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By Alison M. DOBELL
SUMMARY": "When members of the crew go suddenly missing, Captain Archer finds the only witness is unable to tell them anything. Lieutenant Reed takes it upon himself to turn detective."
* * * * *
Half in and half out the Commander scowled, paused to wipe off the sweat, and wriggled back into the tight conduit. Crewman Toby Weiss hovered behind him, ready to jump down a dragon's throat if the Chief Engineer asked him to. Trip smiled to himself, happy and enjoying the young man's enthusiasm. Had he ever been like that? Yep. Still was in many ways. His smile broadened. "Hey, Toby?"
Trip suppressed a chuckle. No one else called him 'Chief'. If was kind of affectionate and respectful all in one go. The others either called him 'Sir' or 'Commander', except when they were off duty when all and sundry were allowed to called him Trip. He slid a hand back and asked for the PADD. Toby put it in his hand and wished the conduit were wider. He wanted to see everything, touch and do everything. Trip could practically feel his excitement thrumming through the floor and walls of the conduit. Hold on. He paused and listened. Something *was* thrumming through the walls and floor but it sure as hell was not Crewman Weiss. He wriggled back until he popped out of the conduit, his eyes looking up. Crewman Weiss followed his look.
Trip waved him silent and the young crewman obeyed. Still looking up the Commander addressed him. "Ya hear that?"
The Commander looked at him. "When you've been on Enterprise a while you'll learn to recognise every thrum and sigh of the engines, every change in air pressure, any alteration in engine pitch and tone. You'll smell trouble minutes before it hits ya."
Crewman Weiss's eyes widened into saucers, hugely impressed. Trip did not smile back this time. He was listening and not liking what he was hearing. Or rather. What he was not hearing. He crossed to the com and activated it. "Commander Tucker to bridge."
Was there a pause before the Captain answered? No. Must have been his imagination fueled by his impatience. "Yes, Commander."
"Cap'n, why'd we drop out of warp?"
"We've been hailed."
Trip frowned. "Who by?"
He was about to ask a whole ton of questions when the Captain forestalled him.
"How're the repairs coming along?"
"Good, Cap'n." He smiled at Crewman Weiss. "I may have just found a new candidate for Chief Engineer."
The Captain's voice came back way too serious for the harmless banter he had intended. "Excuse me?"
Trip's smile faded. "Just joshin' ya Cap'n but I'd say Crewman Weiss has all the makin's of a first class engineer."
The young man blushed crimson at the praise. Commander Tucker wanted to finish up and go and check on Lieutenant Hess. It was not like her to be late for her duty shift and he was worried about those nightmares of hers. "Cap'n, I'll get back to ya. I can hear ma engines callin'."
"You do that, Commander. Captain Archer out."
* * * * *
On the bridge Lieutenant Reed was having a job keeping the frown off his face. He had expected the Captain to explain to the Commander but he had said nothing. Sub-Commander T'Pol had already left the bridge to pack. A horrible feeling was settling in his gut. "Captain?"
"You *are* going to tell the Commander about the Vulcan's demands?"
A tense heartbeat passed in complete and utter silence as the Captain simply looked at him. His face as immobile as granite. "What demands are those?"
"The one demanding the Sub-Commander return to Vulcan. Not to mention the allegations about the Enterprise firing on and destroying a Romulan vessel. I'd say starting an interplanetary war was something he ought to know about as a member of the command staff."
The tension on the bridge could have been cut with a knife. Ensign Sato paled slightly but part of her agreed with him. Why had the Captain said nothing? Or at least asked the Commander to come to the bridge so he could find out for himself? Travis Mayweather felt uncomfortable. Enterprise was his home now and the crew were like family. He hated when anything caused friction among them.
"Lieutenant Reed, I believe it is only fitting for the Sub-Commander to tell him herself."
"No apology is necessary, lieutenant. This is going to be a difficult time for all of us especially the Commander. And even though T'Pol will be on a Vulcan vessel I think it's going to be just as hard on her."
Ensign Sato said what the rest of them were secretly thinking. "But the Sub-Commander will come back won't she, Captain? Once they realise we never attacked the Romulan vessel let alone destroyed it? We were attacked not the other way around."
The Captain sighed. "Unfortunately the Vulcans may not see it that way, Ensign. They will see that there was an exchange of fire and make their own determination."
Travis blanched a little. "Do you really think there's going to be a war between the Vulcans and the Romulans?"
"I don't know, Travis, but if the Romulan vessel that we encountered is anything to go by it looks like Captain Vornak may be right."
"Where does that leave us, sir?" Asked the boomer tentatively.
When Captain Archer did not reply immediately Lieutenant Reed muttered half under his breath. In the silence they heard every word. "Up a creek without a
* * * * *
Sub-Commander T'Pol could not think. Could hardly function for the grief flooding her heart yet she had to be strong. Not for herself but for him. Her eyes misted just thinking about it. A lost look took root in her eyes as she gazed around her small quarters. She had to pack but what? Taking her things would be like admitting she was never coming back and she did not want to do that. No. She would take clothing and a few personal items. Things he had given her. Nothing else was of consequence to her. Her hand stopped on the door of the wardrobe. Then she would have to tell him. Sever the link that bound them. Leave him alone and hurting as she too would be alone and hurting. It did not matter that these were her people, she did not belong with them any more. She belonged with Trip. Tears began to fill her eyes. She sat on the bed. It was too difficult to make that step. To begin the actions that would end the only life she wanted to live. T'Pol turned and flung herself face down on her narrow bed, heartbreaking sobs wracking her body as she let the tide of grief overcome her.
* * * * *
Trip finished the repair and though there were still a few more that needed attention he had his people working on them. Soon Enterprise would be good as new and as shiny as his lavish care and attention could make her. He smiled at Crewman Weiss and sent him over to work with Ensign Roberts and Crewman Sanderson on the diagnostic routines that would determine the engine tolerances and performance indicators. A bit more tinkering and she would be done. Time to go and check on Lieutenant Hess. It was weird but as he was leaving Engineering he had the growing feeling that something was wrong. It struck at his heart and sent a bright spark of fear trembling through him. What the hell was that? He did not want to think about it but like some inescapable doom it drew him on, impelling him to turn left instead of right. In a daze he suddenly found himself standing outside Sub-Commander T'Pol's quarters. What in hell was he doing here? He shook his head but the feeling that something was wrong did not diminish. It grew. Then he heard it. There was someone in T'Pol's quarters. He rang the door chime and shifted from foot to foot, suddenly nervous and anxious and as scared as he could ever remember being but without a clue why.
It was a shock and a relief to see T'Pol's face as the door swished open but that fleeting joy soon vanished. He stared at her, heart in his mouth The planets froze in their orbits. Time stood still and all the air in his lungs evacuated. She had been crying. No. Scratch that. She was *still* crying, like tears running down a windowpane her cheeks were glistening with them, her eyes shining as they continually filled. He had never seen her so upset. He stepped through the door on suddenly shaky feet. What was she doing in her room this time of day? She should be on the bridge. And why was she crying? Oh God, what had happened? "T'Pol? Darlin' what's wrong? You're scarin' the life out of me."
Instead of speaking she wrapped her arms around him and cried and cried and cried. Her heart breaking, the tears the only outward sign of the depth of her trauma. He felt answering tears fill his own eyes as he cradled her so gently. Hushing her and kissing the top of her head as he gently rocked her. "It's okay, T'Pol, I'm here. Whatever's wrong, whatever's happened I'll always be here for you."
That just seemed to make her cry more. Baffled and troubled he got his first look at her room and felt himself go cold all over. There was a small valise on her bed. T'Pol had been packing. Heart juddering he forced himself to pull back from her and gently tilted her face up so he could look into her eyes.
"T'Pol, what's goin' on? Ya goin' somewhere?"
She fought for control. That should have been funny but suddenly the thought of a Vulcan unable to control her feelings just struck him with more fear and sorrow than he could handle. She did not break eye contact but her words shook as she spoke them. "I have to go, Trip."
He looked confused. A hand gently brushing away the tears from her face. Oblivious to the ones standing in his own eyes. "Go where?"
"Back to the Vulcan homeworld."
The shock polaxed him. He stood frozen and just stared at her. Now she was comforting him, her movements awkward and hesitant as if a single touch could shatter him. But nothing she could do to him could hurt him worse than her next words.
"I'm being recalled to Vulcan on the orders of the Vulcan High Command."
"A Romulan ship has been found destroyed. Captain Vornak came to find us, inform Captain Archer that it was believed Enterprise was responsible. As of that moment he said the Vulcans and Romulans were at a state of war."
The blood left Trip's face. She wished with all her heart and soul that she did not have to tell him this, that there did not have to be this parting. She knew that when she left she would be leaving her heart behind her. Along with the only thing that mattered to her. "We didn't destroy a Romulan vessel, T'Pol."
"Then Captain Vornak must know it too."
She shook her head dislodging new tears. He made no move to wipe them as they fell. Too stunned trying to take it all in. Not yet comprehending that there was nothing either of them could do to escape the fallout of the calamity descending from on high. "No. All he knows is that they found the debris and the warp signature of the Enterprise in the near vicinity."
His face clouded. "They fired on us! And once we were dead in the water they left. No way were we even capable of inflicting any damage on them by then."
T'Pol nodded, a hand touching his face gently, lips wet with tears brushing his mouth. He shuddered slightly with emotion and increased his grip on her.
"Don't go, T'Pol." He whispered.
"I have to, beloved."
"In less that thirteen minutes."
"Captain Vornak is waiting for me. They have quarters arranged on board for the trip back to Vulcan."
"No way, I'm not gonna let it happen. If they wanna take this to the Vulcan High Command let them but in the meantime you're stayin' here!"
He was upset, angry, confrontational. She flooded his mind with her sorrow, gentle thoughts trying to soothe him but he was so up tight and distraught it was hard to calm him. Even peripherally. "Trip, Captain Vornak already contacted the Vulcan High Command. This recall order comes directly from them."
He stared at her. Silent tears stumbling down his face like drunks holding hands. "God T'Pol, I'm beggin' ya, don't leave me."
"I don't want to, beloved, but I have to."
"No, stay. Cap'n Archer'll...."
"Captain Archer would be put in an impossible possible as would Starfleet. That could end Human/Vulcan relations forever, Trip. I don't want to go but I don't want to be the cause of any further friction or misunderstandings. As painful as this is we have no choice. *I* have no choice."
She kissed him then. Long, deep and filled with all the emotion she had trapped inside her. The kiss was salted by their tears. He stared out the window, watching the black ocean of space with its' huge unblinking and unfeeling eye. He had never felt so impotent, so devastated before.
Then she was pulling away, turning to the bed to close her small case. He reached out to take it for her, to carry it for her, but she shook her head. An apology in her eyes.
"No, Trip. Stay here. I couldn't bear it if you came."
He cried openly now. A child sobbing. His whole world crumbling in his hands. T'Pol stepped up to him and placed her fingers gently against the side of his face one last time. They plunged into an effortless mind meld, her whole heart laid out for him, his heart bared for her. For a minute everything in the universe took second place. There was only T'Pol. Only Trip. Only love. He lost himself in the moment. T'Pol lost herself in him.
"Remember." She whispered. When he opened his eyes she was gone. He was facing the window. His tears like rain running down the plexiglass. Heart breaking he could not move. Did not think he would ever move again.
"You packed in the morning
Now I miss you more
- "Just When I Needed You Most" sung by Dolly Parton
* * * * *
No one saw T'Pol off. Captain Archer had wanted to be there but she had insisted. He assumed it would just be her and Trip. In the end it was just her. A sterile leave taking. It was the only kind she could handle.
* * * * *
Trip had no idea how long he stood there. Time had no meaning and nothing impelled him to move, to think, to do other than feel. The universe was ashes in his mouth. A bland unfeeling face. Then something nagged at him. A small insistent voice that stirred him through his tears. Lieutenant Hess. Now why in the hell would he be thinking of her? Then he remembered. He had been going to check on her. Make sure she was okay. He gave a pained little laugh. Oh that was just priceless. He did not move for almost an hour. Churning everything over and over in his mind. Knowing that Captain Vornak's ship would be gone now. Eating up the light years to the Vulcan homeworld. Then that small voice nagged him again and without thinking he turned and walked out of the Sub-Commander's room, his feet automatically taking him in the direction of Lieutenant Hess's quarters. It reminded him of something he had read or maybe heard once, that the best carers are those who have been through all the stages of the cross themselves. Who better to know and understand pain?
The walk to her quarters gave him ample time to think. When he reached her quarters he got no reply to the com. He sighed and tried not to worry. A hand rising to dry his face. "Lieutenant Hess? Anna? It's me - Trip, let me in."
No response. He tried again and got no reply. Over riding the door's security code he waited just long enough for the door to start opening then stepped inside. The room was dark. Trip flicked on the lights and looked around slowly. It was an orderly room with everything in its' place and a place for everything. A lot like the lieutenant herself. "Anna?"
He could not see her. Where was she? Trip took a few steps inside and began to look round cupboards and behind her desk and chair. He brought himself up short. What the hell was he doing? Lieutenant Hess was having nightmares not psychotic episodes. He was about to turn around and head back out when he heard a sound. So slight that most people would have missed it but he had an engineer's ear and was tuned to all the sounds that *should* be there. This one was alien. He dipped his head, not able to keep the worry out of his soft voice. "Anna? It's okay, it's me Trip. I just wanna help ya."
She did not move.
"C'mon, I won't hurt ya. I just wanna help."
Still she did not move. He swallowed a sigh, his chest tight with empathic sorrow. Slowly he reached out and touched her hand, felt her convulsively tighten her grip around her other hand. Fingers shoved in her open mouth. He let his hand rest over hers, talking softly, letting the warmth of his touch penetrate her befogged and traumatised brain. He did everything slowly, gently, never taking his eyes off her until that look became a tentative connection. He saw a flicker of what might have been recognition. He carried on talking. His voice soothing, babbling like a quiet brook, nonsense words meant to comfort not inform. She clung to the sound of his voice, he became her lifeline. Trip wished he could reach the com and ask Dr Phlox to come but that would mean moving away from her. He did not want to do that. She was too fragile. If he had to lay on the floor for hours to coax her out he would do it.
* * * * *
The Vulcan vessel hung like an omen of doom. Its' very presence depressing everyone on the bridge. Captain Archer hated this. Wished he could do something but his hands were tied. To lash out could result in incalculable harm to the future of Human/Vulcan relations and if this war did go ahead any good standing they could curry with their former allies would be even more important if not critical. He noticed how wan the armoury officer looked, his expression tight and anxious but controlled with a studious calm. He had learnt to respect the armoury officer and rely on his quiet but determined expertise. He could also be counted on not to panic in a crisis. He looked at Ensign Sato. Hoshi was trying not to fidget; nothing to do now that the Vulcans had stopped talking to them. Her eyes flicking from crewmember to crewmember as if unsure who to settle on. Was anywhere safe any more? Travis kept checking his instrument panel then gazing off into space, looking at the viewscreen while who knew what thoughts ran through his head?
Ensign Sato straightened in her chair, her brow furrowing as she picked up a transmission from the Vulcan vessel. She turned to face the Captain. "The Sub-Commander is aboard the Vulcan vessel, Captain."
He nodded, not trusting himself to speak. The viewscreen flickered and Captain Vornak's image came on the screen. A couple of steps behind him stood Sub-Commander T'Pol and Lieutenant Rolrak. "We will be departing now, Captain Archer. You can expect to hear from Starfleet in the next twenty four hours."
The Vulcan Captain paused. He had been about to cut the connection. His look indicated irritation but he did not cut the com. "Yes, Captain?"
"Just for the record. We did *not* attack the Romulan vessel. If indeed it is the same vessel we are speaking about. We were attacked without provocation, our ship took damage. Our hull plating was knocked off-line, engines unable to go to warp. Then without making any attempt to finish us off, the Romulan vessel left us. Whatever fate befell her it was not at the hands of the Enterprise."
Captain Vornak all but sneered back at him. "Why would the Romulans attack a Starfleet vessel?"
His voice dripped with sarcasm. Captain Archer held his temper. Injected a calm into his voice that he did not feel. "He said something that baffled me. He said we were in Romulan space. When I asked the Sub-Commander about it she told me she was not aware that it was Romulan space. Perhaps you can clarify this for me?"
"Your words come too few and too late, Captain Archer. If you wish to sway me this is a futile attempt at best. It simply makes you look even more pathetic that you are."
Shock registered. To be so baldly insulted shook him. They might never have had warm relations with Captain Vornak but he had always maintained a professional politeness. To see that peeled back was not a pretty sight. It made the Captain wonder just how thin was the veneer separating the Vulcans from their volatile and aggressive cousins. He had heard it said of humans that the veneer of civilisation was only paper thin. It looked like this was yet another unwelcome thing they shared in common with their former allies. It was almost a relief when the Vulcan vessel went to warp.
* * * * *
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Three people have made comments
Another great chapter. I just love this story so much, can hardly wait for the next installment.
Oh Most Excellent! The pain for T'Pol, for Trip... and oh my noooo poor Anna.
Oh, this is so painful and yet so wonderful to read! I am desperate to know what will happen, to Trip, to T'Pol, to Enterprise, to Hess, it just goes on. You are too cruel to us