Author's Note: This is slightly revised from the version on ff.net.
“What do the sensors show?” Archer asked his science officer as he stared at the tiny blinking object on the view screen. For three days Enterprise had been following what Hoshi had felt was a distress call – but that was only her best guess because the language wasn’t in the database. They had finally arrived only to find a small buoy floating in space, days from any planetary systems. There was also no sign of any vessels or remains of vessels anywhere nearby.
T’Pol looked up from viewing hood. “It is approximately three meters tall and two meters wide. Judging from its condition, it has been in space for some time.”
“Is there any sign it could be dangerous to bring it on board?”
“Not that I can see,” T’Pol said. “I see no indication of weaponry, no life signs, no organic materials. It is not emitting any dangerous radiation. However, it would be prudent to take precautions until we understand why a device like this is emitting a distress signal. It could be a lure of some kind.”
“Agreed,” Archer said. “Let’s bring it into the launch bay.” He signaled Malcolm to deploy the grappler. “You and Trip and Malcolm can take the first look. Just to be safe, wear EV suits.”
The years had made Archer more cautious. That didn’t mean he could resist a mystery.
x x x
Malcolm focused on getting his EV suit on and wondered if Trip and T’Pol were ever going to be fun to work with again. On their own, they were tolerable companions, but when they were forced together the atmosphere around them tended to curdle. It was fairly obvious that Trip never even looked at T’Pol if he could avoid it.
In the immediate aftermath of their cloned daughter’s death, Malcolm thought they’d finally achieved the kind of closeness he knew Trip had long wanted. They’d stood close together at the memorial service, and he’d watched Trip introduce her to his family with a certain pride despite the sadness of the occasion.
But once back on Enterprise, T’Pol had gone into virtual seclusion, and after a couple of weeks Trip had begun to simmer with an anger and disappointment that was obvious to anyone who knew him. Eventually it had evolved into outright depression and finally a chilly blankness that was not like Trip at all. He’d confided in Malcolm that he was only staying because he knew he couldn’t request another transfer any time soon – he’d blown that opportunity by coming back from Columbia so shortly after leaving. And he wasn’t ready to leave Starfleet just to get away from the situation. Not yet, anyway. Malcolm was glad Trip felt he had no choice but to stay, but he hoped he’d snap out of it soon.
“Hoshi’s hoping we’ll find something that might give the translation matrix a better fix on their language,” he said now, just because the silence had begun to feel uncomfortable.
Neither Trip nor T’Pol said anything in reply, not that there was anything useful they could add. Malcolm sighed and snapped his helmet shut. “Ready?” he asked.
In the launch bay he walked around the small device sitting on the deck and pointed his scanner at it. The other two were already busy scanning.
“The exterior of this buoy is over 200 years old,” T’Pol said. “I’ll need quantum dating to be more precise.”
“It’s running on an antimatter battery cell of some kind,” Tucker said. “But it’s nearly at the end of its operational life.”
“Pretty impressive battery life,” Malcolm said. “I’m still not showing anything that could be interpreted as a weapon, though there is a small device of some kind operating inside.”
“Simple control device for the transmitter, probably,” Trip said. “It wouldn’t need to draw much power. Any objection to me trying to open this thing?”
It was a question for T’Pol, obviously, though Trip neither addressed her nor looked in her direction. It bordered on rudeness really, Malcolm thought, but T’Pol merely answered softly, “No.”
Trip started feeling his way around the device as best he could in the EV suit, looking for latches and not finding any. “Any objection to me taking my gloves off?” he said.
“No,” T’Pol said again, her voice just as soft as before. Malcolm peered at her and was struck by the bleakness of her face as she watched Tucker work.
She’s just as miserable as he is, he thought, a bit stunned by the clarity of his insight. Vulcans weren’t supposed to be so obvious.
x x x
“What is it?” Archer asked, turning the device in his hands. It was green, and smooth, with a small screen that exhibited a random blinking light that might be a cursor of some kind, a few buttons with unfamiliar markings on them, and oddly shaped handles on each side, with three holes that looked as if they were perhaps meant to correspond to fingers.
“Some kind of control device,” Tucker said. “It was attached to a transmitter on the buoy. Half of it is taken up by a power cell. The other half?” He shrugged. “We’re not sure yet.”
Archer grunted. “Apparently it belonged to a race of beings with three fingers on each hand.”
“Most likely four or more,” T’Pol said. “A race this technologically advanced would almost certainly have an opposable digit of some kind. And the control buttons would only be reachable with additional digits.”
“Ah,” Archer said, mildly embarrassed by the flaw in his own reasoning. “Have you managed to get any information out of it?”
“Not yet,” T’Pol said.
“Any chance this could be some kind of explosive device, weapon, anything dangerous?”
“I don’t see how,” Malcolm said. “The power source is so depleted at this point that even an accidental overload would have limited impact – probably less than a quarter of a kiloton.”
“That could still do some damage,” Archer said.
“We’ll use the engineering lab on E deck,” Trip said. “It will minimize the risk to the ship.”
“Fine, but be careful,” Archer said. “It’s not just risk to the ship I’m worried about. You and T’Pol work on it for now. Malcolm, I want you to take charge of long-range scanning for any other signs of the folks who put this here.”
“I can take this thing apart on my own if you want T’Pol for that too,” Tucker said, a little too quickly.
Archer grimaced. He didn’t know what had gone wrong between his two senior officers, but he’d had just about enough of it. “I want you two to work together,” he said, with more emphasis than was strictly necessary.
x x x
Great, Trip thought. Just what I need. Me, T’Pol, and a very small room.
He hazarded a quick glance at T’Pol. She looked pained too, but that was not exactly a surprise. Her sadness was a constant, maddening presence in the back of his mind. For months now he had had to constantly tamp down the urge to do something, anything, to make her feel better. He’d already learned the hard way that any attempt he made would be rebuffed, and he just couldn’t take any more of that. Not when he was already coping with grief of his own – not so much for little Elizabeth, for whom he’d grieved at the time of her death, but of the new hope it had given him that he and T’Pol might come together at last. Letting go of that had taken a lot longer, and the pain could still stab at him without warning.
“You want to run the quantum dating on the buoy while I see what I can come up from this thing?” Trip asked, carefully keeping his eyes focused on the device in his hands.
“A reasonable plan,” T’Pol said. Her voice was so subdued that he couldn’t help flicking another glance at her.
Don’t say a word, Tucker, he told himself sternly. Don’t even try to be nice. You know she’ll just kick you in the balls if you do. He hunched over the device, blocking out his view of her as completely as he could while he tried to find a way to make it deliver up its secrets.
In desperation a couple of months ago he’d approached Phlox for help. He wasn’t in denial this time. He knew why he felt like shit and he wanted help with depression, not insomnia. And no goddamned Vulcan neuro-pressure and nothing to do with alien leeches either.
Phlox had reluctantly prescribed him an anti-depressant, noting that Tucker’s depression was completely situational, so it didn’t make sense to treat it chemically for any length of time. But Trip was so thrilled that something had finally taken the edge off his pain, he was not interested in trying life without chemicals anytime soon. Phlox countered by making the condition of each weekly supply of pills a session of talk.
Which hadn’t been all bad. He and Phlox had discussed his entire relationship with T’Pol. Trip now felt at least he wasn’t nuts for feeling crazed by the mixed signals she’d given him over the last two years. And it was Phlox who had pointed out T’Pol’s tendency to pursue only when she felt she was at risk of losing Trip’s devotion.
Trip had actually tried for awhile after that to just sit tight, hoping it might entice her out of her seclusion. He’d even contemplated having a flirtation with somebody, anybody, just to make her jealous. But of course with this bond there was little opportunity for faking anything, and it would have been a really crappy thing to pull on some innocent bystander.
Ultimately, what had helped him most was the passage of time. Phlox had recently weaned him off the pills, and while he was not happy, neither was he crippled by depression. He did his job, and avoided unnecessary contact with T’Pol, and looked forward to the day when he could avoid her completely, even as a small, stubborn part of him dreaded it.
But Jon didn’t understand any of this. Lately he'd seized on any excuse to put them together, probably thinking it would force them to resolve their difficulties. Trip should have filled him in. Probably he hadn’t really buried his hopes as much he liked to think. He knew that if there was the tiniest chance T’Pol would ever take him back, they couldn’t afford to let the captain know about it.
“This device is two hundred thirty-four-point-six-two-five solar years old,” T’Pol announced.
“Ah,” Tucker said. “Well, that’s pretty close to what you figured.”
“Maybe you should go tell him.”
He felt a surge of irritation from her through the bond. “I hardly think the information warrants it. You are merely trying to get me to leave.”
So they were suddenly going to talk about this today? It just figured she was suddenly willing to try to resolve matters when Archer demanded it. “Maybe I am,” he said darkly. And felt a hot slice of pain, so strong that he almost couldn’t tell whether it was hers or his.
“You hate me,” she said.
“Why do you suddenly want to talk about this now?” He fought to remain calm and ignore the two powerful, conflicting urges he felt – to reassure her on the one hand, and to wreak vengeance on her for all the grief she’d caused him on the other. “Was it what the captain said? Or do you have some sort of internal switch that suddenly goes off and says today might be a good day to start talking to Tucker again?”
She just stared at him and in that silence Trip realized there was an audible hum coming from the device. “Hey!” he said, conscious of a pleasant current now running through the fingers of his left hand.
She held her scanner up to it. “I believe it is scanning you.”
“It’s an odd sensation,” he said. “Right here, in the finger grips.” It reminded him a little of those pebbles Ah’len had shared with him. “I sure hope this thing can’t get me pregnant.”
Her eyebrows went up. “That seems doubtful. Perhaps if I...”
He handed it over. She was the telepath, she was welcome to it. She threaded three fingers through the grip where his had been. “I don’t feel anything,” she said.
“Maybe it doesn’t like you,” Trip said.
Another twinge of pain.
“I didn’t mean it that way,” he said.
“I am sorry I have caused you pain,” she said. “It was not my intention. I was ... overwhelmed. I couldn’t handle my own emotions, let alone yours.”
He stared at her, nonplussed. What was he supposed to say? He’d waited so long for this discussion that his primary emotional reaction to her disclosure was resentment. And suspicion. If he responded with any form of reassurance, wasn’t it likely she’d just feel free to treat him like crap again?
He held out his hand for the device. “Maybe if I try both grips.”
“We don’t know what might happen.”
“Presumably it might complete a circuit of some kind. Maybe that would allow communication, or some other higher function.”
“It could be dangerous.”
“I’ve got nothing to lose,” Trip said, and slid fingers from each hand into the grips.
x x x
What the hell? Suddenly Trip was lying in a hammock strung between two spreading live oaks. The air was sweet with orange blossom, moist and warm but pleasant thanks to a steady breeze that rustled the leaves and silently lifted the Spanish moss.
Just like home – but it was not home. The Tuckers had never owned a hammock, let alone two old oaks as impressive as these. He sat up, which set the hammock swinging, and stared around him. An old whitewashed wood-frame house sat a short distance away. It looked vaguely familiar, like something out of a historical park, right down to the tin roof and the traditional shotgun floor plan that allowed breezes in through one door and out the other. Judging from the laundry hanging on the line and the large, fenced-in vegetable plot, he was looking at the back door.
It reminded him of an elementary school field trip. But that old Florida homestead hadn’t looked as authentic as this. Here there were no refreshment stands or exit signs or parking lots. This place appeared to sit in the middle of palmetto and pine scrub that extended for acres.
Why would the device be showing him this? “Must be dreaming,” he said, and shook his head, trying to wake up.
He winced against a stab of pain and decided against further head-shaking. It hadn’t worked anyway: everything was still the same. He reached for his communicator, but he wasn’t wearing his uniform anymore. Instead he was clad in a simple cotton shirt and a pair of heavy twill pants. Worn leather boots completed his outfit. He stared down at himself, bemused.
Somewhere nearby a mockingbird burst into song, and as if in answer, a bob-white called. Cicadas sang. Trip sank back into the hammock. Okay, so it was a dream. At least it was a nice one. Quite relaxing, really.
“Here is your iced tea,” T’Pol’s voice said.
He jumped, then struggled out of the hammock and onto his feet. He hadn’t heard anyone approach. T’Pol regarded him curiously from where she stood, holding out a tall glass beaded with moisture, in an outfit like nothing he’d seen on her before. Well, maybe once, back on that dusty planet in the Expanse where those humans and Skagorans had lived their marginal lives. As she had there, T’Pol had wrapped a kerchief around her hair, covering her ears. Her cotton dress was long and full.
“Excuse me?” he said.
“You requested iced tea, did you not?”
“I don’t remember doing that.”
She regarded him. “Your head injury has obviously affected your short-term memory. I told you it was unwise to attempt to fix the roof when it was still wet. What is the last thing you remember?”
“You and I were in the engineering lab – on Enterprise – trying to figure out what the story was with that alien device.”
“That was over two-point-seven-two years ago,” she said. “That alien device somehow transported both of us here. We’ve been here ever since.”
“This can’t be real. First of all, there’s no way a device that small would have the ability to transport matter as far as would have required to reach a planet like this. And then this is just like home ... like Florida ... only better. And you ... well, I just don’t see you bringing me a glass of iced tea. So this has to be a dream.”
“I see. If you don’t want your iced tea, I will drink it instead.”
“I didn’t say I didn’t want it.” He reached out and took the glass. He gulped it down. It was just the way he liked it – heavily sugared, with a sprig of mint. “Thanks. You made this yourself?”
“Of course,” T’Pol said, with some asperity. “How is your headache?”
“Not too bad,” he said. “So you’re saying I fell off the roof?”
“So presumably that’s our house.”
“How’d we get a house?”
“This is where we were deposited by the device. Everyone in the neighborhood seemed to assume it was ours, so, after some initial exploration failed to suggest a way to get back to Enterprise, we returned here.”
“The neighborhood?” He looked around. “We have neighbors? What are they like?”
“Rather like you,” she said dryly. “They appear to be human. Without a scanner it is hard to know for certain. They are not technologically advanced.”
“What do they call this place?”
He shook his head again before remembering that it hurt. “Sugar Creek? As in Sugar Creek, Florida?”
“Indeed. Sugar Creek, Florida, in the year 1911.”
“1911 Florida? So you’re telling me we just happened to be beamed back through time together to a house of our own in some idyllic rural location in Florida’s past. On earth.”
“And this doesn’t strike you as something that has to be the product of my brain?”
She pursed her lips. “I admit the possibility exists. However, since there is nothing to be done about it, I see little point in further debate. Here we are, and here we have been for two point seven two years. I did not think you considered them altogether disagreeable.” She sounded a touch aggrieved.
He tilted his head. As long as his brain was indulging itself like this it wasn’t going to stop at mockingbirds, was it? “Let me guess. We’re pretending to be married.”
“No,” T’Pol said. “We are not pretending. We are married. You wished to make it ‘official’.”
He snorted. “And you agreed, huh? So now you’re what... T’Pol Tucker?”
“I go by Paula Tucker for obvious reasons. You still call me T’Pol in private.”
Her tone lowered suggestively on the word ‘private.’ His subconscious was soooo predictable. “I take it we’re not waiting seven years to consummate this thing?”
“Certainly not,” she said, and reached up to kiss him.
So clearly this was all just an unusually vivid Charles Tucker III dream production.
But hot damn, it was a good one.
x x x
Archer ran into sickbay. Trip was lying unconscious on a biobed, limp except for his hands, which maintained a compulsive grip on the small green device they’d discovered in the buoy. Phlox was scanning him and frowning.
“What happened?” Archer demanded.
T’Pol turned to report. “We were examining the device in the engineering lab when it suddenly activated and appeared to scan the commander. When he picked it up by both hand grips he fell unconscious. When I tried to remove the device from his hands, he began to convulse. I put it back in his hands and the convulsions stopped.”
“What’s it doing to him?” Archer demanded.
Phlox sighed. “That’s not entirely clear. He appears to be in some sort of heightened dream state. It’s already lasted longer than a normal REM stage should in humans. However, he doesn’t appear to be in any immediate danger.” He grimaced. “As long as we don’t try to disengage the device. All attempts at that have resulted in quite serious seizures. I’d rather not expose him to any more of those if we can possibly avoid it.”
Archer scowled and turned back to T’Pol, who was staring fixedly at Tucker. “Did you make any progress in figuring out where this device originates?”
It seemed to him that she only returned her attention to him with some difficulty. “No, sir.”
“Maybe another species has encountered one of these. Give Hoshi a copy of your scans. She can get out some requests for information. In the meantime, see if there’s anything else you can find out about it.”
T’Pol glanced at Phlox. “I am concerned that further attempts to access the device might cause harm to Commander Tucker.”
Phlox smiled nervously. “Perhaps if we wait long enough it will simply finish whatever it’s doing and let him go.”
Archer doubted Trip would feel equally sanguine about lying around hooked up to some alien device until it decided it was done. “How can you be so sure it’s not causing harm to him right now?”
Phlox gave T’Pol a look. “Would you care to comment on that?”
T’Pol looked uncomfortable. “Captain, Commander Tucker is currently in no distress. On the contrary, he seems ... quite content.”
Archer raised his eyebrows. “You mind melded with him while he’s under that device’s control? Was that wise?”
“I did not mind meld with him, Captain.” She gave a slight cough. “As you may know, Vulcans are touch telepaths, and Commander Tucker and I have spent a fair amount of time together. The result of this is that I can, at times, be somewhat attuned to his emotional states.”
“I see,” he said, though he didn’t. Neither of them had ever volunteered anything about what had clearly become a close relationship at some point, and he wasn’t about to start demanding details about it now, especially since they appeared to have become estranged. Though T’Pol wasn’t striking him as particularly estranged at the moment; she had returned to staring at Trip.
Phlox said, “If the commander persists in this state, a full mind meld might be one way to determine what is happening. Perhaps she could even pull him out of this dream state.”
“Would that put T’Pol at risk?”
“Possibly,” Phlox said. “Unfortunately we just don’t know.”
x x x
In Sugar Creek, months passed. Trip knew that it was a dream, but it was apparently the most sustained dream in history, and a mostly pleasant one. If only because of the sheer passage of time he began to accept it as his daily existence.
He’d tried everything he could think of to wake himself out of this new reality. He’d tried splashing cold water in his face. He’d fooled with the device, which he’d found inside the house. He’d tried through sheer mental concentration to imagine himself back into the engineering lab with T’Pol. He’d tried meditation. He’d even tried reaching out through the bond, not that he’d ever had any control over that. But it was as if the bond no longer existed at all; this T’Pol was utterly blank to him that way, and the old T’Pol might as well have disappeared from the universe for all he could feel of her. Which was kind of a relief, really.
Each morning he woke in a tiny upstairs gable bedroom with a beautiful and willing Vulcan woman next to him, and each day he worked their little homestead. They had fields of sugar cane and strawberries to tend as their money crops, as well as their own vegetables and livestock. At night before he fell asleep, when Trip often thought a little harder about things, he might wonder why they did so well farming when neither had started out knowing anything about it. He was still handy, even without modern tools, so he sometimes traded mechanical work for other goods and services in town, where the people were kind and seemed utterly lacking in curiosity or suspicion.
In fact, Sugar Creek appeared to be immune to all the crises of its time, from killing frosts to epidemics, from racial violence to the war clouds that were presumably gathering in Europe. Europe might as well not exist, for in Sugar Creek there were no books or newspapers, no radio, not even silent movies. Hell, it didn’t even have mosquitoes. That was another thing Trip brooded about at night sometimes. That and the way his wife always, after only a token effort at debate, agreed with him.
“You know, I’m bored,” Trip confessed one evening over dinner. “Aren’t you bored? You’re hardly using all your skills and talents here.”
“Is that a commentary on my cooking?”
“Of course not, darlin’. Your cooking is wonderful.”
A skeptical eyebrow went up. “Vulcans are never bored.”
“Well, humans are. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I would kill for a good novel. Or even a newspaper. Or some music. I don’t understand why they don’t exist here. There’s just nothing to take your mind off strawberries and sugar cane.”
“I could take your mind off them.”
He smirked. “I know that.” Though the truth was they had settled into a bit of a routine even in bed. Not that it was anything he found dull or unpleasant: she always seemed to know exactly what he would like, and to thoroughly enjoy anything he did for her. At any rate, that was how it seemed. Sex without any mental contact was pretty much the same educated guesswork it had ever been with any human woman, but he wasn’t complaining. At least he got to have it pretty regularly.
She tilted her head and regarded him appraisingly. “I would have expected you to wish for something more technical than a novel. The latest warp research, for example.”
“That seems pretty pie in the sky from where we’re sitting.”
“Perhaps you should take this opportunity to do some writing of your own. You know more about warp engines in actual practice than any other engineer in Starfleet. Why not get some of that knowledge down in a form that can be shared?”
“Shared? With whom?”
“With me, for now. I am not an engineer, but I would appreciate the opportunity to learn something more sophisticated than this environment can provide. And if we ever get back, you could share it with other Starfleet engineers.”
Trip eyed her askance. “These people don’t even have calculators. I don’t think my math is quite up to the job without a computer to help me out. And I doubt even you can solve warp equations in your head.”
“I may have a solution to that problem,” T’Pol said. She reached up to one of the kitchen shelves and pulled down the alien device. “I have discovered that it can record, and that it is voice-capable,” she added, and handed it to him. “I have also developed some fluency with the language, if you need to have something read back to you.”
“When did you do all that?” he asked, amazed and a little miffed. The device had resisted all his efforts to make it work all this time, but now it was humming with life. “Maybe we can get it to take us back.”
“It is worth trying,” T’Pol said, but her tone did not suggest she held out any hope.
“Maybe instead of fussing with warp equations I could use it to record what’s going on here. That might come in more useful to someone someday.”
“If that will resolve your boredom, it seems like a logical plan,” she said. She got up and started clearing the table. He looked at her, surprised to realize that she was annoyed with him. That almost never happened.
“How did you like the chicken?” she asked, as she cleared his plate.
“It was excellent, thank you.” T’Pol was still vegetarian, but cooked whatever he wanted, merely wrinkling her nose to demonstrate her lack of enthusiasm. He found it odd that she was so eager to embrace local custom and cook all the meals herself, especially since it meant dealing with raw meat – and not reprocessed protein either, but the real thing.
But of course she wasn’t really T’Pol, was she? She was just his self-indulgent Technicolor dream version of her.
Maybe he was actually dead and this was heaven? His own version of paradise?
“You know, I miss Enterprise,” he said.
She gazed at him with those soft brown eyes. “I don’t.”
x x x
T’Pol stared down at Tucker where he lay on the bio-bed, his eyes darting rapidly behind closed lids, tiny hints of expression crossing his face. Five days had passed. He was still mostly contented in this dream state of his, but she was beginning to sense a certain restlessness and discomfort too. Phlox was keeping him hydrated via intravenous fluids, but he had suggested they would soon need to introduce a stomach tube, and T’Pol could see the weight loss that concerned Phlox in Tucker’s increasingly gaunt face. For the first time she seriously considered the possibility that he might die if they did not find a way to remove him from the hold of the device. The thought was intolerable. She reached out to his face, stretching her fingers towards the contact points.
“What are you doing?” Phlox demanded.
She jerked her hand back. “We’ve waited long enough.”
“I tend to agree,” Phlox said, “But that doesn’t mean you should just initiate a mind meld willy-nilly. The captain will want to be informed. And I want you to eat a good meal first. You’ve been neglecting yourself, and we don’t know what might happen. This thing might grab hold of you too.”
His points were logical, but it was difficult to force herself to walk out of sickbay to the mess hall, and even harder to force herself to eat. She had a sense of urgency about reaching Trip now, although she wasn’t sure why; Phlox did not seem to feel he was in any immediate danger. But how could she eat when he could not? An illogical feeling. Still, if T’Pol had learned anything it was that the bond she shared with Commander Tucker was not rational.
She had been so full of grief and rage after what those people had done to their child that she’d wanted to kill. Paxton, of course, and his comrades. Sometimes herself. Sometimes even Trip. She found it unnerving – even infuriating – that he would even think about having another child. It was obvious that any child of theirs would have to cope with vicious enemies – far beyond the simple ostracism her mother had warned her about. And that was bad enough. With the exception of Soval, who had exhibited genuine compassion for both of them, her Vulcan colleagues had eyed her with poorly hidden disgust as she’d stood next to the human father of her child at that memorial service. She'd wanted to kill them too.
And then Tucker had introduced her to his family with such pride and hope, and she could not help but notice the wariness with which his parents met her. They knew she was alien. They knew she had hurt him. They seemed to know before she did that she was going to hurt him again.
Which she did. She’d shut him out of her life while she nursed her own wounds, because she didn’t know any other way to do it, and because she was afraid of her own rage and sorrow. When she had finally felt strong enough to tentatively reach out again, he had retreated into a self-protective shell of his own.
She couldn’t blame him. What was to stop her from behaving any differently the next time some trauma struck? The only aspect of this situation that gave her any hope was the bond that still existed. Because of that she knew that somewhere, buried in amongst all the anger and frustration and distrust, he still harbored an ember of longing for her.
But it was fading. Finally she realized exactly the source of her current apprehension, and it didn’t just concern his feelings for her. In some far deeper way, Trip was giving up.
x x x
The first hint that something bad could ever happen in Sugar Creek came one morning when Trip found it hard to get out of bed, and even harder to get any work done in the fields. Walking back to the house felt like traversing that desert with Jon. After that, his energy level was never the same. The local doctor wasn’t sure what the problem was, but guessed it was a wasting disease of some kind. T’Pol shouldered all the farm work without complaint, and he did what he could around the house, but was forced to take frequent rests.
After awhile he realized that everyone around him assumed he had begun a slow decline towards an inevitable death, and eventually he had to agree that they were probably right.
He supposed there were worse things. At least he felt comfortable and cared for and loved. T’Pol was as gentle and attentive as he could have ever wished. As long as he had to spend so much time lying around, he started to work in earnest on the warp manual she had suggested, partly because it was something to do, and partly because it seemed to please her.
He was working on it that evening after dinner, lying on the old settee on the back porch, enjoying the cooler breezes of the evening, when he heard her ask, “What are you working on?”
He squinted in confusion. T’Pol stood there before him in one of her Enterprise cat suits – the red one, an old favorite of his. She looked so much her severe old self, he felt his stomach give a little lurch of nervousness. And excitement. Damn, but those old cat suits had been sexy. “Where’d you get that?”
She just raised her eyebrow and regarded him, evidently puzzled.
“Don’t tell me you made it yourself?” he said. “And what’d you do to your hair?”
“Commander? I guess it’s safe enough to let the ears show back here in the dark like this. What’s this about?” He pulled himself up with a little groan and patted the cushions next to him, a signal to her to join him. “Are you trying to cheer me up?”
She remained standing. “Do you require cheering up?”
He stared at her for a moment. Something definitely wasn’t right here. “T’Pol. What’s going on?”
“This is a mind meld.”
He stared at her. “Excuse me?”
Her voice softened. “I am in your mind.”
He chuckled and shook his head as if to clear it. “You’re not making any sense, darlin’.”
“I don’t understand it myself,” T’Pol said. “This is not like anything I’ve ever experienced during a mind meld.” She eyed the ratty old settee dubiously, then carefully sat down next to him and turned her attention back to him. He was struck by the subtle coppery aroma of her.
It seemed like something he had forgotten. But how was that possible when he slept with this woman every night? He studied her carefully, looking for more discrepancies. This T’Pol seemed skinnier, almost anorexic, and there were dark smudges under her eyes. He wanted to run his hands down her skin, to compare the feel of this woman to his wife, but some instinct stopped him.
Which was enough to tell him that something was very, very wrong.
“Perhaps if you could tell me what you are working on,” she said.
“You’re the one who asked me to do it,” he said defensively.
She just looked gravely at him. “May I?”
He handed the device over to her.
She peered down at the screen. “Are these warp equations?” Her voice had risen.
“You’re the one who suggested I keep my hand in!”
“Don’t you realize this is the same device we found on the alien buoy?”
“What the hell am I supposed to use? You got a spare PADD stowed somewhere that I don’t know about?”
“Stop calling me that!”
She looked at him. “Trip. You must stop working on anything related to warp drive or any other sensitive systems immediately.”
“I believe an alien force of some kind is attempting to access your specialized knowledge. It appears that all of this is part of an elaborate fiction designed to lower your resistance to sharing classified information.”
Trip went still. “Explain.”
She gestured around her. “At this moment you are lying comatose in sickbay.” Her voice turned urgent. “It’s been five-point-two days. Your vital signs are weakening. Dr. Phlox feels your life may be at risk.”
“That can’t be right. We’ve been here over ten years,” he said. “Ten mostly happy years. This is just like Old T’Pol. She always waited to do anything until it was way, way, way too late.”
He just shook his head. He didn’t have to explain anything to this one anymore.
She reached out a hand and laid it on his arm. “Trip, this is not real.”
He shrank away from her. “Don’t touch me.”
“Trip! Have I ever lied to you?”
“Yes. All the time.” Funny how those old hurts could flare up again just as fresh as they had ever been.
She swallowed, but persevered. “You can’t stay here. If you do you’ll die. You have to come back with me.”
“Where were you ten years ago when it might have made a difference?” With supreme effort, he staggered to his feet and stumbled into the house, slamming the door behind him. “T’Pol?” he called. “Honey?” But his T’Pol didn’t answer. He climbed the stairs to their bedroom, gasping for breath, and threw himself onto the old feather bed. It didn’t smell like T’Pol. It didn’t smell like anything. Even the sprig of orange blossoms sitting on the bedside table had lost its heavy sweetness.
She’d gone and ruined everything. Again.
x x x
He woke the next morning with a woman curled up against his back.
“T’Pol?” he asked sleepily, confused. “I thought...”
“That was some nightmare you had last night,” she said, caressing him.
He stretched to meet her caresses happily, even as his brain puzzled over the oddity of her speech pattern. “Some nightmare?”
Her hand found what it was looking for and caressed it with determination.
“Actually, sweetheart, I don’t think I’m up to that,” he said, gently pushing her hand away. He really did feel weaker than usual and a little dizzy, even lying down. “I’m not feeling so hot. Maybe I could lie in for a little while this morning?”
“Of course. I will bring you the device. I looked at what you accomplished yesterday. I believe you are approaching a real breakthrough. You could stay in bed and work on those equations.”
He rolled over to stare at her. She was as breathtakingly beautiful as ever, staring at him with those big brown eyes. “You know, darlin’, I ... I really don’t feel up to that right now.”
He saw a flash of hardness in her eyes that had never noticed before, and felt a twinge of panic: what if that other T’Pol was right? But then she leaned forward and kissed him tenderly on the forehead. “Of course, Trip. I’ll bring you some breakfast in bed, and then you can sleep in. How’s that?”
He blinked, relieved. “Thank you. I don’t know why you’re so good to me.”
She kissed him again and left to go downstairs. He sighed and lay there, staring up at the old cypress beams that crossed the ceiling. He really did feel ill this morning.
T’Pol’s voice came out of the shadows in the corner of the room. “You’re feeling ill because you haven’t eaten or moved in days. You must come back to yourself. On the ship.”
Trip pulled himself up against the pillows and peered into the dimness. Catsuit T’Pol was perched on the old chair. “I thought I told you to leave me alone.”
“You slammed the door but you didn’t lock it,” she said. “There’s a part of you that knows I’m right.”
He scowled. “Even supposing I agreed to go back, how the hell would that work? It’s not like I didn’t try, back when I first got here.”
“What you see around you is clearly a construct of your mind,” she said. “Theoretically you can simply think yourself back to where you belong – in sickbay, on Enterprise. But the device may be interfering somehow. I believe I could help you, if you would let me. I...” She paused; the other T’Pol was returning.
“I hope this will make you feel better,” his T’Pol said, setting a bed tray up in front of him. She’d laid out a slice of pecan pie, milk, coffee. The alien device sat on the tray next to his plate.
“What’s that doing here?” he said.
“Just in case you feel up to it later, my dear,” his T’Pol said lightly. She brushed the hair back from his forehead and leaned in to give him another kiss. “I know how much you enjoy an engineering challenge.”
“He’s not going to give you any more information,” old T’Pol said, rising up from her chair in the corner. “It’s time to let him go.”
His T’Pol stiffened. “Who is this person?” she demanded of Trip.
He sighed. “Isn’t that obvious?”
“What is she doing here?”
“Let him go,” old T’Pol said. Her voice had lowered dangerously and Trip raised his eyebrows. If he didn’t feel so ill he might have found it intriguing that a fantasy of another kind seemed to be coming to pass right in front of him.
His T’Pol gave him a sharp, surprised look. The old one also looked over at him with some disgust. “A cat fight?”
Trip sighed. “Look, it’s a guy thing. Anyway, you Vulcans have kalifee. I’m not nearly as bloodthirsty as that.”
“No?” his T’Pol said, and picked up the butter knife off his breakfast tray. “I am.” She raised the knife menacingly towards her counterpart, who immediately assumed a defensive stance.
“T’Pol!” he said, shocked. “Put the knife down!”
“I will not allow her to interfere,” the woman who had been his T’Pol said coldly.
“If you harm her you won’t get another word out of me,” Trip said. He knocked his breakfast tray aside and struggled to disentangle himself from the sheets.
“Your mission is fatally compromised,” old T’Pol said evenly to the woman who was steadily backing her into the corner on the other side of the bed. “It’s over. Let him go.”
“We don’t let anyone go,” the woman said. “It hardly benefits us if our efforts are detected.”
“Your mission is in all likelihood pointless,” T’Pol said. “The device we found had been drifting in space for over two centuries.”
“That is not my concern,” the woman said. “If he’s not going to give us anything else, then it’s time for both of you to die.” She raised the knife and rushed T’Pol.
With a desperate groan, Trip launched himself out of the bed and onto the woman he’d spent the last ten years of his life with. “No!” he yelled as he took them both down onto the floor, half-believing that she would become compliant again if only because he insisted.
She stared coldly up at him and suddenly he stiffened in pain and shock: She had jammed the butter knife into his back.
“No!” T’Pol screamed. She dove over them both, grabbed the woman’s head and, with an audible crack, broke her neck. Trip stared down in horror as the face of his wife transformed into something completely alien but still undeniably, horribly dead. And then suddenly there was no air. He choked and coughed up blood, spattering it onto the creature below him.
T’Pol lifted him up off the alien corpse, applying pressure on his wound with one hand. “Don’t believe this, Trip,” she said urgently. “The knife is no more real than she was. Come back with me now.”
“Can’t,” he gasped.
“You have to. Come back with me now or we’ll both die.”
“Don’t know how. Go back without me.”
“I can’t,” she said. “You’re going to have to trust me.” She lifted his hand up and spread his fingers on her own face. “Your mind to my mind,” she said.
He tried to pull his hand away. She wouldn’t let it go. “I’m in your mind,” she hissed. “Why won’t you come into mine?”
He stared up at her. This was something she just couldn’t understand – that he didn't want to know once and for all why she wasn’t willing to be with him. Why she didn’t love him. The room was beginning to fade around them, to darken, and he was so cold.
She sounded frantic. “Please, Trip. Your mind to my mind. Your thoughts to my thoughts. Please!”
She never said please. Thank you, but never please. Hard to say no when she put it like that. Gasping for oxygen, surrounded by darkness, he reached for her thoughts.
x x x
Suddenly the room was gone, and the cold and the dark, and she was cradling him on the hot concrete of her mother’s courtyard on Vulcan while the fountain gurgled and bells chimed in the hot breeze.
He blinked and took a deep breath. The pain was gone, but he still felt woozy.
“What are we doing here?” he said, squinting against the bright sun.
She looked around. “I’m not sure. But I have often pondered how our lives might be different if I had simply introduced you to my mother that day as my... ” She hesitated.
“Boyfriend? Bond mate? Friend with benefits?” He didn’t try to hide his bitterness.
T’Pol said quietly, “You have tried so many times to discuss our relationship, but I never let you. I don’t know why you didn’t give up much earlier. I don’t know why I was so surprised when you finally did.”
“I never gave up. I just decided the next move was yours.” He sighed. “And you never made it.”
“I am sorry,” she said heavily.
He lay with his head in her lap in the hot Vulcan sun and in the odd tranquility of the moment decided that he really had nothing left to lose; why not know the worst and be done with it? “I know you didn’t set out to torture me, T’Pol. Maybe, as long as we’re both here, we could just settle this? Explain to me why we can’t be together so I can understand it. Then maybe I can just, you know, finally let it go.”
“I can’t do that.”
She sounded so upset he thought she must have misunderstood. “I’m not talking about dying or anything. I’ll go back with you. I just ... it’s not fair, T’Pol.”
She closed her eyes in obvious pain. “I know.”
He wanted the truth. “Do you love me?”
“Yes, I love you.”
But that had surely been too easy. “Do you want to be with me?”
“Yes.” This time her voice was softer.
He stared up at her. This was a weird angle from which to have a conversation of this import. And he still couldn’t really tell where he stood. So much for the magical all-knowing certainty of the Vulcan mind melds he’d occasionally fantasized about having with her. “Okay, so do you mean, I’m this human you happen to find moderately attractive to hang out with as long as we’re on the same ship, or do you mean we can be together forever?”
She hesitated, and his heart contracted. Of course it couldn’t be that easy. There’d be reasons, no doubt very good, eminently logical reasons why it wouldn’t work. He rolled away from her and lifted himself to his hands and knees, an effort that raised a cold sweat on him. He was going to be sick. Perhaps having this kind of discussion right here and now wasn’t such a great idea after all.
She clambered after him. “Forever, Trip,” she said, pulling him back into a tight embrace. “But first you have come back home.”
He nodded, too sick even to fully take in what she’d said. “Whatever you say.”
x x x
There was a kind of low hum and then the hum blossomed into a roomful of discrete sounds: Phlox talking, the chirps and rustlings of various creatures. He felt hands on his face and knew they were hers.
“He’s awake,” T’Pol said.
“It’s about time!” Phlox said, rushing over.
Trip fought to open his eyes, blinking to clear them. T’Pol stared down at him, her face solemn, but he could feel joy and relief coursing through the bond.
“Hey,” he said, staring back.
“Hey,” she echoed softly.
“Thanks for coming to get me.” He was disappointed to realize he still felt extremely ill.
“Any time,” she said.
Trip started to grin but had to jerk his head aside so he wouldn’t throw up on her, though all he produced were dry heaves.
Phlox clucked. “T’Pol, thank you for efforts. Now if you could give me some room to work...”
“Of course, doctor,” T’Pol said, and backed away. She toggled the com on the wall. “Captain, you wanted to know if Commander Tucker regained consciousness.”
“I’ll be right there!” Archer said.
Phlox pressed a hypospray into Trip’s neck and he felt better immediately. “All you really need is some sustenance, Commander,” Phlox said.
Their attention was taken by a growing low whine coming from the device that still sat clutched between Trip’s hands.
“It’s going to self-destruct,” Trip said with horrible certainty.
“Give it to me,” T’Pol said.
He lifted it up, and she took it far too gingerly from of his hands, watching him anxiously the whole time. “What are you waiting for?” he yelled. “Get rid of it!”
She stared at him for another moment then took off running.
He felt his heart pounding along with hers as she ran down the corridors to the transporter. Then anxiety, then relief. She had succeeded. Thank God. He would have felt pretty bad if he’d screamed at her like that just before she got blown up.
“I don’t hear any explosions,” Phlox said nervously.
“Explosions?” Archer said, just walking in. “It’s nice to see you conscious, Trip.”
Trip grinned. “Thanks, Cap’n. It’s okay, Phlox. She beamed it off in time.”
Archer said, “Beamed what off?”
Phlox answered. “The device. It was showing signs of a possible auto-destruct.”
T’Pol walked back into sickbay. “Lieutenant Commander Reed reports the device detonated two hundred meters off the port bow. We will attempt to retrieve as much debris as possible but it may be difficult.”
Trip sighed. “I guess we may never know where it came from now.”
“These devices seem to be well-designed to prevent detection,” Archer said. “Hoshi says the Rigellians found a similar one not far from here some fifty years ago. It killed one of their engineers and then exploded before they could find out much about it.”
“Seems like a pretty inefficient way to gather warp drive intelligence,” Trip said. “How do they make any use of the data they get if the things keep exploding when they’re done?”
“Perhaps it was transmitting data during the process in some way we didn’t recognize,” T’Pol said. “Or perhaps it was programmed to self-destruct if the data it gathered wasn’t sufficiently useful. We don’t know if anyone was even left to receive the data. I didn’t recognize the alien race we saw in your mind.”
“That could have been just another disguise,” Trip said. “Or my subconscious brain’s idea of what a dead alien on the floor ought to look like.”
Archer and Phlox exchanged a glance. “I’m looking forward to reading your report, Trip,” Archer said.
Trip grimaced. This one was going to take some finessing.
“Enough talk, Commander,” Phlox said. “Time for you to start eating.” He adjusted the bio bed for sitting. “What’ll it be? Chicken soup? Pan-fried catfish?”
“Scrambled eggs and toast and coffee,” Trip said.
“I’ll get it,” T’Pol said, and left, surprising all the men present.
“Did she really just volunteer to go get food for me?” Trip asked.
Archer laughed. “I think she’s awfully glad to have you back.”
Trip smiled but felt a twinge of misgiving. He just hoped that was true. And that the room around him really existed. And that T’Pol really was bringing him eggs and toast.
And that she really had said “forever” ... and meant it.
What a blessing it would be to believe that he was home at last.
The Story Continues in Coming Home.
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