Author's Note: Many thanks to Escriba for her beta services.
Jon made the case as best he could: “Experience compassion for yourself. You want to know what it means to be human, you need to do more than observe.”
The Organian in Hoshi’s body looked balefully at the other one. “He thinks we don’t know what compassion is.”
“If the experience does not add to our understanding, we can simply change it back,” said the one in Trip’s body.
“You realize there will be no way for them to properly explain it. This could spark a superstitious belief movement that changes the course of this species’ natural development.”
“Please,” Jon said. “Please.” He resisted the impulse to outright beg. He doubted it would help with these two. “We’re scientists, not pilgrims. We’ve experienced enough strange phenomena out here that we’re not very likely to ascribe it to the supernatural. At most we might consider it really good luck.”
“Luck,” the one in Hoshi’s body sneered. It gave its comrade a sour look. “Fine.” It turned to Jon. “You won’t remember any of this.”
In the two dead human’s bodies, bright, blinding lights grew.
Trip said, “What the hell?”
“How did we get to sickbay?” Hoshi asked.
Jon blinked, dazed.
“Cap’n?” Trip said.
“You’re alive,” Jon said. He turned to Hoshi, grabbed her by the shoulders. Her skin was real and warm under his hands. Her face stared back at him without any trace of deathly pallor. “You’re alive!”
“Why do you sound so surprised?” Trip’s voice had dipped even deeper than usual.
“How do you feel?” Jon asked.
“Fine,” Trip said. He straightened up and looked a little taken aback. “Great, actually. How long were we out? You must have come up with one hell of a cure.”
Jon shook his head, confused. “No, Trip, we didn’t. At least, we thought we didn’t. We failed, and you both died. First Hoshi, then you. I don’t understand.” He squinted up at the medical scans. How was this possible?
Trip exchanged a nervous glance with Hoshi. “I feel pretty damned good for a dead man,” he said. “Why are you in an EV suit?”
“We brought you here from decon to try radiation therapy in the imaging chamber. We had to maintain isolation.”
“It must have worked,” Hoshi said.
Jon shook his head. “We never even got you into the chamber. And when we tried it on Trip it didn’t work. He still died.” Having become exposed himself had offered an odd sort of relief, he remembered; he wouldn’t have to feel responsible for what had happened to Trip and Hoshi for very long. “I don’t understand. But I sure am relieved.” He grimaced, suddenly doubtful. “I sure hope this isn’t a dream.”
“You aren’t the only one,” Trip said.
Jon smiled. “You really feel good?”
Trip grinned back at him. “Yes, sir. One hundred percent fit and ready for duty.”
Jon turned to Hoshi. She said, “Actually, I think I feel better than I did before the away mission.”
Jon shook his head wonderingly. He didn’t have a clue how this had happened. But he was damned glad that it had.
Trip sat there and listened as Archer talked to T’Pol and Phlox on the bridge.
She’d wanted to know if he awoke?
Her total lack of affect in her one and only visit to the decon chamber had chilled him even in the midst of that horrific fever. Afterwards, he’d wondered whether Vulcans simply turned even more supremely unemotional when faced with a friend’s likely death. For he was still her friend, surely?
But then a lot of people had seemed weird, especially Travis. Even Phlox. And Malcolm, usually so quick to turn morbidly sentimental, had been utterly absent. He shook his head. Perhaps he’d been so feverish or so medicated that his perceptions had been screwy. Hell, had he dreamed that thing about Hoshi breaking her CO’s arm over a poker game?
Only Jon had seemed like himself, miserably attempting to act tough and hopeful when grief was already etched all over his face. Even now he still looked stunned … but happy.
Phlox and T’Pol arrived, Phlox with his scanner out ahead of him. He barely looked Trip in the eye he was so intent on his readings. T’Pol stared at Trip for a long, pregnant moment that made his heart beat faster before she broke it off and backed away. She crossed her arms and lowered her head.
He would have given so much for a simple “Welcome back.” A brief touch on the arm. Anything.
“Can we go, Doc?” Commander Tucker complained. “I’m dying of hunger here.”
Human hyperbole if T’Pol had ever heard it.
“Yes, yes, go ahead,” Phlox said. “I can’t get any more useful data out of you two and you’re obviously fully recovered.”
“C’mon, Hoshi,” the engineer said. “Let’s get some chow.”
Sato hopped off her biobed and said, “I could eat a horse,” something T’Pol knew was another figure of speech. For beings with such avidly carnivorous appetites, humans had a complex array of rules about which other living creatures they considered it ethical to consume.
“You ought to be hungry,” Tucker said, his tone teasing. “You chucked up that last meal hours ago.”
“Don’t remind me!”
T’Pol turned around from the data she was studying, irresistibly drawn to stealing one more look at the commander standing there, healthy and alive.
The boyish grin on his face faltered when he met her eyes. “Thanks for all your hard work, T’Pol,” he said. He raised his voice. “And you too, Phlox.”
Phlox sounded harried. “I’d love to say you’re welcome, but I still don’t understand how it worked!”
“Well, I’m sure you’ll figure it out between the two of you soon enough.” Trip cast another, unreadable look at her and ushered Hoshi from the room.
“You must be hungry too, T’Pol,” Phlox said. “Why don’t you join them?”
“I am more useful here,” she said. She decided not to point out that she also had not been invited. The doctor would merely say that she did not need an invitation, which was of course true.
“Those two are both quite resilient,” Phlox said, almost as if he were musing to himself. “But I’ve yet to see a sentient being go through what they just went through without being forced to evaluate what matters most. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we see them make some changes in their priorities – perhaps in their careers, or in their relationships...”
She recognized that Phlox was trying to counsel her. But Phlox had only the dimmest idea of the issues involved. “Any such changes are surely their own concern,” she said softly.
Phlox smiled sadly at her. “As you say.”
Jon sat in his quarters that night with Porthos in his lap and wondered just how badly he was going to get chewed out.
It hadn’t really been the wisest command move, being the one to help Phlox move Trip and Hoshi to sickbay. T’Pol had argued against it, of course, but as usual he hadn’t listened.
Stripping off those gloves still made sense in terms of protecting the crew. Better him than Phlox, given what they were up against. But Gardner was going to be supremely pissed off that he had put himself in that situation. Experienced starship captains were an asset Starfleet didn’t have in abundance.
Still, he couldn’t regret it. And Gardner surely knew his weaknesses by now.
If this was a weakness. Jon didn’t even know for sure. Maybe it was actually a strength.
The only thing he knew for sure was that he’d do the same thing again in a second.
Hoshi stared at herself in the mirror and wondered what she was supposed to make of having cheated death yet again. At least she looked a hell of a lot better for it this time around.
And this time she didn’t have to wrestle with any guilt about having helped the Xindi launch the weapon. On the other hand, it rattled her that something as simple as investigating an old garbage dump had nearly killed her.
Space was just full of nasty surprises.
Perhaps she ought to feel a little bad about nearly blowing Commander Tucker and herself out an airlock. Trip hadn’t said a word to her about it, but Malcolm had informed her with some asperity that she was clearly more of a security risk than anyone had ever realized. When she’d implied he was exaggerating, he’d shown her the surveillance tapes.
After that she had to reluctantly agree: She was a security risk. But she couldn’t help thinking a girl ought to get a little more of a welcome when returning from the dead. “Guess Enterprise would be more secure if I’d stayed dead,” she’d said sourly.
“Perish the thought!” he’d said, which had made her feel a little better.
“We weren’t recorded the whole time in decon, were we?”
“It doesn’t get archived unless there’s something that needs to be investigated. In this case, quarantine was breached, so that automatically triggers an investigation and that means I had to review this section. I suppose Phlox may save recordings for medical research purposes, but those would be privacy-protected. Why?”
“Just curious.” She couldn’t help wondering if he’d overheard what she’d told Trip about her poker game.
“I think you were very brave.”
Hoshi grimaced. “I wasn’t brave. I was just sick. I didn’t know I was about to die.” She looked out the window at the stars streaking by. “I still can’t believe it.”
“I know. Me neither,” Malcolm said. His expression was troubled.
“What is it?” Hoshi said.
“I just feel like it all happened too fast. I had two very good friends dying and it’s almost as if I missed it, events happened so quickly. You’d think my perception of time would have slowed … not speeded up!”
“But it did happen very quickly.”
He shook his head, frustrated. “Not that quickly. I’m telling you, it was very odd.” He sighed and gave her a tight smile. “I’m glad you’re okay.”
Trip lay on his bunk listening to the piano piece he’d played for the cogenitor during her last hours on Enterprise. During her last hours, period. He didn’t know how she’d killed herself, but – as he often had since learning of her death – he wondered what she had been thinking as she died.
As for his own death from the virus, he’d quickly realized it was virtually inevitable. So he’d used the same technique he always used for getting through unpleasant necessities – trying his damnedest not to think about it. He’d focused on Hoshi, or focused on the more immediate problems, like whether he had enough energy to get up to pee or to chase down a communications officer who was trying to open an airlock. And while she was still coherent, Hoshi had been good company. He was glad he hadn’t had to go through this with Malcolm. He couldn’t have stood another round of morbid letters home.
He had also considered – especially when Phlox’s painkillers weren’t keeping up with the virus – that death was a much more attractive option when you were miserably ill.
Still, he’d been caught entirely off guard when the captain had told him to take that sedative. He hadn’t been ready. He hadn’t said goodbye to anyone. And he couldn’t help regretting that his last words to T’Pol had been hostile.
But she was fine. She would have been fine either way. She might have been slightly rattled by his little brush with eternity there – certainly she had been unnaturally subdued in sickbay, and perhaps she had watched him a little more intently than usual – but she would be fine. Her calm had never wavered. She had Surak and she had Vulcan tradition, and it was clear she had no intention of leaving the path she was on.
He’d just been given a precious second chance at life. One of many second chances, really. He was bound to run out of those someday.
So he really should move on now. Find happiness in something other than a woman who had no place for him in her life.
But damn, it was hard.
He switched the music off. Better silence. Better just to sleep, if he could.
In her quarters late that night, T’Pol sank down onto her meditation mat. She and Phlox had not found any reasonable explanation for the disappearance of the silicon virus. She had many emotions to categorize and put away into their walled compartments: her frustration at the scientific mystery, the despair she had felt earlier at losing her valued crew mates, the joy that had overcome her when they had escaped their fate.
The exquisite relief of not having to go on with Trip gone.
She took a shuddering breath. Clearly she had not mastered her feelings for him as much as she had hoped. It was even obvious to others – she could tell that Archer knew. And Phlox.
Indeed, only Commander Tucker himself seemed not to realize that he remained the focus of her existence.
Which was just as well. He would be a happier man when he could let go of any remaining attachment to her. She’d seen his confusion and longing when she first set eyes on him in sickbay, and she’d seen the mask drop down over his face when she didn’t give him some acknowledgment that she had indeed mourned his loss, or rejoiced in his return.
It pained her to disappoint him. Even worse, though, was the memory of his passing. She had known when he was gone. His death had felt like a black hole opening up in the center of her being, swallowing all light and hope.
She knew she could never make Trip happy, and she saw no point in continuing to disappoint him. And for her part, this virus had given her a bitter foretaste of the grief of losing him, which she inevitably would – if not to death, than to his own inevitable fatigue with her inability to meet his needs.
They were each better off apart. It was the only logical conclusion.
She took a careful, measured breath, finally approaching something like the proper state for meditation. She would find peace. She would cast out fear. She would go on.
Even if she could only begin to manage that because she knew Charles Tucker III still existed somewhere in the universe.
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