Log Rhythms - Season Three
"Captain's Log, November 3, 2153. Due to the deleterious effect of trellium-D on Vulcan synaptic pathways, I've ordered Science Officer T'Pol off of the project to synthesize it. Instead, she's making good progress on her analysis of the Xindi reptilian vessels that we encountered last week and the vortex they used to get in and out of our proximity so quickly. She's also created a projection of just how many spheres are out there. The covariant extrapolation she had the computer run came up with at least fifty potential spheres. The number is daunting, to say the least. Who built them all? And why? Never mind the how of it." Archer paused and shook his head. The scale of it was enormous and the reason completely incomprehensible without more information. Which we don't have in spite of all the scans Trip and I took of that second sphere. "On the more positive side, the projected map will help us to predict where anomalies are likely to occur, and we now have one trellium insulated shuttlepod ready in case we need it again.
"I've assigned Lieutenant Nyamweya to assist Commander Tucker with the trellium project, although between the extreme volatility of liquid trellium-D and the natural ore's affect on T'Pol it's unlikely we'll ever be able to use it-or the nearly 60 kilos of ore that are stored in a bio-hazard locker in Cargo Bay One. Still, better to have it than not in case Phlox can find a way to protect T'Pol from its effects. We need to do something to insulate the ship against the spatial anomalies and right now this is all we have. Besides that, it gives the Commander something to focus on outside of the usual routines." He thought about his First Officer and long-time friend. It was obvious he was still suffering ill effects from the loss of his sister, but it also seemed that those effects were dulling, at least a little. The tension he'd felt every time he'd been around Trip and Malcolm had eased considerably over the past two weeks. He wanted to know what was going on with his friend, but at the same time he didn't feel it was any of his business. It had been a long time since he and Trip had spent the evening together talking or just watching an old sports vid.
"T'Pol gave me something new and interesting to think about recently. Apparently she had numerous meditative visions about our experience on the Loque'eque homeworld before we ever reached the planet. The report she gave me includes several pieces of her personal logs: what she saw and the conclusions she reached. Unfortunately, she received no such warning about Rajiin or the Seleya and its crew. She and I spoke with Phlox about it and he's as clueless as we are about what could have caused the visions and why they stopped. The only theory he postulated was that they stopped due to the alterations caused by the Loque'eque virus, but why they happened in the first place is anyone's guess. Maybe, once T'Pol is completely recovered from her trellium-D exposure, they'll return." He wasn't sure how he felt about the whole business of T'Pol's visions. He'd never been interested in this sort of paranormal, psychic stuff and so his knowledge on the subject was limited. And then there's Tarquin, he thought, fully cognizant of the irony. Enterprise had escaped Hoshi's psychic alien stalker, but only through her quick thinking and a big stroke of luck.
"The coordinates that Ensign Sato obtained from Tarquin look promising. According to what he told her, the Xindi have a colony that's building part of the weapon. It'll take us another eleven hours to reach it, but traveling any faster than we are presently would be too dangerous-even with T'Pol's new anomaly prediction algorithms."
He reached out and manually ended the recording. He leaned back in his chair and stretched hugely. In spite of the late hour he wasn't ready for sleep. He looked over at Porthos who half-dozed on his dog bed. "I wish I could sleep so easily," he muttered.
Porthos immediately perked up. He thumped his tail a few times and looked hopeful.
"No," said Jon. "You are not getting any cheese. But we can go for a walk." He didn't have to say anything more. Porthos was on his feet and at the door in a moment. Jon chuckled. "All right." He slipped on a pair of soft-soled shoes over his bare feet. "What do you think, boy? A stroll around E-deck, maybe stop in and see what's left in the mess hall?"
Porthos barked once and Jon had the distinct feeling that if the UT worked on dogs it would have just translated "Cheese!"
The pair headed out into the corridor. Jon's early thoughts of Trip guided his feet and before long he reached Main Engineering. Although a large part of him hoped otherwise, he suspected that Trip was still there. It was Porthos who spotted the engineer first. He wagged his tail and padded quickly to the far end of the warp reactor where Trip stood on the platform examining the readouts. The beagle barked once and Trip looked down in surprise. Archer appeared next to Porthos and Trip nodded a greeting.
"Hey, Captain. What's up?"
Archer looked up at his old friend. "Just taking a walk before bed. I thought I'd see how it was going in here."
"Quiet. Those anomalies the other day didn't do us any favors, but it was mostly minor damage. We've got just about everything back to normal now." He climbed down the short ladder to stand next to Archer, taking a moment to rub Porthos on the head. "Hey, boy."
"How about the trellium synthesizing? I haven't heard any more explosions," the Captain joked, "so either things are going well or they're not going at all."
"That'd be not at all," admitted Trip in a tired voice.
"Do you and Nyamweya need more help? You can request anyone you need-within reason."
"Nah." The engineer shook his head. "More fingers in the pie'll just make it that much harder to control the environment."
"All right. But don't hesitate to file a request if you change your mind."
Although Archer noted the dark circles under Trip's eyes, he was pleased to see his old friend looking less haggard and lean than he had in recent weeks. "Porthos and I are headed to the mess hall for a snack. Care to join us?"
Tucker hesitated and for a moment Archer expected him to say no. To his pleasant surprise, he was wrong.
"Hey, Hess," Tucker called to the lieutenant who was working on the upper level.
"Yes, sir?" she answered, looking down over the railing.
"I'm gonna take fifteen."
Her exasperated reply surprised both men. "Please do. In fact, take the rest of the night. We have everything under control. Sir."
Archer fought back his amusement with limited success. Then Porthos barked as if in agreement with the lieutenant and he had to laugh.
"Well," said Tucker looking mildly nonplussed, "I guess since everyone's in agreement, I'll call it a night."
They strolled down the corridor in amiable silence. Porthos's claws clicked on the deckplating with every little step. Reaching the mess hall, they found the lights low and all the tables empty. Jon got himself a mug of warm milk and joined Trip who was peering into the food cabinets.
"Anything catch your eye?" he asked the engineer.
"Yeah." Trip nodded and opened one of the warming cupboards. He pulled out a ramekin of something that was topped with golden-brown breadcrumbs. "Mac and cheese," he said with a little smile. He ordered a pint of amber beer from the drinks dispenser and he and Jon sat at a table near the windows. "What's that?" Trip pointed his fork at Jon's steaming mug.
"Warm milk," admitted the Captain. "It helps me wind down so I can sleep."
"Yeah? I thought it was just an old wives' tale."
"Nope. It's the tryptophan. Just like in turkey." Jon took a sip.
"Huh." Trip took a bite and chewed thoughtfully. "You know, my mom used to used to give us warm milk when we were kids. Usually she'd sweeten it with almond syrup. I guess it did kind of work-although I wouldn't've put it past her to slip a little booze into it once in a while." He took another bite of his midnight meal and smiled around the cheesy warmth.
Jon laughed. "Would she really do that?"
Trip swallowed the delicious bite. "Hell yeah. That steamed almond milk could've easily been spiked with amaretto instead of syrup. Especially if we were giving her a hard time. Not that I have any proof, of course, but you've met my mom. What do you think?"
"I think you're onto something. Excuse me." Jon rose and made a quick visit to the drinks dispenser. Porthos watched him every moment, wagging his tail as Jon returned. "Sorry. No cheese." He poured the shot glass of amaretto into the steaming milk.
They sat in silence for a little while, each enjoying his late-night treat. "So, uh " Trip began. "You're having trouble sleeping, too?"
If Jon was surprised at Trip's tacit admission of his own problems, he didn't let it show. "I keep dreaming about that Loque'eque city, Urquat. It was so real."
Trip nodded over another bite, chased it with a swig of beer. "I know all about realistic dreams."
"Is it getting any better?" asked Jon cautiously. He'd been remiss as a friend and he knew it. This was the sort of talk they should have had before now, but even when they'd still been getting together weekly they rarely got around to talking about the big stuff, the things that mattered.
"Honestly? No. Not with meds from Phlox, but " He trailed off, shook his head, and went on. "I'm sleeping a little longer than I was at first, but I can't get away from the nightmares. I've just gotten better at dealing with 'em. I guess it's true that eventually you can get used to almost anything."
"Humans are an incredibly adaptable species. It's how we got this far."
"Yeah, and I suppose in the end that's a good thing." Trip's blue eyes grew sharp and intense. "But only if we do what we came out here to do."
Jon tensed almost imperceptibly at this conversational shift onto dangerous ground. He sipped his warm milk to mask his sudden discomfort. He didn't want to fan the flames of Trip's anger-which was still clearly smoldering-but neither did he want to pretend he wasn't just as anxious for a resolution as the engineer. His tone was determined but he carefully kept his own anger out of it. "We'll find the weapon, Trip. We'll find it, and we'll destroy it."
Cormack knew it was a dream, and that allowed her the freedom to wander without fear. She looked down at her clothing, examining the fabric with curious eyes and hands. It was a jumpsuit, but not one of Starfleet issue. This one was pale green with a wide triple-belt. She didn't recognize the triangular symbol on the sleeve patches.
She looked around the huge factory, all gleaming white and shining metal, transport units on rails and computer screens filled with inexplicable diagrams in bright neon green. If it's a factory, they must be making something. But what? She examined the screens with no luck. Neither the schematics nor the language made sense to her. Something chemical, maybe? Shaking her head, she walked on.
Passing through the door, she emerged onto a wooden porch. A stable faced her, a fenced paddock beside it. She rested her fists on her denim-clad hips and glanced up and down the packed-dirt street. The light quality was entirely different from the world she'd just left, and she knew in the way of dreams that this was no longer the same planet. It's like an old western, something with John Wayne or Clint Eastwood in it. Only she knew it wasn't Earth, either. A heavyset man rode by on horseback, the unmistakable gleam of a sheriff's badge on his jacket. If that's a 'cowboy' around here, where are the-
A young man hurried past her, head down and arms wrapped around him as if it were chilly rather than a hot summer afternoon. He was humanoid, but distinct markings on his face and throat showed him to be non-human in species.
-'Indians'? Well that answers that. She walked across the street and stepped up onto the lowest rail of the wooden fence. A horse strolled over to see if she had anything tasty to offer.
Cormack cautiously patted his nose. When the horse made no objection, she boldly scratched at his forelock. He whickered. "Lemme see what I have in my pockets, eh?" She reached into the pockets of her heavy canvas overcoat and found two pieces of lump sugar and a carrot. "Here you go." She held out an open palm with the sugar on it. The horse snuffled it up eagerly. "Life's short. Eat dessert first, right?" Then she fed him the carrot, which he downed with almost as much enthusiasm as he'd had for the sweets. Giving him one more scratch, she said, "That's all I've got, and I've gotta go."
She stepped off the rail and found herself back in her uniform and standing in Main Engineering. The ship shook violently and she fought to keep her balance. Warp engines whined. Alarms blared. Sparks flashed from multiple consoles. People shouted and raced about. Commander Tucker scrambled along the top of the thrumming warp reactor.
An explosion erupted along the upper level. Cormack ducked instinctively, blinking stunned and tearing eyes. She watched in shocked horror as Tucker was blown from the reactor into the catwalk railing. She heard the thud of his body hitting the ground, the sickening crack of his head as it struck the deckplating. "Commander!" she shouted. She looked around, spotted a rushing crewman. "Help me! We need a med team!" She coughed and choked on the acrid smoke from the explosion. "We need-" She gasped. There wasn't enough air. She could feel herself beginning to black out, darkness at the edges of her vision, buzzing in her oxygen-starved brain
"Wake up!" demanded Maggie, shaking Stephanie fiercely. "Wake up, damn it!"
The violent shaking and the panic in Bowman's voice brought Cormack back to wakefulness. She tried to speak and found that she couldn't. Her lungs burned and she gasped in a breath of clean, recycled air.
Maggie didn't let go of her shoulders, but she did relax a tiny bit as healthy color returned to her bunkmate's cheeks. "Are you okay now?"
Stephanie nodded once. "Yeah," she said, still a little breathless.
Maggie released her and sat heavily on the edge of Stephanie's bunk. "You were yelling in your sleep."
"That's okay. If you hadn't woken me up " She stopped, shuddered.
Stephanie shifted to an upright position with her back against the bulkhead. "Hey. What is it?" She absently rubbed the side of her head with one hand.
Maggie steadied herself before answering. "You weren't breathing. Just at the end there. It was like you were choking on something, but there wasn't anything to choke on. If you hadn't yelled or if I were a heavier sleeper " She trailed off again, but Stephanie understood.
"I'm really sorry. This isn't remotely what you signed up for, is it?" She tried to make light of it although she knew this was all too serious. The idea that a dream could have caused her to stop breathing terrified her. So she hid the fear behind a joke. "Babysitting a crazy bunkmate probably isn't in the MACO Training Manual."
"Actually it sort of is," Maggie replied, surprising Stephanie. "But this is something else. Isn't it?" Her brown eyes were filled with concern and a little fear. "What's going on?"
"I don't know. If I did, I swear I'd do everything I could to make it stop." Stephanie shook her head and winced at the movement.
Maggie had been her bunkmate long enough to recognize the signs, even if Stephanie wasn't fully cognizant of them yet. "You've got another migraine coming on, don't you?"
"Huh?" Stephanie realized she was massaging her temple and the side of her head just above her ear. "Uh, yeah. Better get the big drugs. Kill it quick, before it gets bad." She moved to rise, and Maggie shifted off of the bed and sat again on her own. A moment's fumbling in the first-aid kit and Stephanie found the hypo she sought. Maggie heard the hiss as the medication was released into the other woman's system.
Stephanie returned to her bunk. "That's better."
"How much did you take?"
Stephanie squinted at her. Maggie's expression was inscrutable-at least in the fleeter's disoriented and freshly-drugged state. "Huh?" she grunted eloquently.
Maggie shrugged but it wasn't a normal gesture of nonchalance. "I just wondered how much you took. That's all. I mean, will it hold you the rest of the night or should I sleep with my eyes open just in case?" Her tone was cautious, unaccusing, but firm.
"I took enough to get through the night. The pain's almost gone already, and it won't come back tonight." She could feel her muscles relaxing as she spoke.
"What about the dreams? Will they come back tonight?"
Stephanie hung her head, leaning her elbows on her knees. "I wish I knew," she answered.
"You've got to do something about it."
"What would you suggest?" The question was more tired than angry. If she'd felt better, she might have snapped at the younger woman, but Stephanie didn't have the energy. She looked up and was suddenly glad she hadn't bitten Maggie's head off. The MACO looked almost scared.
"Talk to Phlox," Maggie said firmly despite her expression. "Or talk to Doctor Douglas. Someone who might be able to tell you what the dreams mean."
"What do you think that will accomplish?"
"I don't know!" exclaimed Maggie. "But it's better than doing nothing and wondering if you're going to wake up screaming-or not wake up at all. I can't do that again!"
"Again?" echoed Stephanie, abruptly alert. "What, 'again'?" She looked intently at the younger woman and saw that she was near to tears. Her tone, which had been growing frustrated, now became concerned. "Maggie, what's going on?"
Maggie took a deep breath that appeared to calm her. "Nothing. I'm sorry. What you do is none of my business."
"Bullshit. You're stuck here with me and my current weirdness. That makes it your business. Tell me what you mean by 'again'? You don't just mean me waking you up with the crazy yelling again, do you?"
Maggie met her gaze and shook her head. "No. That's That's scary but it's manageable. I can handle that." She looked deeper into Stephanie's hazel eyes, and the fleeter was taken aback by the intensity and emotion in the younger woman's face. "My little brother died. He was seventeen and one day he didn't wake up."
"I'm so sorry," Stephanie said softly. "I know how hard it is to lose someone suddenly."
"It wasn't that sudden. It wasn't expected, but it should've been. We just couldn't see the signs until it was too late."
Stephanie didn't entirely understand, but she thought she got the general idea. "There wasn't anything the doctors could do?"
Maggie shook her head sadly. "He wasn't sick-not like that, I mean. He ODed-overdosed, you know?" She looked at Stephanie who nodded. "He was a drug addict and none of us realized it until he was in a coma and the doctors showed us the toxicology report on his blood. Before they could clean out his system, he was dead."
Stephanie sighed heavily. "Shit."
Maggie gave a tiny, bitter laugh. "Yeah."
"I had no idea."
"Why would you?" Her question was matter-of-fact. "It's not in my records, even if you'd had a reason to read them."
"No. I suppose not. But I feel really shitty about everything I've put you through since you came aboard. It's not fair to anyone, let alone someone who didn't know me before this, who didn't have a voice in who she got bunked with, and who-"
"And whose dead brother is the only person she's ever known who took more drugs than you," Maggie concluded for her. Stephanie looked at her in shock and Maggie visibly steeled herself for the fight she obviously expected.
"Shit," Stephanie breathed again. She met Maggie's challenging gaze. "I promise you that I am not hooked on anything-except caffeine," she added, completely failing to lighten the mood. "I know all about addiction. Trust me."
Maggie frowned, doubtful. "Really?"
"I'm a recovering alcoholic, Maggie." The younger woman jumped in surprise and Stephanie gave her a wry smile. "Yeah. That is in my records-but only in the secured medical ones so you wouldn't have any reason to know it, either. I was basically drunk for the better part of six years when I was a kid. It's not something I ever intend to repeat, with liquor or any other mind-altering substance."
The tension drained from Maggie so abruptly that she almost collapsed. Instead she began to laugh, a quiet chuckle that grew to a sidesplitting guffaw that did cause her to fall over sideways on her bunk. "I'm so relieved!" she gasped through her near-hysterical mirth. "You have no idea!"
"I think I'm getting one." Stephanie chuckled, bemused by the young woman's desperate laughter. But she knew from experience how the release of a long-held tension could cause such a seemingly random and extreme reaction. "Are you going to sleep better now?"
"Yeah, yeah," giggled Maggie. She sat up and grew a bit calmer. "I hope you are, too."
"So do I."
"Okay." They both climbed back under their blankets and Maggie shut off the light over her bunk. "Sweet dreams," she said.
There was a brief silence, and then both women burst out laughing.
Malcolm rose particularly early the next morning. He'd tried to sleep a bit longer after Trip woke, but without the warm engineer next to him... Well, what was the point? He pushed back the covers and got out of the bunk. Trip had already dressed and gone down to the engine room, getting his usual ridiculous jump on the day. Malcolm didn't feel the need to disrupt his own Gamma shift crew with his presence quite yet. Instead he opted for a leisurely shower, after which he took his time dressing, and then walked at an unhurried pace to the mess hall for breakfast. He had a great deal of work to do today, but not so much that he needed to skip any meals. He patted his pocket, confirming that he'd brought the datapad he wanted to study while he ate.
It was early enough that the mess hall wasn't yet busy. He got himself tea and a plate of scrambled eggs and sausages, and found a seat near the windows. He'd barely turned on the pad when Madeline appeared and sat down across from him.
"Good morning," she said pleasantly.
"Morning. You're up early," he replied. "Aren't you usually just going back to bed at this hour?" He was familiar with her habit of rising early for tea, working for a while, and then returning to bed. He couldn't not be after spending two nights sleeping on the floor of her cabin.
"I decided to stay up today." She sipped her tea and took a bite of her Belgian waffle, loaded with strawberries and whipped cream. "You know, if I'd known how good the food was, I'd have joined Starfleet with you."
He smirked. "It's not always this good. We're just lucky we have Chef."
"Very lucky," Maddy agreed, licking a bit of whipped cream from her fork.
"Quite. In fact, after the Captain, Chef is the highest priority crewmember on the 'rescue at all costs' list."
She looked at him, her lips pursed in suspicion and amusement. "You have a 'rescue at all costs' list, do you?"
"Of course," continued Malcolm in feigned seriousness.
"I see. And where do, say, civilian negotiators fall on that list?"
He pretended to think about it very carefully, brow furrowing. "Somewhere below medical personnel, but above engineering grease monkeys."
"Well, it's good to know where I stand."
"Ah, but you're a special case."
"Yes. You see, you're the Tactical Officer's little sister, so you actually rank up in the top five."
Madeline smiled wryly. "Thanks ever so."
"Although that can change," he continued the game.
"Oh yes. It all depends on the Chief Engineer, you see."
She leaned forward and nodded gravely. "I see. And how does he fit into this malleable list of yours?"
There was a silence as Malcolm ate his breakfast and Madeline waited.
"Aren't you going to expound that at all?" she asked at last.
He shook his head. "No."
"Cheeky bastard." Madeline laughed. "It's nice to see you in such a good mood. I was a bit worried when I walked in and saw you here on your own so early in the morning." Her expression grew inquiring.
Malcolm shook his head. He understood her concern. "It's all right. Things between Trip and me are improving. He just can't sleep much, and I sleep better when he's there." He shrugged.
"It's none of my business," Madeline began.
"When did that ever stop you?" her brother countered, but his tone was lighter than his words.
"But is he seeing anyone for counseling? You have a psychiatrist on board, after all. Presumably this sort of thing falls under his purview."
Malcolm sighed. "Presumably it does," he agreed. "That doesn't mean everyone is going to go to him for help."
He stopped her with a look. "I choose my battles carefully, and I choose not to fight that one."
"Do you want me to fight it for you? I will."
For a moment he was sorely tempted. He had mixed feelings about psychiatry although he knew many people swore by it. Cormack, for one, had spoken well of Doctor Douglas the times he'd come up in conversation. Malcolm shook his head. "I'm not going ask you to do that."
"But you're not going to tell me not to, either." At his pointed look, Maddy added, "You're on the top of my 'rescue at all costs' list, and if this is what I have to do to accomplish that, I will."
"I don't need rescuing, thank you."
"Says you." She looked at him critically. "Face it, Malcolm, you're knackered. You may hide it well, but I know you. You said yourself you're choosing your battles. I can fight this one for you. But I won't if you tell me you don't want me to."
"I'm considering it." There was a thoughtful silence between the siblings. Finally, Malcolm shook his head again. "I'm leaving it to your discretion. If you want to pick that fight, that's entirely up to you. I don't want to know one way or the other what you choose to do."
"You'll never hear another word about it from me."
But if she did pick this fight, he knew he'd hear about it from Trip.
The morning in the Armory was busy. Cormack, her second latté never far from her hand, was working with Sergeant Kemper. The pair had gathered all the strategic and logistical data on both the ship-to-ship combat and the reptilian boarding party's rescue of the prisoner Rajiin, and now they were running computer recreations of the Xindi attack. They were determined to find ways for Enterprise's combined security forces to respond more effectively should a similar situation occur again.
While they worked on that, crewmen Martinez and Zabel ran diagnostics on the ship's weapons systems at the main console, and Corporal Romero and Private Palmer performed routine maintenance on the MACO hand-weapons at one of the worktables.
Cormack took a drink of her latté and examined the screen before her. "See there?" She pointed to one of the blue dots-a Starfleet security person. "That guy doesn't have enough backup. His flankers are doing their job, but it's not enough. Those bogeys came in way stronger than we were ready for."
"Has the Lieutenant made any progress on that gun we got off of the dead lizard?" Kemper asked, using the slang term that had been quickly adopted by MACO and security fleeter alike.
She shook her head, and then winced. The meds she'd taken had gotten her through the night as predicted, but the migraine she'd staved off threatened again.
"Ensign?" Kemper frowned. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah. I'm fine." She took another sip of her coffee. Caffeine isn't going to do the job, dumbass, she silently berated herself. "I'm thinking more combined teams are a good place to start."
Kemper nodded. "When we're done with this analysis, we can work up some new strategies." He eyed Cormack who rubbed a hand against her temple. Her face was pinched into a scowl. "Are you sure you're okay?"
Cormack didn't hear him. The noise in her head was too loud. Engines whining, people shouting.
She snapped back to reality to find Kemper staring at her, a worried frown on his face. She looked around and the other Armory occupants all quickly looked away. "Sorry," she said to Kemper. She took a deep breath and fought back the pain in her head. "What did you say?" She swallowed the last of her coffee and set the lidded mug on the nearby worktable. Good sense told her to stop what she was doing and go take some meds. Now. Stubbornness and a desire to keep a clear head kept her at her task; the meds could make her spacey and she didn't have time for that.
"I said we should work out some new strategies when we're done here." His expression didn't change, but his manner was wary.
"Right, right. That's good. I-" She flinched and grasped the console for balance. Shit. Why had she thought she could tough this out? Idiot! She squeezed her eyes shut against the pain. Lights flashed behind her tightly closed eyelids and she could smell acrid smoke. Amidst indistinct shouts of alarm, someone called her name.
"Stephanie? Stephanie! Look at me!"
"Oh, Stephanie, this is not good."
This isn't real. It's all in my head, she told herself firmly. She opened her eyes, but the vision from her mind stood there in front of her.
"Yes," Ryn agreed. "Yes it is all in your head, and it's not good. What the hell is going on?" The apparition looked around. "Is this your ship? I'm getting a pretty quick view here."
"What're you-?" Only then did Cormack realize she was moving. She was in Malcolm's arms and he was all but running along one of the F-Deck corridors. The bouncing hurt her pounding head. She cringed and pressed her face into his chest, hiding from the light, the pain, the vision. "Make it stop," she pleaded.
"Hail the lift!" he ordered over his shoulder, and someone moved quickly past him. He looked down. "Stephanie? Can you hear me?" Stephanie nodded once and squinted up at him. A relieved expression crossed his face and was gone. "You're conscious."
"Am I?" She tried to focus on him, but despite the strength and warmth of him, he didn't seem real to her. She looked again at Ryn who hurried along beside them. "What What are you-?" she tried. Malcolm was speaking, responding as if she'd spoken to him, but it was half-heard like background sound in a busy room. She felt a sudden slight jolt and realized they must be ascending in a turbolift.
"I was going to ask you," Ryn replied. "You're the one doing this-whatever 'this' is."
The lift doors opened and Reed's quick stride took them along another corridor and through a second door.
Ryn looked around again. "This must be sickbay. I've become acutely attuned to medical environments." Her expression was a mix of satisfaction and distaste. Her eyes went wide at something beyond Stephanie's limited line of vision. "So that must be your Denobulan doctor, eh? I've never met a Denobulan." She shook her head, looked at her sister where Reed had laid her down on the biobed. "Sorry, sis. It's all a bit much." She squeezed the prone woman's hand encouragingly just before Ensign Cohn slid the bed into the imaging chamber.
"Ryn!" Stephanie reached out, but Cohn caught her hand and tucked it in beside her. He shut the door.
Alone inside the long, narrow scanner chamber she had no distraction, no convenient hallucination to focus on to get her through the pain. She wanted to curl into a ball against it, but there wasn't room. She knew she was crying; she had neither the strength of body nor of will to stop.
The door at her feet opened and she slid out at last. The light was too much. She curled onto her side and began to retch, vomiting up the two lattés she downed as breakfast. Immediately a cool hand was on her forehead and she felt a hypo press against her neck.
Stephanie opened eyes she didn't remember closing and found herself face to face with her kneeling sister. Ryn's expression was full of worry. It was her hand Stephanie felt, although as the pain ebbed she knew it was Phlox who'd given her the meds and Cohn who gently wiped clean her face and the bed. His hands moved with practiced efficiency, crossing and recrossing her line of vision. "Ryn?" she whispered, her voice rough. She coughed, and strong hands immediately steadied her.
Ryn shook her head. "I don't know, Ephie. I'm not really here." She looked up at the bustling medical personnel. "They certainly haven't noticed me. So what's up?" She turned her attention back to Stephanie.
"You're fading," Stephanie said. She could've sworn she heard her sister say, "Speak for yourself," but she couldn't be sure as all went dark and she slipped into sleep.
"Lieutenant Reed!" Martinez burst into his office without warning.
"Crewman! What on Earth-?"
"Ensign Cormack collapsed, sir," she answered in a rush.
In an instant Reed was on his feet and rocketing past her out the door. Martinez followed close behind.
"What happened?" demanded the Lieutenant, kneeling by Cormack. She was curled into a tight ball on the deckplating at the foot of the secondary control console. Her hands clutched at her head as if it might explode. He shot a quick look at Kemper, whose expression was baffled.
"I don't know, sir. I hailed sickbay. They're sending someone."
Cormack whimpered and curled her arms tighter over her head. She was saying something over and over and Malcolm leaned in to hear it. "Make it stop! Make it stop!" It was a pinched and high-pitched plea, little more than an agonized squeak.
Without a thought, Malcolm scooped her up in his arms.
"Sir?" began Kemper.
"We're not waiting for someone to get here," he said sharply and strode quickly to the door. "Martinez, you're in charge until I get back."
"Yes, sir," she answered.
Kemper followed Reed out into the corridor.
"Tell me what happened," the Lieutenant ordered.
"I don't know. I think she had a headache. She kept rubbing her head, and she sort of zoned out a couple of times."
"What are you-?" Stephanie began, her face pinched with pain. She hid her face against Malcolm's shoulder. "Make it stop."
"It's all right. I've got you," Reed tried to reassure her. He shot a look at Kemper. "Hail the lift! Stephanie? Can you hear me?" he asked her in a softer but no less urgent tone. She nodded weakly as he met her pained gaze. He gave her an encouraging smile that swiftly vanished in worry. "You're conscious." "Am I?" She squinted hazel eyes up at him and then looked to one side, seeming to focus on something hovering in mid-air.
Kemper moved past Reed but before he could hit the call button for the turbolift, the door opened and revealed med-tech Northfield.
"She collapsed," Reed said shortly, and pushed into the lift, forcing the woman to the back. Kemper stayed close and the little crowd ascended quickly to E-deck.
In the cramped space, Northfield pulled a scanner from the case in her hand. "What was she doing before she collapsed?" she asked, as the lift doors opened again and they rushed down the corridor towards sickbay.
"Nothing." Kemper shook his head again. His tone and expression were tense. "We were discussing the Xindi attack. Talking. Running sims on the computer. That's all."
"Did she suffer any trauma that could have caused her to collapse?"
All the while Cormack muttered to herself. Malcolm thought he caught a familiar name, but he couldn't be certain. "Nearly there," he said in as calm a voice as he could manage. She gave no indication that she'd heard him.
"What happened?" demanded Phlox as Reed deposited Cormack as smoothly as possible on the scanner bed. Despite his care, she whimpered again and tried to curl up on her side. She reached out a hand. Cohn deftly caught it and tucked it beside her. He slid the bed into the imaging chamber as Northfield and Kemper recapped events.
"All right. Out of the way please." Phlox joined Cohn as the young man released Cormack from the medical scanner. She promptly rolled onto her side and vomited thin, gray-brown liquid.
"I've got it." Cohn moved quickly to clean up the mess while Phlox injected Cormack with a mix of painkillers, anti-nausea meds, and a sedative. Cohn spoke quietly to her as he wiped her face. He heard her murmur, "You're fading," as her eyes closed and she relaxed into drug-induced sleep.
Phlox looked at Reed and Kemper. The men still stood to one side, tension written on their faces. "Is there anything more you can tell me?"
"Kemper said she-" Reed paused and looked at the sergeant. "What was the phrase you used?"
"Zoned out," Kemper answered. "She was rubbing her temple, and then it was like she was looking at something that wasn't there. I'm sorry, sir. I know that doesn't make a lot of sense."
"That's all right," Phlox assured him. He gestured to Northfield to usher them out. "I'll let you know when we know anything."
The men recognized the cue even without Northfield's guiding presence. They left sickbay without argument.
Mayweather sat at his station, his body that blend of tense and relaxed that he only experienced when he was flying through difficult space. The anomaly-ridden Expanse definitely qualified as "difficult". Occasionally T'Pol's even voice would break the silence, giving him warning of an upcoming anomaly beyond his focus. His attention was on the immediate danger; hers was on the projected.
A proximity warning light lit on Mayweather's console. Neither he nor the Science Officer had seen this one coming. He tried with limited success to avoid the sudden anomaly to starboard. The ship shuddered briefly as it impacted the warped bubble of space. He adjusted his course and continued forward.
"Everything all right, Ensign?" Archer asked from the edge of his seat.
Archer shot a look at T'Pol who was frowning at her instruments. She met his concerned gaze with less impassivity than usual. In fact he would have described her expression as irritated if he hadn't known better. "Damage report?"
"The anomaly caused minor disruptions to secondary and tertiary environmental systems on C-deck. I'm requesting an engineering team to investigate," she said.
"Time to our destination?"
"At current speed, another ninety-six minutes."
Archer nodded once and rose, crossing to the turbolift. "I'll be in the armory," he said to Donnelly at the comm. "Hail Lieutenant Reed and Major Hayes. Have them meet me there."
"Aye, sir," the ensign replied.
"T'Pol, you have the bridge. Make sure we don't have any more little surprises."
Archer stepped into the lift and the doors shut behind him. T'Pol glanced surreptitiously around the bridge. Everyone was focused on his own tasks. Donnelly received confirmation of the Captain's order from Reed and Hayes, and closed the comm. Young monitored the tactical systems, alert for any sign of unwelcome company. Mayweather was oblivious to anything outside his current task of keeping the ship on course and intact. T'Pol turned again to her own instruments, spoke evenly to the helmsman. "Anomaly at seventeen point two degrees starboard, twenty-seven kilometers out."
"Seventeen point two at twenty-seven, aye."
T'Pol rubbed at her temple with strong fingers. The tension headaches she'd been experiencing had been briefly subsumed by the damage her neural paths had suffered on the Seleya. Now that she was essentially healed, the pain was back in the fore and it was stronger. Worse than that, it was now affecting her concentration to the extent that she was making careless errors. If it continued to affect her ability to meditate, she would have to seek more extensive medical assistance from Phlox.
Liz and Mae sat together at a mess hall table. The dinner crowd was unusually subdued that evening.
"It's like a library in here, isn't it?" Liz asked her companion in an undertone.
"Yeah," agreed Mae. She took a bite of her lasagna. "It's like we're on a submarine instead of a starship."
Liz gave her a quizzical look. "What do you mean?"
"Haven't you ever watched any of those old submarine-based war movies? In order to hide from enemy sonar, they would always cut their engines and then the entire crew would fall silent."
"I get it. We're hiding on the far side of their moon, in the planet's blind spot so to speak, and everyone is subconsciously being quiet because of it." She chased a bite of salad with a swallow of water. They'd reached their destination that afternoon and a landing party was currently investigating the Xindi settlement on the forested M-class planet. She was about to ask something more, but stopped when she spotted Bonnie across the room. Liz waved her over, and the helmsman set down her tray and sat wearily. "Hi."
"Hey," Bonnie replied, trading nods of greeting with her bunkmate.
"I was just about to ask 'Where's Stephanie?'," put in Mae lightly before Bonnie could speak. The others looked at her in surprise. Mae glanced from one to the other and back. "What?"
"She's in sickbay," Liz informed her. "Didn't you know?"
Mae's eyes widened in shock. "No! What happened? Is she all right?" She and Liz both looked to Bonnie for the answer to the last.
"She's in and out. Phlox is keeping her sedated while he runs more tests." Bonnie swigged back a long swallow of the beer she'd chosen to go with her lamb stew. It felt cool as it went down her throat and she relaxed a little.
"Tests for what?" demanded Mae, still flummoxed.
Liz took over the narration. She'd been in sickbay that afternoon and had more of the specific medical knowledge than Bonnie did. "She collapsed early this morning, about twenty minutes into Alpha shift. She's had a lot of migraines since we entered the Expanse, and they've gotten worse the farther we've come."
Mae turned to Bonnie. "Did you know that? Why didn't you tell me?"
"I didn't know it had gotten so bad, and you weren't really in a position to listen until lately, eh?" Bonnie's look was pointed and a little angry. She didn't know how much Liz knew about Mae's recent problem, so she didn't want to say too much. On the other hand, she was tired and worried about her lover, and tact wasn't her strongest skill on the best of days.
Mae opened her mouth and then shut it again without speaking. She couldn't protest; Bonnie was absolutely right. Instead she said, "Is it okay to go see her?"
"Yeah, but don't expect to get much out of her," put in Bonnie, downing another draught of beer and digging into her stew with more vehemence than was strictly necessary.
Mae hesitated and then turned to Liz. Nothing she could say to her bunkmate would help at that moment. "Has Phlox figured out what's causing the migraines?"
"Not yet. At least, not since I came off shift." Liz looked at Bonnie inquiringly. Bonnie shook her head.
"He was tossing around medical terms like a verbal juggler, but it all boiled down to him not knowing the answers yet," the helmsman said between bites.
"I'm going to go check on her." Mae stood abruptly. She wasn't finished eating, but the food on her plate was no longer appetizing. She picked up the unappealing dishes. "I'll see you guys later."
"See you later," echoed Liz. Bonnie simply nodded, her mouth full. When Mae had gone, Liz rested an elbow on the table and looked at her companion. "How about you?"
Bonnie looked up at Liz, a puzzled expression on her face. "What about me?"
"Are you okay?" The concern in Liz's voice was echoed in her face. "Is there anything you need?"
There was a short silence. Bonnie almost said something, but stopped herself. She shook her head and took another bite of stew.
Liz persisted. There were things she wanted to know-for both medical and personal reasons. "I know I'm not Stephanie's bunkmate any more," she began. Bonnie looked at her quizzically. "I don't see her as much as I used to. Or as much as I'd like to, really. But I thought " She hesitated, considering the best way to broach the subject. "You said you didn't know that her migraines had gotten so bad."
"That's right," Bonnie said a little bitterly. "I told Phlox that this morning."
"I didn't know he'd talked to you already."
"Yeah. He called me in this morning to ask what I knew, and I had to admit that I had no fucking idea. Stephanie's really good at hiding things that are wrong." Her anger was directed at herself as much as at her lover.
"She didn't tell me, either. But I saw the medical requisition logs for the first-aid kit in her cabin. She's been taking a lot of pain meds."
"Well shit!" Bonnie drained her beer and set the pint glass down with a loud bang. Liz jumped and several people glanced towards their table-only to glance away again quickly at Bonnie's angry expression.
"I thought you knew!" insisted Liz, carefully keeping her voice at a quiet conversational level. "I thought if she'd tell anyone, she'd tell you."
Bonnie took Liz's cue and lowered her voice. "Apparently not. Damn it! First Mae and now Stephanie!"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean I'm tired of the people I care about trying to handle things on their own. I'm right here, ready to help, but no one seems willing to ask. Do they think I can't handle it? I'm very good at crisis management, you know." She paused in her tirade to glare at her empty glass. "I want another beer. I fucking deserve another beer." She stood. "D'you want anything?"
Liz shook her head. "No, thanks."
Bonnie took her glass and soon returned with it filled. She sipped a bit off the top as she sat down.
"If it's any consolation, I don't think she told anyone," Liz said. "I mean, she should have, but it's not like she deliberately kept it from just you. Does that make sense?"
"Yeah." Bonnie nodded and heaved a frustrated sigh. A part of her was glad she hadn't been singled out for exclusion, but the more reasonable part was upset that her partner had chosen to suffer alone.
Silence fell between the pair, each woman lost in her own thoughts. It was Liz who broke it. "What did you mean by 'first Mae'?"
Bonnie looked at her in surprise. "She didn't tell you? Not even after the fact?"
"Tell me what?"
"What the hell is it with keeping goddamned secrets? Shit! I'm so fucking sick of keeping people's secrets!" Bonnie paused in her tirade long enough to catch Liz's confused gaze and hold it. "You have access to the med files, right?"
"Sure. When it's appropriate for me to access them. I mean, I'm not in the habit of reading people's medical records."
"No. Of course not." Silence as charged as a warp coil grew between them until Bonnie broke the tension with a sharp shake of her head. "Forget it. That's all I'm saying." She took a long, angry drink of beer.
Despite her curiosity over Bonnie's cryptic comments, Liz let the matter drop and focused on what was before her. She leaned forward again, her tone gentle and cautionary. "I know I don't have to tell you to go easy on that. Right?" She nodded to the pint glass.
Bonnie set it down but didn't release it. Her green eyes were angry, but Liz could tell it wasn't directed at her. "Yeah. I know. It's just been one of those days, eh?" Her anger suddenly deflated and her shoulders slumped a little. "Let me know if anything changes, okay? I don't care what time it is and Mae can deal with being woken up in the middle of the night if that's what has to happen. Just let me know. Good or bad. Okay?"
Liz nodded and put a reassuring hand on Bonnie's arm. "I will. And I'll make certain it's noted in the active file in case I'm not there. All right?"
Reed hovered just beyond the reach of the light that emanated from the Xindi processing plant. The foliage wasn't dense, but it was sufficient for someone as skilled at camouflage as he. He'd seen little activity during his observation of the plant's main entrance. Most of the action had occurred shortly before sundown-apparently the time for a regular shift change. For the present, all was quiet.
He checked the time. Still another twenty-one minutes before it was time to check in with Archer and Hayes. Reed didn't like this situation at all. Archer was at the home of the plant's manager, an arboreal Xindi named Gralik; Major Hayes was patrolling the house's perimeter; and Malcolm was stuck here. No, he didn't like it one bit. Bad enough that the Captain was essentially alone in enemy territory. The fact that it was the MACO and not Reed guarding him was like vinegar in a paper cut. Undoubtedly the Captain had his reasons, and Reed couldn't be in two places at once. That didn't change the fact that if he couldn't protect Archer, he'd have felt a lot better with one of his own team doing the job.
The incorporation of the two teams-Starfleet and MACO-was going well on the surface. Everyone was performing their jobs exemplarily. Reed outwardly welcomed the military assistance, but inside it continued to gall him. He was usually the last one to question the decisions of his superiors. This time, though, he'd repeatedly found himself wondering what the hell Starfleet Command had been thinking, why they'd sent him military commandos instead of additional security personnel.
A rustle in the bushes caused his still figure to positively freeze. He scanned the area around him with his eyes, not daring to move and give away his position to a potential enemy. Then a small, furry, rodent-like creature skittered from under a shrub and froze as it caught sight of him. The stare down lasted only a few seconds and the animal promptly darted away, back to where it had come from.
I hope that thing isn't sentient, he thought, only half in jest. He shifted uncomfortably in his hiding spot, trying with little success to stretch one leg and then the other.
He dropped to the ground, flat on his belly, and rolled underneath the sheltering shrubbery. Seconds ticked past and soon he heard voices speaking quietly, the sound coming closer. Two Xindi workers, apparently on a break. Their conversation was ordinary-long hours, hard work, family, home. One complained that he hadn't seen his two children more than three times in the past month because he'd been switched to the night shift. The other told him he was lucky, that his family was off-world and he hadn't seen them in five months.
Their talk went on for several minutes until their break ended and the pair headed back towards the plant. Reed waited another two minutes to be certain he was again alone. Only when he rolled from his hiding place and returned to his previous crouched position did it occur to him to wonder just where the cry of warning had come from.
"What's going on?" demanded Cohn, pulling back the privacy curtain.
"I don't know," Lawless answered. She shook her head and stepped away from the biobed on which Cormack lay. Cohn moved in to check the readouts on the various med screens. "I was just talking to her. She even answered me once. But then she just shouted 'Get down!' Scared the hell out of me."
Ari's concerned frown eased into a look of professional puzzlement. "The scans don't show anything new. Still the same increase in activity in the thalamus and elevated levels of serotonin. And there's-"
Mae cut him off. "Stop. I don't understand what you're talking about, so you're just talking to yourself." She looked down at her friend who lay half-conscious on the bed. "Kind of like me."
"She's stable and we've got her under surveillance. She'll be all right for a few minutes on her own. Come on." He gently guided Mae from the confined space and into sickbay's main area. The place was empty of other patients, and Phlox was off on the far side working on diagnosing what was wrong with her. Ari spoke quietly. "How are you? I haven't seen you in a few days."
"Okay. Tired." Mae shrugged. "How are you?"
There was a silence awkward as a first date.
"Um " Ari tried again. "Can I buy you a drink? A cup of coffee?"
He looked across the room to Phlox. "Doctor?"
The Denobulan looked up, his expression both inquisitive and distracted. "Yes?"
"Go right ahead." His small smile faded a little. "If you have any revelations in diagnosis, you'll be sure to hurry back, hm?"
Ari returned the look with a sympathetic nod. "Of course."
The comm chirped. "Tucker to Doctor Phlox."
Phlox caught Ari with a look and the med-tech nodded in understanding. He and Mae waited by the door as the doctor opened the comm. "Yes, Commander? What can I do for you?"
"Meet me in Main Engineering. I'm going to try taking apart that Xindi rifle we captured. I'd like you here when I do."
Phlox was about to question the request, but thought better of it. He wasn't making progress here; perhaps he could help there. He made eye contact again with Ari who nodded a second time. "I'll be right there, Commander." He closed the comm and rose.
Ari gave Mae an apologetic look. "I'm sorry. I have to stay."
"Sure," she agreed. "I'll see you later."
Phlox and Mae departed, leaving Cohn alone with Cormack. He checked her readings again and sighed. No change. He understood why Phlox was so frustrated. The migraine that had caused the ensign's collapse was only the latest in a series of attacks. If they could chart them, they might find a correlation of some kind. But Cormack's stubbornness had kept her quiet about their frequency and severity, and she was in no condition to answer questions now. The medical team had no way of knowing just how long this had been going on.
"Unless " he thought aloud. An idea struck him suddenly and he hurried to the nearest computer console. He called up Cormack's medical history and the first-aid supply inventory. Liz had said something about recent requisitions. Maybe he could track it that way. After several minutes of study, he shook his head in defeat. The resupplies were at random intervals. There was no way to know when or how often the attacks had happened between requests.
He read the most recent medical notes more closely. Phlox had questioned Bonnie Fraser, but had anyone talked to Cormack's bunkmate yet? He scrolled back over the past few days. There! He smiled in satisfaction. Bless Liz for being a stickler for notes. She'd talked to Bowman less than a week ago and the incidents the MACO had given her were all neatly listed in the file. It was one less thing he had to do before setting to work.
Madeline caught up with Commander Tucker outside the armory. He looked flustered and anxious, and she could empathize. But that didn't stop her.
"Commander, might I have a word with you?"
"Not if it's the same word we've been having every time I see you," he replied shortly. He continued along the corridor, and she determinedly kept pace.
"I'm a negotiator, Commander. It's why I'm here. If Captain Archer is talking with the Xindi plant manager-which we know he is-I should be involved."
"I'm not sending another shuttle down there. Especially not now that there's a reptilian vessel in orbit over that processing plant. If the Captain needed you on the mission, he would've taken you in the first place."
"He wasn't expecting a diplomatic opportunity," insisted Madeline. They stepped together into Main Engineering where Trip strode immediately to his workbench. Madeline followed. "He and Malcolm and Major Hayes went down there thinking this was a tactical mission: find out what they're doing and destroy the plant so they can't do it any more. The situation has changed. I can help."
"You could have helped, but there's nothing you can do now. I'm sorry." He picked up the cylinder Archer had sent hours earlier. It contained kemocite-a component produced by the plant and present in the Xindi weapon. "Now if you'll excuse me, T'Pol and Hoshi need this in the lab." He moved past her and she again followed closely as he stepped back out into the corridor.
"What are you doing with it?"
"I'm not doing anything. They're altering the radiolytic signature it gives off so that we can track it once it's on board the Xindi ship." They stopped at a turbolift and Tucker hit the call button. He turned to face her. "Listen, Madeline, I understand that you're frustrated. I know how you feel."
"At least you can do your job. My hands have been tied."
He read her underlying thoughts in her face and his expression grew softer. "Malcolm's okay."
"I know that's not the reason you're upset," he forestalled her. "But I figured it still might help if you knew that at least. I talked to him less than an hour ago and he's fine." The lift doors opened and a science crewman exited it, giving the pair a brief glance before moving on. Trip stepped into the lift. "I'm sorry. That's all I can do for you right now." He reached out a hand to hail the deck he wanted, and the doors promptly slid shut.
Madeline was ambivalent. She was still angry to be out of the loop on this mission, and she was irked that Commander Tucker would suggest that her behavior was prompted by anything other than professional concern. On the other hand, she was glad to have an update, slim though it was, on her brother's situation. "Damn it," she muttered and turned back down the corridor towards the mess hall.
Tucker really is quite perceptive about people, she thought as her mug filled with steaming black tea with a dash of milk. She found that surprising for someone whose expertise was engines and mechanical things. Although she supposed he didn't get to be Chief Engineer by mismanaging his people.
She took her tea and returned to her cabin. She could understand some of what Malcolm saw in Trip; she had seen some of it for herself, even though the engineer wasn't currently what Malcolm called "his usual self". It was only after meeting him that Maddy had realized she'd been completely prepared to hate Trip Tucker. Little things Malcolm had said-and more particularly things that he hadn't said-after the attack on Earth had made her want nothing more than to meet the man responsible for breaking her brother's heart and slap him across the face. It wasn't something she was proud of, judging him that way before ever meeting him face to face. It was hardly the way a professional peace-maker ought to behave. But she was a Reed first and foremost, and Tucker had hurt her favorite family member.
Her feelings of animosity had faded significantly until the night Malcolm showed up at her door looking for a place to sleep. Her anger at the man her brother loved had flooded back with more ferocity than she'd ever felt previously. But again time, Malcolm, and Trip himself had combined to temper her emotions towards the engineer.
She sat heavily at her desk. "How in God's name does Malcolm stand it?" she wondered aloud. He was far more patient than she gave him credit for, and she of all people really should know better. Still "It's a bloody roller-coaster with that man." She doubted she could tolerate it were she in Malcolm's position. She was infinitely grateful that she wasn't.
"The Xindi vessel is breaking orbit," announced Young from the bridge's tactical station.
"I have the radiolytic signature on my sensors," Sato responded from her seat across the room.
"Ensign Sato," said T'Pol, "hail the Captain."
"Yes, ma'am." Sato reached to open a line, but Young's next statement stopped her.
"They're opening an energy portal! The readings are the same as last time." It was how the lizards had escaped after rescuing the prisoner Rajiin, and it looked as though they were about to escape again.
"Laying in a pursuit course," said Mayweather, fitting action to words. "Awaiting orders."
"Stand down, Ensign. We're not pursuing without the landing party," T'Pol answered his unspoken question.
"Portal's closed." Young looked up at the rest of the bridge crew. "They're gone."
Sato's tone was heavy. "I've lost the signal."
"Hail the Captain," T'Pol repeated her earlier order.
It was a subdued trio that returned from the planet. Archer stopped in decon only as long as required and then headed immediately to the bridge. "Any sign of the vessel?" he asked as he emerged from the lift.
"None," T'Pol said promptly. "We began a mid-range search pattern based on analyses of the previous vortex and beginning with their last known trajectory, but so far we've found nothing."
Archer had worked with T'Pol long enough to hear what she wasn't saying. It was another needle-in-a-haystack situation. He looked at Mayweather. "Lay in a pursuit course along their trajectory, Ensign."
"Already plotted, sir," the helmsman replied.
"Engage at warp speed." T'Pol shot him a look that Archer returned with a shake of his head. He knew what she would say and forestalled her objections. "Just do your best. Gralik said the portals have limited range. There's a chance we can catch up if we can just find them." He turned and moved back to the lift. "Keep me updated. I'll be in my cabin."
Stephanie turned her head on her pillow and saw her sister sitting in a chair with a book in her hands and her feet tucked up under her. The chair was not standard Starfleet issue but rather a cozy recliner covered in soft brown microfiber. Stephanie recognized it from her sister's living room. Ryn wore pajamas and a fuzzy yellow bathrobe.
"What're you doing?"
Ryn looked up, putting a marker in the old-fashioned hard-bound book. "There you are."
"I figured I'd wait up tonight and see if you turned up again." She looked around. "Still in sickbay, I see."
"Yeah. Still here."
"It's nice to see you're not quite the mess you were before."
"Thanks. Phlox has me drugged. It helps." Stephanie squinted. "Makes it harder to see you, though. You're sort of fuzzy around the edges."
"But it doesn't stop you talking to me." Ryn set aside her book, which promptly disappeared from Stephanie's view. She leaned forward and unfolded her legs to reveal slippers as bright and shaggy as a Muppet. Her intent expression was an absurd contrast to her attire. "What is going on here?"
"I don't know. This Expanse It's fucking with my head in more ways than one."
"Expanse?" echoed Ryn in puzzlement.
"That's what this part of space is called. It's weird. Spatial anomalies, giant spheres. Not natural spheres, constructed ones." Stephanie shot her sister a look half amused and half worried. "I'm not supposed to release that information. It's classified."
"Who am I going to tell? And who's going to believe me if I did? I'm a college horticulture professor. I can name maybe a dozen constellations on a good night, never mind understanding what Starfleet is doing out there." She gestured randomly upwards. "And how would I have learned it, huh? So what's this Expanse doing to you, exactly?"
"You've seen it. You are it. You and the migraines. And the visions. Lots of pain and lots of dreams. And too many of those dreams seem to be coming true. If we end up in an Audie Murphy movie, I'm going to be seriously scared."
Ryn looked baffled. "What?"
"Nothing." Stephanie thought of the wild west setting she'd seen. It wasn't that which had her so worried, but the following vision from Engineering. She wondered if there was any way to keep Commander Tucker from climbing on top of the warp reactor until they got back to Earth. Surely he'd be safe by then; the premonition couldn't be that far into the future.
"No. What are you talking about?" Ryn persisted.
"It doesn't matter. It's not like you can do anything about it. Hey. You're fading again."
"They didn't just dope you again, did they?"
Stephanie shook her head against the pillow. "I don't think so. I think it's something else." Ryn was rapidly growing transparent, but Stephanie could still make out the urgency in her face and voice.
"Don't go yet! I want to know what's going on!"
"Sorry, sis. It's not up to me." Ryn vanished and Stephanie heaved a huge sigh. "See you 'round," she murmured to the air.
T'Pol knelt before her altar. The single candle flame flickered slightly with each long exhalation of her breath. She'd taken a very small dose of analgesic to cut the edge of pain from her headache. Normally she would have used the meditations alone to control the pain, but that was becoming increasingly difficult. She began the first mantra to focus her mind. Tonight she would try something new, but she couldn't do that until she achieved the primary stages of relaxation.
The tension headache eased and she breathed more freely. Her focus narrowed effortlessly then, her muscles relaxing into the meditation as naturally as did her mind. Tonight she would try something new. As a scientist, she did not believe in time travel. She'd said so to Captain Archer on numerous occasions. But that didn't stop her from pursuing a less empirical and more mystical approach to the problem.
She completed her first silent mantra and began a different one, one she'd discovered in her research of some of the more arcane Vulcan spiritual practices. She had some experience in directed dreaming. This principle wasn't dissimilar. Predicting the future was, in her opinion, almost as unlikely as traveling to it. But there were Vulcan religious sects who had explored the possibility long ago. Their research wasn't regarded as creditable in the scientific community and until lately T'Pol had agreed. Her own experience had forced her to reevaluate her views on the matter.
She couldn't deny what she had seen of the Loque'eque and their world before she ever knew who they were. That meant she had glimpsed a possible future, one that by chance had come to pass. If she could do so again, by choice and under her own control, there was a chance that Enterprise could avoid potential dangers or make speedier progress to their ultimate goal.
"You should get some sleep," Phlox said to Cohn. The pair had been up all night-something the Denobulan was accustomed to, but which the ensign tried to avoid.
Ari shook his head, barely looking up from the computer screen. He was so close to an answer he could taste it. If he could just find that one missing link he was sure it would all fall together into a logical pattern.
Before Phlox could protest, an alarm chimed indicating a change in Cormack's condition. "She's awake," he said in surprise. He crossed the room and pulled back the privacy curtain to find Stephanie bleary but conscious. "Good morning." He smiled cheerfully at her and began to check the rest of her readings. "How are you feeling?"
"Okay, I guess. Exhausted, which is kind of ironic, eh?" she replied, glancing around. "How long have I been out? Is the team back from the planet yet?"
Phlox looked at her in surprise. "Hours ago."
"Are they okay?"
"They're just fine." He stopped what he was doing and looked at her intently. "What do you know about the away mission?"
"Not a lot. They were going to blow up the Xindi factory." She frowned, thinking. "But they didn't, did they? They did something else instead." Her musing was interrupted by a yawn. "Sorry. I feel like I've been up for hours without any coffee."
"There are still several medications in your system, working their way through. Relax. Sleep if you need to. I'll be back to check on you a little later." He gave her a reassuring smile and she nodded back. Cormack closed her eyes and soon fell into a natural sleep.
Phlox ran several more scan before returning to his work station. He looked at Ari who continued to pour over his data like a student cramming for a final exam.
"I'm almost there. I know it. There's just something I'm missing," Ari muttered to himself.
Phlox responded as if the ensign had spoken to him. "You might have better luck if you got some rest, hm? Fresh eyes and a fresh mind, you know." He had worked with humans long enough to recognize the glazed, almost haunted expression they could get at times like this.
"Huh?" Ari looked up as if surprised to find he wasn't alone.
"There's a note from Liz that Ensign Fraser should be notified of any change in Ensign Cormack's condition," the doctor replied seemingly at random. "I expect she'd like to receive the good news as soon as possible, and a personal touch would be nice." He queried the computer as he spoke. "She's in the mess hall right now. Please go tell her that Ensign Cormack has regained consciousness."
"Huh?" grunted Ari again, a little dazed by the sudden outpouring of words after hours spent in silence.
Phlox held him with a look. "Tell Bonnie that Stephanie is all right. Then get yourself some breakfast and take a nap. I don't want you back here for at least four hours."
"But-" Ari looked back and forth between Phlox and his computer read-outs
"Your data isn't going anywhere. Dismissed, Ensign."
"It got an earful from your sister yesterday."
Malcolm looked up from his seat at the desk. "Did you?"
Trip nodded as he crossed to the wardrobe. "More'n once as a matter of fact."
"About anything in particular? Or did you simply make the mistake of getting in her way at an inopportune moment?"
Trip shot him a look over one shoulder. He pulled a pair of sweats and a clean t-shirt from a drawer as he answered. "The Captain was talking to a Xindi; you were both in the middle of a hostile alien settlement; and she was stuck up here. I don't think there was an opportune moment anywhere in there." He began to change out of his uniform.
Malcolm chuckled. "You have my sympathy, but I'm sure she was only doing her job."
"Now see, there's the problem. She couldn't do her job under the circumstances. That's what I kept getting to hear about."
"Ah." Malcolm nodded sagely and turned off the computer screen. He sat back, arms crossed over his chest.
"I explained the situation more than once, but she still argued about it."
"She had a point."
Trip looked up from tying the laces on his sneakers. "How do you know that? Has she chewed your ear off about it already?" The landing party had only been back a day.
"No. But I can imagine how it would go. Or how it went," he added with an amused quirk of a smile.
Trip conceded the point grudgingly. "Well, yeah. She did have a point, but there was nothing anyone could do about it. She had to see that."
Malcolm gave a nod that was more than half shrug. "Of course," he said vaguely. "Are you going to the gym?" he asked, although the answer seemed pretty obvious.
"Yeah. You, uh, want to come?"
"You're sure?" Malcolm asked, remembering an argument along these lines, which had led to things better put behind them.
"I'm not planning to do any yoga," answered Trip, his expression self-deprecating. "And if I change my mind, I'm promise I'm not gonna ask you to leave."
"All right. Give me minute to change."
Ari, Ian, and Travis sat around a mess hall table, beers in hand and plate of chili nachos in front of them. It was their second round of drinks, and the nachos were nearly decimated, but Ian found a chili-covered chip and dipped it into the sour cream. He took a gooey, cheesy bite, licked salsa from where it had dripped on his fingers, and reached for his beer. "You know what's missing that would make this perfect? A hockey game to watch."
Ari snorted a laugh. "You're the worst kind of Canadian stereotype, buddy."
"Nah," his bunkmate protested. "There'd have to be back-bacon involved for that, eh?" Ian grinned, deliberately slapping the ubiquitous syllable at the end of the sentence.
The others laughed.
Travis shook his head, chuckling. "You guys are bad."
"Come on," Ian said. "Aren't there any boomer stereotypes that you like to laugh at?"
"I'm sure there's some, but nothing comes to mind."
"That's okay. When we think of some, we'll let you know." They all laughed again, and Ian asked, "So, Travis, how'd you get the night off?"
"I've been at the helm plenty lately. It's not my shift," answered Travis.
"No, man. I mean how'd you get your wife to let you spend a night out with us debauched bachelors?" He punctuated his point with a loud belch that caught the attention-amused or disgusted, variously-of several people around the room.
"I don't have to ask permission, you know."
"Besides," put in Ari, "Liz is in the lab tonight. Beta shift."
"Thanks." Travis's tone was sarcastic.
Ari smiled broadly. "Happy to help."
"Liz wouldn't have objected anyway," Travis said. "I needed tonight to relax. I've been at that helm more hours than not since we came into the Expanse. You don't know tired until you've been trying to navigate through those anomalies for twelve hours straight."
"Pretty bad, huh?"
"And they're getting thicker. Have you seen the projection T'Pol came up with?"
Ari shook his head, but Ian nodded. "Oh yeah," the armory ensign said. "I don't envy you flying through that shit."
An idea was forming slowly in Ari's mind. He set down his beer and thoughtfully munched on a gooey, guacamole rich chip. "There's a projection of upcoming anomalies?"
"Potential locations, yeah," confirmed Travis. "T'Pol used what we know about the spheres we've found, their gravitational pulls, the energies they emit, and had the computer extrapolate how many more spheres might be out there. That helps us figure out where anomalies are more likely to occur."
"Sure. It's all in the computer. Stellar cartography wouldn't be doing its job otherwise."
"What's up?" asked Ian.
"Just an idea," said Ari. "I'll let you know if it goes anywhere. Will you excuse me? I have work to do." He rose without waiting for a reply and was half way to the door when Ian called after him.
"At least finish your beer!"
"Finish it for me," he called back and hurried out.
Ari walked quickly, heading for sickbay. Cormack had been released that afternoon, but he didn't necessarily need her there to test the theory he was formulating. They'd been looking for an environmental cause for her migraines and the visions she'd reluctantly told Phlox about, but so far only the only environment they'd considered was inside the ship. Wasn't it possible that the anomalies that warped space and disrupted physical systems might also have an affect on something less tangible? Like, for instance, brainwaves? It was pretty far-fetched and he felt a little crazy evening thinking it. But it wasn't impossible, surely.
He had the chart, as best as they could determine, of when Cormack's migraines had occurred and when they had or hadn't coincided with disturbingly prophetic dreams. He shuddered at the idea. His brief experience with psychic energy and out-of-body experience had been enough for a lifetime, in his opinion. He wouldn't want to have to deal with anything like that on a more permanent basis. He knew himself well enough to know that he couldn't handle it.
Ari set aside the unsettling idea and focused on the matter at hand. There was no reason to believe there was any connection between the incidents Cormack had experienced and the locations of any spheres or anomalies. But until he determined otherwise, neither was there reason to believe there wasn't.
Stephanie snuggled up closer to Bonnie on the obs lounge sofa. The view through the ports was the same as ever, but after the time she'd spent in sickbay it was a welcome, beautiful change. Bonnie wrapped her arm tighter around her partner, and Stephanie sighed. "I'm really sorry," she said. "I didn't mean to keep you in the dark about everything. I thought I could handle it."
"I've heard that before," replied Bonnie, although her tone lacked the sting the words implied.
"And it's been true every time." Stephanie leaned away just far enough to look up at her. "You know that, right? I don't shut you out on purpose."
Stephanie settled back against her.
"That doesn't make it okay. You know that, right?" Their gazes met, reflected in half shadow in the window.
"Yeah. I know. This time Things got out of hand. They went from bad to intolerable all of a sudden. I didn't plan it this way."
They fell silent for several moments. When Stephanie finally spoke, Bonnie wasn't sure at first if she'd heard her properly.
"I saw Ryn."
The non sequitur made less sense than most non sequiturs. Bonnie looked down at her, wishing the angle afforded her more than a view of the top of her head and one ear. "What?"
"When I had this last attack, I saw Ryn."
"You mean like in a vision? One of those dreams you finally told me about?" Bonnie put just enough emphasis on the word "finally" to get her point across.
Stephanie responded with a tip of her head, silently accepting the admonishment. "No. Not in one of the dreams. In reality. Or as real as can be, considering she's home on Earth."
"Wait a minute. You're saying you talked to her? Real time talked to her?"
"Uh-huh. She was right there in front of me. No one else could see her, but you know the weirdest part?"
Bonnie wanted to protest that this was plenty weird enough, but refrained. "What?"
"She could see everyone here. She could see Phlox, sickbay, the ship's corridors. She even got a quick view of the armory before Malcolm ran out of there with me."
"Okay. You're right." Bonnie nodded, looking back at their reflections. "That's pretty fucking weird. Could you see her surroundings?"
Stephanie sat up a little straighter, pushing away enough to support herself without leaning on her lover. That hadn't occurred to her before. She shook her head slowly. "Only when she was in contact with something. Like the last time I saw her she was in the chair in her living room. I could see the chair. And her book-until she set it down and it disappeared. I wonder what that means."
"I wish I could tell you, but I'm not the person to ask."
"Who is?" asked Stephanie, not expecting an answer.
"You might try Doctor T'Pol. You know I'm still not used to calling her that."
"Me neither. I've already agreed to talk to her though."
"Yeah?" Bonnie was surprised. Stephanie sucked at asking for help-as evidenced by this latest debacle. "Phlox tell you that you have to?" she asked in a joking tone that fooled neither of them.
"Not this time. Not directly. He just suggested I could maybe learn some meditation techniques from her to help control whatever the hell is going on. I think it's a good idea."
""I don't like having migraines and dreams that come true, you know," Stephanie said dryly.
"I already told Phlox everything I can remember-except the part about Ryn. You're the only one who knows about that."
"I get it. I'll keep my mouth shut for the time being." Bonnie wasn't happy about it, but what was one more secret, right?
"Thanks. And I'll talk to Doctor Douglas about the dreams at our next session."
"Good. It's a start."
Bonnie shot her a smile, and Stephanie realized she was teasing. "Well that's better," Stephanie said. "Now I know I'm not in trouble any more."
"You keep me honest, then. I might not think of it. Seriously. You've made it clear that I'm not always smart on this stuff. Ask me. You have my permission to ask how I am as often as you want, whenever you want, and I promise not to get angry or annoyed. Oh! And in the interest of full disclosure " She shifted so she was facing away from Bonnie and lifted up the back of her hair.
"What the hell's that?" asked Bonnie, leaning in to take a closer look. A tiny blue light on small metal circle blinked at her from the back of Stephanie's neck, just to the left of her spine.
"Passive medical sensor. It's tied into sickbay's systems so Phlox can get an early warning if I start to go," she concluded for lack of a better term.
"Huh." Bonnie reached out a finger and didn't quite touch the device. She didn't want to disturb any sensitive circuitry. "That's kind of cool."
"It is, isn't it? Itches a little, but-" Stephanie shrugged and let her hair back down. She faced Bonnie on the little sofa. "There's always some new tech, eh? And he's got me on general low-level pain meds. Not enough to do any good against another attack, but in theory it should slow down the onset long enough for me to figure out what's happening and do something about it."
"Cool," Bonnie said again. They settled against one another once more. "So tell me. Just how passive is that sensor?"
"I don't know. Why?"
"Just wondering. I've missed you." Bonnie inched her hand low enough to gently fondle one of Stephanie's breasts. "I wondered how far we could get before Phlox gets worried about you and sends an emergency med team to find out."
"More likely he'll figure out from the readings what's really going on, I would think." She turned, kissed Bonnie along her jaw. "He'd probably appreciate the empirical data."
"You think so?"
"Mae's working late tonight."
They rose together just as the comm chirped. "Sickbay to Ensign Cormack." It was Ensign Cohn.
Stephanie let her head fall onto Bonnie's shoulder. "Why couldn't Mae be on a date tonight? With him?" She reached out and opened the comm. "Cormack. Go ahead."
"Can you come to sickbay?"
"Why? What's up?" Her tone was professional, but her body language was decidedly disgruntled. She didn't want to go.
"I've got a working theory about your migraine attacks and visions."
Stephanie and Bonnie exchanged surprised looks. "I'll be right there," Cormack said, "and I'm bringing a date." She closed the comm before he could respond and shot a grin at her lover. "Not how I want to spend the evening, but I'm not saying no. You coming?"
Bonnie grabbed her hand and smiled. "You just said I was your date."
"So I did and so you are." She kissed the taller woman's cheek. "I love you."
"I love you, too."
"Good. I'm a fan of symmetry. Let's go see what Ari has to say."
Cohn's theory was far-fetched in Cormack's opinion, but she didn't say so in so many words. They'd seen plenty of things since Enterprise first left Earth two and half years ago that she wouldn't have believed before. But space that could affect her brainwaves? That was just plain disturbing. Unfortunately, as she sat there studying the graphs he'd created, she had to admit he appeared to be onto something.
"Okay. I just have one question." She leaned back in the chair and crossed her arms over her chest.
"What's that?" asked Cohn.
"Why is it only affecting me?"
"Actually, we don't know that it is only you." He turned to the computer and typed in a command, pulling up another graph. "I've just started gathering data from the rest of the crew's medical files, beginning with when we first entered the Expanse."
"That's going to take a while." Fraser looked over Cormack's shoulder at the screen.
"Yeah." Cohn nodded. "But if I'm correct, then we can begin looking for a way to counteract the effects."
"Like trellium-D shielding for the brain." Cormack was less than convinced and it showed in the tone of her voice. "Sorry. That didn't come out like I meant it to." It was a lie, but she was trying to be positive about this. It wouldn't do any good if she disparaged Cohn's theories. And it wasn't that she didn't want to solve this problem. Quite the opposite. She'd been looking for a way to stop her visions of the future since she was fifteen. Up until recently those visions had been few and far between, and so she'd been rather informal in her search methods. Now that the incidents were increasing at an alarming rate, she ought to be glad that someone was taking a more scientific approach to the problem.
"It's okay. That's basically right. Not that we can realistically line your brain with trellium-D, of course." He gave a shy chuckle and Cormack and Fraser both smiled and nodded. Encouraged, he went on. "Now that we have you under constant observation, we'll be able to gather more concrete data, too. At least as far as the migraines go." He didn't mention the dreams, but they all thought of them anyway.
"I'm planning on keeping a dream diary," said Cormack, surprising both Cohn and Fraser. At their startled expressions, she shrugged. "I'm willing to bet Kyrin will recommend it at my next session, so I might as well just decide to do it now. This way it's my idea and my decision."
"Would you be willing to share that diary with me? Purely for research purposes, of course. I'd only want to see the ones you felt were in some way prophetic. Assuming you can tell the difference, I mean." He trailed off, feeling awkward and a bit uncomfortable. Dreams were a very personal thing. He wouldn't want someone intruding on his privacy like that.
"Don't worry. I have an idea when something is more real than it ought to be. And if a migraine comes with it, well, that's the strongest evidence of it, right?" She rose abruptly, causing Fraser to have to take a quick step back. "Sorry."
Cormack had to get out of there. She'd hit that wall where her brain couldn't, wouldn't accept more input on the subject. She headed for the door and Fraser was close behind. "You didn't have anything else to show me, did you? Or anything else you needed from me?"
Cohn looked over the monitor at Cormack and shook his head. "No. Thank you."
"Thank you," Cormack echoed. Once she and Bonnie were out in the corridor, she looked at her partner. "I need chocolate after that."
"You do? Not that I'm arguing, of course." Bonnie smiled at her.
Stephanie chuckled, Bonnie's smile easing her back from the edge of freak where she'd momentarily teetered. "When have you ever argued against chocolate?" It was rhetorical and they both treated it as such. The walked down the corridor and turned towards the mess hall. "And yeah, I need some now. That was all a little too weird to take in and since I can't have a vodka tonic, I'll take the mind-altering pleasure that is theobroma cacao."
"Works for me."
"You still haven't told me what it was like on that Xindi planet." Trip glanced sideways at Malcolm. The two sat on adjacent stationary bikes, racing one another.
"I don't know what you want to hear," Malcolm said, breathing heavily. They'd been cycling for several kilometers.
Trip shrugged, although Malcolm didn't see it. "You met that plant manager, Gralik. You must have some opinion about him. Gotten some sort of impression of him. I mean, you didn't blow up the plant " He let the sentence hang in the air. He had mixed feelings about the way this mission had turned out, but he wanted to hear Malcolm's thoughts before voicing his own. Malcolm had been down there, seen the arboreal Xindis, talked to one of them. He must have formed some sort of opinion.
Malcolm was silent for several moments, glad of the exercise that gave him the excuse to stall. Eventually, he said, "It was eye-opening."
"Eye-opening?" echoed Trip. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means " Malcolm chose his words carefully. "Look at it this way. Earth is essentially a united planet, right?"
"But Earth only has one dominant, sentient species. The Xindi have five and they're scattered all over the Expanse. It's pretty easy, I think, for one group of them not to know what their ruling council-or whatever government structure they have-is doing. Gralik's people are in the business of making kemocite. They had no idea what the reptilians wanted it for until Captain Archer told them."
"You're sure about that, huh?"
"The Captain is certain of it."
Trip shot him a challenging look that Malcolm couldn't fail to catch. "Are you?"
"Yes." He'd been doubtful at first, but Gralik's behavior over the course of the mission had convinced him otherwise. "Yes, I am."
Trip gave a non-committal grunt. He couldn't be as sure as Malcolm and the Captain. He hadn't been there, hadn't met Gralik or seen the factory. There was a part of him that, were he honest with himself, didn't want to be so sure. It would be so much easier if things were still black and white like they'd been just after the attack, just after he'd learned of Lizzie's death. Hell, every step of the way from then until they'd entered the Expanse, through meeting that primate Xindi prisoner, Kessick, in the mining complex, to the recapture of their prisoner, Rajiin, by reptilian Xindis-every day he'd known who the enemy was. Now things weren't so clear. He wasn't a fool. Logically he knew the universe didn't work in black and white. But, damn it, it was so much easier that way.
He took a deep breath that had nothing to do with his current physical exertion and let it out in a long, cleansing sigh. "So," he said making a deliberate leap in subject, "what do you think of Rosemary's Baby for the next movie night?"
Malcolm tipped his head in something between a nod and a shrug. "Isn't that a little more A-list than you usually go for?" His tone was light, teasing, normal.
Trip smiled. "I thought it might give movie night a little more class."
"Oh, well. In that case, I think you've made an excellent choice." They both laughed.
"Then it's on. You gonna come see it?"
Malcolm considered before answering. "On one condition."
"Promise me that if I come watch it with you that I get to pick the next movie for movie night."
Trip looked at him in surprise, a quirk of puzzled smile curling the corner of his mouth. Malcolm had never shown that much interest in movie night before. He wondered if his partner was up to something or just wanted a bargaining chip he could cash in. Whatever the case, Trip wasn't going to say no. "You're on."
Mae and Ari looked at one another over the tops of their drinks-mugs of hot chocolate spiked with a bit of peppermint schnapps. If they were back on Earth, it would have been the perfect treat for a cold autumn evening in Ari's native Toronto. As it was, it was still a nice way to spend time together, sitting at opposite ends of the small obs lounge couch, not close enough to touch, but not so far away, either.
"You know, if I closed my eyes-" Mae demonstrated as she spoke. "I could almost believe we're in a chalet on a snow-covered mountain somewhere."
"I thought you didn't ski," said Ari.
She opened her eyes and the teasing smile she had heard in his voice was mirrored on his face. "I don't. That doesn't mean I can't enjoy the après-ski amenities."
Ari's smile widened. "I could teach you, if you wanted."
"What? To ski?"
"Sure. Cross-country, not downhill."
Mae fell silent, contemplating. She sipped her cocoa and smiled. "You know? I think I'd like that."
"Yeah?" Ari smiled. He'd suggested it on a whim, not really thinking she'd agree. "You will like it. It's fun."
"I wasn't just thinking about the skiing."
She shook her head. "No."
"So What else were you thinking about?" He was almost afraid to ask, afraid she'd feel he was pushing too hard too soon after everything.
"I was thinking that was the first time in a long time that I've thought about what happens after we get home." She looked deeply into his dark brown eyes and cocked her head a little to one side. "I've been so caught up in my own problems and the here and now " Mae trailed off, shaking her head. Ari waited for her to go on. It took her another sip of cocoa before she did. "I've been selfish."
"You had a lot-"
She cut him off. "It's no excuse. You know, I didn't even know Stephanie was sick until she'd been in sickbay all day. That's how self-centered I've gotten. Wrapped up in my own problems and forgetting there are people around who-I don't know-need me to be here. Out in the world, you know?"
"And skiing made you realize all that?"
She laughed at him, and Ari's stomach did a happy flip-flop. It had been too, too long since he'd heard her laugh like that.
"No, dork. Skiing made me think of the future." She grew quiet and thoughtful once more. "It makes me think that maybe we will get through this after all. We might actually succeed. Get home." Mae met his gaze again and held it. "Learn to ski." She leaned in ever so slightly and Ari, daring to believe that he wasn't misreading her intent. leaned into her and kissed her. A soft kiss, tentative, almost chaste, but oh so warm and sweet and welcome. And in that moment, Ari realized that he too had been so caught up in the mission and living from minute to minute that he'd ceased to look ahead. Until now.
They broke the kiss but remained close, smiling into one another's faces. Ari's smile spread into a grin and he said in quiet enthusiasm, "I can't wait to take you skiing!"
Mae's happy laughter rang all the way into the corridor.