"I've got a lot of work to do, T'Pol," Trip said, as they walked quickly down the corridor. "I don't have time for this."
"While the Captain is away from the ship, you have a responsibility as second-in-command to assist me in greeting our guest."
"But we're still having trouble with the environmental controls on B and C decks. People are starting to complain. When they signed on, they didn't think they'd have to work in a tropical rainforest."
"Your engineers are perfectly capable of finding a solution to the problem."
"You make it sound like it's a quick fix. Just tighten a couple of screws," he grumbled, even though he knew he didn't have a snowball's chance in hell of winning this argument. "You know we've been fighting this problem for over a week now."
He glanced at T'Pol. She didn't look impressed. "Besides," he continued, playing the last card in a losing hand, "it's not like our guest is some highfalutin ambassador. She's only six years old."
Hands clasped behind her back, T'Pol continued to look straight ahead. She was obviously in full-blown captain-of-the-ship mode. "Every guest aboard Enterprise has the right to be treated with equal respect. Age should not be a determining factor."
"Give me a break." Trip rolled his eyes. "In case it's slipped your mind, my title is chief engineer, not babysitter."
T'Pol came to a halt outside the transporter room and turned to face Trip. "I know how busy you are, but I thought you, of all people, would understand how uncomfortable a Vulcan child might feel on a Human ship."
Suddenly, she dropped her eyes and looked away. It quickly became obvious to Trip that she was no longer speaking as the officer in command of Starfleet's flagship, but as his wife. "I thought you would want to help. Evidently I was mistaken. If you believe you are needed in engineering, you are free to go."
Trip scrubbed a hand over his face. T'Pol was right. He was being a jerk. But he was just so tired...and frustrated. For the past week, nothing had gone right. First there was the stubborn problem with the environmental system. Then a disagreement with Malcolm over the increased power requirements for his weapons upgrades had ended in a shouting match. The aft sensors had to be realigned - twice. Phlox had major problems with the imaging chamber. Then, to make matters worse, Enterprise had received a distress call two days ago; warp 5.1 was difficult enough to maintain when everything was running smoothly.
All he wanted to do right now was get down to engineering to see what progress the Gamma Shift had made on the repairs overnight. But when he looked into her eyes, he'd had to admit that she really wasn't asking for very much - just a few minutes of his time. If this made her happy, maybe it was worth it.
Finally, he decided to fall back on the mantra his father had always told him was the secret to marital bliss.
"You're right-I'm wrong-I'm sorry."
Trip took a deep breath. Once again, Dad was correct. If you said it fast enough, it didn't hurt a bit.
T'Pol's eyes softened. "Are you being less than honest with me, Commander?"
"Less than honest...me?"
She didn't need to comment; her raised eyebrow made it clear that she thought he was full of it. And every time he saw that look, it only made him love her more.
Lightly brushing his hand against hers, he said, "I really am sorry, T'Pol. I know you wouldn't ask me to do this if you didn't think it was important."
"I forgive you," she murmured.
"And you won't make me sleep on the floor tonight?"
Trip moved in a little closer. When he took a deep breath, her scent triggered memories of romantic nights spent locked in her arms. He could almost feel the touch of her full lips as they pressed against his.
Unfortunately, T'Pol chose that moment to put her hand against his chest and gently push him away. "Tonight, you will be sleeping alone. Our guest will be sharing my quarters until her parents come aboard."
Trip grunted softly. That was a real mood killer.
With a nod of his head toward the door, he sighed resignedly and said, "Let's go. We don't want to be late."
Trip opened the door to the transporter room and they entered. Hoshi and Doctor Phlox were already there waiting for them.
Ensign Tomasz Szweda was manning the transporter controls. "They're ready whenever you are, Commander," he said to T'Pol.
"Begin transport," she replied.
"I don't feel real good about this," Trip murmured. "I'd much rather use the shuttlepod with someone this young."
"We have no choice," T'Pol replied. "The decision has been taken out of our hands."
Trip nodded in grudging acceptance of the situation.
The distress call had come from Ma'Lo'A, a mineral-rich planet located about midway between Alpha Centauri and Beta Virginis. For centuries, a single ruling family, the Gralee, had exercised total control over the poorly educated and impoverished population on all three continents. Greedy and indolent, the Gralee had discovered long ago that leasing the planet's mineral rights to off-worlders was the quickest way to accumulate wealth. The alien-run mining companies, with the wholehearted support of the Gralee, had callously exploited the indigenous workers; generation after generation of Ma'Lo'Asi had lived and died in the mines.
Finally, after years of mismanagement and abuse, a series of mine disasters had triggered a civil uprising. In a matter of days, the Gralee had all been slaughtered or driven into hiding. Their guards had been no match for the thousands and tens of thousands of oppressed Ma'Lo'Asi, who firmly believed they had nothing left to lose.
Most of the off-worlders had shared the Gralee's fate. The few who managed to survive had apparently recognized the signs of the coming storm and either had an escape route planned well in advance or found a temporary place of safety, barricaded themselves in and waited for help to arrive.
Enterprise was now in orbit over Ma'Lo'A in answer to the distress call sent by one such group: half a dozen Vulcan geologists, who'd apparently survived because very few people knew of their existence. When the trouble started five days ago, they'd simply done their best to secure the science station, which was situated in an abandoned mine five meters up the side of a mountain, and waited. After several days with no end to the violence in sight, they'd finally decided it was time to seek help.
Unfortunately, by the time Enterprise arrived, the violence had seemingly begun to abate. Without the incentive of riots in the streets directly below them, the scientists felt it was illogical to leave before they'd finished their current research project, which was nearing completion. And no amount of persuasion on T'Pol's part was able to convince them otherwise.
Finally, Captain Archer had transported down with Lieutenant Reed and two MACOs to try and reason with them face to face, but even drawn phase pistols had no effect on the scientists. After an hour of arm-twisting, Archer had managed to gain only one concession: two of the scientists agreed to send their young daughter to Enterprise instead of keeping her with them until they'd completed their work.
And of course, T'Pol was the logical person to supervise the child until her parents could join her.
Trip had no problem with her being on board - he'd always liked children - just as long as he didn't have to oversee her care and feeding.
Soon after Ensign Szweda activated the transporter, the swirling atoms quickly solidified into the compact shape of a miniature version of T'Pol. Trip couldn't help but smile as he took in the self-possessed little girl. She was dressed simply in a full-length blue-grey gown and a plain beige robe, and there was a white cloth bag clutched in her left hand. With her big brown eyes, her button nose and her delicately pointed ears, she looked like the perfect little pixie come to life.
Seemingly unfazed by her journey via the transporter, she stood quietly for a moment, taking in everything and everyone around her, then she stepped off the platform and walked over to T'Pol.
Raising a hand in the ta'al, she said, "Live long and prosper. My name is Valla."
T'Pol returned the traditional greeting and then made the necessary introductions. Motioning to her right, she said, "This is Commander Tucker. He is our chief engineer. He will be available to answer any questions you might have about the workings of the ship." T'Pol gave Trip a warning look that said, Behave.
"Peace and long life, Valla," Trip said, forming the ta'al with the fingers of his left hand. "It's a pleasure to meet you."
Valla just stared at him.
T'Pol then proceeded to introduce Hoshi, who would be helping the little girl with her language skills, and Doctor Phlox, who had agreed to tutor her in biology and zoology.
When Phlox bent down to greet her, Valla drew back slightly - his yard-wide smile must have been a little overwhelming - but on the whole, she appeared to treat this experience as little more than business as usual.
"You will be sharing my quarters until your parents come aboard," T'Pol said. "I have prepared a schedule of classes and activities for you. I know you will give Ensign Sato and Doctor Phlox your full attention."
Valla nodded. Her expression made it clear that she took every word T'Pol said very seriously.
"Do you have any questions?" When the little girl shook her head, T'Pol motioned towards the door. "Then come with me."
Trip watched with interest as T'Pol leaned over and took the bag from Valla. Then, with heads held high, she and her pint-sized shadow strode purposefully out of the transporter room.
To be continued --
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