C.O. gets cranky, and I think he's beginning to look just a little cranky."
Liz hurried back to Reed. "Sorry, Lieutenant," she said and resumed liberating him from the alien make-up.
Stephanie tried not to laugh as the door closed behind her and Travis.
"Was there something you needed, Commander?" inquired Phlox as he cleared up the mess left in the wake of his patient.
"Nope. Just wanted to make sure everyone was okay," the engineer replied.
"I see." He did see, and a small smile crossed his alien features. "Well, as long as Ensign Cutler has no objections to you observing her work "
"What? No." Cutler shook her head. She wasn't sure why Tucker was still hanging out, but she assumed he had his reasons.
"Then you're welcome to stay. Just stay out of the way."
Several minutes later Reed was finally free. He heaved another huge sigh of relief and ran wrinkled fingers through sweat-damp hair.
"Any residue will come off with a bit of scrubbing," promised Cutler. She carefully closed up the various unguents she'd used and disposed of the accompanying brushes and cloths.
"Thank you, Ensign. You're a life-saver," Reed said sincerely. He stood and rolled his head in a circle, loosening tight muscles. Tucker moved around behind him and began massaging his neck and shoulders. "Mm. That's wonderful," the dark-haired man murmured. "Thank you."
"Any time," said Tucker gently.
Cutler stared at the pair, startled beyond belief. Phlox passed her and gave her a surreptitious nudge to jump-start the frozen ensign although he, too, was a bit surprised to see such an obvious display of affection between the two men.
Tucker and Reed were oblivious to the exchange.
"I think I'd best hit the shower," Reed said, a hint of reluctance in his voice. He was enjoying the shoulder massage.
Tucker lowered his arms and took a step back and regarded him. Traces of the synthetic prosthetics still clung to Reed's neck and wrists, and the body paint Phlox had used to fill in the gaps still ringed his eyes. "Good idea. You look—"
"Don't say it," Reed interrupted as his partner searched for just the right words. "I can guess." He turned to Cutler who was carefully cleaning and storing the mask and gloves in anticipation of possible future need. "Thank you again. And thank you, Doctor. You're quite an artist."
Phlox smiled his quirky alien smile. "My pleasure, Lieutenant. It can be a nice change from the normal routine."
"See you, doc," said Tucker, and he and Reed made their escape.
"I need to stop at my quarters for a moment," Malcolm said as they walked. "Were you planning on accompanying me all the way? " he added in a suggestive undertone.
Trip hesitated, then regretfully said, "I can't. I need to get to Engineering. We took some damage from the Tandaran patrol ships. It's minor, but I could meet you for dinner, though. 1900?"
"I suppose that will have to do. I'll see you later, then." They reached Malcolm's quarters, and he turned face Trip.
The engineer tried not to laugh, but it was inevitable. "Go take a shower," he chortled. "You look ridiculous."
"Is that any way to treat your partner? Especially when he happens to have just rescued two command officers from hostile territory?" The smile hovering at the corner of his lips was evidence he was only joking.
Trip took a breath, about to reply, but instead just shook his head. "No. I can't kiss you looking like that. Go on."
"With that attitude, I might not let you kiss me."
"That's not much of a threat right now," Trip informed him mirthfully. "I'll see you at 1900." He turned and left, still laughing.
With nothing else to be done, Malcolm went into his cabin. He collected his robe from the closet and stepped into the lav to grab a fresh towel. As he did, he caught sight of his reflection in the mirror above the sink. He started to laugh. No wonder, he thought. I look like a ravaged drag queen. He shook his head and headed off to the shower room.
"How was Travis when you went to check on him?" asked Stephanie. It was late, and she was scrubbing a towel through her freshly washed hair.
"All right," Liz answered. "I think he really just wanted to sleep, but I made sure he got some food in him. He really needed it after several days on those rations in the Tandaran camp."
"I'll bet." She tossed the towel down the laundry chute and sat down at the computer. She was behind in her correspondence, and her sister and sister-in-law deserved an answer to their most recent letter—specifically why she'd told them they should name their impending child Lalita.
Liz watched her bunkmate over the top of her datapad. Normally, the subject matter in the latest Exobiology Journal would have had her riveted, but not tonight. She had other matters on her mind.
Stephanie could feel Liz's eyes on her. She glanced back toward her as far as peripheral vision allowed. "What?" she said finally.
"Too many of our conversations start with that word," Stephanie declared, turning to face her friend, "and it's always a lie. Now, what?"
Setting the datapad aside, Liz regarded her more deliberately. If Stephanie had been the type to squirm, she would have under the intense scrutiny. Instead, she fought the urge and waited, one eyebrow arched in mild curiosity.
At last, Liz spoke. "When were you going to tell me?"
"What?" The raised eyebrow was replaced by a puzzled frown.
"You must have known. You know Lieutenant Reed better than anyone. At least I thought so until today."
"Ohhh." Now Stephanie knew what she was talking about. "How did you find out?"
"They weren't exactly trying to hide it in sickbay."
"Is that all you have to say?"
"What do you want me to say?"
"I thought we were friends. You know, trust, sharing secrets "
"My secrets. Your secrets. Not other people's secrets."
Liz wasn't pleased, but she knew Stephanie was right. "Still, you could have told me. You know I wouldn't have said a thing to anyone else."
"That's not the point."
"I know," Liz admitted. "But still All right." She tried another tactic. "Now that I know, what can you tell me?"
Stephanie laughed. "Miss Nosey!"
"I just like to know what's going on around me, that's all," argued Liz with a mock-innocent smile and shrug. "How long have they been together?"
The blonde woman thought back. "Since late August."
"That long?! How could I have not noticed?"
"You don't work with either of them," Stephanie reminded her.
"Is that how you found out?"
"Who else knows? Why didn't they tell anyone?"
"I don't know who knows. Seeing as they seemed to have stopped hiding it, could be anyone." She gave an offhand shrug.
"But why hide it in the first place?"
"You'd have to ask them." Stephanie knew the answer but felt this bit of information was beyond her authority to share.
"I couldn't do that!"
"Then you'll never know." Liz gave a frustrated grunt that just made her bunkmate laugh again. "Why is it so important to you?" Cormack asked.
"It isn't, really. It just surprised me. And then I find out you knew about it all along "
"Darling," joked Stephanie, "where would the excitement in our relationship be if you knew everything I did? Or vice versa?"
Liz was about to argue but then certain information popped into her head, and she changed her mind. "Good point," she said.
Malcolm rolled over, eyes slowly opening against his better judgement. He glanced around as best he could without raising his head, trying to figure out what had roused him. Then he noticed his lover was awake, staring through the dark at the ceiling. "Trip?" he said softly. "What is it?"
"Nothing. Sorry if I woke you up."
"You didn't." Malcolm sat up a little, leaning on one elbow. "Everything all right?" He rested a tender hand on his partner's muscular belly under the warm covers.
"Really? I thought I'd done a better job wearing you out than that."
"You did," Trip assured him, his body responding to the gentle circles Malcolm was inscribing on his abdomen. "Maybe the magnetic constrictors are out of alignment again. I'll check them in the morning." He didn't really believe it, but it sounded reasonable.
"Is there anything I can do?" Malcolm offered sweetly, suggestively, his fingers tracing larger and larger circles.
Trip shivered with pleasure at his touch. The thoughts that had been plaguing him, keeping him awake, were deliberately and vehemently shoved aside. "Can't think of a thing," he said teasingly, half a dozen possibilities popping into his mind at once.
"Hmm. Then let me do the thinking this time."
Any reply Trip might have had was hushed as Malcolm's lips found his and he kissed his lover deeply.
Trip woke reluctantly. Having finally gotten to sleep, the last thing he wanted was to wake up and be forced to leave the comforting embrace of his partner. "Malcolm?" he said muzzily.
The tactical officer's only answer was an unintelligible grunt.
"Malcolm," he repeated a little louder. He nudged his lover's shoulder, trying to drag him to consciousness. "Wake up. Your alarm's beeping."
Without batting an eye, Malcolm said firmly, if somewhat muffled, "Computer, alarm off." Obediently, the soft chirrup of the alarm ceased. He snuggled more deeply under the covers.
"Malcolm, we have to get up."
"Since when are you a morning person?" answered Malcolm, still stubbornly refusing to open his eyes or release his hold on his partner.
"Since when aren't you?" Trip countered.
"Since someone kept me up half the night and thoroughly exhausted me."
Trip shrugged as much as he could with the smaller but still formidable form of Malcolm sprawled practically on top of him. "Okay. We're both department heads. There's nothing pending in Engineering. How 'bout the Armory?"
"Mm-mm," replied Malcolm in the negative.
"Great. The only person we'll have to explain our absence to is the Captain, and I'm sure he'll understand. We'll just tell him we're real sorry we didn't go on duty this morning, it's just that we were up all night having sex, and what with the wonderful way you—"
"All right! All right," interrupted Malcolm, finally opening his eyes and sitting up. "I'm up. I'm awake." He scrubbed rough palms over stubbled cheeks.
Trip snickered. "Thought that would get you." He, too, rose and began pulling on the clean uniform he'd brought with him the night before in a surprising display of forethought.
"You wouldn't really " But one look at Trip made Malcolm less certain. He had known Captain Archer for over ten years. Were they really close enough that Trip would share that sort of information? "No."
"No," Trip admitted. "But it was a good threat, huh?"
"Exceedingly," Malcolm reluctantly agreed. He stretched, yawning hugely. "Did you sleep all right, then?"
"Eventually thanks to you."
"Good." Malcolm smiled.
"Good morning, Commander."
"Morning, Mae. What's up?"
"I have the report from Gamma-shift," the ensign replied, handing him a datapad. "I relieved Dillard thirty minutes ago. Looks like everything was pretty quiet last night."
"Do me a favor," said Tucker, scanning the report. "Run a diagnostic on the magnetic constrictors."
"Yes, sir. Any reason?"
"Just a hunch. I couldn't sleep last night."
It had happened before. Lawless remembered well the night she'd had such a bad case of insomnia she didn't get a wink of sleep. Commander Tucker had suggested the magnetic constrictors were to blame; he was attuned enough to the ship that their slight misalignment had bothered him that night. He'd fixed the problem, and she hadn't had a sleepless night since.
Including last night, she thought. Still, she wasn't as sensitive to the minute changes in the engines as was the Chief Engineer. It was entirely possible he'd noticed something she hadn't—and it explained why he was late coming on duty that morning. "Will do. I'll have the results for you soon."
"Thanks." Tucker sat and began reading through the night crew report more thoroughly. He was fairly sure the engines had nothing to do with his sleeplessness, but he was looking for any excuse he could find.
"Good morning, Ensign." The Armory door slid shut behind Reed, and he descended the steps into the main section.
"Late night last night?" Cormack asked pleasantly.
"Thought so. I didn't see you in the mess hall this morning, and I actually got here before you today."
"Amazing," he replied dryly.
"It is. You know me and mornings. Here's Martinez's report." She handed over the datapad with the Gamma-shift leader's report of the night's activities.
"Anything interesting?" Reed asked, skimming it.
"Nope. Just routine stuff as far as I could see."
"Good. I could do with some routine after the past week. You know," he continued, a new thought occurring to him, "this might be a good time to start re-certifying the security staff in hand-to-hand combat."
"You want me to start working on a schedule?" offered Cormack.
"Yes. Once we get everyone in security taken care of, we'll need to re-certify the command staff as well."
"I'll get started and get you a schedule draft this afternoon." Before she headed off to work on this, however, there was something she needed to know. "I was interrogated last night," she began.
"Excuse me?" Reed looked up from the report questioningly.
"Yeah. Apparently, I'm in the doghouse with my bunkmate. She wanted to know how long I'd known you and Commander Tucker have been an item."
He appeared startlingly unconcerned at the news. "Did I miss a memo?" Cormack finally asked.
Reed gave her a wry half-smile. "No. I ought to have mentioned it to you, though. You've been great all through this," he continued. "I've appreciated your support and having you as a confidant."
"I feel like I'm being fired."
At that, her C.O. laughed outright. "Not at all," he assured her. "I'm just trying to say thanks, and there's one less secret you need to keep."
Cormack smiled—a broad, genuine smile for once not even tinged with irony. "Cool."
"Here are the results of that diagnostic, sir." Lawless handed over another datapad. "Everything checks out within standard parameters."
Tucker took the pad but barely even glanced at it. "Okay. Thanks, Mae."
It wasn't like him to be so inattentive about a status report—particularly when he'd especially requested it. Lawless was concerned. "Everything okay?" she asked tentatively.
"Huh? Sure. Fine." He pasted on a smile, hoping it would come across as sincere. "Nothing a good night's sleep wouldn't cure."
Lawless nodded in understanding; for her it was a definite case of been there, done that. "Yes, sir."
"Hey, Malcolm!" called out Travis. Only two days after his rescue from the Tandaran camp, Mayweather was well on his way back to his normal, energetic self. "Wait up!"
Reed stopped and let the younger man catch up to him. "What can I do for you, Travis?" He guessed from the casual nature of the greeting it wasn't anything official.
"Are you busy Saturday night?"
"Not that I'm aware of. Why?"
"Want to catch the movie with me?"
Malcolm eyed him doubtfully. "You're planning well in advance. And since when are you without a date on a Saturday night?" he teased.
"Since Liz said something about a 'girls' night'," the helmsman answered.
"Stephanie mentioned the same thing yesterday. I wonder what they're planning," mused Malcolm.
"I didn't ask. Sometimes you're better off not knowing." Travis was so sincere, Reed almost laughed.
"Let me check my schedule, and I'll let you know, all right?"
"You have any plans for Saturday, Commander?" said Mae pleasantly.
"Not particularly. Why?" answered Trip, glancing up from the shuttlepod exhaust manifold they were working on.
"No reason. I'm just making conversation. Between you and me, exhaust manifolds aren't the most interesting pieces of equipment."
Trip chuckled. "You got a point there." He sat back, leaning against the pod's hull. "How 'bout a break?"
"You won't get an argument from me," Mae replied emphatically.
"So, how about you? Any plans?"
"I was thinking about seeing the movie, but then Cormack suggested a 'girls' night' instead."
"Oh." Trip nodded. He knew better than to ask what this entailed. Memories of growing up with sisters told him it could be anything from painting toenails to competitive drinking. Somehow he doubted Mae would go in for either of these extremes, but there were a million possibilities in between. Instead, he latched onto something else she had said. "Have you known Ensign Cormack a long time?"
"Since the first day of Starfleet training," answered Mae. She sat facing her C.O., back to the opposing shuttlepod and feet stretched out in front of her. "We actually bunked together during OTC. That was a mistake."
"Why? What'd she do?"
"Nothing. We're just a lot better at being friends when we don't have to live together."
"But you got through it; you're still friends."
"Sure! As soon as we were through training and got our first assignments, everything was great again. I tell you, though, I have a lot of respect for Liz Cutler being able to share a cabin with Stephanie."
"You were assigned to Jupiter Station, I know. Where did Cormack go?"
"She was working security in New Berlin," said Mae. "Then she was transferred to I don't remember which ship. She could tell you."
"That's okay. It's not important. I'm just making conversation," Trip replied with false indifference, intentionally using the same phrase and intonation Mae had. "Ready to get back to work?"
"I suppose so."
"You're enthusiasm is overwhelming," Tucker joked.
Malcolm and Trip were enjoying a quiet dinner. Both had worked late in their respective departments, so the mess hall was mostly empty when they'd finally met there.
"Do you want to go to the movie this week?" asked Malcolm suddenly.
"Hadn't thought about it," Trip answered. "What's playing?"
"I don't remember. Something French, I think."
"Hmm. I don't know. Why? Did you really want to see it?" He was abruptly and absurdly concerned he wasn't being supportive or enthusiastic enough about his lover's interests.
Malcolm gave a half-hearted shrug. "It might be fun. Travis is looking for company. Apparently, Liz has plans."
"Is this that 'girls' night' I've heard about?"
Malcolm was surprised. "Yes. Where did you hear?"
"Mae mentioned it while we were working on the shuttlepods this morning."
"Hmm. That makes at least three women who are gathering. I wonder what they're up to," he said, echoing the comment he'd made earlier to Travis.
"Who's number three?" asked Trip.
"Stephanie. Maybe Hoshi knows what's going on."
Trip tensed at the mention of Cormack. What the hell's wrong with you? he asked himself. She's a friend. She's been on your side from the beginning.
On Malcolm's side, you mean, he answered himself.
It's the same thing in the long run.
"Trip?" Malcolm looked across the table at the fair-haired engineer. "Trip?" he repeated.
"Huh? Sorry. What did you say?"
"I was just wondering whether or not Hoshi might know what they're up to."
"Why do you care?"
Malcolm shrugged. He took a drink of water, trying to come up with an explanation for his excessive inquisitiveness. "Call it an instinctive interest in covert operations."
"They're not doing anything covert," argued Trip. In truth, he was a bit annoyed with Malcolm's little obsession. On one level, Trip knew his irritation stemmed from the problem he currently had with Ensign Cormack—not that he would admit it to himself or anyone else. "They're just getting together. You have a sister. Didn't she ever go for a girls' night with her friends?"
Malcolm's enthusiasm was abruptly curtailed. "I don't know, really," he said pensively, his expression suddenly introspective.
Trip immediately noticed the change. "What's wrong? I thought you got along fine with Madeline."
Malcolm's estrangement from his family both puzzled and concerned Trip. He'd suggested several times that the tactical officer contact them, or at least his sister, but Malcolm had evaded the issue every time. Eventually Trip had realized the harder he pushed, the more reluctant Malcolm would become. So he'd let the matter go for the time being.
"We get on fine," said Malcolm. "On the rare occasions we talk to one another. I haven't seen her in person for quite some time."
"Oh. Well " Trip looked for something that might satisfy Malcolm as to what Stephanie, Mae, and Liz might be planning. At least it would be a distraction from the melancholy that had abruptly descended on the evening. "I can tell you some of what my sisters and their friends used to do when we were growing up."
"What?" Malcolm was happy for the change of topic for a number of reasons.
"Well, it'd depend." Trip found it was more difficult than he'd anticipated. "Sometimes they'd go shopping."
"I don't think that's really an option in this case, do you?" teased Malcolm.
Trip gave him his best lips pursed 'I-know-that' look. Malcolm chuckled. "They'd go people watching—you know, checking out guys. That sort of thing. Or they'd go out dancing. There was one time," he continued, forestalling any potential argument about the lack of dance clubs aboard, "my oldest sister went to a party she wasn't supposed to, and she and her friends got blind drunk on tequila shooters." He laughed at the memory. "She was in so much trouble when our Mama found out what she'd done!"
"What did she do?"
"Mama? She made breakfast the next morning."
"That hardly sounds like punishment."
"It is when you know she fixed the greasiest sausages, the runniest fried eggs, and the biggest stack of pancakes you've ever seen. And she made sure to slam every pan she used as loudly as she could."
"Ah. I see." The lieutenant smiled slyly. It was the kind of sense of humor he could appreciate. It occurred to him that he might get on well with Mrs. Tucker. "I don't think that's what the ensigns will be doing, however."
"Probably not," agreed Trip, his laughter at the memory slowly subsiding. But he'd accomplished his goal, at least in part. Malcolm was still fixated on the "girls' night," but at least he wasn't looking gloomy any more.
"Maybe I'll just ask." Then he reconsidered. "Nah."
"No," Trip said at the same time.
Malcolm looked at him. "Why not?"
"It's a girls' night," the engineer said emphatically. "Do you really think anyone of them would tell you?"
Trip gave him a dubious look. "You really think so?"
Malcolm considered. "Perhaps not," he admitted.
"Hey, Hoshi," said Cormack, collecting her mug from the drinks dispenser in the mess hall. "I heard you had a rough morning."
"That's one way of putting it," the comm officer said, depressed.
"We all have sucky days sometimes," offered Cormack supportively.
"Sure. But most people's don't involve a botched first contact."
"I'm sure it wasn't your fault. From what I heard, the Kreetassans sound a bit hypersensitive to me."
"We don't know that." Sato picked up a mug and placed it under the dispenser. "Green tea, hot," she ordered. "For all we know, we might have insulted their ancestry, their planet, their clothes "
"All right. I get your point. But at least you have tonight to look forward to, right?" Cormack gave her an encouraging smile.
Sato's shoulders slumped. "I think I'm going to have to pass."
Cormack's shoulders fell too, inadvertently mimicking her friend. "Come on! We've been planning for a week! It'll be fun."
"No, thanks. I'm not really up to being sociable tonight. Have fun without me." She collected her filled mug and left the mess hall.
"Tucker to Reed."
The tactical officer stepped to the comm panel next to the main armory console. "Go ahead."
"Can I take a rain-check on that movie tonight?"
"Sure. What's up? Not in the mood to watch French people get blown up?" joked Reed. He didn't know much about the evening's entertainment, but Mayweather had promised him explosions. Any movie with explosions couldn't be all bad, he figured, even if it was in French.
"Actually," Tucker said, "I think the Captain could use a little pick-me-up after that whole mess with the Kreetassans this morning."
"A copy of the Stanford/Texas water polo finals came in with the sub-space mail. I figure it'll cheer him up to watch his old team play. But don't say anything," he added hastily. "I don't want to spoil the surprise."
Reed glanced around the empty Armory wondering whom he could possibly tell. "No problem," he said with a hint of irony. "Have fun."
"Thanks. Tucker out."
The door chimed.
"Come in," called Liz.
"Are we set?" asked Mae, stepping into the cabin and letting the door slide shut behind her.
"Did you bring the stuff?" Stephanie answered question with question.
Mae held up a small box and a larger bag. "Got the cards here, and the goods here." She glanced around the small cabin. "Where's Hoshi?"
"She had to bail," Stephanie said. "I think she's really upset about the meeting today."
"I heard about that." Mae set the cards and the bag on the small collapsible table that had been set up between the bunks. "But she should be here. It's just the thing to cheer her up."
"That's what I told her, but no go. Is the door locked?"
Liz checked it. "Yes."
"Excellent!" Stephanie plopped onto her bunk as Liz sat across from her and Mae grabbed the desk chair and sat. "You want the first deal, Mae? You brought the deck."
"Sure, but first " She opened the bag and removed four smaller bags. She handed one to each of her companions and tossed the fourth one onto the desk by the computer. "We'll save that for Hoshi," she said.
Stephanie peered into bag, inhaling deeply. "Lovely," she sighed.
"What's the game?" asked Liz.
Mae opened the pack of cards and began to shuffle them. "Since I'm dealing, I pick five card stud. Queens are wild."
"You said stud," said Stephanie, sniggering.
"Honestly," put in Liz, "you're worse than Travis!"
"At least you've got a stud," interjected Mae. She set the shuffled deck on the table and Liz obediently cut it. Stephanie was too busy laughing to comment. Mae looked at her. "If you're like this now, what are you going to be like if you win?" She started to deal the cards.
"It's not the actual winning that worries me," Liz said. "It's after she eats the winnings. She'll be flying for a week."
Stephanie was finally calming down. "Okay, okay. Sorry," she said between diminishing chuckles.
"Are we playing or what?" Mae asked.
"We're playing, we're playing."
"Then ante up."
"So, what do we have, exactly?" Stephanie examined the contents of her sack more closely.
"We each have an equal number to begin with," said Mae. "The plain ones are worth one, the peanuts are five, and the almonds are ten."
Each of the women reached into their bags and pulled out a small brightly colored candy, tossing them into the center of the table. They examined their cards.
"I'll open with five," said Stephanie, adding five more candies to the small pile.
"Why don't you use a peanut one like any sane person?" queried her bunkmate.
"I'm not explaining my strategy to you."
"She's bluffing. She thinks she's going to lose the hand, and she'd rather lose the plain ones," explained Mae.
"What makes you think that?" asked Stephanie, trying to be nonchalant.
"How long did we live together? You think I don't know you like the peanut ones the best?"
Stephanie glared but without real malice. "Bitch. Fine. If you want to play hard-ball, we'll play hard-ball." She retrieved the five candy-coated chocolates and replaced them with a larger, oval-shaped one. "The bid was five. Liz?"
"I'm out," said Liz with a sigh. She folded her hand and glanced at her meager winnings from the evening.
Mae eyed Stephanie closely. "I still think you're bluffing," she said.
Stephanie raised an eyebrow. "Put your chocolate where your mouth is," she challenged.
"I think I will. I fold." Mae set down her cards and popped an almond shaped candy into her mouth.
Stephanie was downright gleeful. "Another hand to me!" She reached out to pull the pile of sweets toward her, adding them to her already substantial pile. She'd amassed a large heap of chocolates of all denominations and was contemplating the pleasure she would have consuming them.
"I think I've had enough poker for one night." Liz sat back against the bulkhead and nibbled a chocolate.
"Don't you want a chance to win back what you've lost?"
"I'd rather eat what little I have left."
"Ditto," said Mae, and emphasized her point by munching several at once.
"You two just didn't have the right motivation," Stephanie informed them.
"Should have guessed." Mae shook her head. She collected up the cards and was just packing them away when an alert caused the comm to chime.
"Reed to Cormack."
The tactical ensign scrambled from her bunk and stretched past Lawless to hit the comm. "Go ahead."
"Report to the Armory immediately."
The comm closed, and Stephanie quickly grabbed a pair of boots. She didn't have time to change her civvies for her uniform, but the least she could do was show up properly shod.
"What's up?" Mae asked.
"No clue. Thanks for the game night, chickies. I look forward to another." Giving them a smug grin, she grabbed a handful of candy and headed out the door.
"Bitch," said Liz lightly.
"Yeah," agreed Mae with a grin. "But she's our bitch. And she's left her winnings behind."
"She'll kill us both."
"Don't do it," advised Liz. "We're already on her shit list for that Daughters of Lear gag." She was referring to the joke they'd played involving the band Stephanie had played in at college. "You just don't mess with a woman's chocolate when she's PMS-ing."
Begrudgingly, Mae was forced to agree. "All right." She gathered up her own winnings, which weren't huge but were more than Liz's. "I'll share mine with you?"
"No, thanks. I'm better off without, really."
The comm chirped again, startling both of them. "Phlox to Ensign Cutler."
"Go ahead, Doctor."
"Please come to sickbay. There's a project which would benefit from your expertise."
"I'll be right there." She closed the comm, and she and Mae regarded one another. "I wonder what's up."
"I have no idea, but I think I'll l head over to Engineering and see what I can find out."
"What do you mean, it's growing?" Lieutenant Reed had quickly informed Cormack of the situation, but the ensign still wasn't entirely clear.
"Just that. "
"So it just sucked up five of our people? Why?"
"I didn't stop to ask, I'm afraid," said Reed, his tone oozing sarcasm. He was angry with himself. Despite his efforts, he'd been unable to stop the alien organism from grabbing Captain Archer. He'd fired at the grasping tendrils, but the phase-pistol had no effect on the creature. Then it had gone after Trip. There was nothing Malcolm could do. He had watched helplessly as the tendrils wrapped themselves around the engineer.
He could still hear Tucker's barked command while he struggled against the alien.
"Get out of here! Go!" he'd shouted.
Reed had had no choice but to run. The expression on Trip's face as the creature pulled him in was clear in Malcolm's mind—as clear as the memory of his own fear at the sight. That's what made him angry. He hadn't panicked, but he had been afraid. Very, very afraid.
He'd barely managed to get out of the cargo bay safely. Pale, slimy creepers snaked through the door behind him. Reed had grasped the door handle tightly and pulled, slamming it repeatedly until most had withdrawn and only one was left. He'd yanked one more time, slamming the door shut and severing the last tendril from the main body. It had fallen to the deck with a wet smack.
"Sorry," said Cormack pulling him abruptly back to the present. "That was a stupid question. What's the plan?"
"We have to contain it, should it try to leave the cargo bay."
"The force field?"
"Sub-commander T'Pol and Ensign Sato are attempting to find a way to communicate with the life-form," said Phlox. "The creature is highly photo-sensitive, but when Lieutenant Reed's team tried bombarding it with intense light, it also affected the Captain and the others."
"Are you saying it's bonding with them somehow?" asked Cutler, fascinated despite the danger.
"That is precisely what I'm saying. It's sharing their autonomic functions and neural impulses. I've been studying the piece that was severed from the whole, and I could use another set of eyes and hands to assist."
"What can I do?"
There was another long pause before Archer replied. "I'm still here," he said, his voice strained and rough.
The web in which they were caught had nearly enveloped them. Archer had lost almost all mobility and could only move his head about a centimeter in any direction. It was just enough to look down on his chief engineer hanging a few meters away.
"Don't fade out on me now, sir. You're the only one I've got left." The neurological link the creature had created between itself and its captives also linked the Enterprise crew members to one another. Crewmen Kelly and Zabel had been out when they were first pulled into the web. Rostov had been with them most of the way, but he too had eventually fallen unconscious.
"That goes for you, too, Commander."
"As soon as you give up the game's lost," said Trip, quoting something Archer had said earlier.
The captain managed a short, tight laugh. "Good to know you actually listen to the things I tell you," he quipped.
There was another silence. It took great effort to speak, wrapped as they were and suspended high above the deck of the cargo bay.
"How long d'you think we've been up here?" Trip managed choke out.
"Don't know. A few hours maybe?" Archer offered. "Don't worry. They'll find a way to get us out," he added, picking up the fleeting thought as it passed through the engineer's mind.
The life-form was drawing their minds closer together as it was drawing them physically into itself. He was endeavoring to stay out of his old friend's head, but it was tough. Still, he had to try. He had no desire to invade Trip's thoughts—his privacy. He'd already picked up a few stray things about his Armory Officer that were none of his business; he didn't want it to happen again.
"Focus, Commander," Archer said as firmly as he could. "You're fading again."
Trip swam up from the edge of unconsciousness, fighting to stay awake. "Yes, sir." His heart rate was slowing inexorably, and he found it more and more difficult to breathe.
"That's an order, Trip."
"Sorry sir." Unable to hold out any longer, he slipped into darkness.
He was moving. He didn't know where he was or even which way was up or down, but he knew was moving. He thought he could make out voices. Who they were and what they were saying was beyond him.
The motion stopped and he was lying on something cold, hard, and smooth. He opened his mouth to speak, but instead choked on the viscous fluid that ran down his throat. Strong arms were around him suddenly, holding him steady as he coughed up the liquid.
Little by little, his brain started to make sense of the noises around him.
"Can't you do something?"
"I'm doing everything I can, Lieutenant."
A door opened and suddenly there were more people—more voices and commotion. His body shook with reaction, perspiration mixing with the slime that covered him from head to foot. He wanted to open his eyes, but good sense asserted itself and he kept them shut.
"It's all right, Commander," someone said. He recognized the voice of Doctor Phlox. "You're going to be fine."
Trip felt something soft against his cheek, realized it was towel and someone was carefully and efficiently wiping his face clean. "Doc?" he asked, voice ragged.
"He's gone to help crewman Kelly," a female voice replied from very close by.
Cautiously, Trip opened his eyes. A young crewman, one of Enterprise's med-techs, held his head steady and returned his gaze evenly, giving him something to focus on. "Can you sit up?" she asked.
He nodded stiffly, and she helped him up. Tucker leaned gratefully against a large storage locker. "The Captain?" he asked.
The med-tech glanced over Trip's shoulder to where T'Pol was helping Archer to his feet. "He's all right, sir. But we're going to take you all back to sickbay to be sure. Okay?" Her voice was gentle, but her tone made it clear it was less a request and more a command.
Again he nodded. It was difficult for him to speak, but there was one more thing he wanted to know. "Malcolm?"
Reed, ever present but trying to stay out of the medical team's way, heard him and approached. "Right here," he said. He knelt down so he was on a level with Tucker.
There was a noise behind Reed and he looked up at another med-tech standing next to a gurney. "Excuse me, sir," the man said. "We need to move the Commander."
"Of course." Malcolm put a gentle hand on Trip's shoulder, oblivious to the slime that coated him. "I'll see you soon," he said, and rose.
Reed stepped back out of the way once more as Phlox and his medical team removed Tucker, Archer, and the three crewmen from the cargo bay. Ensign Sato stood next to him as they watched the team leave.
T'Pol approached them. She looked at Sato. "Have you transmitted the coordinates we got from the life-form to Ensign Mayweather?"
"I'll be on the bridge. Good work, Ensign."
It was high praise from the taciturn Vulcan, and Sato appreciated it. "Thank you."
T'Pol simply nodded and left.
"I'm sort of inclined to get out of here myself," the comm officer quietly admitted, glancing uneasily at the greatly diminished but still disturbing web hanging from the bulkhead. Despite her success in communicating with it, she continued to find it unsettling.
Reed had to agree. "If you and T'Pol hadn't found a way to talk to that thing "
"It wouldn't have mattered if you hadn't finished the force field in time," she countered. "I'd say it was a team effort. Now let's get out of here."
Reed nodded. His team was finished removing the EM emitters they'd used to create the force field; there was nothing else to be done here but to leave the life-form alone until they arrived at its homeworld. "After you, Ensign," he said, opening the door to the corridor and motioning for her to precede him.
"We're coming into orbit over the site, Sub-commander," said Mayweather.
T'Pol rose from the captain's chair. "Good." She looked to crewman Donnelly at the comm station. "Notify the rest of the landing party. Have them meet me in Launch Bay One."
"Yes, ma'am," the dark-haired Irishman replied.
It was almost eerily silent in the shuttlepod as the team made the return trip to Enterprise. They had safely returned the life-form, down to the severed tentacle, to its home. Now, each member of the party was lost in his or her thoughts.
Finally, Sato spoke quietly. "Can you imagine what it must have been like for the creature?"
No one else seemed inclined to respond, but Reed was curious. "What do you mean?" he asked from the pilot seat.
"I mean, to be part of something like that that giant web, and then suddenly be cut off from it. Completely alone. It must have been terrified."
"It is foolish to ascribe human reactions to alien life-forms," said T'Pol. "Particularly one as alien as this. We have no basis on which to presume the creature even has emotions."
"It would explain why it took our crewmembers," argued Sato. "It's like the doctor said," she added with a glance at the Denobulan. "Maybe it just felt the need to connect with any other living being it could find."
"It is one explanation."
Sato's first instinct was to challenge the Vulcan woman to find another, but she refrained. She and T'Pol had come to something of an understanding while working to decode the alien's language. Or I did, the ensign thought with irony. She already knew what she was doing. I just didn't understand.
Reed was thinking about what Sato had said. It did explain a lot. He just wished it hadn't happened to his crewmates. This was a first contact he could have happily lived without. Now, he was anxious to put the whole incident behind him, and the only way to do that was to get back to his normal routine.
He hailed the ship. "Reed to Enterprise. We're ready to come home."
"The docking arm's extended and waiting for you, Lieutenant," came Mayweather's reply.
"Understood. ETA four minutes. Shuttlepod out."
End Log 23
As of 1 Sept 06: