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A Winding Road
A | Author - Shouldknowbetter | Genre - Action/Adventure | Genre - Angst | Genre - Drama | Genre - Friendship | Main Story | Rating - PG-13 | W
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A Winding Road
T’Pol sighed. Humans: undisciplined, illogical, loyal, inventive – not least in the problems they caused for a Vulcan living amongst them. “Commander Tucker!”
He made a small grunting sound then raised his head, blinking, before a faintly sheepish expression appeared. “I went to sleep again?”
“Isn’t that good?” After more than two years’ professional association, T’Pol knew Tucker well enough to recognize that what Ensign Sato described as his ‘hopeful, puppy-dog look’ was entirely assumed. “It proves the meditation relaxes me.”
Fortunately, the look had no effect on her. “Meditation should relax the body but focus the mind.”
“I got it half right.”
T’Pol paused to study the engineer. “Are you not sleeping well?”
He leant forward to extinguish the candle as he spoke and T’Pol reflected that he could put a great deal of finality into a concatenation and one word. If she pushed the matter, he would leave her cabin with dispatch and not return until she had tracked him down and reminded him that they were still under orders to work together. Better, certainly, but not well. “I have finally traced your reference to ‘the dark side’.”
The shuttered look lifted as Tucker grinned; at least he was amenable to being teased again. “Never tell me you watched the films?”
“I was obliged to watch six in order to discover the origin of your comment regarding redemption.”
“Did you like them?”
“They were loud, juvenile, violent and extremely simplistic.”
“So you liked them!” T’Pol glared, wondering why she had raised the subject. Because she had known that Tucker would be amused was not the most logical of reasons. “Good analogy, huh?”
“No? So who d’you see yourself as, T’Pol? Obi-Wan? Yoda?”
T’Pol rose to her feet; there was a limit to how far she would go in order to make a human laugh. “Goodnight, Mr. Tucker.”
He scrambled up, still grinning. “It’s Yoda, isn’t it? He’s green, you’re green, he’s old, you’re old …”
“Mr. Tucker!” He looked innocently back. “Goodnight.”
“’Night, T’Pol.” He was at the door before he turned back, apparently casually although the shutters had come down again. She found the mood swings even more disconcerting than the continuous anger. “Any idea on what the cap’n’s planning when we reach the next planet on the list?”
“No.” And that was another subject Tucker would not approach directly: his exclusion from Enterprise’s command structure. T’Pol knew he had been deeply hurt by it, but he had stopped asking when he was going to be reinstated and given that it was she that he asked – however indirectly – for news of how their search for the Xindi was proceeding she knew that he wasn’t making use of his friendship with Archer for that. “We will reach the planet tomorrow. I am sure that Captain Archer will have finalized his strategy by then.”
“Yeah.” His mouth was firmly shut but there was a bitter twist to it. “Sure. Goodnight, Sub-commander.”
T’Pol decided that she definitely had to discuss their chief engineer with Archer – when there was time.
“Should I charge the hull plating, sir?” Reed asked at once but Archer shook his head.
“Not yet, lieutenant. The information said that there’s truce operating in this area. Let’s not risk upsetting the locals.”
“The information you refer to has proved of limited use as yet, captain,” T’Pol pointed out dryly. “It is possible that it deliberately omitted many details in case it did fall into the wrong hands.”
“I think you’re being too Machiavellian, sub-commander. We’ll play this one straight until proved otherwise.” The captain turned for a look at his first officer. “We need this to work, T’Pol. If we can’t pick up information on the Xindi here, we’re blind again.”
“Captain, we’re being hailed,” Sato reported.
“Can you translate?”
“Yes, sir. It’s very similar to other languages we’ve encountered here.”
“Then put it on.” Archer rose to face the main screen as it changed to show yet another new species, although the captain thought that in the slight bony ridges on the forehead he caught a passing resemblance to the presumed Xindi corpse he had seen on Earth several months ago. “I’m Captain Jonathan Archer of the star ship Enterprise. We were hoping to visit your planet.”
“Your reason?” The alien’s tone was curt but not overtly hostile.
Archer paused only fractionally. “We’re looking for information.”
“If you can pay, then Xepharon’s your place.” A look of complacency crossed the dark face. “It’s said there’s nothing that can’t be bought here, from your grandmother to your heart’s desire.”
“Then we can enter orbit? Land?”
“Surely. But no weapons, Captain Archer. This is a trading post and we value our neutrality – and we defend it with great enthusiasm.”
“Then we’ll obey your rules.”
“See that you do. Xepharon out.”
The screen reverted to the view of the planet and Archer sunk back with a glance at T’Pol. “It’s a start. Take us in, Travis.”
“I’ve programmed it for the major languages you’re likely to meet, sir.”
“Thank you, ensign.” She didn’t retreat and he looked questioningly up at her. “Is there anything else?”
“I think I ought to go with you, sir.” He didn’t respond immediately and the young woman shifted uncomfortably. “There are a lot of languages in use down there, captain. You could meet some the UT can’t translate.”
“We don’t know the situation on the planet, Hoshi. I don’t want …”
“I know that, sir.” Archer’s mild-mannered communications officer didn’t often question her captain but there was a martial glint in her eye this time. “But I’ve not left Enterprise since we entered the Delphic Expanse.” She added hurriedly, “It was my planet that was attacked too, captain. I want to help defend it.”
“You’re helping just by being here, Hoshi.” Archer resorted to charm and flattery. “Where would we be without your ear for language?”
“Then take me with you, sir. I can help more on the away team than by staying on Enterprise.” She flushed under the captain’s steady gaze. “I know I get scared, sir, but I’ve been training with the marines and …”
“I’ve never doubted your courage, Hoshi. Consider yourself assigned to the away team. Dismissed.”
“Thank you, sir.” She smiled back and headed for the door of the ready room, changing places with T’Pol who was on the point of entry.
Archer frowned up at his first officer. “Am I over-protective of the crew, Sub-commander?”
The frown deepened at the unequivocal answer. “You never said anything.”
“I believed it superfluous to state the obvious.” She allowed a delicately measured pause. “Nor did my experience of you suggest that you would take the least notice of anything I might say on the subject.”
“Am I really that difficult to work with, T’Pol?”
She ignored the question. “The shuttle pod is ready for launch.”
“Then we’ll get going.” He rose to his feet. “Has Casey given you his opinion on this expedition?”
“I’m relying on you to stop him following us down with all guns blazing.”
“I will do my best. Fortunately, Mr. Reed will not be here to encourage the general.”
Archer chuckled as he headed for the door. “I guess I should have known that they’d find common ground. The marines have all those big guns. I think Malcolm’s jealous.”
“No, they won’t, sir. This sort of place makes its money from charging the traders, not the people who come to buy.”
“Just keep alert out there,” Archer warned. “This is still the Delphic Expanse, however … civilised … this part seems and we’re not armed.” He was almost as unhappy about that as Reed and Casey, but the landing terms had been clear. The hatch swung up at his touch and a rush of warm, rather metallic air swept in. “You know what we’re here for. Good hunting.”
“I’ll take your word for it.” Archer was smiling despite the underlying seriousness of the situation, but Sato’s enthusiasm usually had that effect on him.
“Oh, look, sir!” Sato halted again at the side of a stall that appeared to specialise in livestock – small, furry livestock. “Kittens!”
“Nearly, anyway. I’m sorry, Hoshi, but Porthos won’t tolerate a ship’s cat.” The stallholder addressed the woman and she visibly paled and hurried on. “What did he say?”
“That they’d make me a nice coat! That’s disgusting.”
“We did the same once, ensign.” Then it was Archer’s turn to halt, his expression tightening. “And that.”
They had come into a clear area where a central platform had been raised and it was obvious what was going on. Even as they watched, another individual was singled out from a large number corralled into a small pen and pushed roughly up onto the platform while a crowd looked on and another man began to address them.
“Come on.” Archer’s hand on Sato’s arm forced her in another direction, although she hung back, head over her shoulder.
“Can’t we do something, sir?”
“Not a damn thing, ensign. We’ve got enough problems of our own.”
“That’s probably what it’s for.” Mayweather was less interested in guns than in their mission. “We’re not going to find anyone here who’ll talk to us, lieutenant. We should try the bars; that’s where the crews of the merchant ships’ll hang out.”
“I bow to your superior knowledge, ensign.” The Englishman’s tone was dry. “Lead on, then.”
“They landed safely and are proceeding without incident.”
“Makes a change.” She didn’t respond and Tucker wandered restlessly to the engineering console and back again. “Are the homing beacons working OK?”
“I have a precise fix on each member of the away team.”
“That’s something.” Again she didn’t respond to the unnecessary statement, although she straightened to watch the engineer as he wandered over to check the tactical display.
“Commander, do you not have tasks awaiting you in Engineering?”
“No!” The quick anger was in his voice again. “We’re all up to date, sub-commander. Wanna come check?”
“I have no reason to doubt your word.” She watched him for a moment longer. “I will inform you if the situation changes.”
“Fine! Then I’ll get out of your way since I’m no use to you up here.”
He was striding towards the lift door when a soft bleep from the science station alerted the Vulcan. “A moment, commander. Your desire for activity may be fulfilled.”
“It’s not that bad.” The helmsman appeared a good deal more relaxed than Reed.
“Your career must have been a lot more varied than you ever let on.” The only answer was a rather smug smile. “Are you finished here?”
“I think so. If anyone’s ever heard of the Xindi, they’re not talking.”
“Xindi?” The interruption came from behind Reed and both Starfleet officers jerked around to find themselves facing a young woman with blond hair and a ridge of cartilage running up the center of her forehead that didn’t detract from her delicate beauty. “I thought I heard you say that you were looking for a cargo.”
“We are.” Reed picked up on the line Mayweather had been feeding the bar’s clientele. “But we’d prefer one that took us towards Xindi space.”
The blunt question set him back a moment. “We have business with them.”
“No one has business with the Xindi.”
“Yet you don’t know where to find them?”
“Can you help us or not?” Reed didn’t like being interrogated, even it was by a pretty woman.
“I can’t.” She watched the darkening of the expressions of the two men with interest. “But my father might.”
“Is he here?” Mayweather asked but got a shake of the head.
“No, but I can take you to him if you wish.” Reed tensed, mouth pinching as his instincts screamed ‘trap’, and the woman smiled. “I’m one woman. What threat can I be to you?”
“I was more worried about any associates you might have waiting in a back alley.”
The knife appeared in her hand as if transported there; Reed could only assume it had been concealed up her sleeve. He pulled back automatically, forearm rising to block the blow, and she smiled again and offered him the knife hilt first. “If I betray you, I’m sure you’ll have time to cut my throat.”
The Englishman hesitated but Archer’s recklessness had had an effect even on Reed’s cautious nature. He pushed the knife carefully back towards her. “After you.”
“A Klingon warbird has just entered this system.”
“But we destroyed the one that followed us in and,” his tone turned accusing, “the Vulcans said that the Klingons wouldn’t enter the Delphic Expanse.”
“Well, that’s great! Stuck in the middle of hostile space and the damn Vulcan intelligence system lets us down – again!”
“Volume may impress the Klingons, Commander Tucker. It does not impress me. Kindly lower your voice.” T’Pol had been keeping a watchful eye on the data displayed on her terminal. “The warbird has entered orbit. They must have received the same warnings as we did.”
“You really think they’ll respect a truce?”
“We are about to find out.” She turned to the crewman manning the comm. station. “Hail the Klingon ship.”
The face that appeared was familiar, as was the request. “I demand Archer’s immediate surrender.”
Tucker shared a resigned look with the Vulcan. “At least he’s predictable.”
T’Pol stepped forward, as calm as ever. “Captain Duras, I see that you survived the destruction of your ship.”
“Ten days in an air pocket!” The Klingon leant forward, eyes narrowed. “I will add every one of those to the time it takes Archer to die. Where is he?”
“Captain Archer is currently unavailable. May I assist you?”
“Yes! Give me Archer’s head!”
“That is also unavailable.”
Duras snarled and sat back. “So … he’s on the planet. No matter. I can wait.” He made a slashing gesture with one hand and the screen cut back to show Xepharon.
“His weapons are still powered down,” Tucker offered from tactical – T’Pol had noticed that he was taking an increasing interest in Enterprise’s weaponry. “I reckon he’ll wait for the shuttle pod and try and snatch the cap’n on the way up.”
“A logical deduction.” T’Pol had perched on the command chair, expression thoughtful.
“We could take out his weapons.”
“Not without powering up our own.” She swiveled to face the engineer. “It may be that Duras has learnt discretion. His ship is no match for the defensive grid this planet supports – and neither is Enterprise.”
“So we’re just gonna sit here? ‘Cos I’m getting real tired of doing nothing the whole time!”
T’Pol refrained from pointing out that the last time Tucker had taken action, it had been rash, ill conceived and self-destructive. “We have seen that the Klingons make free use of their transporter.”
“It is a possibility.”
“Then we have to warn him! They could be targeting him now.”
“I think not.” The cool statement halted Tucker half way to the comm. station. “Without the homing devices that the away team are carrying, Enterprise’s sensors would have been unable to get a clear fix given the density of population. I do not believe that Klingon sensors are in any way superior.”
“So they can’t get a lock while the cap’n’s on the planet.” He came to stand beside the command chair, calmer now that there was a problem to focus on. “But in the shuttle pod on the way back here …”
She completed the thought for him. “Distinguishing the pattern would be much easier. Is there anything that can be done, commander, to prevent this?”
“I’ll get on it.” He started for the lift. “Are you gonna warn the cap’n?”
“I’m Captain Jonathan Archer.” The woman had risen to her feet although the man remained seated on a narrow bed. “Lt Reed tells me that you can locate the Xindi for us.”
“My father can.” Ja’Len moved to stand directly in front of Archer, tilting her head back to look up at the tall human. “Until his wits were taken from him, he traded far and wide in the Delphic Expanse. He knows the trade routes as another man knows his own house.”
Doubtfully, Archer looked past her shoulder to where the old man was rocking himself gently to and fro, lips moving soundlessly. As a guide, he didn’t look promising. “Can he give us directions?”
The woman returned to the bed, seating herself and taking the man’s hands. “Father.” Slowly he focused on her. “Father, these are the people who want to find the Xindi. Do you remember? Can you show them where to look?”
The blurred gaze scanned the room and settled on Archer as he moved a step forward. “The Xindi? Lost, they’re lost. All the ways are lost.”
Archer crouched in front of the man, stomach already hollow with disappointment. “Jo’Rath, can you give us the spatial coordinates of the Xindi home world?”
“Why do you want the Xindi?” The question was surprisingly lucid.
“We have business with them.”
The vague eyes slid away. “If you follow, you’ll be lost.”
“Not if you give us coordinates.”
“You can’t follow the straight path. Oh, no.” He looked directly at Archer again. “The winding road … that might still be open.”
Irritated at what was quite clearly a waste of his time, Archer frowned up at Reed who should have known better than to bring his captain on a wild goose-chase. “He said the same to us, sir.” The Englishman correctly interpreted Archer’s annoyance. “Ja’Len can explain.”
“In the Delphic Expanse,” she said at once, “space is not … uniform. You can’t always get from one place to another by simply plotting a course between the two points. The merchants know the locations that remain stable and they can pick their way from one to the other, even if the space between changes.”
“We’ve been in the Delphic Expanse for two months now.” Archer was skeptical. “We’ve had no trouble with navigation.”
“You are still near the edge.” She placed a hand on his sleeve, eyes fixed on his face. “You can trust us, Captain Archer.”
He paused, frowning down at her with lips compressed, then turned back to her father. “Jo’Rath, can you tell us the … waypoints … that will take us to the Xindi?”
The man’s head wavered slowly from side to side. “In here.” He tapped his forehead. “Locked up.”
“Fine.” Archer came to his feet, patience at an end. “Let’s go.”
“Captain, wait.” Ja’Len’s hand was on his sleeve again before she slid in front, the hand moving to press against his chest. “My father can’t tell you, but he can show you.”
“I don’t have a star chart to hand.”
“Take us with you. Once he’s in space, his memory will return. He’ll remember the way.”
“It’s true.” If possible she moved closer, her slender body almost pressed against his. “I’ve seen him do it many times.”
He stared doubtfully down, unmoved by the physical appeal, then stepped back to draw Reed into a corner. “What’s your view, lieutenant?”
The Englishman grimaced. “That we don’t have much choice, sir. If the man’s just senile, all we’ll lose is a few days.”
“Did you ask how long it would take to get to Xindi space?”
“‛As short as yesterday and as long as forever.’ It seems our friend has a poetic streak.”
Archer shook his head. “I hate to think what Admiral Forrest will say to this one, but we can’t risk staying on the surface much longer.” He answered Reed’s unspoken question. “T’Pol called. There’s a Klingon warbird waiting for us in orbit.”
“Just what we didn’t want!”
“Friends at every turn,” Archer agreed with a rare touch of irony and turned to the two aliens. “All right, Ja’Len, we’ll accept your father’s guidance. How soon can you leave?”
“We believe so, captain. I will let Commander Tucker explain.”
“Cap’n,” Tucker’s voice took over on the comm. line, “we need you to re-configure the shuttle pod’s exhaust ducts so that the hull charges up.”
“You’re going to have to justify that one, Trip.”
“We think the Klingons could try to transport you to their ship, sir. Charging the shuttle pod’s hull should stop them getting a lock.”
“Charging the hull could get us all killed if the exhaust ignites!” Reed protested and Tucker’s voice came back with unmistakable challenge.
“Are you questioning my judgement, Lieutenant?”
“The charge required to disrupt a transporter lock will not be sufficient to ignite the exhaust,” T’Pol’s voice defused the sudden tension. “The shuttle pod’s performance in the upper atmosphere will be degraded, but Ensign Mayweather should experience no difficulty. I recommend that we move Enterprise into a low orbit in order to reduce the length of time available to the Klingons to overcome the interference.”
“You do that, T’Pol.” Archer took the conversation back into his hands. “Have Trip transmit the details of the modifications we have to make. We’ll see you shortly.”
“What does he call a cloaking device?” Tucker muttered as T’Pol headed for the centre of the bridge although the Klingon did not give her time to speak.
“You’ll rue the day you stood against me, Vulcan! Bring weapons on-line.” That was shouted over his shoulder to his own crew. “Watch your precious Archer die a coward’s death, honourless.”
“May I remind you that a truce is in force around this planet?” T’Pol asked mildly and as the screen blanked turned away, her eye catching Tucker’s. “Evidently not. How long until the shuttle pod docks?”
“Three minutes. Duras’ weapons are powering up – and so is the defence grid.”
She came to stand beside him at the tactical display, watching as the Klingon vessel started on an attack vector aimed at Enterprise’s shuttle pod – and was halted almost before it began when the nearest orbital station fired, scoring a series of precision hits.
Tucker’s look was fierce. “Their weapons and engines are down. She’s drifting.”
“How unfortunate that Duras has not learnt the value of discretion.”
His grin was feral. “It’s a real shame.”
T’Pol started for her normal station. “I suggest you prepare an estimate of the likely time to repair for the Klingon ship, commander. I anticipate that Captain Archer will be interested in your answer.”
“I know how it sounds, T’Pol.” Archer’s tone was conciliatory. “But Soval told us that in the Delphic Expanse the laws of physics didn’t always apply.”
“Ambassador Soval is not a scientist.”
“Are you implying he got it wrong?”
Her voice became silky. “Perhaps he thought that by phrasing the threat in terms you could understand, he could make you appreciate the extent of the risk you faced.”
Archer’s mouth twitched, but he sobered quickly. “We’ve no other option at the moment, T’Pol. I agree that this doesn’t sound the most promising of leads but we’ve got to take what we’re offered.” Her head tilted slightly in reluctant acceptance and he smiled his thanks, moving past her to the door to the bridge.
Jo’Rath and Ja’Len were waiting on the upper level of the bridge, one of Reed’s people discreetly close in case the armoury officer needed backup. Seeing again the man’s vacant gaze, Archer acknowledged that his first officer’s skepticism was fully justified, and returned the Ja’Len’s warm smile with a brief nod. Her eyes flicked to T’Pol and back to Archer, the suggestion of a pout momentarily appearing.
“Travis,” Archer settled into his chair, “how long until we’re out of range of the Klingon vessel’s sensors?”
“Another six minutes, sir.”
“Has our … guide … given you the first set of coordinates?”
“He has, sir.”
“Then once we’re out of range, set a course for them, warp 3.” He turned to the tactical station. “Lt. Reed, perhaps you’d care to escort Ja’Len and her father to suitable accommodation and see that they’re comfortable.”
The armoury officer nodded and began to herd the pair of aliens from the bridge while Archer faced front again and wondered why the hell he had thought he was a suitable candidate to track down Earth’s greatest enemy.
Reed slid open the door to a spare cabin and let the man and woman step through in front of him. “I’m sorry about the lack of room, but we’re rather pushed for space at the moment.” He forbore from mentioning that the cabin had belonged to two of the marines they had already lost.
“I’m sure we’ll be fine.” Ja’Len threw him a reassuring smile as she led her father to one of the narrow bunks; the old man had started to flag on the walk from the bridge.
“If you’d like a tour of the ship …”
“Oh, I would!” Her pleasure was unaffected. “I grew up in space but since my father’s illness we’ve mostly lived planet-side.” She looked down at Jo’Rath who was already nodding. “Would you think me very unfeeling, Lt. Reed, if we went now, while my father’s resting? Later he’ll want me by him and …”
She let the sentence drift away and the Englishman didn’t have to struggle hard with his conscience; Archer had told him to see that their guests were comfortable. “Not at all.” He stood aside to indicate the door. “It would be my pleasure.”
Ja’Len’s smile as she brushed past him was the warmest Reed had seen in a very long time.
The bridge was quiet when the lift doors parted to allow Archer to enter and Mayweather looked up with a quick smile. “You’re up late, captain.”
“So are you, ensign.” The older man came to stand beside the helm, posture relaxed enough to inform Mayweather that this wasn’t an official visit. “Any problems?”
“None, sir. Just space. Everything checks out normal.”
“Then why are you still here?”
The helmsman smiled sheepishly at having been caught out so easily. “I don’t want us to fly into anything strange when I’m not at the helm.”
Archer’s mouth pulled into an approving smile. “I appreciate your dedication, Travis, but you can’t be here 24-7. If we really are heading into a region of space where the normal rules break down, we’ll need you alert. Get some rest while you have the chance.”
“Yes, sir.” Emboldened by the late-night camaraderie, he added, “Is that what you’re planning, captain?”
“Touché, ensign.” Archer headed for the lift again. “I’m off to bed right now. See that you do the same.”
Released from another session with T’Pol where he’d actually managed to stay awake, Tucker wandered towards the mess hall in search of … something. The downside of not having fallen asleep meditating was that he now didn’t feel like sleeping and the familiar restlessness was on him again: the need to move or risk something just below the surface coming up to swamp him. If he hadn’t felt so damned tired, he’d have visited the gym, even if he would have had to share it with a score of pumped up marines. He’d briefly considered further meditation in his own cabin but that would mean admitting that T’Pol was winning and he wasn’t prepared to go that far yet. A while ago, he wouldn’t have hesitated to stick his head around Archer’s door to see if his friend was up for a chat or a late night game of pool, but he’d shied off from Archer’s friendship since being relieved of his command duties. He hadn’t really needed T’Pol to tell him that he’d let his captain down badly and until he’d redeemed himself – he gave a small grunt of sardonic amusement at the recurrence of that theme – he didn’t feel he could impose on his friend.
It wasn’t until he’d served himself with a glass of milk that he noticed that he wasn’t the only one not asleep, although the other pair seemed to be having a far more entertaining time than he was. A little curious and up for distraction, Tucker mooched over to the corner table. “Hi.”
Reed looked up in surprise. “Commander! I didn’t see you come in.”
“Just now.” Tucker was watching the approving smile Ja’Len was directing at the armoury officer. “Mind if I join you?”
The look of profound horror that passed over Reed’s face told its own story. He really didn’t need Ja’Len’s rebuff. “Actually, Commander Tucker, we’d prefer to be alone.”
“Sure.” The hurt transmuted to anger as he had trained it to do. “Make sure you’re on time for your shift tomorrow, lieutenant. The cap’n doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”
He strode away and didn’t see how rapidly the other two became lost in each other again.
Archer looked up from his scrambled eggs and smiled a welcome. “Good morning, commander! To what do I owe this privilege?”
His chief engineer shrugged, edging further into the room, looking a little uncomfortable. “You got a minute, cap’n?”
“I’ve got about thirty five of them.”
Tucker smiled reluctantly then took in the table in the captain’s mess that was already set for two. “You’re expecting someone. I don’t …”
“Sit.” Archer’s voice was firm. “What are you having?”
“I’m not that hungry.”
The captain collected a glass from a side table and moved to Tucker’s side to pour him juice, an excuse for a hand on one tense shoulder. “What’s up?”
“Nothing.” The answer came too pat and then he shrugged as Archer re-took his seat. “I guess … maybe I just wanted some company.”
“The door’s always open, Trip.” The older man’s voice was gentle. “You know that.”
Tucker grimaced, reaching for the glass. “Yeah. I know, Cap’n.”
“So,” Archer spoke to fill the brief silence, “what aspect of my sparkling company did you want?”
The engineer’s mouth twisted into a rueful smile as he inspected his glass, then he looked up. “When was the last time you had a date, Cap’n?”
Archer choked on his eggs and had to retreat behind a napkin until he had caught his breath. “Are you asking your captain out, Commander Tucker?” He had the pleasure of seeing his friend laugh although a faint wistfulness remained.
“Sorry, sir, I prefer red-heads.”
“Then why are we discussing my love life? Think I need to release some tension?”
“Malcolm looked like he hit it off with Ja’Len last night.”
“Were you interested in her?”
“No!” Tucker shook his head to emphasise the point. “It … doesn’t seem right just now.”
“Life goes on, Trip.” Archer’s tone was compassionate. “It doesn’t stop because of one event, however catastrophic. If Malcolm’s met someone, I’m not going to call a halt. He won’t let it affect his duties.” He was still watching the younger man who had his attention apparently riveted on his glass. “Trip …” He never even got to start a careful probing for the door opened again and he looked up, mouth tightening in annoyance at the untimely interruption. “Good morning, Sub-commander.”
She took an assessing look between the two men. “Good morning, captain, Commander Tucker. Should I leave?”
“No need.” Tucker was on his feet and half way to the door. “We’d done. I don’t wanna disturb your breakfast together,” and he was gone.
T’Pol turned a raised eyebrow onto her captain. “Did I interrupt something important?”
Archer leant back frowning, mouth pursed. “I think you did, sub-commander. I just wish I knew what.”
Mayweather brought Enterprise out of warp at yet another set of coordinates that had been supplied by Jo’Rath and reported unnecessarily, “We’re here, Captain.”
With a resigned sigh that he couldn’t quite suppress, Archer turned to the old man standing just behind his chair. “Where now, Jo’Rath?”
The old man moved closer to the view screen, seeming to study the star patterns represented there. “Do you see?” A trembling finger pointed to one corner. “The Sign of Blue.”
“A white dwarf. As far as my scanners are concerned, space remains normal.” She straightened, her disapproving expression obviating the need for speech.
“Set a course, Travis.” Archer could hear the resignation in his own voice and forced himself to a more positive tone. “How much longer, Jo’Rath?”
“As short as yesterday and …”
“Thank you, Jo’Rath, I think we know that by now.” He twisted to look at Ja’Len. “Do you have any idea where your father’s leading us?”
“To the Xindi, Captain Archer, as you requested.”
“Do you really believe he knows what he’s doing?”
“Of course, captain. He’s been this way many times before.”
“Our sensors show no sign of this distortion of space you told us about.”
“Because my father is leading you around those areas. Have patience, Captain.”
“Have you been this way before?”
“When I was a child.”
“How long did it take?”
“What is time to a child? The distance changes, Captain Archer.”
He faced front again, with a fractional shake of his head. “Engage, Ensign Mayweather.”
“Aye, sir. Second star on the right and straight on ‘til morning,” although he said the latter quietly enough not to reach the captain’s ears.
It was again late so that Reed and Ja’Len had the mess hall nearly to themselves, even though Enterprise was crowded these days. The armoury officer hadn’t had such a good time in months, maybe years, and it wasn’t until one of the rare pauses in their conversation that he realized how late it had grown. “I’m sorry.” The apology came instinctively. “I’ve kept you away from your father again.”
A hand came out to clasp one of his. “Don’t worry, Malcolm. My father sleeps a great deal – particularly when he has the excitement of being back in space to tire him.”
“It is.” The hand slid to his wrist, fingers brushing the sensitive skin on the inside. “You know, Malcolm, your tour of this ship was incomplete.”
“We visited every deck.”
“But you didn’t show me the inside of your cabin.”
“Oh.” Flustered, Reed struggled for the right words and Ja’Len gave him her slow smile.
“You’re a very attractive man, Malcolm, and I don’t meet many of those. I wouldn’t like to waste my time on Enterprise.”
“Oh. Ah …”
She was still smiling like a promise of heaven. “You do live alone, don’t you, Malcolm.”
“Uh.” He cleared his throat; the neck of his undershirt had tightened alarmingly. “I do.”
It was an irritated chief engineer who thumped on the door to Reed’s quarters the next morning, a good thump being so much more satisfying than pressing the buzzer. Tucker was up, even though he could quite happily have rolled over and gone back to sleep after having lain awake half the night; that meant everyone else should be up likewise, particularly if they had scheduled a meeting with Enterprise’s chief engineer to complain about something, just like they always did. “Malcolm, stir your sorry ass!” Even the door seemed to slide open lazily, despite the fact that Tucker knew it to be in perfect working order. “What are you playing at, Malcolm? You wanted to see me twenty minutes ago.”
The armoury officer didn’t appear to remember. He didn’t even appear to listen. “Trip?” Reed yawned and ran a hand through his unruly hair. “What are you doing here?”
At least, that’s what Tucker thought he said; it was spoken through another yawn. “Meeting. With me. Twenty minutes ago.”
“Get it together, Malcolm! What have you been up to? Phase cannons …” Tucker halted his rant as the other man drifted back into the room, giving the engineer a clear view inside. It had been a while – in fact, a very long while – since Tucker had had the opportunity, but he recognized the signs of a wild night when he saw one. The bed was a mess, a couple of glasses decorated the table and Reed’s clothes were scattered on the floor – and that from a man who habitually ironed his underpants. “Fine.” Tucker’s voice had gone hard. “If that’s the way you wanna play it, lieutenant, at least make sure you do it in your own time, not mine. My office, fifteen minutes. Don’t even consider being late again.”
He strode away, the door sliding closed to shut Reed off from the corridor. The Englishman yawned again, rubbed at his scalp and belatedly said, “Trip …?” then shrugged as he realized the futility of it. Still bleary eyed, he wandered in the direction of the bathroom, tripped over a discarded boot and stumbled into the table, muttering half-heartedly as a glass rolled off and onto the floor. He stooped to pick it up, frowning into it. He didn’t remember drinking that much, so why the blinding headache? Then he smiled. What he did remember with perfect clarity was the sex, and if arrogant Yanks with emotional problems a kilometre high were jealous, that wasn’t his problem.
Reed’s headache hadn’t abated by lunchtime, for which he blamed Tucker. The engineer had been abrupt and dismissive over the need to be able to supply the phase cannons from emergency power – and that from a man who had been nagging Reed for months to be sure they had the firepower to take on the Xindi. The armoury officer retreated to his own domain for a sulk – and, to be perfectly honest, to give himself a chance to recuperate out of sight of Captain Archer. He had just about admitted that the headache was growing worse and was going to require a visit to sickbay when the doors opened and someone slipped in whom immediately made him feel much better.
Jo’Len wrapped her arms around Reed’s neck and held up her mouth for a kiss that he supplied readily until he belatedly remembered where they were and reluctantly started to disentangle himself. “I’m sorry, my love, but you shouldn’t be in here. This is a restricted area.”
“But you’re here with me, Malcolm.” She refused to be disentangled. “How can that be wrong?”
“I don’t think the captain would see it that way.”
“Then take me somewhere, Malcolm, somewhere you will be pleased to see me.”
He smiled at that. “I am pleased to see you, but I’m on duty. We’ll have to wait until tonight.”
“But that’s hours away! Just a few minutes, Malcolm.”
“Actually, I’ve got a splitting headache.”
“Oh, poor, Malcolm!” She reached up to caress the offending member. “I can make that better for you. Come with me.”
“I’m on duty!”
“Surely you’re allowed a break?”
She was very hard to resist so Reed allowed himself to be led away, although he baulked at the door to the cabin assigned to their visitors. “Your father …”
“Is with Captain Archer. We’ll be quite alone, Malcolm.”
She pulled him inside and turned into his arms, and Reed gave himself up to a blissful few minutes kissing although even that couldn’t mask the growing pain in his head. He had to pull back at last, fingers pressing to the bridge of his nose. “I really need to visit sickbay.”
“Not when we have so little time.” Jo’Len’s hands guided him to the bed and pushed him down. “I said I could cure that for you.”
“Sadly, even your kisses aren’t working, Jo’Len.”
Reed forced his eyes open to squint at the pills she was offering him. “I don’t think Phlox would approve of me taking something he hadn’t prescribed.”
“I’m sure he wouldn’t mind. It’s just a herbal remedy.” She was very kind and very pretty and he really didn’t care for sickbay. “Please, Malcolm. For me.”
He wasn’t entirely sure why he reached out to take the pills, but his headache certainly disappeared within minutes – and then Jo’Len demonstrated other ways in which she could make him feel better.
Archer emerged from his ready room an hour into the first shift of the day for his usual check on what was happening to his ship and frowned when he noticed that the tactical station was manned by one of Reed’s junior staff, taking his discontent out on T’Pol. “Where’s Lt. Reed, sub-commander? I thought we’d agreed that our tactical readiness was a priority these days.”
She gave him a cool look that reminded him that staffing was her responsibility. “Given that Ensign Hassan is a competent officer, I had no reason to question Mr. Reed’s absence. I am sure he is gainfully employed.”
Not entirely happy with the answer, Archer crossed to the command chair. “Bridge to Lt. Reed.” There was no reply and the captain frowned and repeated his request, not sure whether to be annoyed or worried.
“I know where Malcolm might be, Cap’n.” Archer looked across at Tucker who was already heading for the lift. “I’ll go get him.”
Curiouser and curiouser, Archer thought and slumped into his chair. Perhaps it was time to remind people that they were part of a professional outfit, relying on the competence of every individual for their safety. Performing at 100% all the time was impossible, but things seemed to be getting sloppy and he doubted that the Delphic Expanse was forgiving of sloppiness.
Hammering on the door of Reed’s cabin had no effect this time and, sure of his guess, Tucker overrode the lock and let himself in. The Englishman was indeed still in bed, sprawled on his back and snoring. Tucker shook him roughly and then again when the first attempt resulted in nothing more than a protesting grunt. “Malcolm! Wake up!”
“Hmm?” Finally, the man blinked open sleepy eyes. “Commander?”
“Your shift started over an hour ago, lieutenant. What’s going on?”
Reed pushed himself up on one elbow, the other hand scrubbing at his face. “What?”
“It’s after 0900. You’re late.”
“Oh.” He yawned. “My team’ll cover for me.”
“Get the hell out of that bed, Lieutenant!” Tucker was furious at Reed’s unconcern, too furious to acknowledge that the armoury officer’s behaviour was profoundly uncharacteristic. “Captain Archer wants you on the bridge. You’re gonna need a better excuse than that you slept in!”
Reed was more awake now. “What business is it of yours?”
“I’m trying to save your butt from a kicking.”
“Oh, are you?” The man’s tone dripped sarcasm. “That’s very decent of you, sir, because I was under the impression that you rejected my friendship quite some time ago.”
A flicker of something, perhaps shame, passed over Tucker’s face. “I didn’t …”
“I think you’ll find that you did. Now perhaps you’d get out of my private quarters, Commander, so that I can get up.”
Tucker’s face was set hard now. “If that’s the way you want to play it, that’s fine by me, lieutenant. But if I ever catch you shirking your duty again, I’ll have you on report so fast you won’t see me move.”
He was halfway through the door when Reed’s parting comment caught him. “I think you’ve forgotten, commander, that I don’t take orders from you anymore; and believe me, that’s a blessing!”
T’Pol slid her scanner back into its housing and turned to look up at Archer, who had been haunting her workstation most of the morning. “There is no sign of any disturbance to the normal fabric of space.” He grimaced in frustration, looking behind him at the main view screen, and she continued, “How long do you propose to pursue this course of action?”
“I don’t know, T’Pol.” He met her eyes. “If the Xindi were close, we’d have had news of them before now.”
“You cannot intend us to be directed in this aimless fashion for the foreseeable future.” Her voice was quiet and Archer dropped his head briefly before looking up at his first officer again.
“I’m not, but we have to give this a chance.”
“Have you considered that Jo’Rath may be leading us into a trap?”
“Give me credit for a little caution, T’Pol – of course I have.” Her silence was a rebuke in itself and Archer snapped, perhaps more sharply than he would have wished, “What do you suggest, sub-commander? That we start a systematic search of the Delphic Expanse? That could take years.”
“At maximum warp, approximately 39.7 years.”
“I’m afraid the Xindi might not wait that long.”
She paused before saying evenly, “I have been mapping space traffic since we entered this region. It should be possible to identify the major concentrations of population and proceed as we did on Xepharon, by questioning the migrant population.”
Archer nodded. “All right, sub-commander, we’ll play it your way. But not until we’ve ruled out the possibility that aimless wandering will pay off.” She inclined her head in acceptance and the captain touched her arm lightly in unspoken thanks and swung back to the main bridge. “Malcolm, I’d like … Malcolm? Lt Reed!” The Englishman finally looked up, blinking in surprise.
“Oh … Captain, I’m sorry. You wanted me, sir?”
“I did, lieutenant.” Archer was frowning as he moved closer. “Are you feeling all right, Malcolm?”
“Of course, sir. Just a bit of a headache.”
“Do you want to report to sickbay.”
“No, thank you, sir. I’m sure it’ll pass.”
“If you’re sure. Lieutenant, I’d like you to schedule a series of simulated tactical alerts. Keep us on our toes. See if we can get our reaction time down.”
“Yes, sir.” Reed headed for the lift. “I’ll get on it straight away.”
“Mind if I join you?”
Tucker looked up from a bowl of pasta that he didn’t really want to find Archer standing beside his table. “Sure.” He hesitated, stuck for a comment that didn’t sound as if he’d rather be alone. “We don’t often see you out here, Cap’n.”
Archer glanced around the mess hall as he took a sip of iced tea. “You’re right. I usually think the crew would rather eat without wondering if their captain’s going to expect them to talk to him.” He saw the grimace that passed over Tucker’s averted face and approached the subject obliquely. “Have you seen much of Malcolm lately, Trip?”
“Nah.” The younger man looked up with a brief shake of his head. “We’re … not that close anymore.”
“My fault.” Tucker’s mouth twisted. “I … Hell, I guess I just wasn’t much of a friend to him lately.”
“You could try telling him that.”
“I don’t think so.”
There was an uncomfortable pause while Archer ate a few forkfuls and Tucker fidgeted with his mug then the captain tried again. “How d’you like working with T’Pol?”
“It’s OK.” The wariness was obvious.
“She’s worried about you.”
“Why?” Archer winced at the speed with which his friend could still snap over into anger. “I’m learning my lessons real well!”
“So she says. But that’s not the real problem, Trip, and we all know it.”
“Do we?” Tucker came to his feet although he kept his voice down, leaning forward to deliver his opinion. “Well, I don’t. And I’d be grateful, cap’n, if you and T’Pol would stop discussing me behind my back!”
He stalked away and Archer leant back in his chair, throwing his fork onto his plate in a fit of frustration. He’d known Trip for the best part of ten years. How the hell was it that he couldn’t even speak to his friend without seeming to drive the younger man away?
His shift finally over, Reed retreated to his cabin and collapsed onto his bed with a relieved groan, pressing his hands to his eyes, hardly aware of the slight weight that sank down beside him. “Poor Malcolm.” The voice was gentle, as was the hand that stroked his face. “Here, take these, they’ll make you feel so much better.”
“I really think I ought to see Phlox. This can’t be right.”
“Of course it’s not right to be in pain. These will stop it for you, Malcolm.” A hand lifted his head and he found himself swallowing automatically. “There, soon you’ll feel better. Then we can talk some more.”
Enterprise’s progress had slowed, the signs that Jo’Rath claimed he was following coming closer together. Mayweather dropped them out of warp for the fourth time that morning and asked on as sigh, “Where now, sir?”
The old man lifted his head to study the screen and smiled slowly. “We have arrived.”
The tension on the bridge leapt amazingly, even T’Pol turning hastily to her scanner, but when she looked up her expression was puzzled. “I am detecting nothing but an asteroid field.”
“Captain!” Mayweather was practically shouting. “Three ships are leaving the asteroid field.”
“Who are they?” The question was initially directed at T’Pol, then as Archer realized the futility of it he swung on Jo’Rath, his suspicions confirmed. “Who are they?”
The man laughed, all trace of senility dispersed. “You wanted to find the Xindi, Captain Archer. They are here.”
There was a moment’s stunned silence then Archer flung himself into the command chair. “Tactical alert. Travis …” He realized that the lights hadn’t dipped and looked over his shoulder. “Lt. Reed, I ordered a tactical alert!” But Reed simply stood there and the captain saw that his armoury officer’s eyes were focused on Ja’Len where she stood near his station. Doubly betrayed, Archer thought with a stab of hurt fury. “Commander Tucker, take over at tactical. Crewman, take our ‘guests’ to the brig.”
“Captain,” Mayweather interjected urgently, “those ships are moving into attack positions,” and T’Pol chose that moment to add, “I believe it possible that the Xindi ships are equipped with a form of transporter.”
“Hoshi, warn General Casey to prepare for boarding. Trip,” a glance over his shoulder showed that the engineer was engaged in a struggle with Reed for possession of the tactical station and Archer left his seat to lend a hand, dealing the Englishman a foul blow from behind that dropped him to the deck. “Get the hull plating charged, commander, and bring weapons on line.”
“Captain,” T’Pol glanced up, “I am detecting alien life forms on board. Deck 5.”
“Inform Casey.” The captain wrenched open a weapons locker, grateful that in a former incarnation as a reliable officer Reed had had the foresight to insist that phase pistols be stored on the bridge. “Trip, where’s that hull plating?”
“Malcolm’s locked me out, sir. I’m working on it.”
“There are now indications of alien infiltration on deck 3.”
“General Casey reports that he’s engaged the enemy, sir.”
Enemy, Archer thought furiously. These are the damned Xindi trying to take my ship! “Trip!”
“I’m not there yet!” The engineer’s response was as fierce as Archer’s request and then a sharp hum filled the air.
T’Pol’s head snapped up. “I am detecting an incoming energy beam.”
Archer tossed her the last phase pistol. “Everyone down. Fire at will.”
Perhaps the Xindi hadn’t expected humans to be familiar with transporter technology. Perhaps the fact that their raid on Earth had been unopposed made them careless. They materialized in a bunch, facing outwards, making a good target for the crouching Starfleet crew, although after the first few fell the rest also dropped into what cover they could find.
Crouched beside Tucker, trying to locate a target, Archer could hear the engineer’s stream of invective as he struggled to regain control of critical systems while not being shot for his trouble. Both men ducked as a shot blew out a conduit behind them, Archer dragging a shaken Tucker up with him, pushing the man back towards the console. “How long?”
The engineer shook his head, partly to clear it, partly in angry negation. “I can’t get in. I’ll have to short out the primary systems, let the back-ups kick in.” He squirmed to the edge of the tactical console, nodding to a hatch in the rear wall just beyond. “Cover me?” Archer nodded shortly. “Make sure you kill some of those bastards for me, cap’n,” and he dived for the hatch before his friend could realize that Tucker didn’t give much for their chances of survival.
Not in the calmest of moods himself, Archer let loose a volley of fire at nothing in particular, grunting in pain as return fire caught his shoulder and he lost his grip on his phase pistol, then he was being pulled back into cover by the neck of his jumpsuit. “I said kill them!” Tucker growled as he worked on the board above him. “Not get yourself killed.”
“Sorry.” Archer sat up, clutching at his burning shoulder, gritting his teeth at the continued sounds of fighting. At least enough of his people were still alive to fight.
“Yes!” the engineer hissed in triumph and Archer didn’t wait for clarification.
Whatever Tucker targeted, it had an effect. Within seconds, there came again the unfamiliar hum and Archer dragged himself up to see the two remaining Xindi dematerializing, even as the bridge crew appeared from behind various consoles, Mayweather dragging a bleeding leg behind him. On the view screen one of the ships exploded and then Enterprise rocked.
“They’re returning fire, cap’n,” Tucker reported and Archer nodded absently as he made for the command chair, scarcely aware of the blood running over his hand.
“Keep firing, commander.”
“Count on it, sir.”
“Their weapons cannot penetrate our hull plating.”
“Now that makes a change.” Another ship exploded and the remaining one peeled away and jumped to warp in one smooth manoeuvre. “Follow them, Ensign Mayweather,” and there was, Archer reflected, a certain fierce satisfaction in finally having something to chase.
“We’re closing, sir. Estimate interception in … 65 seconds.”
The Xindi ship was in view although still out of weapons’ range when another explosion blossomed on the screen and when it dissipated the ship was gone. Archer stared for a moment then looked to the science console. “T’Pol?”
She was studying the readouts. “I believe … the ship self-destructed.” His mouth twisted in disgust and she added, “It is likely that they did not want to fall into our hands.”
He sighed, aware that he was hurting now that his adrenaline level was dropping. “To be honest, sub-commander, I don’t think that was something they needed to worry about. I was quite ready to destroy them myself. Hoshi, what’s General Casey’s status?”
“He says that the ship’s clear, sir, but he lost one of his people.”
Archer shook his head, grimacing, and T’Pol said firmly, “Ensign Sato, please ask Dr Phlox to send a medical team to the bridge.”
For a moment, the captain considered protesting then decided that sickbay was indeed a long walk away. It would be far easier to sit still and let someone come to him.
Reed was pale but stood to attention in front of Archer’s desk. “Permission to offer my resignation, Captain.”
“But, sir …”
“You made a mistake, lieutenant. We all do that at some point.” Archer settled the arm bound across his chest into a more comfortable position. “Sit down, Malcolm.”
“I’d rather stand, sir.”
“Sit!” Years of dog owning paid off as the other man took the seat indicated. “Malcolm, you weren’t entirely to blame. Phlox said that the drugs Ja’Len gave you were highly addictive. She probably slipped you something the first night and you were hooked before you knew it. Phlox also said that one of the side effects was to make an addict extremely susceptible to persuasion: she used that aspect to keep you from reporting what was happening to you and to make you respond negatively to a tactical alert.”
“I’m still sorry, sir.”
“If it hadn’t been you, lieutenant, she’d have tried with someone else. Leading us into an ambush with the Xindi was only half the plan.”
“What have you done with Jo’Rath and Ja’Len, sir?”
Archer paused, forehead creasing as he remembered. “They were found dead in the brig. They’d taken poison.”
Reed’s mouth twisted up at one side in a disbelieving grimace. “The Xindi don’t want to be found, do they, sir.”
“So it would seem.” Archer rose, the junior officer following suit.
“I really am sorry, sir.” He hesitated. “We … your officers … we’re not being much support at the moment, are we?”
“No, you’re not,” although Archer’s smile and the hand on Reed’s shoulder took away most of the impact of the rebuke. “But I know you’ll not let me down again.”
They exited onto the bridge and Archer took his chair as Mayweather looked around from the helm. “What’s our course, Captain?”
“Head us back to Xepharon, ensign, warp 3. And this time we’ll try the straight line option.”
“What are you intending to do at Xepharon, captain?” T’Pol inquired politely and Archer settled himself more comfortably.
“To be visible, T’Pol.” He glanced over at her and then faced front again. “The Xindi know we’re here, sub-commander, and they tried to destroy us. We’ve got their attention and that’s fine by me. Now we just have to wait for them to come to us.”
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Three people have made comments
My goodness, what a fascinating story! Both of them! It's about as addictive as those pills Malcolm Reed was taking. Please keep it going! And don't leave us in suspense too long, or else we'll get our satisfaction from Season 3!
Oh very good both the first and this second story in the series. Please hurry with more fic and soon!
Trip and Jon at the end... very good.
this is TNT site you know come on more ;-)