Log Rhythms - Season Three
Sparks like white and yellow fireworks flared from a console on her left. Someone shouted. Was it an order or cry of pain? She couldn't tell through the confusion. The whine of the warp engines pierced her inner ear, disrupting her balance with its painful intensity. A small explosion blew out a panel at the far end of the room, sending a young crewman sprawling and writhing in pain. Acrid smoke filled the air from the many small fires--too many for crews to contain while they were still fighting to keep the engine from going critical.
Tucker climbed the access ladder and scrambled across the top of the warp reactor.
The whine of the engines eased.
Another explosion, much larger, much louder, from the upper level.
T'Pol's eyes opened suddenly and she found herself staring into Cormack's intent gaze. The thin line of smoke that rose from the flame of the cream-colored pillar candle on the low table between them bisected the ensign's face.
"See what I mean?" Cormack said. "I need your help to try and stop it happening. Unless you're still unconvinced that it will happen." Her tone was a challenge, but not an emotional one. Cormack had given up her impassioned arguments days ago, about the same time every prediction she had made about their latest bizarre discovery had come to pass.
Finding Earth's "wild west" alive, if culturally stagnant, on a planet in the mysterious Expanse had been a shock to everyone but the two women currently seated on the floor of T'Pol's cabin. Cormack had believed in her vision from the start; T'Pol, forewarned by the other woman's repeated insistence, had been prepared--to an extent. As each thing Cormack had described came to life in front of her, she had become distinctly disturbed.
They had begun these meditation sessions at Phlox's recommendation and had found them beneficial not only in the intended way, but in increasing the trust and understanding between the two very different women. T'Pol's realization that Cormack's premonitions were as accurate as the ensign claimed was so powerful that their meditation sessions since had focused on finding ways not only to ease the ensign's migraines, but to share with T'Pol the visions that often accompanied them. Today had brought unprecedented and disconcerting success. T'Pol's vision of the emergency in Engineering would not be banished easily.
"What makes you believe these events can be averted?" T'Pol asked. When you've been unable to change anything before. The rest of her question remained unspoken, but Cormack was thinking the same thing.
"I know the chances are close to zero. I know it's never worked before. But this time it's different. This time I have an ally who knows it isn't just my imagination." She looked at T'Pol and there was a balance of hope and uncertainty in her hazel eyes. T'Pol conceded the point with a small nod of her head and Cormack relaxed slightly. Then she frowned, the tiny line of pain between her brows growing deeper with the expression. "Besides, I have to believe it can be changed. The alternative..." She shook her head.
"We don't know that the fall will be fatal." There was a tiny hitch in the Vulcan's voice. She cleared her throat and was fairly certain Cormack hadn't noticed. Ever since her experience on board the Selaya and her exposure to the trellium-D there, T'Pol had found her emotional control to be less reliable. Phlox had declared her physical recovery to be complete. Her mental recovery remained a work in progress. Rebuilding her usual control was proving to be challenging.
"No. That's true. But you saw it. You must have heard it." Her expression grew increasingly pained as she spoke. "That snap. That crack. Whatever it means, it's bad. Really bad. Wouldn't it be better to just not let it happen?"
"There is some logic to your suggestion. How do you propose to go about it? It hardly seems likely that we can simply keep Commander Tucker from climbing atop the warp reactor until we return to Earth."
"Oh, it shouldn't take that long." The ensign gave a dismissive wave of one hand. T'Pol noted the gesture with a raised eyebrow. Cormack smile wryly. "Just kidding. Would be nice, though, wouldn't it? Just make the reactor a 'No Tucker Zone' for the duration. Simple."
"With your permission, I'd like to share this information with the captain."
Cormack hesitated. Bad enough that Douglas, Phlox, and now T'Pol were officially aware of her premonitions. Now the list might include Captain Archer? Would it help him to know? Maybe. She had to think of the ship, the crew, and the mission.
She'd been silent too long. She heaved a weary sigh and rubbed at her temples with both hands. "Yeah. Okay. Tell him everything you think he should know."
"Your headache is increasing in intensity."
"That obvious, huh? Gods, I'm really hating this Expanse and those damned spheres and their fucking spatial anomalies. Sorry." She really wasn't thinking straight if she was swearing like that in front of the Science Specialist.
T'Pol ignored her use of invective. It was logical to expect such language from humans suffering physical discomfort. "Ensign Cohn is certain it's the spatial anomalies causing the increase in both the pain and the physic phenomena?" T'Pol had seen the man's research and found his conclusions reasonable, although not yet concrete.
"He's pretty convinced, yeah. And I have to agree with him. If nothing else, until someone comes up with another explanation, I'll take his." Her frown deepened and she rubbed again at her head.
"Your current distress seems to support his hypothesis when considering the number of anomalies projected to be along our current path."
"We couldn't, I don't know, go around them?"
"Yeah, I know."
"I suggest we return to our meditations."
"Yeah. Good plan." Cormack sat up straight, still massaging her temples, and the two women focused on the candle flame.
Trip tossed the towel he carried over one shoulder down the laundry chute.
"Good session?" asked Malcolm. He smiled cautiously up from where he sat at the computer in their quarters.
"Yeah. I'm not saying I'll do a lot of yoga once we get back to Earth, but I am getting better at it. I think I only fell over once tonight," joked Trip. Cormack had looked a bit ragged that evening, but she'd been just as balanced and flexible as ever and she'd led him through a serious workout.
"Stephanie must be a good teacher."
"Must be." He sat on the bunk and untied his sneakers, only worn to go to and from the ship's gym. "Maybe..."
"Maybe you could join us sometime." He didn't look up as he said it.
This was a change. It wasn't that long ago that Trip didn't want witnesses to his yogic experimentation. He'd been too embarrassed. "I'm not sure I'm up for that."
"Afraid of looking silly, like I was?"
"Afraid of taking orders from Ensign Cormack. It might go to her head."
Trip laughed and it was the best sound Malcolm had heard in days. "You ready for a foot rub?"
"Almost. Let me change first."
Malcolm nodded. He'd expected Trip back nearly an hour ago; he could wait a little longer.
Less than ten minutes later, Trip was in his pajamas and ready for bed. He settled onto the bunk, half reclined. He wasn't ready to let sleep take him yet. His mind was too busy for that.
Malcolm sat at his feet and pulled them onto his lap. It was a familiar ritual by now and one he enjoyed possibly as much as Trip did. "Anything you want me to work on especially?"
"My shoulders are feeling kind of sore."
"All right." Malcolm took hold of Trip's right foot first, digging one thumb into the sole below his little toe.
"I was thinking about a way to increase warp stability."
"Yeah. I guess the yoga's working better than I thought because I had a sort of revelation, I guess, tonight while we were at it."
"Tell me," encouraged Malcolm. Anything to keep him talking, connecting, engaged in the here and now rather than dwelling on painful memories. He shifted to Trip's left foot and repeated his ministrations there.
"If we reroute the system taps and compress the antimatter stream before it reaches the injectors, it'll stabilize the warp field."
"Have you run simulations yet?"
"Dozens of 'em. That's why I'm back later than I meant to be. Sorry I didn't comm you."
"That's all right. How did it go?" He began to pinch his way down the outside of Trip's foot from the base of his pinky toe, then did a bit of finger-walking over the top of the foot.
"That feels nice."
"Good. So. The simulations?"
"They all came back with the same result. We'll be able to cruise at warp 5.0 with no field fluctuations. I'm talking about a ride so smooth you can build a house of cards on the warp reactor."
"Which means we can search the Expanse quicker," Malcolm said, following his thought process. "And potentially find the Xindi weapon that much sooner."
"I like it. I imagine the captain will, too."
"That's why I'm gonna suggest it first thing tomorrow morning."
The report Archer found waiting for him that morning wasn't anything his Starfleet training had addressed. But I suppose that's par for the course with this mission, he thought wearily. He loaded it onto a datapad, thinking it would be best read over breakfast and a large cup of coffee. It turned out he was right, but it still wasn't something he could quite wrap his head around as he sat alone in the Captain's Mess.
A steward cleared away the detritus of his meal and refilled the mug of coffee.
"Why not?" he mused aloud once the young man had left. "I've accepted time travel, so why not precognition?" He had no answer for himself.
He rose from the table and stepped to the comm panel on the wall behind him. "Archer to T'Pol."
Her response was quick in coming. "Yes, Captain?"
"Meet me in my ready room in ten minutes."
He'd have made it five minutes, but he decided finishing his coffee was worth the delay. Her report wasn't going to change in that time.
Before he could retake his seat and reclaim his mug, the comm chirped at him and Trip's voice came through. "Tucker to Captain Archer."
He punched open the line. "Go ahead."
"I have a proposal for you regarding the warp engines. I just finished writing it up. I thought I'd give you a heads up it was coming."
"Must be important."
He could hear the smile in Trip's reply. "I think you're gonna like it."
"I'll read it as soon as I can. Archer out." He had mixed feelings, frankly. T'Pol's report also related to the warp engines, and not in a good way. The coincidence wasn't lost on him. Taking his coffee mug and the datapad with T'Pol's report from the table, he left the dining room and went straight to the Bridge.
The Science Specialist was there already. It wasn't yet ten minutes, but as he crossed to his ready room, he said, "Join me?"
Wordlessly, she rose from her seat and followed him.
He sat behind the desk and took a swallow of coffee before gesturing with the datapad. "Care to enlighten me a little more on this?"
"I'm not certain what more needs explaining."
"You're asking me to believe that Ensign Cormack can predict the future."
"She has a proven track record."
"So she says."
"I've witnessed enough myself to believe her."
He knew what she referred to. "The human colony we found."
She shifted uneasily on her feet, a testament to how truly anxious she was. "Her predictions were...disturbing in their accuracy."
"And she says there've been more before that?" He was trying, but it was a bit much. He'd never been a believer in psychic phenomenon--alien ore-based enhancements aside. The thought of that earlier mission suddenly seemed simple in comparison to what was ahead of them.
"She also claims to have predicted the mutagenic virus we discovered."
He snorted a mirthless chuckle. "Discovered. That's one word for it." It had taken days for his body to return to normal once Phlox developed the anti-virus. He still couldn't look at a bowl of rice pudding without feeling slightly queasy. It was too much like the grubs he'd eaten, and enjoyed, while in his transmogrified state.
T'Pol acknowledged the quip with a tilt of her head. She'd experienced a less severe transformation, but the side-effects had lingered just as long. "Captain?"
She sat across the desk from him. "Ensign Cormack claims to have had such experiences for half of her life. Dating back to the prediction of her father's death in an explosion when she was 15 years old."
Archer sat up straighter. "She told you that?" He only knew from her records that her father was dead. There was nothing of the how, when, or why, and he'd had no reason to research it further.
"She did, and I see no reason why she should lie about such a thing. Ensign Cohn believes the increase in premonitions coincide with the frequency and proximity of the anomalies."
"What does Phlox say?"
"Evidence supports Cohn's theory. Phlox is making further observations." She didn't go into greater depth. He could check with the doctor or Ensign Cormack if he wanted more detail. At present, T'Pol only revealed as much as she felt necessary to make her point. "Captain, in the past you asked me to keep an open mind regarding the possibility of time travel despite the Vulcan Science Directorate's determination."
He knew where she was going. Hadn't he gone there himself not a quarter of an hour ago? "All right. I get it. I'll take it under advisement."
She rose, and he felt as if she were the one about to say "dismissed" rather than him. But she hesitated. "Was there anything else, Captain?"
"Actually, yes. Trip sent me a report about increasing warp stability. I'm going to take a look at his recommendations now. I'd like your take on it as well. I'll forward a copy to your station."
She tensed and if he didn't know better, he would have said she looked concerned. "Understood."
Cormack was glad to have caught her friend at breakfast before going on alpha-shift duty. "Mae, hi. Care for company?"
Stephanie set her plate with a pair of scones and a little tub of lemon curd on the table and sat down. She sipped the latté she held before she spoke again. "How are you?"
"I'm good. Commander Tucker's been in a bizarrely cheerful mood the past couple of days."
"Probably the fresh air he got on that away mission did him some good."
"How weird was that? A whole wild west society here in the Delphic Expanse." Mae shook her head over her bowl of cereal. "Crazy."
Cormack nodded over a bite of scone. She hadn't told Mae about her dreams-turned-real. Until today, she hadn't seen any point. Instead of revealing it now, she said lightly, "Did you see him in that outfit? He looked far too natural in shit-kickers and a cowboy hat."
"Not half so natural as the captain."
"Point. Too bad Malcolm didn't get to dress up." She grinned. "He'd look good in a Stetson."
"I can't picture it."
They were silent a few moments as Stephanie planned her line of inquiry. "So," she began, keeping her tone as casual as she could. "What's the scoop in Engineering today?"
"Probably the same as yesterday. Keep the intake valves clear and the plasma flowing."
"Nothing special planned with the warp engines?"
Mae cocked her head at the unusual question. "Not that I've heard. Why? Do you know something I don't?"
Stephanie shrugged. "Not exactly."
"What does that mean?"
It was now or never and she dove in with both feet. "Can you do me a favor?"
"Keep Commander Tucker off the warp reactor."
"Huh?" Mae looked baffled and Stephanie couldn't blame her.
"Not, like, off the controls. That'd be crazy."
"Since when has crazy stopped you?"
Stephanie ignored the friendly jibe and went on. "I mean literally. Keep him off of the top of the warp reactor."
"Okay. Exactly how long is this favor supposed to last? Am I going to have to stand guard at the access ladder for the next month, or is this just for today?" Mae was playing along. Why not? Stephanie had made stranger requests in the years they'd been friends. If she could do her this favor, she would.
"I'm not sure exactly, but I doubt it'll be more than a few days. Maybe a week?"
"Okay," repeated Mae. "I'll do what I can."
Stephanie relaxed back into her seat. She couldn't be in Engineering herself, but with Mae as her eyes and ears, and potentially her stand-in, she was as reassured as she could be. She'd never affected the outcome of a vision before, but there was a first time for everything.
She sure as hell hoped so.
A few hours later, Mae found herself in the position of trying to follow through on her peculiar promise to Stephanie. She stood at a console along side the warp reactor, monitoring the temperature of the drive plasma as the ship's speed increased. She heard Travis's voice over the open comm line as he counted up their increasing speed.
"Four point seven... Four point eight... Four point nine."
The ship rumbled around her. Tucker clapped her on the shoulder as he passed by, headed to the panel displaying the antimatter stream data. "Looking good, Ensign?"
"Yes, sir. Temperature is rising steadily."
Moments later she heard him say, "Initializing stream compression." The ship ceased shaking. It was like flying sub-light. Not a shimmy. Not a shudder. Quiet. "Damn. That's a beautiful sound."
Tucker grinned and Lawless couldn't help but mirror the expression. "Smooth as silk," she said.
A sudden shudder rumbled through the ship. Tucker fell back against the bulkhead and Lawless had to grab her console to keep her footing.
"Something's flooding the intake manifolds!" called Rostov from across Engineering. "We need to drop out of warp."
"Damn it!" Trip raced to join him at the main warp engine control.
Archer's voice over the comm was no surprise: "Trip, status!"
"I've got a primary injector flare. I'm shutting down." He and Rostov swapped stations. His hands flew over the controls like a concert pianist playing a Mozart sonata. "It's not responding, Captain." He leapt to the deck as a flash of flames spurted over Mae's head. She ducked as he raced past her, heading for the warp reactor's access ladder.
"Sir, wait!" she shouted. She reached to catch his sleeve, but he was by her in a breath. Before she could take two steps after him, he was climbing. "No, Commander! Don't!"
She was too slow; he was already on top. The ship shook as though they were under fire, the injector flare causing systems to overload everywhere.
On top of the reactor, Trip opened the access hatch and manually shut it down. He replaced the cover and headed back to the ladder, staying low to keep his balance as the ship continued buffeting. That was when the upper-level bulkhead blew, the blast so powerful it threw the commander across the reactor and into the opposite catwalk before he fell heavily to the deckplating.
Fires flashed, smoke billowed, fragments of interior bulkhead and insulation rained down on Mae. She raced around the engine, looking for Tucker. He lay there on the deckplating and she knelt beside him, frantically searching for a pulse. Finding one, she heaved a quick and grateful sigh, but it was clear to her, even with only the most basic first-aid training, that he was unconscious. She rose and reached for the nearby comm panel. "Engineering to Sickbay. Medical Emergency!"
Malcolm could hear the chaos through the open comm line. An explosion. People shouting. Then Hoshi muted the feed so it only reached her station. He was glad. His own console was alight with warning and emergency lights telling of fires on multiple decks and emergency crews racing to attend to them. He felt a brief flash of relief to see there was no damage reported from the Armory.
Then he heard Hoshi's report and all relief vanished. "Numerous injuries throughout the ship. Mostly minor, except for one. Commander Tucker. He's been taken to Sickbay."
Malcolm's blood ran cold. The thought crossed his mind that that sort of thing only happened in books, but he would swear on his grandmother's grave that every drop of blood in his body had just dropped several degrees. He told himself there was nothing he could do. There were others more qualified than he already helping Trip. He stayed at his post. He would be of best help here, doing his job.
He glanced up to find Captain Archer staring at him, looking as pole-axed as Malcolm felt.
"T'Pol!" barked the captain, holding Malcolm's tense gaze. "Status report."
"All fires are out. Sensors show no damage to the hull. Structural integrity is intact." She looked at him across the Bridge. "It will take a while longer to gather data on the ship's systems."
He ignored her mild admonishment. He'd gotten what he needed. Eyes still trained on Malcolm, he said softly, "Go. I'll be right behind you."
"Yes, sir." Malcolm rose and crossed the room in three heartbeats. He could hear the captain hailing the armory for his backup as the lift doors closed.
Inside Sickbay, tension was high. Cutler handled triage, organizing those with minor injuries who'd made it there under their own power, and directing the medical crewmen on treatment. Cohn stood with Phlox at the medical scanner where they'd rolled the unconscious Tucker moments before. Reed wove through the controlled chaos to stand near Cohn but out of the way. By now he knew all the places he could stand where he wouldn't be tripped over by scurrying medical personnel. The frown on Phlox's face as he reviewed the scanner data caused Malcolm's stomach flip sickeningly.
Medical terminology flew over his head faster than he could think. He caught enough words, though, to make his guts twist. Words like cerebrum and traumatic brain injury and coma.
Cohn rolled the biobed from the scanner and Malcolm had to swallow a gasp. Trip's face was so still, so slack.
Archer's voice at his side startled him. "Talk to me, Doctor."
Phlox glanced over to see Archer and Reed staring at him. The captain's face was tense, strained, almost angry. The lieutenant's was a study in controlled horror and fear. He wished he had better news for them.
"He's in a coma. Between the shockwave of the explosion and multiple points of physical impact, he suffered extensive neurological damage. I'll do everything I can for him, but--" He took a breath and finished as evenly as he could. "I'm afraid we have to prepare for the possibility that Commander Tucker won't survive."
Malcolm's knees gave out. If not for Archer's arm suddenly snaking around his shoulders, he'd have collapsed right there. It was absurd to care about appearances, but Malcolm would be forever grateful for his captain's quick instincts that had kept him standing.
Cohn moved to help and Malcolm waved him off, straightening up. Archer's arm fell away but he could feel it close in case he should start to go again. "I'm fine, Ensign," he said, meaning the comment for his captain, too, but only comfortable warning off the junior officer.
The look Archer caught exchanged between Cohn and Phlox spoke volumes of their opinion of Reed's self-diagnosis. He met Phlox's unhappy gaze and shook his head minutely. He turned to face Malcolm, placing his hands on the shorter man's shoulders. He knew his Armory Officer well enough after two and a half years to know that what Malcolm needed now was a task, a job to focus on to keep his mind from playing out worst-case scenarios. "Lieutenant," he said firmly.
"Sir." Reed stood a little straighter and met his gaze.
"I need you to get an EV team out to collect a sample of the particulate matter that's sticking to the hull. We need to know what that stuff is so we can figure out how to deal with it."
"Yes, sir." Reed moved to go, but Archer held him a moment longer.
"Malcolm. You send someone else. You are not to step one foot outside this ship unless I say so. Got it?"
Reed hesitated but he didn't argue. "Understood, sir."
Only when Archer was certain he did understand, did he let his hands fall to his sides. "Dismissed."
Malcolm nodded once and quickly exited Sickbay.
"Captain?" asked Phlox softly. He had his own guess, but wanted to hear the captain's rationale.
"In his state, would you trust him to be safe in an EV suit?"
Phlox shook his head in tight-lipped agreement.
Archer looked down at Trip. While he'd spoken to Malcolm, Phlox or Cohn had placed medical sensors on Trip's forehead and a breathing tube under his nose. "Let me know when you have anything to report. I'm going to check on the repairs."
Malcolm reached the Armory where he found less chaos than anywhere else he'd been since things had gone so terribly wrong.
Cormack spotted him immediately and almost raced to intercept him. "Thank gods you're okay!" She wanted to hug him and barely managed to control the instinct.
"I'm fine," he said, perplexed by her behavior.
"When the captain called for bridge-station backup, I was afraid you'd been hurt."
"No. Status report."
"Minor injuries. Martinez sprained a wrist in a fall and Fong received minor burns when a console blew out next to him. I sent them both to Sickbay. Otherwise, it's a matter of letting the diagnostics run so we can find out what needs repairs."
Her report wasn't dissimilar to T'Pol's on the Bridge when Archer asked her. It boiled down to needing time to figure it all out. Right now, though, he had an assignment. "I need a team to collect samples of the particulate matter on the hull. I want you and--" He looked around. "Christ. Who's available? I only need one more." He didn't even know at that moment who of his own team was on duty or where.
"I can grab a MACO."
Cormack startled at his sharp response. "Obundo's free, I think. Or did you want to go, yourself?"
"I'll coordinate from inside the ship."
"Okay." That struck her as odd but she made no comment. She looked around and spotted the crewman in question. "Peter! You busy?" The tall man shook his head, approaching her and Reed. "The lieutenant has a job for us. We're going for a walk."
Cormack stood on the hull, sorry she didn't have more time to look around her. The cloud they were stuck in was stunning--and potentially deadly. She ducked as a clump of particulate skimmed overhead and adhered itself to the ship's surface about two meters away. She wished she dared try to catch a piece, but there were too many variables to consider to make it a good idea. She exchanged a look with Obundo. "Let's get a piece of this and get back inside."
They knelt down and she got her gloved fingers underneath the edge of a small, isolated, and promising-looking piece. She tugged hard, but it wouldn't budge. "Try the crowbar."
Obundo pulled the short, metal wedge from the tool kit and stuck one end under the same piece she'd just tried.
"Don't scratch the paint," joked Cormack.
"I'll do my best," he replied with a chuckle. Several moments of struggling with the bar brought no success.
"That's not going anywhere." She activated a comm and hailed Reed. "Lieutenant?"
"Go ahead," replied Reed, his voice thin through the speaker in her helmet.
"This stuff is stuck like polyepoxide. We're going to have to try the phase pistol."
"Understood. Start with the stun setting."
"Yes, sir." Cormack turned to Obundo. "Step back." She drew the weapon, checked the setting, and took aim. She fired a short blast. When that didn't work, she tried a prolonged shot. The stuff didn't even chip. She contacted Reed again. "No effect. I'm going to try the kill setting."
"Be careful, Ensign."
"I guarantee it, sir." Taking aim once more, she fired at the chunk of rock. Again, to no effect. "Damn. It's no good. We're going to have to pull out the big guns, Lieutenant."
"That's why you took one with you, Ensign," was Reed's dry response. "Do what it takes."
It was nice to hear him make a joke, even if it was only a small one. He'd been more terse than usual as they prepared for the space walk. She figured it was a reaction to the general situation--and then abruptly another possible explanation struck her. She reeled as if from a physical blow, glad for the magboots that held her feet firmly on the hull. She swallowed hard. Finish the job. Get back inside. Find out if it's true.
"You heard the man." She stepped aside, gesturing for Obundo to take her place. Once again she ducked a swift-moving hunk of rock. "Shoot that fucker so we can get it and get back inside."
"Yes, ma'am." He raised the plasma rifle and settled it into place, taking careful aim. He fired.
"Hit it again."
He fired a second time.
"Try a few bursts in rapid succession. Maybe you can shake it loose."
That had the desired effect. The piece of the particulate lifted several centimeters off the hull. Cormack managed to lean in and snag it in one hand before it could drift back down and stick again. "Shit. It's tugging like it wants to go back on the hull. Let's pack up and go home. T'Pol's going to want to get a good look at this." And I need to find out what happened to make Malcolm so stressed. Gods, I hope I'm wrong.
Malcolm couldn't sleep. The empty bunk was bad enough. Knowing that it was empty not because his partner was working late, but because he was in a coma in Sickbay was far, far worse. The feeling of helplessness was overwhelming. He had to do something to counteract it. He threw back the blankets with an angry flip and sat up. Every option flashed through his mind in a split second, his thoughts landing where he could've guessed they would before he'd exhaled a single breath.
He rose, donned a pair of slippers to go with his t-shirt and drawstring pajama bottoms, and headed out. It didn't matter that it was barely 0200. Phlox would be awake. Phlox was essentially always awake. He might even appreciate the company--not that Malcolm felt he was good company for anyone right now.
He entered Sickbay and glanced around. All was quiet. The curtain was closed around the alcove where Trip lay. He wanted to head straight for it, but knew he should alert the doctor of his presence. So...where was Phlox?
"Doctor?" he called softly and waited. He tried again, slightly louder. "Doctor Phlox?"
Phlox appeared from behind a bank of storage cabinets. "Ah, Lieutenant." He was soft-spoken and considerably less jovial than usual. "What can I do for you?"
Malcolm tipped his head towards the privacy curtain. "Has there been any change?"
"I'm afraid not."
"Can I sit with him?"
"Of course. He already has a visitor, just so you know."
He leapt to the obvious conclusion. "Captain Archer."
Malcolm frowned in puzzlement. Phlox offered a small, encouraging smile.
"Go on in. She won't mind." Phlox stepped aside although he'd not been in the way to begin with.
"She?" Malcolm's confusion grew. He approached the curtain and tipped it back, stepping quietly past it. "Stephanie?" he whispered in surprise.
She sat up from her hunched position, sniffing in a startled breath. "Malcolm, hey," she replied, equally hushed.
"What are you doing here?"
"I couldn't sleep." It had been near midnight when she'd finally learned exactly what had happened in Engineering. Mae had sought her out to tell her how Trip had climbed the reactor chamber, and how she'd been unable to stop him. From the description Mae gave, everything had played out just as Stephanie had predicted. She shoved the thought aside. That was for dealing with later. Now was for facing the fallout.
She sniffed again and surreptitiously used the cuff of her bathrobe to wipe her eyes.
Not surreptitious enough, as it turned out.
"Are you crying?" Malcolm took a step closer to her.
"I was," she admitted. She looked up at him and saw the confusion and concern in his eyes. "I'm sorry I couldn't stop it."
"Don't apologize for being upset. I've shed a few tears myself today." It was hard for him to admit it aloud, but he wouldn't hide from Stephanie. She was his closest friend--after Trip.
She shook her head. "That's not-- Never mind. Here." She stood. "You should have the chair. I'll go."
"You can stay."
"I should try to sleep. One of us has to be alert tomorrow," she joked, although it was half-hearted at best. "I can supplement with coffee. Your tea just won't have the same effect."
He appreciated her attempt at humor, and he nodded, a ghost of a smile on his lips. "Thank you."
"For being here for Trip and for me. For sitting with him. ... For being my friend," he concluded simply.
The hug she'd stifled that afternoon would no longer be denied. She wrapped her arms around him and held him tightly. "Always, Malcolm. For you and Trip. I'm here." She let him go and stepped back, wiping eyes that had begun to tear once again. "Good night."
She slipped out past the curtain before he could say another word. "Good night," he echoed softly to the space where she'd stood.
There was no way Jon was going to sleep that night. He stood staring out the window of his cabin at the red-orange cloud surrounding the ship. Already the view was becoming obscured by particulate matter. Malcolm's people had collected a sample and delivered it to T'Pol. He trusted his Science Specialist and her team would have some useful data for him by morning.
His thoughts turned next to Trip and the shocking possibility Phlox had presented to him that evening. It weighed on his mind more heavily than any decision he'd previously faced--and with his track record, that was saying something. Was it ethical to create a living, sentient being solely for the purpose of harvesting brain tissue to save another man's life? In normal circumstances, his answer would have been 'no.'
These were so far from normal circumstances that to compare them was absurd.
In the end, the choice was no choice at all. Trip was vital to their mission. A mission that, if successful, would ultimately save the Earth and its people. An entire world, a whole species. One new life, already destined to last barely two weeks, was a small price to pay for billions of other lives.
He felt like a weight had been lifted just making the decision. He would contact Phlox shortly and tell him to go ahead with creating the simbiot from, what had he called it? The Lyssarrian Desert Larvae. He suspected T'Pol would have something to say about his choice. He huffed an exasperated sigh. He would deal with that when the moment came.
Thoughts of T'Pol brought his mind around to the prophetic report she'd delivered that morning.
Had it really been just that morning? The dilemma of an ensign with apparently predictive dreams seemed absurdly simple now--and potentially useful.
He sat down at the desk and called it up.
Malcolm visited Trip in Sickbay often over the three days it took Phlox to grow the simbiot, but he studiously avoided inquiring after it. He continued to stop in after the child was born. While it was still an infant, he could ignore the fact that it was a clone of his partner. It was when Sim grew aware of the comings and goings around him that Malcolm's visits became less frequent. He didn't know what to think and couldn't make sense of how he felt. Seeing this boy who didn't just look like childhood photos of Trip, but who sounded like him and had his youthful memories? Knowing that the boy would rapidly grow up and look like Trip now, his Trip, with the memories Trip carried? It was all too damned much to process. He still came to sit with his comatose lover and talk quietly to him, but he made sure to do it either when Sim was out of Sickbay or fast asleep.
Madeline had precious little to do while Enterprise was caught in the cloud of nucleonic particles. She'd gone over every scrap of information they had on every permutation of Xindi multiple times. She'd spent several hours of the past two weeks going over Captain Archer's service record as well as the data she'd personally collected since coming aboard. That exercise was more than a little fascinating. His service record was exemplary. He'd made many first contacts, some of which had gone rather better than others, but none of which had caused catastrophe or war. His positivity and idealism came through in every official account she read. She compared all that with the more recent incidents. The prisoner Orgoth leapt immediately to mind. No one in the know would give her an exact accounting, but she could extrapolate from what they did say and what she had learned from the ship's computer. At least, in the end, Archer had deposited the pirate safely on the sphere the Osaarians were using as their base.
Through everything, she could see how deeply he felt and how much he cared about not just the mission and Earth as a whole, but for his crew both as a unit and as individuals. Right now, of course, that caring was particularly directed at the injured Commander Tucker. Archer was keeping it together reasonably well, but she could see the cracks in his armor. He was not simply tired, but haggard. He hadn't shaved in at least three days judging from the shadow on his cheeks that did little to hide their sunken condition. Frankly, his mental and emotional state worried her enough that she thought a visit to the ship's counselor to discuss her concerns about him might be not only in order but overdue.
And now there was Sim. That was a can of ethical worms, and no mistake. She hadn't envied Archer's position in being forced into the decision, nor could she blame Phlox for putting him there. She could only imagine how either man must feel and was damned glad she wasn't the one who'd had to choose.
"What's done is done," she said to the air. "Now, what can I do that would be of use?" The answer was obvious. "Malcolm." She should speak to her brother. See if there was anything she could do for him while Trip was in Sickbay.
"Say the words, Madeline," she quietly admonished herself. "While the man he loves is in a coma. God." How must he feel? How was he coping? There was no way in hell he was seeing the ship's counselor about it, Maddy was certain. And she knew better than to suggest he should. No. She shook her head at the room. The room that had been his prior to her arrival. That made her chuckle softly. "Hand-me-downs for the kid sister," she said without rancor or regret.
"What time is it?" She glanced over at the clock by the bedside. It felt like it was always night lately, with the windows being increasingly obscured by magnetic ore. This time, though, it really was. "That late already? I wonder if he's still up. Or if he's even at home." She typed a query into the computer for Malcolm's location. "The Armory. Quelle surprise. Off I go, then." She rose from the desk, shutting off the computer screen. "It's late. He needs to take some down time. Hmm. What supporting arguments can I come up with before I get there?" She pondered the possibilities on the ride down to Deck F.
She hadn't had cause to visit the armory before. I suppose I ought to have taken a bit more interest. Several excuses why she hadn't came to mind and she ignored them all. None of them mattered at that moment.
She found a door and opened it.
The lights were low in concession to the lateness of the hour. She stood on the upper level, a catwalk of sorts that ran around three walls with metal stairs leading down from it at regular intervals. Stacks of torpedoes awaited deployment below her; weapons lockers were ranged on the wall across the way; a worktable stood empty; control consoles glowed blue and green and white. But where's Malcolm?
He might have gone before she arrived. There was no reason they should have crossed paths in the corridor; he could've used another door or caught another lift. Perhaps he'd gone to the Command Center for some reason. She should query the computer again, but she didn't. Instead, she quietly descended the nearest staircase. Was anyone there? Surely someone was on duty 24/7, weren't they? But the place seemed deserted.
Maddy walked around the big room with her hands firmly clasped behind her back. The old habit came from a childhood of being led around markets and shops full of exciting, beautiful, and breakable things that she was never, ever allowed to reach out and touch.
A door swept open to her left and light poured out around a figure. She jumped in surprise and turned. "Malcolm. There you are."
Malcolm froze outside the door to his tiny office. He was glad for the low light before him and the bright light behind. Both combined to keep his face in shadow from his sister's gaze. The last thing he needed or wanted was for her to notice how red his eyes undoubtedly were.
He tried to play it cool. "Hello, Madeline. What are you doing here?"
"I thought it was past time I saw where you work. Well, besides the Bridge or the Command Center. I've seen those plenty." She tried a smile in the hope of easing some of the tension she could read in his stance, even if his face wasn't entirely clear to her from where she stood. She took a step towards him and froze when he flinched away. "I'm sorry. I should have warned you I was coming. I don't want to interrupt you working."
"You didn't." It was even the truth. There was nothing to be done in the Armory at that moment. With the engines down and the particulates increasing on the hull, creating a dampening effect on several of the systems, they were stuck like a leaf on a frozen pond.
The silence stretched until Maddy realized she would have to be the one to break it. "How are you holding up?"
The dry, mirthless chuckle that escaped him was painful to hear. "I'm walking and talking. Right now, that's as good as you're going to get from me."
"Malcolm, I'm so sorry. I'm sure Sim will--"
His voice cracked on the second word and Maddy's heart all but broke. She strode to him despite his obvious desire she not, and hugged him hard. She was surprised and glad when he hugged her back. This was her big brother, after all, and he might show a hard shell to the rest of the world, but she knew the compassionate, kind man behind it. The man who needed other people more than he would ever let anyone know.
Except Trip, she guessed. Trip must know.
She didn't let go until Malcolm initiated it, letting him decide how much comfort he was willing to accept, how much vulnerability he was willing to admit. She stepped back, taking a deep breath, and let her arms fall away from him.
Malcolm sniffed in a breath that had more than a hint of tears in it. "Thanks," he said, his voice rough with emotion.
"Any time. Do you have to be here now?"
"That's a complex question."
"Let me try again. Who ought to be on duty here now?"
"And where is he?"
"I told him to take a break. He'll be back any minute."
"Do something for me?"
He knew what was coming and a tiny smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. "Go to bed?"
"Ideally, yes. Or at least go off duty. I've checked the logs," she lied easily, then made a plausible guess. "You've been working all the hours that God sends."
"Not quite." He thought of all the times Cormack had covered for him lately. It was true that for the most part, Malcolm was working, focusing on anything besides the dire possibility of losing Trip, but whenever he hit a low moment and needed to escape somewhere private to pull himself together, or it was a timely (i.e., Sim-free) opportunity to stop by Sickbay, Stephanie had been there to help him out, 24/7.
Unaware of his thoughts, Maddy went on. "Get a drink or a shower or go pummel a punching bag. Whatever you like. Just get out of uniform for a few hours and try to relax a little." She paused and took a calculated risk. "Between you and me, you look like hell."
That elicited the reaction she hoped for. Malcolm chuckled softly. "Thanks very much."
Maddy smiled. "You're welcome."
Stephanie sat alone in the mess hall, staring out at the accumulation of magnetic ore on the windows, wishing she dared have a drink. Her mind was in turmoil and the constant, low-grade headache she'd been living with only made it worse. At least here, in this cloud of debris, they weren't moving towards any spatial anomalies.
She swirled the last of the ice cubes in the watered-down remains of her glass of tonic water and swigged it back.
She jumped and turned. "Mae. Hi."
"What're you drinking?" She kept it light, but concern was obvious in her voice.
"Just tonic. Well, tonic and lime. Join me?" She didn't know why she said it. She didn't want company, but neither had she found any solace in solitude.
"Thanks." Mae sat.
"How's it going in Engineering?"
"Okay. It's weird without Commander Tucker running things. Sub-commander T'Pol is competent, of course, it's just...a really different vibe."
"She's not a sub-commander anymore," Stephanie reminded her.
"I know, but I can't get used to calling her 'Doctor T'Pol'."
"Fair enough. So..."
"So, what's it like having Sim working in Engineering?"
Mae considered before answering. "Weird but not bad," she said at last.
"Yeah. I mean, I know he's not Commander Tucker, you know? He looks like him but younger, so it's pretty easy to ignore the fact that he's basically a really fancy clone. He's, like, teen-Tucker. Or he was today. Tomorrow, who even knows what he'll look like?"
"Probably more like the real thing," guessed Stephanie.
"Yeah. Ask me again tomorrow and you might get a different answer."
"What about the repairs? That's what matters."
"They're going slowly. It'll be another two weeks before the engines are ready to fly again."
"Yeah. Not that we have anywhere to go at the moment." Mae looked out at the red-orange ore clinging to the mess hall windows.
They fell into companionable silence for a few minutes, each lost in her own thoughts. Stephanie found comfort in the quiet, familiar presence of her friend.
"Huh?" Startled from her reverie, Stephanie didn't understand.
"I'm sorry," Mae said again. "About the commander. I tried to stop him."
Stephanie's stomach felt like a lead weight landed in it. "Oh, gods, Mae. It's not your fault."
Mae shook her head, her hands fumbling with nothing in distraction. "I wasn't fast enough. He went past me so fast. I shouted but--"
"Mae, stop. It's not your fault," Stephanie said again firmly. She grabbed Mae's hands and stilled them. "I shouldn't have even asked you. I knew there was nothing you could do."
"You knew? I don't understand."
"Fuck," sighed Stephanie. Where to begin? How much to reveal? "You know about the migraines I've been having?"
"They've been coming with dreams. Dreams that come true."
"Like--" Mae hesitated. Stephanie didn't talk much about her father, but they'd been friends long enough that Mae knew things many people didn't. "Like when your father died?"
"Yeah. And...like other times. Recent times."
Understanding dawned. "Like the accident in Engineering."
Stephanie nodded. She chose not to mention other recently past events she'd successfully, if incompletely, predicted. "You couldn't have changed what happened. I'm sorry I put you in a position where you thought you could. That wasn't fair to you."
Mae pulled her hands away and fell silent again for several moments. Stephanie wondered what she was thinking.
"I feel like I should be mad at you, but I'm not. I mean, I've been feeling guilty as hell since the accident."
"Shit! Mae, no!"
"It's okay. I know it's not my fault, and I don't think it's your fault either. You wanted me to be able to stop it. Right? Of course," she answered her own question. "I don't blame you for trying."
"And you won't tell anyone I knew it was coming? You won't tell Malcolm?"
"Of course not. What good would it do?"
"Exactly." It was enough that T'Pol knew, and by now Captain Archer, too, presuming the Science Specialist had followed through and shared with him what she'd learned from Stephanie. "You know, you're kind of like the best friend ever."
Mae smiled slightly. "Yeah. I know."
Stephanie laughed and for a brief, lovely moment all the tension drained out of her. It took two breaths to come back. "Alpha shift seems to come earlier every day. I should try to get some sleep."
"You should. You're working more than your share lately."
"What? How do you know that?"
"You forget. I have my ways of gathering information."
It was true. Mae had ears and eyes, not to mention hands, in mysterious places aboard Enterprise. A fact that went back to the earliest months of their mission.
"You know what? I had forgotten." She hesitated before going on. "You're not going to share that information with the Captain, are you? Or anyone else in authority? About me working extra hours, I mean."
"It's your own C.O. you're covering for. He already knows. So, who else would I tell?" answered Mae with a look of blank innocence on her face.
Stephanie smiled. "Yup. Best. Friend. Ever."
Alone but for a beagle, Jon sprawled on his bed, too tired even to toss a water polo ball around. He'd gone over T'Pol's report so many times the words had started dancing in front of his straining eyes. In the end, he'd decided to speak to Ensign Cormack about her predictive abilities as soon as the current crisis would allow. He'd also decided not to mention a word of it to the rest of his senior staff. At least for now.
What would Malcolm do or say if he knew that Cormack had had warning of the accident that had so severely injured Trip? Jon could only speculate, but none of his speculations were helpful. Telling Malcolm would be equally unhelpful. According to the report, there was nothing anyone could do to affect the outcome of any vision Cormack had. Why raise anyone's hopes, or doubts, that it was otherwise? No. Best to keep silent and gather information whenever it became available. Even if there was nothing to be done to change things, being forewarned would still help him to prepare mentally and emotionally.
Jon sighed. He had other more immediate concerns to face. According to Malcolm, the nucleonic particles that covered the ship were creating a diamagnetic field causing a dampening effect that was only increasing as more of the ore built up. They'd been stuck for a week and now they had four days until every system on the ship would be as non-functional as the warp engine. Including life-support. They had to find a way out. Now.
Malcolm entered the mess hall that afternoon against his own desires. He didn't want to be around people. He wasn't hungry even though he'd skipped breakfast. He was there because Phlox had ordered him to eat something and because, heaven help him, Sim had asked to speak with him. He knew the simbiot had reached a stage where he truly looked like Trip, if perhaps closer to age twenty than thirty. Could he handle that reality face to face? He was about to find out.
Instead of collecting a plate of food or even a cup of tea, he brace himself and strode purposefully to where Sim sat eating a slice of:
"Key lime pie," he said in lieu of a greeting.
Sim glanced up and then back down. "I suddenly realized it was my favorite dessert. Now I know why."
"I thought pecan pie was your favorite."
"Only when my mom... Trip's mom," Sim corrected himself, "makes it."
"Her secret ingredient?" Malcolm asked, knowing the answer.
"Bourbon." Sim grinned and it was Trip's grin and Malcolm felt almost sick with heartache.
Malcolm sat. There was something he had to know before he launched into whatever he was really there to discuss. "Do these memories just come to you?"
"Well, the older I get, the more I remember. It's like I've lived this whole other life. Can't explain it."
Malcolm looked away, hiding the distressed expression he couldn't keep from his face. "I can't imagine it." Obviously, Sim hadn't yet caught up to the beginning of Enterprise's mission. More importantly, he hadn't caught up to Trip and Malcolm's relationship. What would happen when he did? What would Sim say? How would Malcolm respond?
Would it be better or worse, looking him in the eye once he did remember?
Malcolm swallowed hard and willed his twisting stomach to calm. He turned back, facing the reason he was seated at the table in the first place. "You wanted to ask me about something."
Sim swallowed a bite of pie and said, "Yeah, I did. Do you think it's possible to redirect the phase-cannons so they can fire back onto the hull?"
"I suppose so. Why?"
"I want to try to blast off enough of that particulate so we can open up the Launch Bay doors."
"Is someone planning on going somewhere?"
"All we need to do is build up enough momentum to get the ship out of here, right?"
"Well. We've got two perfectly good engines sitting in the Launch Bay. If we string a couple of grappler lines between the shuttlepods and the ship, we can tow ourselves clear."
Malcolm began to see where Sim was going but there was a problem with his line of thinking. "The shuttlepods don't generate that kind of thrust. We'd never build up enough momentum to get clear of the field in time." They only had three and a half days before the ship would be beyond saving.
"Leave that to me."
Sim handed over a datapad that Reed took with curiosity. By the time he'd finished skimming the text and Sim had finished eat his slice of pie, Malcolm felt more optimistic than he had since before the accident that had crippled the ship and injured his partner.
"Are you sure you're up to this?" asked Cormack, unknowingly echoing what the captain had said to Reed less than fifteen minutes earlier.
They walked quickly towards the launch bay where Malcolm and Travis would soon be taking out the shuttlepods in the hope of towing Enterprise clear of the magnetic field.
"It's the first concrete action I've been able to take towards a solution to this mess in over a week," he replied, not slowing his pace. "I'm more than up to it. I'm bloody desperate for it." He wouldn't have admitted that to anyone else except maybe his sister. Cormack recognized that and respected it.
Now, he did pause and she came to a stop beside him. "I need you in the Armory watching over the phase-cannons. Sim may have Trip's knowledge of the systems, but he doesn't have the practical experience. Not really. He'll be coordinating things from the Bridge. I'll feel a whole lot better knowing you're down below, backing him up."
"You can count on it." She hesitated and added, "You can count on me."
Malcolm gave her a tight smile and a single nod. "I know I can."
Firing the phase-cannons went off without a hitch. Cormack was glad of it. Now, covertly listening in to the comm traffic between the shuttlepods and the Bridge, she wished all the more that she was flying one of those pods rather than Malcolm.
Reed's voice reached her. "Engine temperature is nearing critical."
"Come on," she whispered at almost the same moment Archer said it, too.
She glared at the speaker when Sim's voice told them to increase the overburn ratio by an additional 30%. Didn't he have Trip's current memories yet? Didn't he know that was Malcolm out there whose life he was risking?
"Captain?" said Malcolm, and she wondered what he was thinking at that moment.
Then Archer's reply: "Go ahead."
"Fuck!" she swore to the empty Armory. "I should be out there. I'm more expendable than either Malcolm or Travis."
Interminable moments crept by while the pods' engines began to overheat. And then, out of nowhere, Enterprise began to shake. After over a week of motionlessness, Cormack at first thought she was imagining it. The ship shook more forcefully and she grasped the console to keep her balance. She used one hand to type in a query.
They were passing 10 kilometers per hours and their speed was increasing. She grinned as Archer's voice came through, hailing the shuttlepods, ordering them to come back inside. Undoubtedly whoever was at the bridge comm station knew she had been listening in, but they hadn't disconnected her. She did so now, herself. She owed whoever it was a thank you, if she ever learned who it had been.
Sim stopped himself just in time. Instincts and habit told him to simply open the door and go into the cabin. Instincts and habits that belonged to another man. He knew Malcolm was inside, but there was no knowing how long that would last. Schedules had been anything but predictable in the few hours since Enterprise had escaped the field of nucleonic particulate. Sim had spent that time on a rollercoaster of emotions. Learning first that, despite what he'd been told, he would not in fact survive the operation that was necessary to save Trip's life. Learning next that Captain Archer would sacrifice him, no matter how Sim felt about it, to save Trip.
He'd run then. Locked out the Bridge from the Launch Bay controls and nearly stolen a shuttlepod. Two things had stopped him: knowing there was no where to go and discovering through newly emerging memories the feelings that Trip had for Malcolm. Feelings that, the moment he remembered them, he felt, too. No wonder the lieutenant had been avoiding him. Sim hadn't realized it before, but since remembering Trip and Malcolm's relationship, it had become blatantly obvious it was true.
And I'm about to corner him in what should be a safe space? It wasn't the best idea he'd had in his life, but neither was it the worst. More importantly, it was necessary.
He rang the chime and after a moment of silence heard Malcolm's puzzled call of, "Come in."
Sim opened the door but didn't step into the cabin. "Can I? I mean, is it really okay to come in now that you know it's me?"
Malcolm's face was still, expressionless as a Vulcan monk's. Sim couldn't guess what might be going through his mind. "Of course."
"Thanks." He stepped inside and the door shut behind him.
Malcolm inhaled and tried to act as if he weren't about to break into tiny pieces. "Good work this morning."
Sim shrugged. "It was you and Travis that got the ship moving again."
"We couldn't have done it without you."
Silence fell. Sim would have to break it. He'd initiated this meeting, after all. Poor Malcolm didn't have a clue why he was really there.
He looked around the cabin, more memories washing into his mind as objects came into view. His gaze hesitated on a drawer where they kept some particularly personal non-Starfleet-issue items and he forced himself to look past it. "Can I sit down?"
Sim sat at the desk and Malcolm perched tensely on the edge of the bunk.
"I don't have a lot of time," Sim said at last. He couldn't meet Malcolm's distant gaze. It hurt too much. "I don't know if the captain told you, or maybe Phlox did. ... I won't survive the surgery that'll save Trip." Malcolm inhaled sharply and Sim nodded. "Yeah. I figured they hadn't said. Why would they? I mean, what good would it do?"
"If you feel that way, why are you telling me?"
"I guess..." Now he did look up and discovered compassion in those blue eyes. Compassion Trip had seen a hell of a lot since the attack on Earth that had killed his sister. Our sister. "I guess I needed to say good-bye to you. If I did that without explaining why, it wouldn't make sense until after and that didn't seem right. ... And there's something I think you should know before I go. Something Trip won't, maybe can't, tell you."
Malcolm's heart beat picked up. "I don't understand."
"Ever since Lizzie died, Trip's been...lost. Broken. You know?"
"You know you can't fix it for him, right? Or...fix him?"
"Yes." A quiet, pained affirmation. Tears prickled the backs of Malcolm's eyes and he beat them back by sheer strength of will.
Sim nodded slowly. "Okay. So, here's the thing. He needs you not to give up on him."
"I never have," protested Malcolm. There were moments, dark, painful moments, where he'd feared Trip had given up on himself, but through it all, every argument, every cold silence, every night spent alone, Malcolm had never truly given up.
"I know," Sim said quickly. "I know because Trip knows. Malcolm--" He saw the other man flinch at his use of his name, but Sim forged ahead. "He loves you. So. Much. We love you--so much it hurts my heart thinking I have to leave you, even though I know that means he'll come back to you." He rose and took a single step towards Malcolm. "Promise me that you'll keep being there for him when I'm gone."
Malcolm nodded stiffly, not quite trusting himself to speak. His eyes were dry but his throat was tight with reined-in emotion. Finally, when it looked like Sim would leave without another word, he stood sharply. Taking a deep, calming breath, he nodded again a little easier and met Sim's sad gaze. "I promise," he said, his voice low and ragged.
"Thanks," Sim breathed, not moving.
"I'm glad you didn't run away this afternoon. And not simply because losing you would have meant losing him."
Malcolm shook his head. Sim looked so vulnerable, so unsure. "The crew will miss you. I'll miss you. You've been an important part of this mission."
"Thank you." They stood in charged silence. Neither man spoke or moved until Sim said at last, "I better go."
Malcolm seized the moment. He stepped into Sim, wrapped one hand gently around the back of his head, and pulled him into a kiss imbued with all the love and gratitude as he felt. Slowly, he released him and took a half step back, uncertain what Sim would say or how he would react.
"I couldn't have asked for a better going away present," Sim said softly, smiling.
His expression was so full of peace that Malcolm nearly broke. He held it together until Sim turned and left, the door sliding quietly shut behind him.
"How are you doing?"
Trip looked over at Malcolm from where he sat on the edge of their bunk. It was barely an hour since they'd sent Sim's coffin, a converted torpedo casing, out to fall into a white dwarf star T'Pol had identified for the purpose. "I don't know. People joke about what it'd be like to attend your own funeral, you know? Well, I just did, kind of, and all I can think is how surreal it was. Listening to the captain give a eulogy for someone who looked exactly like me, but who wasn't me, but he was? Wondering what he'd have said if it really had been me?" He shook his head. "I'm gonna give myself a headache if I think too hard about it."
"Don't do that. You just got out of Sickbay. You don't want to go back in," joked Malcolm gently, trying to ease Trip's tension.
"No." Trip considered before going on. "I'm not sure if it makes it better or worse that I never met him. I guess I'll just have to be content with wondering." He reached for the cane Phlox had given him.
Immediately, Malcolm rose from his seat at the desk, asking, "Do you need help?"
"I got it. Got to get used to using this thing until I get some more strength back." He leaned heavily on the cane as he got to his feet. "I feel like an old man."
"Phlox did what he could to keep your muscles from atrophying but I guess there are limits to even his medical skills."
"I was lying on a biobed for nearly two weeks. He did his best. Come on." He turned towards the door.
"Mess hall. I'm famished. Aren't you hungry?"
He wasn't, but Malcolm nodded. Truth was, he'd go wherever Trip wanted to go, do whatever he wanted to do.
"Must have been hard on everyone," Trip said as they walked slowly towards the turbolift. "Especially you and the captain."
Malcolm shrugged. "I didn't have to make the hard decisions."
Trip knew him well enough to know he was deflecting Trip's subtle inquiry. They stepped into the lift. Once the door closed, isolating them from anyone who might have happened by while they were in the corridor, he took another tack. "Phlox said you visited me. A lot."
Malcolm shrugged again but said nothing. It was true. What could he add?
"I just want to say thanks for not giving up on me."
At that, Malcolm turned to Trip, his last conversation with Sim stark in his memory. "I never will. You have my word." He leaned in and kissed his lover, not even caring when the lift stopped and the door opened and they were caught by none other than Captain Archer.
Mortified, Trip pulled out of the embrace, his cheeks flushing bright red. Malcolm, for a wonder, smiled at the captain blithely. "Good evening, sir."
"Evening, gentlemen. Not interrupting anything, am I?" Archer joined them in the lift.
"Nope." Trip shook his head to emphasize his answer. He marveled at Malcolm's calm while he himself felt like he had that time when he was a freshman in high school and his dad had caught him making out in the garage with Sammy Cooper.
"We're headed to the mess hall," said Malcolm coolly. "Trip's hungry after two weeks of intravenous nutritional supplements."
"That's understandable." The lift resumed its descent. Archer glanced at the two men, a quirk of a devilish smile on his lips. He looked specifically at Reed and said formally, "As you were, Lieutenant."
Reed smiled slyly back. "Yes, sir," he replied, and once more claimed Trip's mouth in a kiss.
Oh, what the hell? Trip kissed him back without embarrassment or reserve.
Archer faced the lift doors, allowing them the illusion of privacy, and grinned. Finally, it felt like life on board was getting back to normal.