Log Rhythms - Season Three
All power possible was shunted to the engines and tactical systems. As a result, the Bridge ran on emergency lighting, causing a library-like hush to fall over those present. The atmosphere was tense and wary as Enterprise entered the nebula.
"How long until we reach the corridor?" asked Archer. The question behind his question was in everyone's minds: How long did they have to avoid the Kovaalans to get safely on their way to their rendezvous with Degra?
"Six minutes," replied Mayweather.
Reed studied the tactical display. "They've detected us. Three ships are on an intercept course. Approaching fast."
Weapons fire rocked the ship.
Archer barked a command: "Return fire."
Reed never liked to fail in following an order. He shook his head in frustration. "The nebula's interfering with the targeting scanners. We'll have to wait until they get closer."
Another blast struck them and sparks flashed in the Situation Room.
Archer glared. "They don't seem to be having the same problem."
More shots hit home. A small fire flared and went out as recently repaired suppression systems took over.
"Aft plating's at 42%," T'Pol stated.
The ship shook again as it took yet another hit from the leading Kovaalan vessel.
"Just a few more seconds, sir." Reed was about to find out if the repairs Walsh and Nahai had made to the targeting sensors had been successful. He trusted Trip's people, but he wouldn't be convinced until... "We have a lock."
Reed crossed mental fingers and fired. "Direct hit. The lead ship's weapons are down. They're moving off."
"The other two ships are closing from either side," announced T'Pol, ruining the moment.
"Travis?" Archer's voice was tight through his clenched jaw.
"Three minutes, eighteen seconds to the subspace corridor," Mayweather replied, gaze never wavering as he piloted the ship ever closer to their goal.
"Malcolm, target the engines on the nearest Kovaalan ship. Try to disable them, slow them down."
"Aye, sir." Reed tapped commands into the console, once more asking the newly repaired targeting sensors to do their job despite the interference of the nebula. "I've locked on, but--"
"No time for buts, Lieutenant. Fire weapons."
Reed fired on the Kovaalan ship approaching from their port side. One shot struck accurately, disabling its engines, but the other was offline, catching the alien ship's underbelly beneath its starboard nacelle. It set off a chain reaction that tore through the smaller ship, destroying it utterly. Not what he'd intended but it had made their point. "The remaining Kovaalan ships are retreating."
"I'm not banking on that lasting," Archer said through taut lips. "Not after what Degra told us about them. Keep your eyes peeled for reinforcements."
No sooner were his words out than T'Pol said, "The aliens are regrouping. Four ships on approach vectors."
Archer leaned forward, one elbow resting on the arm of his chair. "Steady as she goes, Travis."
"Aye, sir," replied Mayweather.
Tense silence pervaded the Bridge as the seconds ticked past.
Reed hated to be the one to break it, but: "Sir, the Kovaalans will be in weapons range in less than 20 seconds. They're closing fast. 12,000 meters. 10,000."
"Target their weapons!" It was a better choice than their engines. Archer didn't want to add to the body count if he didn't have to.
Another shock, another explosion of sparks.
T'Pol said, "Aft plating is failing."
"Forty-five seconds to the corridor," put in Mayweather.
"Malcolm, all available weapons! We have to back them off."
Reed programmed a firing sequence, laying down as much of a defense perimeter as he could. It wasn't half what he wished they had, but it had some effect. Two ships took direct hits, forcing them to fall back. The others regrouped and continued their pursuit, and Malcolm continued to do what he could to stop them.
Mayweather tuned out everything around him, focusing only on getting Enterprise into the subspace corridor. "Twelve seconds to the corridor."
It was a long and breathless 12 seconds.
They crossed the threshold, safe for the moment from their pursuers, but they weren't home and dry yet. The ship was shaken like a James Bond martini. Worse than when they'd been under fire.
T'Pol looked up from her internal sensor readouts. "Hull integrity's failing."
Hoshi held her breath and her console against the shaking and shuddering. She'd been buffeted from one side of her station to the other plenty of times. She was used to it, but she never liked it.
Archer gripped the arms of the captain's chair, half wishing he were the one at the helm. "Keep at it, Travis. Steady on."
As abruptly as it had begun, the turbulence stopped.
"We're through," Mayweather said, relief in his tone.
"We've exited the corridor," confirmed T'Pol. She quickly began gathering sensor data.
Malcolm scanned for any indication that the Kovaalans had followed. He smiled. "No sign of pursuit."
Archer wouldn't relax just yet. Not until he'd confirmed they had emerged where they'd intended. "Where are we?"
T'Pol looked up from her readings. "We've traveled 11.6 light years, as expected. We have reached the rendezvous point--earlier than anticipated."
Finally, Archer relaxed a fraction and sat back in his chair, although he still wasn't ready to take anything for granted. "I want status reports on all systems." It seemed impossible they'd come through without suffering some sort of damage beyond the hits the aft hull plating had taken before they'd reached the corridor. "Forward them to me in my ready room as they come in."
Rostov hesitated at the door to Sickbay. This was not how he wanted to use his off-duty time. Shit, he didn't want to do this at any time. But if he didn't, it was just going to get worse. He could only bury his feelings for so long before they would inevitably bubble up and burst out at some inappropriate and inopportune moment. What bugged him most was the fact that he had to bury anything. The emotions he was experiencing weren't entirely unexpected. They were, however, more intense and upsetting than he could have anticipated. Already someone's random, off-hand comment that he couldn't even remember now had nearly sent him into tears in the middle of his shift. He couldn't let that happen. It would raise too many questions he couldn't safely answer, cause too much sympathy to be directed at him when no one could know why he needed it.
Finally plucking up his courage, and silently praying to a god he'd mostly stopped believing in that Phlox was alone, he entered Sickbay. Everything was quiet. He saw no patients...and no Phlox. "Uh, Doctor Phlox?" he called out hesitantly.
Phlox popped his head around a partition to the left and Rostov jumped, startled.
"Hello," Phlox greeted him pleasantly, if a bit subdued.
"Hi. Do you have a minute? I could use your help."
"Certainly. What's seems to be the trouble?" The doctor gestured him towards a biobed, but Rostov declined with a shake of his head.
"Nothing medical, actually. It's just, I need to talk about something and you're literally the only person on board I can talk to about it."
Phlox seemed to perk up. "Oh?"
"Well, I'm happy to listen. And perhaps you could help me out, too."
"Um, okay." Michael was confused but also relieved at the potential for delay--as long as it didn't turn out to involve slugs or bloodworms or anything like that. "What do you need?"
"I want to run a check of the imaging chamber. I know, I know." He waved a hand dismissively although Rostov had made no objection. "The engineering team Commander Tucker finally sent to fix it knew what they were doing, and the diagnostics have all come back saying everything is functioning as it should be. I would simply be happier if I could run a scan of a healthy person for comparison to previous medical data for a final check."
"Oh, uh, sure." That sounded harmless enough.
Phlox rolled out the bed from the imaging chamber and Rostov obediently laid down on it. "This won't take long. You're not claustrophobic, are you?" he asked as he rolled the bed back inside.
"No," called Rostov as the door at his feet closed. Not that there's anything I could do now if I was. He'd been in the machine once before but that was over two years ago and he'd been mostly unconscious at the time. He took a moment to look around. There wasn't much to see.
Phlox's voice came through a speaker somewhere near his head. "Please hold still."
There was a pause of maybe 20 seconds before Phlox spoke again. "So, what was it you wanted to talk to me about?"
"Um... It's okay to talk while you do this? It won't upset your scans?"
"I'm past your head. Speak freely--as long as you don't speak with your hands."
"Oh." Where to start now that there was no backing out? "It's about...one of the dead crewmembers."
"Ah." There was a lot of that going around, and with the ship's counselor among those lost, Phlox had been the go-to for several members of the crew. Just the other day, Hoshi had come to him to talk about the late Ensign Young. It was fortunate that one of his many degrees was in psychology.
Rostov went on. "Remember about a year ago, there were rumors about an officer having a...an affair with a crewman?" That sounded a little sordid, but he couldn't bring himself to call it a relationship. It had never been that friendly.
"Yes," replied Phlox, his tone unreadable. "I was asked to keep an eye out, in fact."
"Signs of force upon either party."
That shocked Michael and he wondered if it showed in Phlox's scans. There was nothing for it if it did, so he forged on. "Do you know who they were? Either person, I mean?" Somehow talking like this, without seeing the doctor's face, made it easier. It brought back a vague memory of his first, and last, confession before writing off his childhood religious teachings. Now he wondered if there weren't some benefit to the ancient rituals after all.
"Only the officer involved. No one ever came forward or aroused medical suspicion on the other side. Why do you ask?" Phlox could guess, make assumptions, but Rostov obviously needed to get this off his chest, as the human saying went, and so Phlox waited patiently, prolonging the scans in order to give the crewman time.
Rostov took a deep breath and said on a heavy exhale. "I miss him. I miss the arguments and the sex. I miss his stupid Canadian accent. I miss the smell of his sweat and the feel of his hands on me. Even though we hadn't been together since before Earth was attacked, I used to think maybe we could be again. It hurts knowing that now we never can." He gasped in a pained breath and held it against a sob, choking it back.
The door at his feet opened and the bed slid smoothly out. Michael continued to lie there, staring up at the ceiling, eyes stinging, blinking hard against tears he fought not to shed.
Phlox approached, a kindly expression on his face as he looked down at the prone crewman. "You can sit up if you want. I have all the data I need from the scan."
Slowly, Rostov sat up and turned to let his legs hang over the side of the bed. He was hesitant to meet Phlox's gaze. He dabbed away a tear with the heel of his palm. "He never loved me, you know. It wasn't..." What wasn't it? What was it? "I never thought he liked me. I'm pretty sure he didn't, to be honest. But somewhere in there... I don't know. Maybe he cared. I know he cared," Michael continued with more certainty. He looked up into Phlox's disturbingly blue, alien eyes. "He cared enough to call it quits. To not tell the captain who he'd...broken regs with."
"He cared enough to protect you."
"I guess. Seems right, seeing as he was a security officer, doesn't it?" Rostov gave a small, mirthless chuckle. "I didn't ask him to."
"But you didn't go to the captain yourself," said Phlox gently.
At that, Michael sighed, guilt mixed with remorse. "No. I didn't see the point. Hoshi didn't rat us out. She should have. I don't know why she didn't, or why Ian did. Either way, though, I was in the clear."
"Until now. Oh, I won't tell anyone," Phlox assured him hastily when he saw the fearful look on the man's face. "Doctor/patient confidentiality holds true for emotional health issues as much as physical. Although I suspect you know that already. Or presumed it." He suppressed his own surprise at hearing Hoshi knew of the illicit affair. It was another thing he would willingly hold in confidence.
Rostov offered an apologetic shrug of one shoulder. "I figured. It's why I came to you. I miss him," he said again. "And I can't tell anyone else."
"I'm sorry. I wish I could have done anything to save him."
"I don't blame you," Michael reassured Phlox as swiftly as the doctor had done for him moments before.
Both men were silent for several seconds. Phlox had nothing pressing and Michael had nowhere he needed to be.
"This really sucks," Rostov said at last with another heavy sigh, finally letting a few tears escape to run down his cheeks.
"I don't like this. In fact, I'm pretty sure I hate everything about it."
"Everything?" challenged Maggie.
Cormack finished tying off her ponytail and eyed her bunkmate through the open lav door. Bowman didn't waver. She knew the pinched frown wasn't really directed at her.
"Being in charge of Tactical?"
"While Malcolm is off inside a sphere facing who knows what dangers from alien defensive systems," countered Stephanie. She emerged from the lav and crossed the cabin to her locker to dig out a relatively clean jumpsuit.
"Trying to find data we can use to help Captain Archer and Negotiator Reed convince the Xindi council we're on the level."
"While they face the council without a single MACO or security crewman at their backs."
Bowman conceded that line of argument with a nod. It was easy since she agreed. She tried another tack, just for the sake of conversation while her bunkmate prepared for duty; the MACOs were on perpetual standby. "I wish I was on either mission. But I don't have half the hours in an EV suit that Hawkins does, and like you said, no MACOs in the council chamber."
"See? Nothing to like here."
"What about Commander Tucker running the ship?"
Cormack feigned enthusiasm. "Yeah, great!" She immediately fell back into her previous dark humor. "Because he's totally in the head space for that sort of responsibility right now."
"You might want to keep that opinion to yourself once you're outside this cabin. Technically, he is the First Officer--despite the fact he seems to be leaving that stuff to Doctor T'Pol."
Cormack zipped up her coveralls and sat to put on her boots. "Truth." She shoved her left foot in too vehemently and winced.
"Leg still bugging you?"
"Gee, what gave it away?"
Maggie flinched back. "Sorry."
Cormack shook her head and sighed. "No. I'm sorry. I shouldn't snap at you because of something that you had nothing to do with."
"At least you're on the Bridge this shift. You get to sit."
"You're adorable when you're optimistic," said Stephanie dryly.
"Then I must be super adorable all the time." Maggie grinned and Stephanie chuckled, shaking her head in amusement.
"Don't you have target practice to put in or something?"
Maggie actually flopped back on her bunk with a grunt of, "Ugh! I am so sick of shooting at hologramatic targets."
"Give you a bad guy to shoot at and you'd be happier, huh?" Cormack finished tying her boots and stood.
Bowman tipped her head up off the bed enough to meet her teasing gaze. "Like you wouldn't be happier, too."
"I don't deny it. Although lately Enterprise has had plenty of bad guys to shoot at."
"It's not the same."
"You're right. See you later."
Cormack grabbed the cane she'd promised Phlox she'd use. At least it was an improvement from the damned crutches. She paused before opening the door to go. "You could always imagine someone's face on the target. It'd make it more fun."
"True, but whose?"
"That's up to you."
Cormack left Bowman pondering possibilities and made her way to the turbolift. She was glad to have the cane to lean on, but she'd deny it if anyone were bold enough to ask.
The lift arrived and she stepped in.
"Wait up!" Bonnie hurried down the corridor to join her, and Stephanie held out a hand to stop the door closing. "Thanks."
The first real smile Stephanie'd felt in too long cracked her face. "You're welcome. Hi."
The door shut and the lift began to rise. It wasn't running as "turbo" as usual but Stephanie wasn't complaining. It meant a few more uninterrupted seconds with her partner.
"How are you?"
Bonnie's tone was odd enough to set off warning bells in Stephanie's head. "Fine. You?"
"Good." Something was definitely up. Stephanie couldn't follow up on her suspicions, though, because they'd reached the Bridge.
Not a single Alpha-shift bridge officer was present. Ensign Cruz sat at the sciences station, looking refreshed enough that Cormack guessed she had just come on shift. Beyond her, Donnelly sat at comms, looking tired and overworked with dark circles under reddened eyes. Cormack remembered suddenly that he'd been in a relationship with Doctor Douglas. Poor guy. That's got to be horrible. Crewman Zaepfel appeared and relieved Donnelly before Cormack made it across the Bridge to her own seat at Tactical. She relieved Obundo who looked happy to hand over the reins. "Eventful shift?" she asked quietly.
He gestured to the viewscreen and the Xindi ships surrounding them as they orbited the council planet. "See for yourself."
"All that for little old us?" she quipped as she sat and stowed her cane under the tactical console. Obundo cracked a tiny smirk before departing with Tanner, whom Fraser had replaced at the helm. Cormack called up the logs to make sure she was caught up on the current situation.
There was literally one member of the command staff currently aboard ship, if you didn't count Phlox who technically held no Starfleet rank. She'd known it already but couldn't help shaking her head at the confirmation on her screen and in front of her eyes. Archer and Sato on the planet below with Starfleet's negotiator. Reed, T'Pol, and Mayweather off in a shuttlepod with Hawkins, presumably inside a sphere by now, and with luck tracking down the memory core they were after. That left Tucker in command while simultaneously overseeing repairs in Engineering. Starfleet might want to implement some new protocols after this mission is done. This feels like we're asking for trouble.
Fraser glanced her way and Cormack caught the motion from the corner of her eye. She looked up to meet her gaze, but Bonnie looked away quickly.
Okay. What was that about? Something was going on and there was no way she was going to find out what until they were off duty.
It was going to be a hell of a long shift.
"That could have gone better," Madeline said flatly.
"You have your brother's knack for understatement." Archer flinched under his own touch, trying to massage away the bruise he felt blossoming over his lower back--a parting blow from an Insectoid who'd taken exception to his own move to defend Degra.
"You should see Phlox about that."
"It's not that bad." He let his hand drop and sat back in the desk chair in his ready room. "What do you think of Degra's plan?"
"The biometric hologram of the sphere-builder that disintegrated?" She inhaled thoughtfully and let out the breath before answering. "He knows his people better than we can. If he says the Aquatics will respond to the visual over the verbal, I have no reason to doubt him. Whether or not it will do any good, considering what we know about the Aquatics' tendency for long deliberations?" Madeline shrugged.
"Ents, right?" said Archer, trying for a hint of levity.
"And hobbits, yes."
The door chimed and at Archer's "Come in", Degra entered. He glanced at Madeline, giving a tight nod of greeting before addressing the captain.
"We've completed the work. Mr. Tucker was extremely cooperative. I know it isn't easy for him working with me." He hesitated a moment as if he would say more, then turned to go. Then he paused as Archer said: "Degra."
The captain rose and came out from behind his desk. From her own seat in the corner, Madeline watched silently, wondering what he might say to the alien scientist who was clearly dealing with inner turmoil; his attempt to conceal it was valiant, but Madeline could read the signs in his whole demeanor. "When I was on the future Enterprise, 400 years from now, there were Xindi aboard. Humans and Xindi were serving together in the Federation. That's a future worth fighting for."
Degra made no reply as he left the ready room.
Madeline waited to break the silence. She half suspected that Archer had forgotten she was there. "I've never heard you speak directly about your visit to that particular moment in future history--if you'll pardon the Asimovian reference."
He gave her one of his tiny, wry smiles. "Never apologize for citing Isaac Asimov."
"Noted. Will you tell me more?"
"About Asimov?" he asked, knowing it wasn't what she meant. She only waited, equally aware of his deliberate misinterpretation of her question. Finally, he shook his head and retook his seat at his desk. "I don't want to contaminate the timeline any more than absolutely necessary."
"Says the man who brought three dead Reptilians back from Detroit, Michigan, 2004."
"It would have been more of a contaminant had I left them behind."
Madeline couldn't help but chuckle. "You make a fair point. Is there anything else you'd like to discuss before our next meeting with the Xindi council?"
"I think we've covered all we can, don't you? We'll just have to see if the visual evidence Degra presents has the desired effect, and go from there."
Cormack was firmly convinced that Lieutenant Reed, when he was aboard, was never truly off duty. In his absence, she'd finished a standard-length Bridge shift and now she was on her way to the Armory at the request of crewman Cui who was overseeing the continued repairs there. On one hand, she'd been hoping to grab a bite with Fraser when the two went off duty and so was annoyed at the distraction. On the other hand, the weird glances she'd caught Bonnie sending her way more than a few times over the course of that shift were just as annoying, and she was glad to escape them. Dinner might have given her a chance to get to the bottom of whatever was bugging her partner, but frankly she was happy to put it out of her mind.
She entered the Armory at the upper level and looked below, spotting Cui and Walsh at the torpedo control console. Using the railing for support and carrying the damned cane in her other hand, she descended the stairs. Reaching the lower deck, she called out a greeting.
"Hey, team. What have you got for me?"
Bonnie sat at a mess hall table wishing she had some company. Specifically, Stephanie's company. She was concerned about her partner in the wake of Ensign Young and Doctor Douglas's deaths. I suppose I should be glad for the delay, she thought over a bite. It's not like I know what I want to say to her.
The brief, slightly uncertain greeting startled her from her thoughts. She looked up to see Stephanie's bunkmate, Maggie, standing there with a tray in her hands.
"Hi," Bonnie responded. "Um, want to sit down?"
"Thanks." Maggie sat. "What did you get?"
"Hm? I'm not sure. Something Mexican, judging by the spices, but that's only a guess."
"Is it good?"
"It's fine." Bonnie wondered where the conversation was going and made no attempt to direct it herself. Meaningless chatter about food was like talking about the weather--only there wasn't any weather to talk about.
Maggie opened her ration pack. "Spaghetti and meatballs. Nice!" She dug in and they ate in silence for a bit.
"Have you, um, heard any word from the away team yet?" Maggie asked eventually. She tried to make it sound like a casual inquiry and was pretty sure she failed.
"Oh. Um... The one that went to the sphere?"
"No. Sorry. Maybe someone else has by now, though. I've been off duty for an hour. Something might've come in in the meantime."
The young woman was clearly concerned about something, or someone. She'd probably hoped to run into Stephanie and failing that had settled for Stephanie's partner instead. Bonnie took pity on her. "The team that went to the council planet is back aboard."
"Oh! That's good. Any idea how things went?"
"Well, we haven't been shot at, so that's a good sign."
Maggie laughed awkwardly, like she felt it shouldn't be funny but it was. "Right."
Fuck it. I might as well just ask. It would be better than focusing on her own concerns about which she could do nothing. "So. Are you worried about your MACO friend?"
"On the away mission? I forget who went with Lieutenant Reed, but I know there was a MACO on the team."
"Hawkins," said Maggie. "Corporal Hawkins."
"Are you and he close?" Maybe that's what's bugging her.
Maggie shrugged. "We're friends."
"Huh?" She looked genuinely surprised. "Yeah. I like him, but not like like."
There was another silence, which Bonnie was happy to let go on as long as Maggie wanted.
"Actually, I'm worried about the lieutenant."
"Oh?" That was unexpected. Bonnie knew Reed and Hayes didn't get along well, although they seemed to have buried the hatchet. She'd sort of assumed the MACOs felt like their boss, which she realized was unfair seeing as she knew perfectly well that Stephanie wasn't holding any grudges on Reed's behalf against the MACO major or his troops.
Finally, Bonnie was 100% engaged in the odd conversation. "How do you mean?" She set down her fork and took a drink of her water. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Tucker and Phlox enter and head toward the chilled cabinet. The Galley wasn't fully functional yet, but Chef had managed to turn out something sweet to eat. They all needed the emotional pick-me-up afforded by dessert and Bonnie intended to indulge soon.
"Have you had any time to talk to Stephanie lately?" Maggie asked, drawing her attention back to the table.
"No." Her annoyance must've shown because the younger woman eyed her warily. Bonnie tried to explain without tipping her hand. She wasn't comfortable discussing her concerns about Stephanie with anyone--except maybe Mae, but they'd barely had time to say hello to one another lately, as one went on shift as the other came off. "You know how it's been since the attack. Everyone with a job to do has been up to their eyeballs in it pretty much 24/7."
"Yeah. And everyone without a job to do is twiddling their thumbs and going stir-crazy." If there was bitterness in her tone, Maggie felt she could be forgiven.
"I hadn't thought about that. That can't be easy."
Maggie shrugged again, spiraling pasta onto her fork distractedly. "I guess, in the grand scheme, the less we MACOs have to do, the better that means the situation is, right?"
"You're an optimist, aren't you?"
This time when Bowman chuckled, there was nothing awkward about it. "Stephanie said something similar this morning. I guess I am."
"Yeah. Especially since you're bunked with Stephanie." Bonnie decided now was as good a time as any to lay some of her cards on the table. "I know she's having a rough time. We all are to varying degrees. But--"
"But... You're worried she's having a rougher time than she lets on, right?"
"You tell me. You've probably seen more of her than I have lately."
Maggie took a bite to give herself time to consider before answering. "Like you said, people are working all the time. Yes, I saw her this morning--"
"When she called you an optimist."
"Yeah." Maggie gave a small smile, which turned thoughtful. "She seemed awfully cynical when she said it."
"She has that sort of sense of humor."
"It was grumpier than that." She shook her head. "Maybe it was just because her leg was hurting. That would make anyone grumpy."
Bonnie chuckled "You have no idea. Well, maybe you have a little," she amended. "You have to live with her, after all."
"She has a reputation among Sickbay staff for being the worst patient on board. But hang on. You said you're worried about Lieutenant Reed. Where does he fit into this?"
Maggie shifted uncomfortably in her chair and glanced around. Now that it came to it, she wasn't sure she should say anything. She wasn't sure how a fleeter would take her admission. And really, were her fears even realistic? Stephanie was so reliable, so steady. Did Maggie have any concrete cause for her concern? She's not even having nightmares or migraines anymore, she reminded herself. I'm probably worried about nothing.
She stalled by taking a large bite of meatball and sauce but eventually had to respond. "It's no big deal."
"I won't say anything to anyone, if that's what you're worried about. I am far too good at keeping secrets." Not that I want to keep any new ones now the old ones are history.
Bonnie suddenly felt like she was back in high school, gods help her. "Promise."
"Well..." Maggie gave up arguing with herself and dove in. "What with Ensign Young's death and Stephanie being the only other tactical officer under the lieutenant, I'm worried that if he doesn't come back safe, his job is going to land completely on her shoulders for the rest of the mission. It's not that I don't think she can do it," Maggie added hastily. "I just--"
The younger woman hesitated, but Bonnie could guess the rest. Hell, she'd thought the same or similar more than once in the wake of Young's passing. "You're just afraid she'll eventually break down if she has to."
"Not exactly. I can't really imagine Stephanie breaking down, but... More like, I'm afraid she'll burn herself out if she keeps going like this."
"You promise to keep a secret for me?"
"I'm afraid of that, too." It wasn't all of the truth, but it was all she was willing to share. She trusted Bowman--to an extent. She didn't know the MACO well enough to trust her completely. It felt good to share at least some of her concerns with someone else. It struck her as ironic that now, when she could have used the help of a ship's councilor and might even have taken advantage of the opportunity, they no longer had one.
Maggie's face fell. She'd really been hoping for someone to put her mind at ease. Then she brightened up a little, almost smiling. "In that case, you keep an eye out and I'll keep an eye out, too. Between us, we'll be able to, I don't know, hold her up or something if we see her starting to fall. We'll have each others' backs."
Bonnie returned the younger woman's growing smile with a small one of her own. "Yep. Optimist."
"Like the old song says, 'I have heard people rant and rave and bellow, that we're done and we might as well be dead, but I'm only a cockeyed optimist and I can't get it into my head.'*" Maggie grinned and Bonnie couldn't help but laugh.
"Thanks," she said through her mirth. "I needed that."
For the most part, Trip's insomniac nights were a thing of the past. Tonight wasn't a good night.
They were in orbit over the Xindi council planet with no clear decisions yet reached. He'd finally come to terms of a sort with Degra. With the Xindi engineer's help, they'd gotten the power converters working properly. That alone should've been enough to keep his mind from too much spinning. Might have been, if only Malcolm were on board and safe. As it was, Trip tossed and turned, alone in his bunk, worrying.
There'd been no word from the away team Malcolm had taken inside one of the spheres. Trip kept telling himself it was to be expected. It would take time for them to reach it, and finding what they sought was another challenge to be overcome, then getting back...
No news is good news, right? He couldn't make himself believe it.
He'd tried several things to help him sleep. A late snack with Phlox; warm milk; a book to read; deep breathing. He hadn't felt bold enough to try any yoga on his own, but he had taken a go at that foot reflexology Malcolm had gotten so good at. It wasn't the same.
It was no use. He threw off the blanket and sat up. "Might as well get dressed and go back to Engineering," he muttered to the empty cabin. At least it was something to do besides fret.
He was just tying his boots when the Tactical Alert sounded. He straightened up, waiting for an order to come over the comms. When nothing did and there was no accompanying siren beyond the first alert, he knew they weren't under attack.
Still, something must have happened. He would go to Engineering and see what he could find out. If the captain came looking for him, he would be at his post.
Stephanie was almost out the Armory door when the ship suddenly went on Tactical Alert. Her first instinct was to turn around, secure the Armory, and make sure weapons and defensive systems had come online as they should. Then she remembered she was in charge until the lieutenant got back. Let Cui and Walsh deal with the systems, she told herself, and find out what's going on upstairs.
She punched the comm panel next to the door and hailed the Bridge tactical station.
"Griffith here." His voice was thin through the speaker.
How are they still not working right? she thought impatiently. "Status report."
"Nothing to report, ma'am."
"Nothing? We're on tactical alert."
"Yes, ma'am. The captain ordered it."
"Any idea why?"
"All right. I'm on my way up. Cormack out." She closed the connection and glanced over her shoulder, catching Cui's eye. "You two got things under control for the moment?"
"All right. I'll send Griffith down to back you up. And I'll let you know what I learn." If anything, she added silently to herself.
Cui gave a sharp nod and Cormack made a hasty exit to the nearest turbolift.
This time the lack of "turbo" to the lift irked her and she impatiently muttered, "Come on, come on," as it ascended from the lowest deck to the highest. Emerging at last on the Bridge, she saw Sato at the comm station, but barely registered who was seated at the helm and sciences. She crossed quickly to Griffith at Tactical.
"Nothing to report."
Cormack fought not to roll her eyes. What the hell was the point of a Tactical Alert if there was nothing going on? "Perfect. You're relieved. Get down to the Armory to backup Cui so Walsh can go back to Engineering." She didn't add what she was thinking; it would have bordered on insubordinate even though there was no one there who ranked her to overhear it. There had to be a good reason for the alert or Captain Archer wouldn't have ordered it.
He relinquished the seat and she took it. How long had it been since her shift had ended and she'd handed this very seat over to him? She had no clue what time it was other than late. She decided right now it was better not to know. Stephanie yawned. I should've grabbed a latté.
"There's activity on the planet."
The science crewman's words snapped Cormack back to alertness. She checked her own sensors. "Confirmed."
"I'm picking up signs of tremors."
"Earthquake?" asked Sato.
"Too precise for a natural phenomenon."
As the data came in, Cormack's blood ran cold. "Those are hatch releases. Five Insectoid ships are descending towards the surface." She looked across the Bridge to Sato. "I think they're launching the weapon."
Archer had lost all track of time since the Reptilians had launched the weapon and abducted Hoshi. The brief meeting he and Negotiator Reed had had with Degra's colleagues, Depac and Jannar, had done little to assuage his concern over either incident, although it had provided him with data. For what that was worth.
Madeline quickened her pace to keep up with him, striding anxiously along the corridor from the airlock to the turbolift. "At least now we know why they took Ensign Sato," she said.
"Knowing why doesn't get her back any faster." Archer punched the button for the lift and, astonishingly, it opened immediately. They stepped inside.
"She's strong and she's smart. She won't give in to them without a fight."
"You heard what Depac said. She may not have a choice." He requested the Bridge and the lift began to rise.
"We don't know what the Reptilians' methods entail. We have to believe Hoshi will resist them to the best of her ability. Captain." She took a breath and for a wonder he stopped glaring at the closed door and looked at her. "I accept that my job here is virtually moot at this point. The Primates and Arborials are on our side. The Reptilians and Insectoids are beyond negotiating. If they weren't, they'd have demanded ransom for Ensign Sato. We know that's not their goal in abducting her. We also know they need her alive, and that means we have time. Limited, yes, but we have it."
"You're forgetting about the Aquatics," he replied, ignoring the rest of what she said. He was too worried, too angry, to discuss it yet.
"Not forgetting. Just...holding them in reserve, as it were. Should they agree to speak to us again, I'm ready to talk. Until that time..." She shrugged. "There's only so much a hasty hobbit can do while the Ents debate amongst themselves."
"You know," Archer said, "when this mission is over, I think I need to read this book you keep talking about."
"It's a trilogy, actually," she said, and added in an undertone not necessarily meant to be heard, "For starters."
"Noted." The lift doors opened and they crossed the Bridge to Archer's ready room. He nodded once to Hutchison at the helm and noted Griffith, Cruz, and Donnelly at tactical, science, and comms, respectively, but he said nothing until he and Madeline were alone once more. "Have you spoken to Malcolm since his team returned?"
Madeline accepted the change of subject without comment. "No. We've both been rather preoccupied." She hesitated before going on. "I heard about Corporal Hawkins."
"Malcolm's lost members of his own department lately, and now a MACO under his immediate command." It was Archer's turn to hesitate and Madeline wondered what he was thinking. "Has he talked to you about any of it? Any of them?"
"A little. I didn't press."
"He keeps things bottled up."
"Sometimes until the cork bursts, yes," agreed Madeline, thinking of the brawl between Malcolm and Major Hayes, and other older memories she felt no need to share with the captain.
"You know him better than anyone else--"
"I wouldn't go that far."
Archer conceded the point with a tip of his head. "You've known him longer than anyone else here."
"That's true, yes."
"He's...more sensitive than he likes to let on. Isn't he?" It wasn't really a question and so he didn't expect an answer. "Will you let me know if you find out he needs anything?"
Madeline's brows drew together in a puzzled frown. "I'm not sure I understand what you're asking."
"I'm not entirely sure I know, either." Archer gave a self-deprecating huff of a sigh. "I need him sharp. I need to know if circumstances get to him in a...a detrimental way."
"He'll do his job, Captain." She tensed, read to defend Reed honor.
"I know he will." How to put it when he couldn't quantify his concerns even to himself? Maybe I'm just projecting, he thought. "Never mind. I need to check on Trip and T'Pol's progress."
"They're working on decoding what was brought back from the sphere, correct?"
"I wish them luck."
Cormack was running on adrenaline and caffeine.
She hadn't yet had the chance to report to her C.O. since he'd come back on board. Too much had happened too quickly. Degra dead. The weapon launched. Hoshi taken. Hawkins dead.
"It's a gods-damned clusterfuck," she muttered to her reflection. She recognized the face that looked back at her from the mirror, but damn, it was looking haggard, and all the cold water in the world wasn't going to change that. She needed sleep longer than a cat nap, and a decent meal--one that wasn't eaten from a ration pack as she rushed from one duty to another.
Neither was on the schedule any time soon.
"What I wouldn't give for an hour of yoga right now. Hell, half an hour, even." But that was a luxury she definitely didn't have.
She pushed back from the sink and tossed the towel she'd used to dry her face into the laundry chute. "Time to find the boss and make sure he's up to date on everything he missed." She left the lav and made the short trek from her quarters down to the Armory.
She waved a quick hello to Broback, the duty crewman, and went directly to Reed's tiny office where she rang the chime. There was no answer.
"You missed him by about a minute," said Broback, a young woman who'd joined the crew at the beginning of their mission to the Expanse.
"Do you know where he went?"
"Bridge. I heard the captain's hail."
"Did he say anything else?"
"The captain or the lieutenant?"
She sighed. "Okay. Thanks."
Cormack left and caught a turbolift back to E-deck. Technically, she was off duty and had been for a while. Maybe a sit-down meal and something longer than a nap were in the stars after all.
Archer and Madeline stood on the bridge of what had been Degra's ship. She supposed now it was Depac's. He was currently the person in charge. She listened as he and the Aquatic representative, Kiaphet Amman'sor, discussed the situation. I wish we had Hoshi and the universal translator. I suppose we could have brought the latter, but no one's better at programming it than her. In Sato's absence, they were forced to rely on the Xindi Primate's translations.
"I didn't quite catch that last part," said Archer, somehow managing to keep the irony from his voice.
"They've agreed to meet with us," replied Depac on behalf of the Aquatic ambassador. "But don't expect much, Captain."
Maggie stood outside the door to Cole and McKenzie's cabin. She knew there were others inside. Those who were the sort to go in for this sort of thing. She anticipated Woods and Kelly for sure, maybe Romero, too. Beyond that, she couldn't guess.
She reached out and rang the chime. The door slid open a moment later and she was met by a larger crowd than she'd anticipated.
"Hey, Maggie. Come on in and grab a beer." McKenzie waved her in and pointed her to the cooler that rested on top of the small desk in the corner, next to the computer screen.
"Thanks." The door closed behind her and she took in the scene.
She was surprised to see Brown and Money, both seated on the interior-bulkhead bunk. Cole sat on the other bed, her legs crossed and a pillow on her lap. Woods sat at its foot, and Kelly had found a spot on the floor. Sergeant Kemper had claimed the desk chair. Ryan's presence, leaning against the exterior bulkhead by the small port, didn't thrill her and she tried to ignore him, but he was standing right next to the drinks.
Maggie stepped over and around her fellow MACOs to reach the cooler. She claimed a beer and opened it, but didn't take a drink right away. She leaned back against a locker as McKenzie reclaimed a rumpled spot on her bunk.
"We've been swapping stories about Hawkins," Kemper said. "Got any good ones?"
Maggie shook her head and then paused. "Maybe one." A small smile quirked her lips. "But I'm not sure I should tell it in mixed company, sir."
"He's past being put on report, Corporal." Kemper offered a kind if melancholy smile.
"I'm kidding. It's nothing he'd have gotten reported for."
"We'll take it anyway," joked the sargeant. "If you've got a good memory to share, now's the time."
"That's what a wake is for, after all," put in Woods. "Right?"
"That and drinking," added Ryan, raising his bottle and taking a swallow.
Woods rolled his eyes. "Tell me that's not the only reason you're here."
"I'm here because it's not a proper wake without an Irishman, and I'm the closest you've got." He tossed back the rest of his drink and grabbed another, opening it with a deft twist.
Kelly looked at him, an expression of annoyance on his face. "Literally sitting right here."
Ryan ignored him and went on. "Besides. I liked Hawkins. He was okay."
It was as sentimental as Maggie had ever seen him and her opinion of him softened a fraction.
"Come on," Kemper urged her. "You got a story? Tell it."
She hesitated only a moment more before relenting. "All right. But it never leaves this room." She pointed a steady finger at each of them, mock threatening.
"Scouts honor," said Kemper, saluting.
"Okay. Did any of you know Hawkins could sing?" She was met by blank looks.
"You mean, like, in a band?" asked Brown.
"No. I mean like musical theatre."
Ryan barked a laugh. "No fucking way."
"Way," she contradicted him. "And if you're going to be a dick, I'm not telling the story."
"Ignore him," Kemper said. "Go on."
Maggie took a drink of beer and decided to go on. "So, first time I met him was this tour, right? And you know how these Starfleet shower rooms are set up, right?"
"Are you sure you want to tell this?" asked McKenzie teasingly.
"Shut up. I wanna hear it," said Ryan, leaning in.
"Okay. About a week into the mission, when I went to use the shower room, he was in one of the cubicles. Singing." She took another swallow of her drink.
"So, come on. What happened?" Cole asked eagerly.
"Yeah," agreed Kelly. "Don't leave us hanging."
"Any of you ever heard of Brigadoon?" Maggie's words were met with mostly blank stares and shaken heads. "Philistines. Okay. It's a mid-20th century muscial set mostly in Scotland and there's time travel. That's all you need to know. So, Hawkins is singing in the shower stall and he obviously doesn't have a clue I'm there. He's good, too, by the way. And he's singing this song from Brigadoon called 'Waitin' for My Dearie'."
"Sounds girly," said Ryan, losing the little empathy he'd gained earlier.
Maggie gave him a dirty look and continued. "It's sung by the heroine of the story, Fiona MacLaren."
Ryan opened his mouth to say something more but Kemper shot him a withering look. "Shut it. Let her tell her story."
"Thank you, sir," she said pointedly. She resumed her tale. "I'm torn at this point, right? Should I make a noise so he knows he has an audience? Should I slip out so he doesn't know? Thing is, though, I know the show. I know the song."
"How do you know it?" asked Brown. "None of us have ever heard of it."
"Speak for yourself," interjected McKenzie.
"I have hidden depths," Maggie deadpanned. She returned to her story again. "So, Hawkins is singing, and I'm still debating with myself, and he gets to the part of the song where someone else sings. So, I sing the line. I mean, I couldn't leave him hanging."
Cole leaned forward, fully engaged in the story. "So? What'd he do?"
Maggie looked around, eyeing each of them once again, this time with a mischievous smile on her face. "He. Sang. Back!"
"No way!" Cole grinned.
"He knew by then it was me. I mean, he looked over the top of the stall door, right, to see who it was. I wasn't going to hide or something stupid like that. I was having fun." She grinned and slugged back another swallow of beer.
"So what then?" Kelly asked, leaning forward, enjoying the story, eager to hear the rest.
"We finished the song, of course! I took the next stall over--I still needed a shower, right? And we sang a couple more tunes from the show. Shower room acoustics are the best! He told me later his dad is a college theatre professor, so he grew up around plays and musicals." A wave of fond melancholy washed over her. "It was...perfect. One of those lightning-in-a-bottle moments. You know?"
A moment of silence fell over the group.
"Damn. I had no idea he could sing," said McKenzie at last, regretful.
"He was really good." Bowman raised her bottle in a toast. "To Hawkins."
"To Hawkins," several of the others echoed.
They all drank.
Everything Jannar and Depac said confirmed Maddy's belief that Aquatic Xindi were just Ents in fish form, and the words of the Aquatic representatives, themselves, drove the point home. At least they could be understood now, thanks to their own newly programmed translation software.
"Just because the Reptilians choose to act rashly does not mean we will do the same," said Kiaphet Amman'sor.
Archer tried to hold his anger in check with limited success. "So you'd rather sit back and do nothing--"
"Captain," interjected Jannar before Maddy could, but Archer kept going.
"--while they condemn all five of your species to extinction."
"You may return to your ship. You will be informed of our decision," said the male Aquatic whose name, Maddy hated to admit, escaped her at the moment.
Madeline spoke up quickly, stepping past Archer to stand directly center of the window through which they spoke. "One last question. Have these Guardians told you where you'll establish your new homeworld? Is it here in the Expanse? Surely you're aware that the spheres are turning it into a trans-dimensional wasteland. Uninhabitable by you or any other Xindi." The Aquatics turned to go and she'd run out of arguments.
Archer stepped back in beside her and she gave way. "You say the Guardians have helped you. Have they ever tried to disable the spheres?" Then he dropped his bombshell. "Because we've found a way. Help me save my people and I can help you save yours."
Bloody hell, thought Maddy. Now he's done it. She knew Tucker and T'Pol had been looking for a way to disrupt or disable the spheres that were warping space throughout the Expanse. If they'd found one, she'd not been told. She had a sick suspicion that Archer was stretching the truth out of desperation. This is why I don't like amateurs in the negotiating room. At least he'd gotten the Aquatics' attention. I hope to God he can back up his claims.
Bonnie rang the chime for Stephanie's quarters. There was no response. She tried a second time with the same result. Either Stephanie was sacked out, too deeply asleep to hear the chime, or no one was home.
Bonnie knew she'd been acting strangely and she wanted the chance to explain why. She was certain Stephanie had noticed it--even if they had only seen each other in passing or on duty since the memorial service for the eighteen. And now there'd been one more casualty: Corporal Hawkins. What was the body count up to now? Twenty-two? No. Twenty-three. And now Hoshi was being held captive by the Reptilians.
Bonnie didn't like where her mind was going. She took a deep breath in through her nose and let it out again, then walked away from the cabin door. If Stephanie really was asleep, she would let her be. Gods knew she needed it. They all did.
"If she needs to talk to someone, she will," she quietly told herself. "It doesn't matter to whom. I don't have to be there every minute just in case." It was an argument she'd been having with herself for a while now and it really needed to stop. Then she deliberately reminded herself, "And Maggie's got your back on this now, remember?"
She turned a corner and ran into her bunkmate.
"Hey! I was hoping to see you." Mae smiled. "I am officially ordered off the clock until 0700. Want to get dinner?"
"Is it dinner time?"
"I have no idea, but that's what my stomach says. You interested?"
Bonnie tried to recall when she'd last sat down for a meal and what it had been. She thought it might have been a breakfast sandwich and coffee sometime in the last 12 hours, but that was only a guess. "Sure."
They were soon settled at a table in the mess hall with the first fresh meal either had had in far too long.
"I'm so glad Commander Tucker finally got the galley back up and running," sighed Mae over a steak salad that tasted more like ambrosia than mere food.
"Yeah. What took that lazy boss of yours so long?" joked Bonnie, although her heart was only half in it. Not that she wasn't thrilled to be eating freshly made chicken korma and naan.
"There was this pesky thing in the Engine Room that needed fixing."
"Oh? What was it?"
Bonnie chuckled at that, happy for the ordinariness of the moment. "Have you seen Stephanie lately?" she asked after a few more bites.
Mae nodded, then amended it to a shrug. "I caught a minute with her over coffee...yesterday? Yesterday."
"How did she seem to you?"
"Busy. Tired. Same as the rest of us."
"But okay otherwise?"
"Did she seem...more stressed than usual?"
"What's 'usual' any more?" Mae stopped eating and looked at her friend. "What are you driving at?"
"I'm worried about her. Since the last big attack. When we lost so many people."
"Since we lost Doctor Douglas?"
"And Ensign Young."
Mae sighed. "Yeah. Ari's had trouble since then, too. He and Young were more than bunkmates. They'd been close friends since Starfleet training."
"I didn't realize they'd known each other that long."
"Yeah. Ari told me about it. Stuff I think Ian wouldn't have been okay with him saying if he were still around," she added wryly. The story of how they'd first become friends, on a drunken night that left Ian sobbing on Ari's shoulder about the death of his father, wasn't something she thought Young would have appreciated being public knowledge. So she kept it to herself.
"And was Ari better after that?"
"Maybe?" Mae had held him while he'd bawled like an infant. He'd seemed better after, but she knew from experience it would take more than one good cry to get over the loss. "Why?"
Bonnie hesitated, but if she couldn't talk to Mae about Stephanie and she was only willing to trust Maggie provisionally, who was left? "I haven't seen her cry." She didn't have to say who "she" was. Mae could figure it out. "I mean, that doesn't mean she hasn't, or that she needs to, or that she should, but... You know?"
Mae considered what Bonnie wasn't saying as much as what she was and decided to cut to the chase. "Are you afraid she's going to dive into a bottle again?"
Bonnie opened her mouth to protest, then hesitated. "Maybe a little."
"Would it help you if I said I'm not?"
A pair of crewman passed close by, carrying trays to another table. They weren't likely to overhear anything and to know whom Mae and Bonnie were discussing, but Mae equivocated slightly nevertheless. "Not afraid that'll happen. Not this time."
Mae shrugged and dug back into her salad. "Lots of reasons and no reason at all."
"That makes as much sense as Kreetassan etiquette."
"Look. I'm not saying 'don't worry about her'. But I am saying I think she's okay. She's overworked and grieving, but we all are to some extent. Right now, I trust her to ask for help if she needs it."
"What precedent is that based on?" snarked Bonnie, stabbing a bite of chicken with her fork.
"None." Mae looked across the table at her, unperturbed. "It's based on instinct and observation. Last time she fell off the wagon, there wasn't anything she could do. Her sister was on Earth, hurt, maybe dead, and she was out here. This time, we're all out here and she has more than enough to do. She can't bring back the people we've lost, but she can dig in, get her hands dirty, work so that we don't lose more."
Begrudgingly, Bonnie nodded. "I get it. It makes sense. But I'm still worried."
"That's okay. Just don't let it get in your way."
"Be there for her if she needs you, but don't get caught up in it if she doesn't."
"Is that what you're doing?"
Mae nodded. "For her. For Ari. Hell, for anyone who might randomly need a shoulder to cry on." She leaned in over her plate and said firmly but softly. "Including you."
"Okay." Bonnie's tension eased a little, and she felt her shoulders relax. "I get it," she said again. "Thanks."
This time the Tactical Alert actually meant something, although they weren't yet actively in the fight, nestled as they were in the belly of the beast, so to speak. Enterprise was currently concealed within the hangar deck of one of the Aquatic Xindi vessels. A rather battered "secret weapon" waiting to be deployed. With a bit of luck, they would take the enemy by surprise, the MACOs would rescue Hoshi, and the weapon would be destroyed before it could launch for Earth.
When was the last time luck was on our side? Cormack mused cynically from her post in the Armory. She envied her bunkmate, assigned to the rescue team Hayes was taking in.
"Impulse engines engaging," announced Martinez, assigned to watch for the moment they were cut loose from the Aquatic ship.
"All right. Stay sharp, everyone." Cormack glanced around the Armory, meeting the gaze of each of her team in turn. "It's about to get busy in here."
Corporal Bowman joined Major Hayes, Corporal Kelly, and Private Richards at the transporter platform and waited for the order to proceed. If Tucker couldn't get Sato out using the transporter, she would finally get her wish: someone to shoot at.
"Damn it!" swore Tucker from the transporter's control console. "I can't lock on to Hoshi. You're gonna have to go in and get her. I'm transferring her coordinates within the ship to your scanner," he added to Hayes without looking up.
"Understood." Hayes led his team up onto the transporter platform. He pulled the scanner from a pocket and confirmed he had the data. "Coordinates received."
"I'll have to set you down near the ship's exterior bulkheads. I'll get you as close to Hoshi as I can without landing you next to any Xindi."
Bowman held her phase-rifle securely, a familiar weight in her hands, ready to take aim the moment they materialized on the Reptilian ship.
Hayes looked at Tucker manning the controls. "We're ready whenever you are, Commander."
Tucker nodded once tightly, giving the beam-in coordinates one final check, and returned the MACO's serious expression. "Bring her back safe."
The walls around them appeared to ripple and vanish to be replaced by the interior of the Xindi vessel. Tucker was as good as his word; no Reptilians witnessed their shimmering arrival. Hayes checked his scanner and nodded once to Bowman. She fell in beside him as they moved, with Richards following and Kelly covering the rear.
They rounded a corner and came up behind a Reptilian guard. Hayes quickly took him down and stunned him into unconsciousness. Richards handed over a small explosive device, and ten seconds later they'd blasted their way into the cell where Sato lay.
Bowman and Kelly covered the corridor while Hayes tried first to wake the ensign and, failing that, tried to hail Enterprise. When that too failed, he looked up at Richards. "We should get back to the beam-in point." He lifted Sato into a fireman's carry and, surrounded by his team, moved out.
Cormack had no time to think about anything else, focused as she was on keeping the armory systems running like clockwork while Enterprise and a fleet of three species worth of Xindi vessels took on the Reptilians and Insectoids protecting the weapon. Up on the Bridge, Lieutenant Reed was throwing everything they had at the enemy and the overworked systems were running hot as a result.
"I hope these are making a dent in the bad guys," she muttered, quickly rerouting power from a circuit that was about to overload to one that was stable.
Without warning, the bulkhead nearest her rippled and sparks flashed. "Fuck!" She jumped away from the wall, stumbling a little on the leg that still wasn't 100%. She cursed again, this time at the pain that shot up through the limb from her foot to her hip, and retook her position at the console. Her head ached and it crossed her mind that it might have been longer than it should have since her last trellium injection. "Report!"
"Multiple anomalies have formed all at once," Martinez responded immediately. "It's like they came out of nowhere."
"Great," snarled Cormack sarcastically. She ran as much of a systems check as she could. "Looks like weapons and defensive systems are still operational anyway."
"No casualties here, either."
"I love good news." Nothing had fried out, nothing was on fire, and none of her team was hurt. That was all she cared about for now. "Let's hope it stays that way."
Richards took point as they made their way back to the beam-in site. This time, though, they encountered resistance. Three lizards blocked the end of the corridor, firing disruptors at the MACOs. Hayes lowered Sato to rest against the bulkhead while his team took up defensive positions.
We'd better be close enough, Hayes thought, pulling the communicator from his sleeve pocket. He shouted into it to be heard over the weapons fire being exchanged by the Xindi and his team. "Hayes to Enterprise."
Archer's voice came back to them. "Go ahead."
"We've got Sato!"
Bowman heard the brief exchange but paid it little heed. She was calm, focused, her weapon an extension of herself as she fired, stunning two lizards in quick succession. More swiftly replaced them and she continued firing.
"Archer to Hayes. We've got a malfunction. Can you hold your position?"
"Affirmative." Hayes was moving into position, pistol in hand, before the word was out of his mouth.
Two more lizards came up behind them. Quick as he could, Hayes armed a stun grenade and lobbed it to land at their feet. Bowman and Richards braced themselves for the blast, which knocked both Xindi off their feet and into unconsciousness. Hayes refocused his attention to the other end of the corridor and began firing. They were pinned down, but they were holding their own. It was up to Tucker to get them out.
And suddenly there he was on the comm. "Tucker to Hayes."
"Go ahead," replied the major, never ceasing fire.
"I'm ready to get you out, but I can only transport two at a time. Then I have to reset the buffer."
Hayes turned to Corporal Kelly. "Take her." Kelly nodded and got Sato's arm across his shoulders and his own around her back to support her. "Lock on Kelly and Sato!" In a swirl of lights, they were gone.
Bowman noted their disappearance peripherally, taking out another lizard. She took aim again, only to be struck by enemy fire. She grunted in pain and fell back against Richards.
Tucker's voice came through the comm. "Ready for two more."
"You two are next," Hayes said, then turned again to fire at the enemy, providing cover for their extraction.
Bowman thumbed her weapon from stun to kill and took one last shot before the transporter beam took hold. She saw the lizard fall. That's for Hawkins, she thought as she and Richards rematerialized aboard Enterprise.
Richards helped her to her feet and off of the transporter platform. She quickly thumbed the weapon back to stun. Close examination of it would reveal that she'd taken a kill shot, but for now she would cross mental fingers that whoever checked the weapons back in wouldn't bother to look that closely. Or if they did, that they would pretend they hadn't.
They moved out of the way, but she wouldn't let Richards take her to Sickbay yet. "Wait for the major," she insisted.
"I could use a change of scenery!" His voice came over the comm, interspersed with the sound of weapons fire being exchanged.
Tucker responded quickly. "Hang on, Major."
Bowman held her breath. Tucker worked the controls. Hayes appeared on the platform.
Her relief at the sight of him was quickly replaced by horror as he clutched at his chest, crying out in pain, and collapsed to the floor.
Time flew past in a flurry of activity and turbulence until the ship abruptly fell still.
"We've ceased firing," Cormack said, not sure yet if this was a good thing or a bad one.
"Sensors indicate the weapon is gone," announced Martinez. She sounded stunned and afraid. Cormack's glance in her direction revealed the same emotions on her face.
"Two went with the weapon. The rest are disabled or destroyed."
"Okay." Cormack processed the information as best she could, but questions remained. "After all that, I sure as hell hope we got Hoshi back."
Cutler and Cohn had their hands full in Sickbay assisting Phlox with casualties. On one side of the room, Cohn treated an unconscious engineering crewman, while Sergeant Kemper rested in the next bed over, both men having suffered moderate injuries during the attack. Richards brought Bowman in on the heels of the med-techs transporting Major Hayes on a grav-gurney. Phlox met them as they entered.
"Step aside, Corporal!" Phlox shouted as forcefully as Cutler had ever heard him. "Ensign, take her!" he ordered Cohn.
"No!" Bowman protested, fighting against both Cohn and Richards. "Major!"
Cutler grabbed a hypo and ambushed the struggling MACO with a sedative. Bowman slumped into the arms of her captors who quickly moved her to an empty biobed.
"Thank you," snapped Phlox, now able to devote all his attention to the injured Hayes.
With those emergencies under control, Cutler checked again on Hoshi. She was still unconscious, her condition stable but critical. Phlox had promptly applied his osmotic eel once he'd discovered the alien parasites the Reptilians had injected into her brain. Cutler shuddered at the thought of the parasites, horrified not by their existence (She was an exobiologist and entomologist above all else, after all.) but by the idea that someone would use them in such an appalling way.
With Hoshi as secure as she could be, Liz turned to help Lieutenant Hess to lie back on a biobed. The engineer's head wound was minor, despite the copious blood that stuck in her hair and stained her uniform. From the corner of her eye, Liz noticed Lieutenant Reed's arrival but had neither time nor attention to spare for him.
Reed crossed to where Phlox stood at Hayes's bedside. "Doctor..."
Hayes wheezed in a breath. "I told him I was ready for duty."
The lieutenant quirked a wry half smile. "I'm afraid he's a bit of a mother hen," he replied quietly.
Hayes chuckled once and sighed, swallowing against the dryness in his throat. "How's Ensign Sato?"
Phlox looked up from his scans and answered. "Her bio-signs are stable." Hayes nodded in grateful acknowledgement.
"Thank you for bringing her home," said Malcolm, hoping Hayes understood just how grateful not only he, but everyone aboard, was. He stepped closer, looked down into the major's pale face. The wound in his chest was visible through the scorched and bloody fabric of his uniform. From what he'd gathered, Hayes had been shot mid-transport. He could only guess at the sort of damage that had done.
"All in a day's work." His breathing was labored but the gaze that met Reed's was intense. "Use McKenzie."
Reed leaned in to hear him better. "What?"
"She knows the team. Rely on her."
He shook his head tightly. "No more of that talk. That's an order."
Hayes looked about to reply when a seizure took hold of him, choking off anything more he might have said.
Abruptly, an alarm went off and Phlox called for a cardiostimulator.
Cutler looked up and saw Cohn hand over the paddles as Phlox directed Reed to step away.
Time seemed to hesitate as Phlox administered the first shock. Reed glanced up at the monitor but could make nothing out of the data there and quickly looked back to Phlox.
"Increase by 0.2 joules," the doctor ordered.
Cutler's heart sank and she could see the same regret in the fall of Phlox's shoulders and stillness of Reed's face.
Wordlessly, Phlox handed the stimulator paddles back to Cohn who took them without comment. His expression, too, was downcast at another life lost to the Xindi.
Phlox turned to Reed. His voice was low and full of regret. "I'm sorry, Lieutenant."
Reed nodded, tight lipped, biting back anger and sorrow. "You did your best, I'm sure. If you'll inform the captain, I'll speak to the MACOs. Excuse me." He turned and left Sickbay without another word.
Alone in a cross-corridor, he paused for breath. There was no time for grief now. He had to get his emotions under control. It took longer than he could afford. Deeming himself calm enough at least to make one call, he hailed all MACOs, requesting their immediate presence in the Armory. He didn't wait for any reply.
"Use McKenzie," Hayes had said. "She knows the team." With Sergeant Kemper injured, his advice was sound, and Reed would take it.
A hail from the captain startled him from his thoughts and he was glad no one was there to witness him jump. He punched open the comm line and replied. "Reed here, sir."
"We're going to board the Xindi weapon and attempt to destroy it from inside. Assemble a team."
Archer closed the connection and Reed let out a sigh, squaring his shoulders and standing up straight. Convenient that he had already told the MACOs to assemble. He now had three announcements to make. He strode to the nearest turbolift and rode it down to F-deck and the Armory.
Cormack couldn't help listening to Reed's announcements to the gathered MACOs. Her bunkmate had been on the rescue mission; all Cormack knew beyond that was that they'd brought Sato back. Clearly, there was a story to tell, but Reed wasn't giving away much in his speech.
She hadn't even known Bowman was hurt and here he was telling them that she, along with Sato and Kemper, would make full recoveries? But that implied--
"Unfortunately, Major Hayes's injuries were more severe," Reed said. "He didn't survive. I'm sorry."
Cormack watched a ripple of regret pass through the commandos, but none spoke up or let more than a moment's discomfort show. Gods, they are well trained. If someone told me Malcolm was dead-- She cut off that line of thought immediately.
"We've got less than ten hours before this weapon reaches Earth," the lieutenant went on. "The Captain wants to take a team aboard to destroy it. I don't imagine the Reptilians will make this easy for us. But that's why you're here. That's why Major Hayes picked each one of you for this mission. Because he knew you'd get the job done. I need three volunteers."
Literally every MACO stepped forward. Cormack had to fight the urge to do the same, knowing her place was on board Enterprise. Especially if Reed intended to lead the assault team himself, which she had no doubt he did. Without Major Hayes, Reed would step into his place at the head of his troops. They were his responsibility now more than ever before.
He assembled his team of Woods, Romero, and Forbes, and then dismissed the remaining MACOs with a nod. He'd explained the situation to them, but Cormack couldn't believe that was the whole story.
Reed caught Cormack looking at him and called her over. "Ensign."
Now maybe I'll get the rest. She crossed the few steps to him. "Sir?"
"You heard me say Bowman was going to be all right?"
"I know she's your bunkmate and a friend. I wanted to be sure you heard."
"You're in charge of ship's security until I get back."
"Understood. Just-- Make sure you come back. Okay?"
That drew a hint of a grim smile from him. "I have every intention of it."
"She'll need another cortical treatment," insisted Phlox, following the quick-moving Archer towards the door. "At least let me come with you."
"There's a medical bay aboard Degra's ship. Show Lieutenant Reed how to do it."
"He's not a doctor!"
"Phlox!" Archer's voice dropped from strident to soft and sincere. "You're needed here."
Reluctantly, Phlox nodded, admitting defeat.
"I'll go." Ensign Cohn stepped forward before Archer could leave Sickbay. "I couldn't help overhearing," he said by way of apologizing for the intrusion. "You need someone to attend to Ensign Sato on the Xindi ship and you need Doctor Phlox here. So, I'll go."
Archer looked from him to Phlox, a question on his face. He wouldn't have asked if the young man hadn't volunteered. "Doctor?"
Phlox turned to Cohn. "You're sure?"
Cohn's reply was swift and firm. "Yes."
Archer nodded once. "Be ready. I want you and Hoshi on that ship in twenty minutes."
Archer left quickly, too much to do before the deadline he had just handed down.
Ari and Phlox exchanged a look of determination on one side and concern on the other. "I'll put together a kit of what you'll need," Phlox said.
"Thank you. And, Doctor?"
"If Ensign Lawless happens by, can you not let her know that I'm gone? Unless she asks, of course. Okay? I don't want her to worry."
Phlox let out a small sigh and nodded gravely. "She won't hear it from me."
Time was short. Cormack met Reed at the secured weapons locker nearest the starboard docking hatch. He spoke as he withdrew the firearms and additional ammunition he wanted for himself; the MACOs were already kitted out with their own gear and Sato was in no condition to fight anyone.
Reed spared a moment for humor, gallows as it was. "I expect to get this ship back in one piece."
Cormack let out a huff of wry amusement. "It's a little late for that, don't you think?"
Reed nodded, that now-familiar grim smile turning up one corner of his mouth. "See you at the rendezvous coordinates."
"Yes, sir," she said again. He turned to go and she stopped him with a word. "Malcolm?"
"Malcolm! Hang on."
Malcolm paused as Trip jogged up to him at the airlock. T'Pol passed both men, intent on speaking to Archer once more before they departed.
The team was moments from boarding Degra's ship and God only knew when, or if, they would return. This wasn't the place for an emotional display. Even heart-on-his-sleeve Tucker knew that. Besides, what kind of message would a heavy good-bye send? No. He settled for simplicity.
"Bring me back a piece of that weapon. A souvenir." He trusted his partner to understand the plea beneath words: Come home safe to me. I need you.
Malcolm nodded, a tightness to his expression that didn't hide the understanding in his eyes. He answered both the spoken and unspoken requests as one. "With pleasure." He turned and headed for the airlock without looking back. He couldn't trust his composure if he did.
Madeline Reed watched Degra's ship depart and imagined she could feel the shift in inertia as Enterprise pulled away. It was only imagination, of course. She stood at the window in the Mess Hall until they went to warp, the little Xindi vessel immediately lost to view.
This was it. Enterprise was on its way to sphere 41 in hopes of disrupting the network that was warping space throughout the Delphic Expanse. The away team, including her only sibling, were on their way to the weapon in hopes of destroying it before it could destroy Earth. She sighed and crossed her arms over her chest, shivering against a chill that had nothing to do with the environmental controls.
"Penny for your thoughts."
The quiet words caused Madeline to jump, and she turned to face Liz Cutler.
"Sorry I startled you."
"It's all right." She turned back to look again out the port. "I was just thinking that a lot of things have to be destroyed in the next few hours if Earth is going to survive."
"Yeah. I'm not usually in support of chaos and destruction, but this time..." Liz shrugged and stepped up next to the negotiator to gaze at the stars.
"All in a good cause?" offered Maddy.
"Something like that."
"How was Hoshi? Did you see her before they took her aboard Degra's ship?"
Liz nodded, her lips pressed into a thin line of disapproval. "She was asleep when they took her from Sickbay. I hope she still is."
"They need her expertise."
"That doesn't make it okay. 'First, do no harm.' That's been a medical tenet for centuries." She sighed. "At least Ari went with her."
"I'm sorry?" The name didn't immediately ring a bell for Madeline.
"Ensign Cohn. You'll have seen him around Sickbay, but maybe you never got introduced. Archer wouldn't let Phlox come with them, so Ensign Cohn volunteered. I'm glad Hoshi has one person on that mission whose sole purpose is to make sure she's okay."
"Thanks for letting me sit with her," said Romero. He stood by the door, hesitant to go but knowing there was still much to go over with his fellow MACOs and Lieutenant Reed before they reached the enemy.
"You're welcome." Cohn had been surprised when Romero had appeared soon after they'd entered the sub-space corridor in pursuit of the Xindi weapon. He'd been struck by the MACO's self-conscious manner and it had occurred to him that he was missing something. Then somewhere in the back of his mind, a passing comment had surfaced in his memory. Something Mae had said, or maybe it was Liz, about Carlos and Hoshi flirting with each other.
"When she wakes up, should I tell her you were here?"
"Only if she asks. I'm not sure she even knows I'm on this mission. I don't want her to worry about me, if she doesn't know."
It was much like what Ari had said to Phlox shortly before the away team had shipped out. He nodded in understanding. "Only if she asks," he promised.
"Thanks." Romero departed.
Not five minutes later, the door chimed and Cohn answered it quickly, glancing to the sleeping Sato to make sure it hadn't disturbed her. He opened the door, this time unsurprised to find Captain Archer on the other side, a datapad in one hand.
"How's Hoshi?" he asked, stepping past Cohn into the room.
"Resting. Stable. For now."
"I need you to wake her."
"Wake her, Ensign." He held up the pad. "Degra's schematics are encoded. We need her to decipher them."
Cohn tried again. "Captain, she's in no condition--"
"Lieutenant Reed already made your arguments for you and I don't have time to have the same conversation twice. Wake her. Now."
It galled him but Cohn had to back down. Archer wasn't wrong--and Hoshi had been able to sleep longer than he'd anticipated before this first inevitable interruption. "Yes, sir." He would simply monitor her closely and intervene should her condition deteriorate.
"Your world is no longer the only one in jeopardy. Two hours." T'Pol turned and left Engineering, leaving Tucker all but rolling his eyes in frustration.
Their conversation ended on a quieter note than it had begun, but Ensign Lawless made a point of overhearing the whole thing. She'd noticed Tucker's increasing irritation as he and T'Pol had spent so many hours working together to solve the problem of disabling the spheres. She considered it in her own, and her fellow engineers', best interest to keep an eye on the situation. No one wanted a return to the angry, short-tempered Tucker they'd been faced with for so many months. Things had improved only a few weeks ago and while most of his people were curious about the change, no one was nosy or foolish enough to inquire as to why it had happened. They were just happy it had.
She approached him cautiously, datapad in one hand. "Commander?"
He heaved a weary sigh, but Mae didn't take it personally. "Yeah? What is it, Ensign?"
"Rostov and I think we've found a way to minimize the back-blast cascade when firing the enhanced deflector pulse."
"Tell me you're not joking, because I know you've been known to play a joke or two on folks."
"It's been ages, sir, and I wouldn't do that when it matters."
"I know. I know. Okay. Show me what you two think you've found."
T'Pol didn't appreciate being forced to go from one department to the next receiving and delivering primarily bad news. It was pointless to allow it to upset her, of course. No one was to blame, only circumstance. However, a respite from continued negativity would have been welcome.
Having received the news of the expanding cluster of anomalies surrounding sphere 41 from Ensign Mayweather, she delivered it and the corresponding data to Doctor Phlox. In turn, he informed her, based on his study of said data, that the sphere-builders were obviously expecting them, adding that entering the disturbance would lead to the deaths of the entire crew within minutes.
He tempered that news with marginally better. "I could synthesize a neuroleptic compound that would keep us conscious for approximately twelve minutes." Then added the negative once more. "I'm afraid there's nothing I can do to prevent epidermal decay."
She fought to keep her emotions under control and out of her voice. The strain of this mission was getting to her. She would need time to properly regain her emotional equilibrium once they returned home. "Twelve minutes won't be enough."
"Perhaps I can extend it but not by much. I encourage you and Mr. Tucker to consider alternatives. There must be something you can do to abbreviate your plan."
"Let me know as soon as the compound is ready."
Phlox watched her depart, wishing he had anything more encouraging to say. He didn't. He crossed to the nearest comm panel and hailed Ensign Cutler. There was little time to spare and he could use her help.
Cohn stood aside but still close, ready to intervene if needed. Archer spoke softly to Hoshi whose confusion was clear. She didn't understand where she was, what he wanted her to do. First, she asked for Phlox, then it seemed she thought she was still on board the Reptilian ship and that the captain was the enemy.
"You got the three codes, so why don't you just kill me?" she exclaimed, fighting against Archer's grip on her arms. "Didn't you say you were going to kill me?"
Cohn stepped forward but Archer shot him a look that froze him in his tracks.
Archer refocused on Hoshi. "You've got to pull yourself together, just for a little while longer."
Hoshi calmed and he helped her to sit at the desk once more. She pulled the blanket tighter around herself, her expression confused but clearing.
"You need to complete the decryption. Everything hinges on it. Do you understand?"
She gave him the slightest of nods. "I understand."
Assured that he'd gotten through to her, he rose and moved to the door. "Let me know when she has anything."
"I will, sir. And I'd appreciate if you'd refrain from coming again until I do."
"Ensign?" It was a challenge in a word.
Cohn spared a glance over his shoulder to be sure Hoshi would be all right for a moment on her own, and then gestured to the captain that they step out of the room. Archer acceded to the silent request and they moved into the corridor.
"Sir, with all due respect, I am here to do a job."
"We all are, Ensign."
His repeated use of rank wasn't lost on Cohn. "Yes, sir. I understand that, and I understand that your job and those of the rest of the team rest on Sato's ability to do her job."
"That's not all that's resting on her shoulders."
"No, sir. You're right. That's why I'm here. To keep her fit enough to do what you need her to do. She is my single priority. Do you understand, sir?"
Archer took a long, deep breath in through his nose and exhaled it again before replying. He hated to concede but the young man made his point well. "I do. I'll try not to disturb her until I hear from you that she's got something. But I'm not making you any promises."
"Thank you, sir."
"Damn. I think it'll work." Tucker turned a small but genuine smile on Lawless and Rostov. "Good job, both of you."
"Yeah, well," began Mae. "Don't tell Mayweather it was our idea. He's not going to be happy when you tell him you have to transfer all impulse power to the deflector array as soon as we reach the sphere."
"You kidding?" joked Rostov. "He'll love the challenge of navigating to the targeted manifold on nothing but maneuvering thrusters. Just think of all the street cred it'll give him with other pilots when we get home."
"Yeah, he needs that," quipped Tucker dryly.
"But seriously, Commander," Mae said. "Don't tell him it was us."
Trip chuckled. "All right. I can take the heat." He opened a comm line. "Tucker to the Bridge. I could use Travis down here if you can spare him for five minutes."
Reed played advocate as best he could from the bridge of Degra's ship. He'd promised to have Ensign Cohn's back when it came to protecting Sato. Now it seemed that protection would be literal as Archer was determined to take her aboard the Xindi weapon.
As the captain stepped off the bridge, Reed hailed Cohn.
"Yes, Lieutenant?" came the reply.
"He's on his way down. I thought you'd appreciate the warning."
He heard Cohn's frustrated sigh through the speaker. "Yes, sir. Thank you. Cohn out."
If he didn't like that news, he was sure not to like what Archer would say on his arrival. Reed was glad he was up here where he didn't have to witness it.
"Doc? Hello? Anyone here?" Cormack looked around and found Sickbay oddly empty. It was good to know that everyone was patched up enough to be discharged, but where was Phlox? She didn't want to be there and she didn't have a lot of time. She needed to be in and out and back to work. They were headed towards sphere 41 and while she wasn't needed on the Bridge, she wasn't about to leave the Armory in anyone else's hands when they reached the sphere. And they were nearly there. Even without knowing their current coordinates, she knew that. Her head ached and she could feel it getting worse. She needed a trellium booster. With everything so scattered lately, she'd been less than diligent in keeping up the inoculations against the effects of the anomalies.
She opened a comm line. "Cormack to Doctor Phlox."
"Phlox here. Is this an emergency?"
"Not if you can tell me who else is available to meet me in Sickbay."
"Hail Cutler or Northfield. Phlox out."
"Thanks." But he'd already closed the comm line. The pounding in her head increased exponentially and she winced against the pain and the bright lights of Sickbay. Shit. I have not missed this. She opened a new line. "Sickbay to Cutler."
It took a moment before the reply. "Go ahead."
"Liz, it's Stephanie. I need--" Pain like a knife into her brain caused her to cry out and clutch at her head with one hand. She squeezed her eyes closed and drew in a deep breath. Behind her eyelids, sparks flashed, interspersed with images of Reptilian faces and a swirling gyroscope of metal and lights. She let her forehead fall against the cool metal of the wall in front of her.
She opened her eyes to see everything around her though a reddish orange haze, like a summer sky full of wildfire smoke. "Sickbay. I-- trellium--" she managed to choke out before pain engulfed her and she collapsed.
T'Pol stood in front of the captain's chair. Receiving confirmation from Phlox, seated at Tactical, that he had released the protective neuroleptic compound into the ship's atmosphere, she turned next to Tucker at the science station. "Stand by to charge the deflector." Then she added to Mayweather, "Set a course, Ensign."
"Aye," Mayweather responded. "Here we go." He took the ship into the spatial disturbance.
Two minutes later, the sphere was in sight. He disengaged the impulse engines so that Tucker could transfer the power to the deflector array.
Thrusters only, Travis thought dourly. And barely thirteen minutes before we're all dead. It wasn't the piloting itself that concerned him, but the limited window of time he had to work with to find what they sought. Well, if Commander Tucker does his job, at least we won't have to worry about the time it takes to get back out again. Theoretically, the anomalies will disappear, or collapse, or...or something. Then we just have to get out of range of any explosions. It was a small comfort and he grasped it firmly, eyes and sensors on the lookout for the manifold he had to find so that Tucker could begin his attack.
Racing from her cabin to Sickbay, Liz found Stephanie curled in a fetal position, sweating and shaking on the deckplating. She grabbed a tricorder and ran a quick scan. The results were shocking. Pain readings were off the scale causing blood pressure, heart rate, and other factors to skyrocket to dangerous levels.
She quickly gathered what she needed and injected both a dose of the trellium counter-agent and the strongest non-narcotic painkiller they had aboard into her friend's system. There was nothing she could do about the skin lesions both of them were experiencing; those were an expected consequence of entering the anomaly field. At least the neuroleptic compound Phlox had synthesized would keep them alive, if itchy.
"Fucking hell," groaned Cormack, slowly uncurling onto her back.
"Lie still." Liz ran another scan and was relieved to see most readings had returned to high but manageable levels. "How are you feeling?"
"Flattened." She wanted to wipe away tears she could feel running from the corners of her eyes back towards her ears, but it seemed like too much effort. She squinted up at the ceiling. "Is it supposed to be red in here?"
"It's the anomaly field."
"Oh good. I thought it was just me." The ship shook and Cormack managed to rub a hand over her eyes. "What was that?"
Tactical Alert sirens blared as she spoke and T'Pol's voice could be heard over the ship-wide comms. "Trans-dimensional intruders detected in Main Engineering. Security, respond."
Cormack forced herself to sit up.
"Stephanie, no--" Liz started to protest.
"Help me up. Please. I need to respond."
Liz's lips pressed into a tight frown but she lent her friend a hand getting to her feet and a shoulder to lean on once she was there. A few steps brought them to the comm panel by the door and Stephanie punched it open.
"Cormack here. We're on it." She closed that comm and opened another. "Armory, Cormack. Deploy MACO and security teams to E-deck. Concentrate on Main Engineering. I'm on my way."
"No," Liz said more firmly.
"You're in no state to fight anyone. You shouldn't even be on your feet." She barred the other woman's path to the door.
"I have a job to do," insisted Cormack.
"So do I! Phlox would order you to lie down."
"Good thing he's not here. I have to go!" She grasped Liz's shoulders, determined to make her understand, to get past her without crossing a line.
Even through the eerie red light and the lesions cracking her skin, Liz could see the resolve, the frustration in her friend's face. She wasn't going to win this one and time was running fast. She let out a short, sharp exhale of resignation and stepped aside. "Once the emergency is over, you come directly back here."
Cohn did everything he could to prepare Hoshi for boarding the weapon. He'd lost the fight to keep her on Degra's ship. Now, all he could do was trust her health and safety to Lieutenant Reed.
"Don't worry, Ensign," Reed assured him. "I'll look after her."
"Thank you." Cohn tried to ease the tension with a little humor. "Phlox'll have both our asses if we don't bring her back in one piece."
Reed gave him a tight and mirthless smile. "We wouldn't want that." He stepped into the transporter chamber with the trio of MACOs, and the Xindi technician engaged the system. The four disappeared in a shimmer.
Archer and Sato followed moments later, leaving Cohn the only human on the little Xindi vessel.
"God speed," he said softly.
Liz stayed in Sickbay after Stephanie's hasty departure. Assuming they survived this trip into the anomaly field, there were likely to be casualties, whether from the effects of the disturbance or the direct attack by the trans-dimensional beings or simply because of all the buffeting the ship was taking. She wished Ari were there to help, but she didn't begrudge his absence. He'd been brave to volunteer for the mission to the weapon. She hoped he'd been able to care for Hoshi despite the pressures they were all under. Archer had good cause, of course; Liz understood that his priority was the future of the human race. He didn't have the luxury of being able to worry about one young woman.
What's that Vulcan axiom? Liz thought, then answered herself out loud. "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few."
Abruptly, the ship ceased shaking. Liz looked around her, not quite sure she could trust her eyes. But no, it was real. The red light was fading and normal color returned to the world around her.
She swiveled the chair she sat in so it faced the computer and quickly ran an inquiry. They were traveling at full impulse away from the sphere. Or rather, away from the sphere's coordinates. The medical bay interface wasn't designed for tactical data, so that was all the information she could gather at the moment. Still, it was enough. She opened a comm line and hailed Northfield and Kane. Whatever casualties there might be were about to start rolling in.
Cohn's first priority was examining Sato after her trip to the weapon. That didn't stop him asking, "Where are Forbes and Captain Archer?" as he got an arm around her and helped her from the transporter chamber.
Reed answered him. "We lost Forbes. The captain is still aboard the weapon. I'll be on the Bridge." He was gone before anyone could say anything more.
Cohn looked at the remaining MACOs. "I'm sorry about Forbes. I'll meet you both in the med-bay once I have Hoshi settled in."
"Don't worry about us," said Romero. "Just take care of Hoshi."
Cohn nodded in understanding and escorted Hoshi back to the quarters she'd been given for the duration.
"How are you feeling?" he asked as she laid down on the bunk and closed her eyes. He pulled a medical tricorder from the pocket of his coveralls and ran a scan.
"Exhausted. I guess I should be glad, huh? It means I'm still alive."
"Your parasite count is zero, if that helps you feel better. There's not a single alien freeloader left in your system and the neurocortical treatments are healing the damage they did."
"That's good. Can I take a nap now?"
"Sleep as long as you want."
"Wake me when we get to Enterprise."
When he was certain she was asleep and not likely to rouse any time soon, Cohn slipped out and went to check on the MACOs. Despite Romero's earlier protest, they were bound to need a little patching up, even if it was only a few scrapes and contusions. Plus, he suspected the corporal would want to know that Hoshi was doing all right.
Before he could reach them, the ship was rocked by turbulence. One sustained shockwave and nothing more. No weapons fire followed. It took a moment for his mind to register what it must be.
"The weapon." Changing directions, he raced for the Bridge. He found Reed there with Jannar, Depac, and the Xindi helmsman. "What happened? Did we--?"
Reed pointed to the viewscreen and Cohn turned to look. The image was filled with stars and debris. "The captain did it." He couldn't quite believe it despite the evidence of his eyes.
Reed's flat tone set off alarm bells in Ari's mind. It didn't take him long to put two and two together. His stomach twisted anxiously as he asked, "Where is Captain Archer?"
Malcolm's answer confirmed Ari's fears. "Gone."
There was one last thing Malcolm could do before they rendezvoused with Enterprise. "Would you give me a minute before we go?" he asked Depac.
The Primate councilor nodded and Malcolm left the Bridge. He still carried the phaser-rifle he'd taken into battle, but it, too, could wait a little longer. He slung it over one shoulder, out of his way.
He reached the transporter device and spoke to the technician in charge of it. "Can you transport something from the debris field?"
"Anything in particular?" the fellow asked.
"Something small. Maybe six or seven centimeters? Something clearly a piece of the weapon." Trip had asked for a souvenir. Malcolm intended to bring him one.
The technician ran a scan and locked on to a set of coordinates. In moments, an object appeared on the floor of the transporter chamber. Reed stepped over to it and picked it up. About the size of his palm and heavier than he expected it to be. Alloy warped and fused with a glass-like polymer and what looked like a shard of a half-melted circuit panel. He wrapped his fingers around its cool surface and looked at the Xindi technician. "Perfect. Thank you."
He opened a comm link to the Bridge and hailed Depac.
"Go ahead, Lieutenant."
"Set a course for the rendezvous coordinates and engage whenever you're ready."
Romero paused at the door to the cabin Hoshi had been given aboard Degra's ship. He didn't want to bother her, but at the same time he wanted to make sure she really was all right. He'd been so focused while on board the Xindi weapon that he'd only been peripherally aware of her working with Captain Archer to shut the thing down. He wasn't even sure she had recognized his presence through the general chaos and her poor condition.
He rang the chime quickly, before he could talk himself out of it. Ensign Cohn answered the door, startling him at the same time he knew he shouldn't be surprised. Of course Cohn was there; that was his job until they got back to Enterprise.
"Corporal, can I help you?" asked Cohn softly, not moving from the doorway.
"I was wondering... How's Ensign Sato?"
"Asleep, fortunately. She's had a rough day."
Carlos shifted awkwardly from one foot to the other. He rubbed unconsciously at the back of his neck. "Of course. Sorry. I don't want to bother her, I just wanted to make sure she's...gonna be okay."
Ari relented. "Do you want to come in and sit down?"
"Are you sure it's okay?"
"I trust you not to disturb her." He stepped back, allowing Romero to enter. "She'll appreciate a friendly face when she wakes up."
"Isn't yours friendly enough?" Carlos asked less confrontationally than his words suggested.
Ari shrugged. "I think she'll be happier if her first sight is a friend rather than a med-tech. Pull up a chair."
The other man pulled the desk chair to Hoshi's bedside and sat down. His brown eyes were soft with concern and Ari could see he wanted to reach out to her, maybe take her hand.
"Since you're here," Ari began, formulating a tiny plan in a couple of heart beats. "Could you keep an eye on her for a little while? I could use a walk around the deck and maybe a bite to eat." In fact, he needed neither. It was simply an easy excuse to give the pair a little time alone. Hoshi was sleeping naturally. Chances were slim she would need his professional attention again soon. "If you don't mind, of course."
"No," said Romero quickly. "I can do that."
"Thanks. I appreciate the break." Ari smiled.
"Sure. No problem."
"Give me, I don't know, half an hour or so? Comm me if anything comes up in the meantime."
"Sure," Romero said again. He looked back at Hoshi, sleeping like a rock after her ordeal. "Take as long as you want. I've got nowhere I need to be."
"The sphere-builders sure made a mess of things." Lawless looked over the repair assignments Lieutenant Hess had handed out.
"Is that a practical or philosophical observation?" asked Snider, who stood next to her, datapad in her hand and a look of resignation on her face.
"External communications are..." Snider shook her head.
Lawless looked at the comm engineer's pad and gave a low whistle. "I think the word you're looking for is 'fucked'."
"Yeah. I'm going to need to make repairs outside the ship."
"See if you can get Dillard and Lyle. They're both good in zero gravity."
"I want to make a dirty joke about how you know that, but you outrank me."
Mae only chuckled and Turie grinned back, both women glad for a moment of levity. Tension still suffused the ship. They had destroyed the network of spheres, but they didn't know yet if the captain and his team had destroyed the weapon. For now, all they could do was cross their fingers and press on.
Snider looked around and caught Hess's eye where the ranking woman stood speaking to crewman Kelly. "Ma'am?" she called. Hess waved her over.
"Good luck," said Mae, as Snider went to speak to the lieutenant.
The last time T'Pol had announced Captain Archer's death, it had been a ruse to confound hostile aliens who had taken over the ship. She wished such were the case again this time. Undoubtedly word had already spread, but an official statement was necessary and the captain deserved no less. Indeed, in T'Pol's opinion, he deserved more. For now, however, this would have to do. A proper eulogy would have to wait until they were back on Earth.
She closed the comm line where she sat at the desk in the captain's ready room, grateful for the privacy. It was difficult to lose a captain, and while she had never said it to him directly, she had also considered Jonathan Archer a friend.
She closed her eyes and breathed deeply, calling to mind a mantra that she had always found comforting. Too soon, her meditation was interrupted by the door chime. Taking a last moment to collect herself, she called, "Come in."
Reed entered and stood just inside the door. "We've secured all systems and the Aquatic ship is ready to take us in."
He nodded once and returned to the Bridge. Looking to Mayweather at the helm, he said. "Cut all engines. Let them know they can proceed. I'll be in my quarters if you need me."
"Aye, Lieutenant." Mayweather didn't like traveling inside the alien ship this way, but when it meant the journey home would take a day instead of months, he could live with it.
It was late, nearly 0200. Having finally caught up with Malcolm long enough to officially hand the Tactical Officer's job back to him, Stephanie was hoping to catch a solid five hours of sleep at least.
She entered the cabin quietly, trying not to disturb her bunkmate. Maggie was still recovering from the shot she'd taken during the rescue op that brought Hoshi home. Physically, she was healing well. Emotionally, the loss of Major Hayes had hit her harder than any Reptilian disruptor blast.
The lights were low and Maggie stood by the port, staring out at the interior of the Aquatic ship.
"At least I don't have to worry about waking you up." Stephanie let the door slide shut behind her. "How are you doing?"
Maggie looked over one shoulder at her and Stephanie could see signs of tears on her face. She shrugged the shoulder that hadn't been injured and let her crossed arms fall to her sides.
"It's rough." Stephanie sat on her bunk and patted the covers beside her, inviting Maggie to sit.
The younger woman hesitated and then silently took her up on the offer. "This is my first off-world assignment. I mean, if you don't count Lunar One."
"No one counts Lunar One."
"I know, right? Major Hayes was my C.O. there, too, when I did my tour. I was still a private then. Greenest rookie you could imagine, and still he treated me with respect. When he was transferred, I was so bummed."
"I volunteered for this mission. Did I ever tell you that?"
Most of a year bunking together and somehow Stephanie had never asked the questions Maggie was answering now. She felt a pang of guilt at the realization. "I just assumed they only took volunteers for this gig, like Starfleet." At Maggie's curious look, she elaborated. "We were all given the option to stay home. Eleven of us did. It makes sense the MACOs did the same. But, no, I didn't know that."
"Lots more MACOs volunteered than were assigned. I only found out afterwards that Major Hayes was commanding it. I was so excited to get to work under him again. I'm not supposed to know, but... He green-lighted me personally. He didn't tell me that," Maggie added quickly. "My C.O. at the time? Her secretary was a friend of mine and let it slip sort of accidentally on purpose."
"I'm impressed you didn't let it go to your head," Stephanie teased gently. "I would have."
"No, you wouldn't."
"Well, maybe not so you'd notice, but in my head, it'd go to my head."
That got her a chuckle and Stephanie smiled despite the ache in her own heart at the loss of Captain Archer. They had achieved their mission objective, but the price was painfully high. She put the death toll at 26, including the major and the captain. Was that right? She felt like she was forgetting someone, and that just made her heart ache more.
They sat in companionable silence for a while. Eventually, Maggie sniffed and shook herself from her thoughts. "How are you doing?"
"Don't pretend. You've been working practically 24/7. I know you have. Then there was that fight with the trans-dimensional beings on top of the stress of doing your boss's job while he was on the away mission. And now he's back, but the captain isn't. You said yourself, it's rough."
Stephanie sighed. "Can't fool you."
"Good eyes. They see more than targets."
"I guess so." She considered her answer before speaking. "I'm sad. It's not completely real yet, but it's real enough, eh? I'm glad to be going home, but that doesn't seem real yet either. I guess... I guess I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop."
Maggie turned to look at her, cocking her head in puzzlement. "How do you mean?"
How did she mean? "I don't know. I wouldn't say it was all too easy, because that's the opposite of the truth. Maybe the shoe I'm waiting for is me. I'm waiting for it all to sink in."
"Gods only know. I just hope I don't make a mess when I fall apart."
Maggie's brows drew together in a frown. "You really think you're going to fall apart? But--"
"But-- You're the steadiest person I know. Now that Major Hayes is gone, anyway," she added solemnly.
That brought Stephanie up short. Maggie had been such a part of her life for the past year that she'd forgotten she hadn't always been there. She didn't know Stephanie's checkered history in dealing with stress and grief. Maggie's innocent, honest statement struck her. It made her want to deserve the compliment. "Thank you."
"How long until we're back home?"
Stephanie looked at the bedside chronometer. They'd lost most of an hour talking. "Less than ten hours. We should get some sleep."
Maggie nodded and rose. She was already dressed in her pajamas at that late hour. It took Stephanie only a few minutes to get ready for bed, herself, and soon each woman was settled in her bunk with only the soft green light of the Aquatic ship's launch bay illuminating the cabin.
From her bunk against the interior bulkhead, Maggie looked across at the port. "I'm not sure I can sleep with that view."
"I can stick a pillow case over it if it'll help. I think there's some tape in the desk, and if that doesn't work, I'll go steal some industrial glue from the engineering stores."
Maggie squinted at her uncertainly, trying to work out if she was kidding. Unable to determine the answer, Maggie decided not to press the question. "It's okay. Thanks."
Trip stood in the shower stall and let the hot water beat down on him. There was so much to do and at the same time nothing to be done. Nestled in the belly of the Aquatic ship, traveling faster than Enterprise could have on her best day, and with the advantage of a sub-space corridor on top of that, they'd be home practically in no time.
He'd been running in get-it-done mode for so long now, the idea that soon he could leave a lot of that work to the highly capable folks at Jupiter Station didn't quite compute. Still, it was easier than thinking about Jon.
"The captain didn't make it, Trip. I'm sorry."
Those had been Malcolm's words to him when what remained of the away team returned to Enterprise. It didn't sink in right away. Even when Hoshi had embraced him, sharing her sorrow with what should have been his, he couldn't quite believe it. Trip wondered if he ever would.
No, he thought, letting his forehead fall gently against the wall of the shower stall. I know it's true, I just don't want it to be. He'd been here before. With Lizzie. This was different in a million ways, but the loss hurt much the same.
He didn't cry. He knew he would, but not yet. Giving in to the grief made Jon's death an absolute. Incontrovertible. He wasn't ready for that yet.
Knowing he shouldn't stall any longer, he shut off the jets. He dried off slowly, absently toweling his hair so it stood up in disheveled blond spikes, and dressed in pajamas and bathrobe. The truth was he was still stalling; he didn't want to go back to his cabin because he knew Malcolm was probably there.
He didn't blame Malcolm for the loss of Jon. Malcolm was doing a damned good job of blaming himself, though. So good, in fact, that even if Trip had felt his partner was responsible, he wouldn't have said so. It would have been salt in a wound, and he couldn't have done that. The reason he didn't want to face Malcolm was that he didn't want to have to keep telling him that he didn't blame him. Nothing he'd said so far had convinced Malcolm it was true, and he was running out of energy for arguing about it. Trip wasn't sure he could face that tonight.
He sighed. Steeling himself for the inevitable, he gathered his things and headed back to his quarters.
Despite his misgivings, he was disappointed to find the cabin empty. Puzzling at Malcolm's absence, he disposed of his dirty uniform and finished getting ready for bed. It wasn't until he was in the bed, sitting up reading progress reports from his engineering teams that Malcolm returned.
"Hey." Trip set aside the datapad on top of the covers.
"Hey," echoed Malcolm. "I thought you'd be asleep by now. It's awfully late."
"Yeah, it is."
"I was in my office. In the Armory," Malcolm offered the explanation although Trip hadn't asked for one. "Finishing up my report on... Well." He continued to stand there, looking uncomfortable and grave.
"That's good you got that done."
"You and T'Pol will find copies when you check in the morning."
"You're the ranking officer aboard, although T'Pol has been acting as captain for the most part."
"Oh. Right. Somehow I keep forgetting that, technically, I'm in charge. I've been too wrapped up in keeping the ship together to think about being in command."
Command. That was a surreal thought, although it shouldn't have been. He'd been happy to leave the running of the ship to the Science Specialist. Hell, she can keep it. "Put it on the list of things that can wait until we get back to Earth."
"Malcolm, do me a favor?"
Malcolm looked surprised at the interruption but nodded. "Go on."
There were so many favors he could have asked, but a lot of them were unrealistic or even unfair. "Come to bed."
A hesitation and then, "Yes. All right."
It wasn't long before Malcolm was ready for bed, but he still hesitated to get in next to his partner. He couldn't believe Trip wasn't angry with him, didn't blame him for the captain's death. The Tactical Officer part of Malcolm held himself accountable for every person lost on his watch. The partner part of him couldn't forgive himself for failing to bring back Trip's friend.
"Well, what are you waiting for?" Getting no answer, Trip went on. "I'd offer to rub your feet for you, but you'd have to tell me what to do if you want any of that reflexology stuff. Come on. Come to bed," he repeated.
He could see Malcolm fighting an internal battle. It wasn't so much written on his face, as he was quite good at keeping that stereotypical stiff upper lip, but Trip knew him well. More than well enough to know what that battle was about.
"Would it help if I said I forgive you?" Trip asked at last.
"But how can you?" exclaimed Malcolm. When I can't yet forgive myself, he added silently.
Trip sat up and crossed his legs under the covers, pinning Malcolm with a gentle, sad gaze. "You did everything you could."
"I should have stayed behind instead of Captain Archer! I shouldn't have given him the charges. I should have insisted--"
"Malcolm, stop. You're going to 'should have' yourself until you go crazy. Sit down and listen to me for a minute."
Reluctantly, stiffly, Malcolm sat on the edge of the bed and faced Trip.
"You want to know how I can forgive you for not bringing the captain back? It's because I don't blame you for it. He made his choice, and you know what? He saved the world. Literally. Saved the whole human race. That's a helluva way to go."
Malcolm huffed a small sigh of agreement. "I can think of worse ways. But--"
"No more 'buts'. No more 'should haves'. I had enough of those myself throughout this mission to last a lifetime. Two lifetimes. One for each of us." Time to lay all his cards on the table. "Here's the thing, Malcolm. If you'd stayed behind instead of Jon, you'd be dead now." He didn't fight against the emotion in his voice, but he had to fight through it to get the words out. "Jon was my best friend. But you're the man I love. If I had my druthers, I'd have you both here on Enterprise where you belong. But if I had to choose--" He reached a hand out and rested it on Malcolm's bent knee where it lay on top of the bedclothes. "--I'd choose you."
Silent moments ticked past. He could see Malcolm processing his words. Taking them in. Trying to understand. Trying to believe.
Finally, Malcolm's shoulders slumped and shook. Tears began to trickle from his eyes. Just few drops. Tears of anger and frustration. He clenched his teeth, fighting for control, grimacing as he drew breath. "So many, Trip," he choked out. "Too many. And they were my responsibility."
"Aw, Christ, Malcolm." Trip struggled out from under the covers and knelt beside his lover, wrapped strong arms around the clenched fist that was Malcolm's whole body. "It's not your fault. It's terrible and it sucks and I hate it and it's not your fault."
Slowly, oh so slowly, Malcolm relaxed enough to draw in a shuddering breath that escaped on a sob. He swallowed hard and drew in another that eased the tightness in his throat a little more, and a little more, a little more. Until he felt the tension release enough that he could get his breath and emotions back under control.
Trip's hold on him softened and instinctively Malcolm reached out, hugging him close. He might be able to keep the tears in check, but he still needed the warmth and comfort of Trip's embrace.
Timeless moments later, Malcolm released his hold, and taking the cue, Trip let go enough to sit back.
"You want a glass of water?"
Malcolm nodded, suddenly aware of how thirsty he was. "Please."
Trip rose and got a glass of cold water from the lav, and returned with it.
"Thanks." Malcolm drank it down and handed back the empty glass.
"Think maybe you want to come to bed now?"
Malcolm took a moment to consider before replying. "I'd like that. Yes."
Wherever there was a port with any forward view, people looked through it. Bonnie had staked out a spot in the forward observation lounge early. She came off duty and headed directly there. She couldn't sleep anyway, not with the promise of Earth so close at hand, so she hadn't bothered to try. As time had passed, others had joined her, even though the only sight so far was the inside of the Aquatic Xindi ship. Among the mixed crowd of Starfleet and MACO personnel, she'd spotted Maggie Bowman arriving with a handful of fellow MACOs. The little group found a spot to wait and watch.
The crowd had grown significantly by the time Stephanie sidled up, squishing in between Bonnie and Mae. On Mae's other side, Ari stood close. The four of them shared smiles all around.
"Glad you made it," Bonnie said, giving her partner a one-armed hug.
"Wouldn't miss it for the world." Stephanie shifted her cane to the opposite hand so she could nestle in as close as possible to her partner. She'd gone without the prop a bit too much lately and was feeling the consequences. "But I'm on call. Anything goes sideways, I'll have to go."
"I feel like there's no shit left to hit any fans."
"I like the thought, but I'm still not convinced everything is hunky-dory."
"I hope you're wrong." Bonnie squeezed her tighter.
Stephanie let her head fall briefly onto Bonnie's shoulder. "I hope you're right."
The launch bay doors opened, revealing the star field beyond. Slowly, Enterprise maneuvered from the within the bigger ship. Several breathless moments passed and then the Xindi vessel departed back through the vortex from which they'd come.
"Impulse engines just kicked in," said Mae. She didn't need to see the change in the stars through the window; she could feel the shift in the ship through the deckplating under her feet.
Around them, people shuffled anxiously, straining for that first view of home.
Maggie spotted it first. The petite MACO was pressed up against the transparent aluminum window, eyes peeled. "There!"
"Leave it to the sharp-shooter," Stephanie called out, grinning. Friendly laughter answered her.
At Maggie's announcement, everyone wiggled and shifted, pointing at the planet growing larger before them. Those at the front gave way to those in the back so that everyone could catch a glimpse of the precious blue marble as they approached.
"I wonder if they're dancing in the streets down there," said Ari.
"I would be," Bonnie replied.
Stephanie couldn't quite share their enthusiasm. "Why hasn't T'Pol made an announcement?" she mused softly.
"What do you mean?" asked Bonnie the same time Mae said, "Why would she?"
"You don't have to be human to be affected by the significance of the moment, or at least to recognize it. Why hasn't she--or someone--said so much as 'Welcome home' over the ship-wide comm?"
Bonnie reached up her free hand and scratched her opposite eyebrow with her thumb--a sign she was thinking hard. "Are you sure you're not just being cynical? I mean, I can't blame you if you are, but..."
Stephanie shook her head, more pensive than contrary. "Maybe?"
"You haven't had one of those dreams have you?" asked Mae, frowning in concern.
She shook her head again. "No, thank gods. It's just... I've been waiting for the other shoe to drop, you know?"
Ari nodded in empathy. "I get that."
"You think it's about to drop?" Bonnie asked.
Stephanie looked at them all unhappily. "I think it's dropping right now."
No one hailed their arrival. No ships came out to welcome them home. No one responded on any comm channel. Trip hadn't exactly been expecting a ticker-tape parade, but the silence was galling. "We save the planet and lose our captain, and they can't even come say hello?" he muttered bitterly, angrier on Jon's behalf than his own.
"There must be a good reason," said Travis. "We'll know soon enough." He piloted the shuttlepod from Enterprise's launch bay and set a course for San Francisco.
Minutes later, under fire from vintage military aircraft, they didn't exactly have an answer, but at least it was clear that something was seriously, bizarrely wrong.
"Take us up, Travis!"
"Already on it." Mayweather banked the shuttlepod up and out of the atmosphere, leaving the attacking aircraft behind.
"What the hell was that?" Tucker's question was rhetorical and Mayweather treated it as such. "Those looked something out of the 20th century."
"Definitely pre-Eugenics War," agreed Travis. "Shall I plot a course back to Enterprise?"
"Well, we sure can't land in San Francisco." Trip shook his head at the bizarre encounter. "Yeah. Sorry. Take us back. I'll let them know we're coming." He hailed Enterprise and Hoshi responded.
"Go ahead, Commander."
"Have Lieutenant Reed meet us in the Shuttle Bay. I think we're going to need his expertise."
"And, uh, have him bring a forensics kit."
"Sir?" Hoshi exchanged a confused frown with Hutchison at the helm station.
Tucker's answer came through the comm line but it brought no enlightenment. "Tell him we've got a mystery for him to solve. Tucker out."
End Log 3:13