"The Lerteiran Chronicles"
The bridge was dark. Nocturnal lighting panels spread a soft crimson aura, soothing nerves that had been stretched to the snapping point this day. The night shift was on watch and casting nervous glances at the command seat. They were accustomed to being left to their own devices during the dark hours, which was precisely why Sienae had decided to spend some time on the bridge tonight. So far though, she had found nothing to criticize. The night crew kept their mouths shut and their heads down. She snorted. Spineless cowards.
Sienae brooded. Damin was almost certainly still aboard the Human ship. They had monitored the area ceaselessly since confirming his presence aboard the Andorian freighter. Basing her conclusions on both the transporter activations they had observed and on shuttlecraft movements, it was likely that her son remained aboard the Human warship under some kind of sensor cloak. Theoretically, the Vulcans might have smuggled him off somehow, but the odds did not favor it.
She felt confident that Aehallh could defeat the Humans in battle if it were a fair fight, but they would surely scream to their Vulcan protectors for help, and two D'Kyr class battle cruisers were more than she was prepared to take on. Meanwhile her traitorous XO was no doubt spilling everything he knew into eager ears. If nothing else, an honorable death in battle would be infinitely preferable to the fate that awaited her if she went home without Damin, and without hiding the damage Llahir had caused. She had to either destroy him and all trace of what he had done or obliterate the Vulcans and their Human serfs, and she had to do it fast. The Andorians too, of course; there was no telling what had already been passed on to them by the Humans. She needed something, anything, to penetrate the Vulcan defenses.
"Commander, a Tellarite freighter is outbound from the Orion station. Its course will bring it within 250,000 stai of our position. Bearing 271.3x by 118y by 23z, warp 2.1 delta 1.06." The young helm officer spoke crisply and carefully, pronouncing each syllable as if he expected to be shot for a single dropped consonant.
Sienae snorted and flipped her wrist. "Standard scans," she said, before returning to her brooding.
The helm officer routed telemetry to ops, who dutifully began scanning the passing ship. A grunt of surprise escaped the young woman and caught Sienae's peripheral attention. She glanced up to see the girl hunched over her console looking intense. Mildly intrigued, she demanded, "Well? What is it?"
"Anomalous readings on the freighter, Commander," the young officer-in-training told her. "It appears that their weapon systems are offline, and I am getting far more life sign readings than would be normal for a ship of that type, but I can't get any real detail at this range."
"Helm, take us closer," Sienae ordered, standing and strolling over to glance at the readout herself. Interesting. Her years in space had taught her that unexpected events were usually either a trap or an opportunity. She had nothing to lose, so the prospect of a potential trap did not concern her overmuch. Perhaps this was an opportunity.
The raptor glided toward her prey on silent wings, unseen and unheard. Sienae glared down at the young officer, who was ignoring her commander, focused on the readout in front of her. Sienae pushed her irritation aside and told herself that there would be time to teach the girl proper respect later.
"Confirm initial scans," the girl reported. "The freighter is unarmed. Shields, but no weapons of any kind. From the empty mounting points it appears as if the original disruptors have been removed."
"Battle damage?" Sienae demanded. She leaned closer, shoving the junior officer aside in her eagerness to see the readout.
"No, Commander," the youngster told her. "No sign of damage. The guns are simply missing, as are most of the onboard weapons. I am reading only two small weapon signatures, both in the control room. There are only two life signs in the control room, and both of them are Vulcan."
Sienae straightened up and glared narrowly down at the suddenly tense girl. "Why didn't you say that to start with?" Her voice was soft and dangerous.
"I could not identify species until now, Commander" she responded hurriedly. The young girl finally displayed overt signs of her nervousness in her shaking fingers as she rotated the display panel toward Sienae. Her fingers flew across the controls. "Now that we’re close enough for detailed scans, you can see that the cargo holds are full of people, not cargo. All of the Tellarite crew members are restricted to the lower levels," she pointed at the screen with her stylus. "Only the two Vulcans are on the bridge, and only the Vulcans are carrying sidearms."
"And the ones in the cargo holds?" Sienae's lip curled at the sight of the girl's obvious fear.
"A mixture of races, Commander. Some Tellarite, Andorian, Betazed, two Rigellians, several different breeds." She added as an afterthought, "No Humans."
Sienae snorted, "Of course not, fool." The girl cringed, pleasing her commander immensely. "Lock transporters on those Vulcans. Drop them into the brig behind force fields at full power. Make sure that a weapon dampening field is in effect. Then transmit a schematic of that ship to the marines and organize two standard boarding parties, one to secure the craft and one to supervise prisoner transport." She thought for a second and barked in amusement. "Since they like traveling in cargo holds, I see no reason to force them into any uncomfortable re-adjustment, especially since they will not be with us long. Once the Marines have cleared each prisoner for transport, have them dropped into cargo bay one."
Sienae turned before the acknowledgment of her order had finished vibrating in the air and walked back to her seat. Then she activated the comm and spoke. "Centurion Maklan."
"I am here, Commander."
"We have prey for you to hunt," she told him with relish. "A small Tellarite freighter, filled with prisoners."
"That is pleasant news, Commander." Sienae noted the hunger in his voice, kin to her own. "It has been a time, and again a time, since my fighters have seen blood. They are out of practice."
"I wish I could grant you a better challenge," Sienae told him with a trace of real regret. "But at least this should be a pleasant distraction for your people. Perhaps it will help take their minds off their boredom."
"You are indeed generous, Milady," the marine told her gratefully. "Such considerations go far to seal the loyalty of a warrior."
"We all serve together, Centurion Maklan," Sienae replied. "Transport the prisoners to cargo bay one. Separate the attractive and compliant ones and allow any members of the crew who are interested to make use of them. Meanwhile, I will require your service in the brig during interrogation. A schematic of the ship is on its way to you."
"It shall be as you command, Milady. Life to the Imperium!"
"Life... to the Imperium," she said, raising an ironic brow, and switched off the comm.
Sehlra sat in the silence of the bridge. Her shift was nearly over and she had yet to achieve the peace of mind that solitary duty usually gave her. The view screen before her showed only the star field now that Lerteiran was repaired, detached from Sehlat, and traveling under her own power again. If she didn’t look at the sensors, which showed the bulks of the two huge ships that flanked the small Andorian vessel, she could almost pretend that they were finally free, away from all this mess of Starfleet, Orions, telepaths, and Vulcans. The peacefulness was deceptive, though. T’Riss would come on duty soon, so she had that conversation yet to get through, and even the prospect of playing matchmaker to a Vulcan wasn’t as unsettling as the ruminations spinning around her head about her situation with Damin.
It should be a simple matter, she mused. He’s too young for any sort of decent relationship. I should either pay his fee and enjoy myself thoroughly for the price, or pat the boy on the head, thank him for the chocolate, and let him get on with his chosen career.
But if he was telling the truth, he was no boy, and in defiance of all good sense she wanted more than casual sex with him. She closed her eyes, sighing. It was impossible, despite all his charms, despite the improbable trick he’d managed—imitating an Andorian tlasp. Her pulse accelerated at the thought.
The tlasp was irreplaceable, a sharing unlike anything else in her experience. She’d sorely missed it since the death of her husband. It had, at the end, been the only thing keeping their relationship alive. Male Andorians were scarce this far from Andorian space, and the few she’d met since shipping out had expressed little interest in a woman her age. Once, after a long night’s drinking, she’d been desperate enough to offer herself to a craggy old Andorian spacer with teeth missing. Her humiliation over his indignant refusal still came back at times after sufficient ale, and fortunately had prevented her from making the same mistake again.
Sehlra had tried to make do since then at their various ports of call, but even paying top money for youth and enthusiasm couldn’t make up for the superficiality. There had been times since she’d joined the crew of Lerteiran that she’d even considered approaching Jenrali for want of a better alternative, despite the fact that her feelings for him were closer to those of a sister than a lover. A lover’s tlasp was exclusive to Andorians, or so she’d always believed, but somehow Damin had managed to duplicate the effect exactly—tenfold. The prospect of even one repeat performance was more seductive than his beauty could ever be. Having a permanent claim to such a partner wasn’t something she’d ever dared to imagine, and yet here she was—imagining it.
A soft chime signaled the change of watch. Sehlra's antenna straightened expectantly and, sure enough, the sound of precise footsteps rang on the access ladder as T'Riss climbed into the control room. There was a three minute grace period between sounding watch change and the requirement to be at station, but T'Riss had never needed it since reporting for duty aboard Lerteiran.
The Vulcan girl looked subdued. Sehlra wondered if she had gotten enough sleep.
"Crewman T'Riss reporting for duty."
Sehlra nodded approvingly at the military stance T’Riss assumed. The more Sehlra thought about it, the more she realized that Daniel could do worse. It wasn't the girl's fault she was Vulcan. Honestly, Daniel's people and Vulcans had been working together for generations anyway. They even looked like each other. It could work.
"Take communications," Sehlra ordered. "Not expecting any calls, but you never know."
"Yes, ma'am." T'Riss obediently seated herself at the console where Daniel usually sat and started familiarizing herself with the controls. Sehlra turned back to the pilot's board and made herself look busy with the end of shift checklist. For a few minutes no one said anything. Sehlra stole frequent glances in the pilot's mirrors, placed to give tactical views of the co-pilot and communication/fire control consoles. T'Riss never raised her head. Her shoulders slumped. Sehlra felt her eyebrows draw together.
"You all right, girl?"
T'Riss started and looked up. "I am undama…" She paused mid-word, gave Selhra an odd look, and took another breath. "I am uninjured,” she finished, as if clarifying her statement. “Why do you ask?"
Sehlra flicked a switch to set the pilot controls to auto-alarm. Then she swiveled in her seat and looked directly at T'Riss. "Because you look like something is bothering you. Want to talk about it?"
T'Riss closed her eyes briefly. When she opened them again there was a look of grim determination on her face. "I overheard your conversation with Captain Jenrali in the corridor a few hours ago." Sehlra's lips tightened. "I did not intend to eavesdrop," T'Riss explained. "I was on my way to the galley when your voices echoed down the corridor."
"Never underestimate Vulcan hearing," Sehlra's mouth twisted. "All right, you heard us. What's your opinion of the matter?"
"I am…" She stopped uncertainly. "I have been meditating on the subject, but I have not been able to come to a clear conclusion."
"Something wrong with Daniel?" Sehlra demanded truculently. "He's a fine young man. Good enough for anyone. If my daughters weren't already married, I would gladly bind them to him."
"Mr. Johansen is an admirable man," T'Riss told her, struggling to maintain her dignity. "Certainly there is nothing objectionable about him.”
"Then what is the problem?" Sehlra persisted. "Because he's not a Vulcan? Because he's Human?"
T'Riss put on a look of pain. "I- I am in no position to..." She bit off her words and looked down. "During my training on the Orion station I was required to service customers of every race. Many each day." She shuddered. "I am in no position to refuse an offer of honorable marriage from a member of any compatible race." She paused and made a face. "Although some members of my family would disagree. Vehemently."
Sehlra was at a loss for words. She was about to blunder forward regardless when T'Riss started talking again. "You and Captain Jenrali were correct. I have been damaged." She took a deep breath and looked Sehlra in the eye.
"Healer Tyvek informs me that extensive counseling is often required in cases involving the death of one's betrothed. Unfortunately, the Orions did not see fit to offer me such service," she said in a dry tone. "More significantly for a Vulcan, rape is both physically and mentally catastrophic. Healer Tyvek has been researching the matter, but he has not been able to discover a situation equivalent to the one we endured on the station, with multiple assaults over an extended period. He expects the consequences to be, in his words, 'profound'.” T'Riss swallowed. "In addition, the death of a bonded mate is a life changing experience that leaves permanent scars on the Vulcan katra. I cannot explain the details. Your language doesn’t contain the necessary terms. But the cumulative effect of these experiences has left me seriously impaired. I have grave doubts that I would be capable of functioning as an adequate mate for anyone."
Sehlra fingered her lower lip, studying the girl. Despite the hopelessness of her words, T’Riss had told her story with only the trace of a quiver in her voice, dry eyed. “’Mate’ meaning the Vulcan definition, I assume…with the bond you people are so secretive about?” Sehlra clarified.
“Of course,” T’Riss replied.
Sehlra nodded, crossed her arms, and settled back in her chair. “Then don’t worry about bonding. It’s perfectly understandable that trauma like this would impair your ability to bond with another Vulcan, but Humans don’t bond with their mates. Daniel would have no expectations in that regard,” she said.
T’Riss blinked. “Are you suggesting that I deceive him?” she asked.
Sehlra snorted. “Of course not, girl. Tell him the truth. Lying never works,” she said. “I just think that if you allowed yourself to get to know him better, the two of you would find more in common than you think, and you’ll at least become friends. In my experience, long lasting relationships have been based on much less.”
“Vulcans do not have friends. They have useful acquaintances,” T’Riss replied flatly, as if to end the conversation. She focused her attention on the comm board in front of her, but there was nothing for her to do, and so she was left sitting with her hands in her lap. Sehlra exhaled. The girl was being deliberately obtuse.
“All right then… consider the ‘usefulness’ of an ‘acquaintance’ who not only has some sense of what you’ve experienced but also has a good chance of being tolerant of what a Vulcan male might call ‘defects’ in your emotional control,” Sehlra told her matter-of-factly. “I’m assuming you eventually wish to have offspring. That’s hard to do without a male. I can’t speak for Daniel, but I’ve seen him look at you. Treat him properly, and it’s likely he’ll agree to help when the time comes.”
T’Riss colored a bright olive at that statement. She refused to meet Sehlra’s eyes, but the engineer could see that the girl was thinking. She turned back to her console and left T’Riss to it. After several minutes of silence, the Vulcan finally spoke.
“I have no experience with such things,” she confessed in a quiet voice. Sehlra turned to the young woman. The Vulcan’s eyes were wide and honest. Sehlra saw fear in them. She smiled in reassurance.
“The Mother knows I’ve got enough for both of us, girl,” she said. “When we’re done, you’ll be irresistible to him, never fear.”
Jonathan Archer's eyes snapped open. So that was what it meant.
After meditation last night he had talked himself into postponing a shower. In fact, he had barely managed to make it to his bunk and kick off his slippers before pitching headfirst into oblivion, but true to form, his subconscious mind had been busy all night chewing away on the problem at hand, just like Porthos on his leather bone.
"The Declared Ones," he remembered. "Declared followers of S'Task, Surak's first and most beloved pupil. S'Task, who betrayed and abandoned him. S'Task, who led a band of rebellious malcontents into space rather than join the rest of the planet in turning toward a life devoted to peace and logic. S'Task, leader of the Rihansuu."
Jonathan slowly swung his legs over the side of the bunk and rubbed his eyes. He needed a hot shower and some coffee before he could deal with the ramifications. The wall chronometer told him that it was still three hours until the end of gamma shift. He keyed the comm.
“Archer to the galley.”
A young and puzzled voice answered, probably the steward in charge of gamma shift’s meals. ”Crewman Prudhomme here. May I help you, Captain?”
“I need coffee, Crewman… preferably a lethally strong brew,” Archer told him. The steward chuckled.
”I’ve got some Mello Joy dark roast put aside, Captain. They say if you brew it strong enough your spoon’ll stand right up in it,” replied Prudhomme jokingly in a thick Cajun accent.
“Sounds like just what I need, thanks,” Archer replied. Then he dragged himself up and headed for the shower, praying for clarity.
By the time he emerged from the shower Crewman Prudhomme was buzzing for admittance with a particularly potent version of what Trip always referred to as "that foul brew". He thanked the young man gratefully and pointed at his desk. The steward was quick and efficient. As the door closed behind him, Jonathan dropped heavily into his chair and poured the first cup. Then he poured it down his throat like it was medicine, which it was. The black fluid hit his stomach like a water balloon full of sulfuric acid and ignited. A strong shudder shook Jonathan's entire frame, but he could feel life tingling back into his extremities. He nursed the second cup and starting going over the previous day's worth of memory.
Jonathan shook his head when he recalled Hoshi's evasive answer before his call to Sehlat. She had traded looks with T'Pol, too. He sighed. He wasn't looking forward to this, but now was the best possible time to deal with it. Hoshi was never at her best when she was sleepy. He reached over and hit the button.
"Captain Archer to Lieutenant Sato. Urgent. Lieutenant Sato, respond." There was no reply. He waited another moment before calling the bridge. "Ensign Caramali, page Lieutenant Sato in her quarters. If necessary, use the tactical alert signal. Get a response and have her contact me in my quarters now."
"Aye, sir?!" The surprised young voice on the other end responded swiftly.
He was halfway through his second cup when the comm lit up. "L-Lieutenant Sato here, sir. What do you need, sir?"
"Your presence, Lieutenant," Archer told her. "In my quarters, five minutes ago. Don't bother to dress. Just throw on a robe. If you have slippers handy, fine. If not, come barefooted. Get here now." He keyed the comm off and propped his chin on one hand thoughtfully. How to handle this? Should he be angry or terribly disappointed? Perhaps he should be a little angry, but really more hurt than anything else. Which approach would be more effective?
The door buzzer sounded. Archer ignored it, still thinking. Knowing Hoshi, she probably wouldn’t keep such important information from him without good reason. It just wasn't in her nature to hide things. Communication was what she was all about, after all. Most likely it was T'Pol who had convinced her to keep quiet.
The door buzzer sounded again. He didn’t move.
So if T'Pol had asked, or ordered her, to keep her mouth shut about it, then Hoshi really wasn't in line for anything harsh. She was a junior officer after all, and less than half T'Pol's age.
All right, then. Leniency’s the name of the game. The door buzzed a third time.
"Come in." The portal opened to reveal a remarkably subdued looking Lieutenant Sato in a silk bathrobe and a pair of flowered pajamas. Archer kept his face expressionless. "Come in, Lieutenant. We need to talk." The level of dread on Hoshi's face notched upward.
"Yes, sir?" she squeaked. "What about, Captain?" Archer leaned back and crossed his legs at the ankle. He took another sip of coffee and looked at her for a moment.
"Hoshi," he began. "We’ve all been to hell and back together. Everyone on this ship is like family. There isn't anyone on this ship who wouldn’t die for any of the others without hesitation. I know that, and so do you. Right?"
She nodded and seemed to relax a trifle. "Yes, sir. Of course."
Archer nodded too. "So I understand why, when T'Pol asked you to lie to me about the connection between the Romulans and the Declared Ones, you agreed to do it. It was like a sister asking you for something. Right?" Hoshi stiffened and a look of panic came into her eyes.
"I... I... I..." Her gaze shot all over the room, as if she was looking for an escape route.
"But you have to understand, Hoshi," he went on in a more gentle voice. "I’m responsible for everyone on this ship…not just T'Pol, and not just you. And when you keep things from me it has the potential to affect everyone. Earth needs to know everything it can about the Romulans, Hoshi. They have already attacked ships in this part of space several times. If they really are planning to expand their empire in this direction, every bit of information we can get might save Human lives. You understand that, don't you?"
Hoshi looked like she was going to cry. "Yes, sir. I'm sorry, sir. I didn't think of it that way, sir. She - I mean we thought it might hurt the alliance between Earth and Vulcan if it got out."
"It might," Archer admitted. "But that's not your decision to make, Lieutenant. That's not even my decision to make. That's the kind of decision that gets made at the top levels of government. That's why we have a government. That's what they get paid for, to make those kinds of decisions. We’re Starfleet officers. It’s not our job to set policy, or to make decisions that will alter the course of billions of lives. Not on purpose, anyway. We’re not out here to play god, Hoshi. Not with other species, and not with our own species either."
"I'm sorry, sir. I’ll resign my commission at the start of alpha shift this morning." She could barely hold it together well enough to get the words out.
"Like hell you will." Archer stood up. "You try it and I'll unleash Trip on you!" Hoshi stepped back, looking confused. "You screwed up. Deal with it and learn from it. No officer has ever made it through their career without making their share of screwups. I have. T'Pol has. Trip has. Malcolm has. Everyone has. Just don't hide things from me anymore. Understand?"
"Good." Archer felt tired. "Now go back to bed. Take the first half of alpha shift off to catch up on some sleep. I know we could all use some sack time after everything that’s happened lately."
"Thank you, sir." She paused at the door, looking like a reprieved teenager. "I’m sorry, Captain. Thank you for a second chance. It won't happen again." He smiled and gave a casual gesture with his fingers. She returned the smile and left.
"Oooooow." Jonathan groaned and sank back into his seat. "One down, one to go. And then deal with Senek and T'Lar. Then interview Damin. And the damnable thing is, I asked for this job." He reached for the comm. "Archer to T'Pol." He waited patiently.
"Report to my quarters immediately, Commander. If Trip is with you, bring him along. If not, come without him, but get here. Uniform is optional. Speed is not."
"Understood. Captain... why would you expect Commander Tucker to be…"
Archer broke in with a snort of impatience. "Just get up here. And be ready to explain why you think it's acceptable to suborn one of my junior officers into presenting false information to her captain." He hit the switch and grabbed his coffee cup in a disgruntled manner. He briefly considered changing out of his bathrobe and pajama bottoms. Then he shrugged. She had seen him in his underwear. Pajama bottoms were a step up. Making a fashion statement was the least of his concerns right now.
Precisely three minutes later, he answered the door buzzer with an abrupt, "Come in." T'Pol stepped through wearing her typical insulated red outfit, immaculately groomed as always. Naturally. Archer's irritation peaked. He stood up deliberately and snapped out, "Stand at attention!"
T'Pol's eyebrows shot upward, but she obediently straightened and assumed the required stiffness. Archer walked around the end of his desk and stood in front of her, urgently digging through his mind for the best way to begin. Suddenly a warm feeling rose up from the depths of his subconscious mind and it came to him. He smoothed out his face into a perfectly impassive mask and spoke in archaic High Vulcan.
“T'Pol, daughter of T'Les of Clan S’ii!jh!'khn,” he intoned. Archer worked hard to conceal his amusement at the way her eyes widened incredulously. “Is it thy wish to remain in service to Starfleet and to remain aboard this ship?”
T'Pol's mouth closed and she blinked several times. She hesitated, then, “Yes, it is,” she replied in the same language.
“Then the time has come,” Archer told her somberly, “for thee to make a decision. When I spoke for thee before the admirals of Starfleet, there were many who doubted thee. They said that thy loyalty could not be relied upon. They feared that when the time came, as it inevitably would, thy allegiance to thine own blood would prevail over thine oath to Starfleet. Have their fears been proven true, T'Pol?”
She stared at him uneasily. “Why dost thou ask this of me? What have I done to cause thee to doubt my loyalty?”
Archer grimaced. “Thy pretense of ignorance ill becomes thee, T'Pol, daughter of T'Les. Deception by concealment is still deception. I had thought better of thee and thine honor.” He turned his back and walked over to look out the viewport. The starfield was half obscured by the Horn nebula, a great looming cloud that seemed to rise up and give the illusion that it was about to topple over and bury all three ships. Archer waited tensely.
"Everything I have done was as much for the good of Earth as for Vulcan," she finally said in English. Archer turned around and looked at her in silent disbelief. She pressed her lips together and continued, "Based on your remarks, added to what you said when you initially called, I presume you refer to Lieutenant Sato?"
“I refer, T'Pol, daughter of T'Les, to thy deception regarding the Declared Ones.” Archer refused to fall back into English. Forcing T'Pol to use High Vulcan not only rubbed her nose in the fact that he had access to Surak's memories, but it also prevented evasion and ambiguity. High Vulcan was a very precise language, with no room for dodging.
She actually sighed, to Archer's open surprise. “I firmly believe that if knowledge of the connection becomes general, it will cause irreparable harm to the alliance between our peoples.”
“That may be so, or it may not be so,” Archer told her sternly. “But thine oath specified that thou wouldst obey the laws and regulations of Earth and Starfleet, that thou wouldst comply with all lawful orders given by thy superior officers, and that thou wouldst at all times seek to protect and preserve the safety and security of the Human species. Dost thou remember this, the oath that thou swore before me?”
She stood, if possible, even more stiffly. “I do.”
“Dost thou truly believe that deceiving thy captain, and conspiring to persuade a subordinate to join thee in hiding critical information concerning a race that may soon become a deadly enemy, is preserving and protecting the safety and security of the Human species?”
T'Pol pressed her lips tightly together and raised her chin. “I truly believe that maintaining the alliance between our peoples is critical to preserving and protecting both of our species. Thus, my oath is intact.”
“I disagree,” he told her bluntly. “Surak would disagree as well.” She winced. “An alliance based on deception is not worth preserving. It may be that Starfleet Command and Earthgov will decide to conserve this information for strategic advantage, but knowledge of one's enemy is of paramount importance in battle. Lack of this information has in fact caused losses during our confrontations with the Romulans thus far. I grieve for the lives lost, lives which might have been saved had we known that we were facing Rihansuu.”
T'Pol looked down at the floor and said nothing. After a moment Archer continued, in a softer voice. “I can well understand the conflict…. the loyalty of blood, versus the loyalty of a promise given. None could fault thy honor if thee chose to follow the call of thy blood, but a choice must be made, T'Pol. It must be made today.”
She slowly raised her head. “Specify,” she told him in a cold voice.
Archer replied in a voice equally cold. “By the end of alpha shift today, I will receive one of two things from thee. Either I will discover that thou art resigning thy commission, or I will receive assurance that never again wilt thou place thy loyalty to any other group above thy loyalty to Starfleet.” He paused, gazing at her as his human feelings of hurt over her betrayal came to the fore, and reverted to English. “You may have that long to consider the matter, but I cannot countenance an officer on my ship who holds divided loyalties.”
“Understood,” she told him woodenly. “May I be dismissed?” He nodded. She executed an about face and strode to the door, passing through with her back ramrod stiff. As soon as the door whispered shut Jonathan sagged and grabbed the edge of his desk. He rubbed his eyes and felt sick.
Selim took a sip from his cup and made a face. “I want sweet porridge for breakfast, T’Lar. Plomeek broth is…unappetizing.”
His attempt at adult understatement contrasted with the youthful soprano of his voice in a way that T’Lar couldn’t help but find amusing, but she didn’t dare show it. It was her responsibility now to encourage her youngest brother’s attempts at proper Vulcan behavior.
“Plomeek broth is what Vulcans have for breakfast, Selim. Sweet porridge is Orion. We have none aboard,” T’Lar replied from her seat across the table in the sitting room of their quarters. She looked up from the padd she was reading, reached for her cup and eyed him with mild disapproval. He was the child of her parents’ old age, and they had spoiled him shamelessly.
“We have the porridge…I’ve checked… just not the sweetener. You could get some,” persisted Selim. “We’ll be back to the station in just a few hours.”
“Plomeek broth provides all the necessary nutrients for a morning meal without unnecessary sucrose, which can result in dental caries and obesity if taken in sufficient quantities,” T’Lar said. She took a sip of her own broth and suppressed a grimace. The galley must be running low on salt again. Selim raised a brow at her, and she sighed.
“I will have the quartermaster replenish our seasonings, “ she conceded.
“The crew will be pleased,” Selim replied in a satisfied tone. Then he spoiled the maturity of his comment by grasping his mug in both hands and tossing back the remainder of his broth in one huge gulp, grimacing quite dramatically at the taste. Setting the cup down, he made use of his shirtsleeve for a napkin and then pushed back from the table. T’Lar watched tolerantly as he grabbed his padd from the table in the entrance hall.
“I’ve got astrocartography this morning,” the boy told her. “I don’t want to miss the change of shift briefing.” She nodded regally, giving him permission to leave. He paused at the open door and took a deep breath. “Raijiin invited me to visit after lessons today. I’ll be back late,” he said in a rush. The door shut with a swoosh, leaving T’Lar with her mouth open. He was incorrigible. Selim knew she disapproved of his relationship with the ex-slave, but he also knew that she was much too busy this morning to chase him down and forbid his visit, and he’d satisfied the letter of the law by informing her of his whereabouts. It was times like these when he reminded her most strongly of their three older brothers, all grown now with wives and families. They’d all been prone to wild escapades as children. She, it seemed, as the only female, was destined to be the only properly behaved child produced by her parents. The injustice of it had galled her in her youth. She was, of course, now above such emotions.
The comm sounded. ”Bridge to Commander T’Lar.” She stood and stepped to the wall to answer.
”An encrypted emergency message from the Le’Matya, Commander. It’s Subcommander Tormak.”
“I’ll take it here in my quarters,” she responded, and then stepped to her desk to activate the console. The screen came to life, showing the solemn face of the Le’Matya’s commanding officer, recently demoted as part of the disciplinary action resulting from his unprovoked attack on the Andorian vessel Lerteiran. The Vulcan High Council was nothing if not complete in its restitutions when interspecies relations were at stake.
”Commander T’Lar, we’ve received a distress call from a Vulcan officer aboard one of the commandeered transport vessels, a Tellarite freighter transporting seventy-three evacuees from the mercantile sector of the Orion station,” said Tormak. “Sehlat is the closest armed Vulcan vessel in the vicinity. My comm officer is transmitting the coordinates to you now.”
“We are escorting a vessel targeted by the Romulans at the present time, Subcommander. Our weapons systems are needed for defense in case of another attack,” T’Lar replied. “I suggest you use your personnel and another commandeered vessel to come to the aid of the malfunctioning freighter.”
”That won’t be possible, Commander. Le’Matya has orders to remain here, and none of the captured vessels have adequate weaponry for the task. Our contact aboard the freighter is no longer transmitting, but the initial report was of a Romulan attack in progress on the freighter,” replied Tormak.
T’Lar’s heart skipped a beat, but she refused to reveal her distress to a subordinate. Evidence of panic in a commanding officer was invariably disruptive. She took a deep breath, raised a brow, and said, “Romulan? Are you certain?”
The comm sounded again. ”Bridge to Commander T’Lar.” Verlen’s voice was urgent. ”We’re receiving a voice-only transmission that I believe you should hear immediately.”
T’Lar raised a hand to Tormak, indicating that he should remain on screen, and then rose to answer the comm. “Go ahead, Verlen,” she said. Crackles emanated from the speaker, followed by a female voice speaking Vulcan with an archaic accent.
”Attention D’Kyr cruiser. Attention Earth vessel. As the representative of the Romulan Star Empire in this sector of space, I demand the return of two fugitives wanted for crimes against the Empire. Image files will follow this announcement. If the identified fugitives are not delivered to the source of this transmission within twelve Earth hours, the hostages I have taken will be killed.” Static followed, presumably the image files in the process of being transmitted, and then the recorded transmission began again before being cut off by the comm officer on the bridge.
”Any orders, Commander?” asked Verlen. T’Lar exchanged a look with Tormak, who was grim-faced on the screen, and then replied.
“Have you found the source?”
”The transmission appears to originate from the coordinates the Le’Matya just sent us,” replied Verlen.
T’Lar exhaled heavily. Of course. It was just like the Rhiannsu. Why settle for one or two hostages when one could endanger the lives of an entire shuttle full of helpless merchants? She turned to Tormak and acknowledged his request with a nod, but her words were for Verlen.
“Proceed to those coordinates, then, Subcommander Verlen… maximum warp. And contact Captain Archer. I need to speak with him.”
Trip Tucker entered the captain’s ready room with a mug of hot tea in each hand and trepidation in his heart. Since being awakened from a sound sleep at 0430 by a blast of emotion from T’Pol so strong that it was impossible to identify exactly which emotion was involved, he’d gotten complete silence from the Vulcan quarter. It was almost as if the bond had never existed-except for the space in his head where she wasn’t. After T’Pol had responded to his comm call with a not-very-convincing, “I am fine. Please do not concern yourself. Go back to sleep”, he’d spent the next three hours trying to figure out what had upset her so much. She hadn’t shut him out like this since the baby’s death. Once, it would have made him angry. Since their marriage, though, he’d come to realize that there were times when she just had to shut the connection between them down for a while so that she could process her own emotions. He was still learning how to clamp down on his instinctive desire to wade in and fix things when she did it.
Trip sat down, eyeing Hoshi’s pale face and Malcolm’s clenched jaws with puzzlement as he set the steaming tea mugs on the table. Mal was obviously majorly teed off, and from the concerned way that he kept looking at Hoshi, it was evident that her distress was the cause of his anger. The expression on Mal’s face when the captain walked into the room clinched it. Something had happened that had upset Hoshi, and Mal obviously considered it the captain’s fault.
“Where’s T’Pol?” asked Archer. His omission of her rank title could have been just his usual casual disregard of such things, but it sounded more to Trip as if the captain wasn’t happy with her. As Trip opened his mouth to make some excuse for his wife, she entered the room wearing, of all things, a standard Starfleet issue coverall. That surprised him. She hated the things. The fabric was rough, she’d always said, and she became chilled too quickly without proper insulation. Then he noticed the insulated underwear peeking out at her neckline. She sat down at the table without a word, staring the captain down with what looked like a challenge on her face. Trip pushed one tea mug toward her and cautiously pushed at her through the bond as well, trying to radiate concern and curiosity and to block the worst of his frustration over her sudden silence. T’Pol kept her eyes on the captain, but he felt her affection, apology, and reassurance warm him from the inside out as she opened their connection.
We’ll talk later, ashayam. I am sorry to worry you, but I need some time. Please do not be concerned. Then she shut things down again immediately.
Trip gave a mental sigh of resignation, and then reached under the table to grip her knee, giving it a reassuring squeeze.
Archer cocked one brow as he inspected T’Pol’s appearance, but made no remark about her change of uniform. He had no welcoming smile for any of them that morning, and the odor of strong coffee wafting from the mug in his fist filled the small room.
“Now that we’re all here, we can get started, “ he began, looking across the table with an uncharacteristically bland expression. He nodded at Hoshi. She cleared her throat and turned the table console toward the rest of the room. She brought up an image of the Romulan ship that had appeared for two seconds during their attempted “rescue” of the Romulan defector.
“At 0540 we received a transmission from someone claiming to be the ‘official representative of the Romulan Star Empire’ demanding the return of two fugitives and threatening to kill an entire ship full of hostages, including innocent children, if we don’t comply within twelve hours,” said Hoshi in a wan voice. “We think this person is the commander of this Romulan vessel.”
She brought up another image. The screen split, showing two males. Trip recognized one as Damin, the boy in the brig. The other one was a Vulcan Trip had never seen before. “These are the fugitives the transmission claims are wanted for treason, murder, and a host of other crimes against the Romulan Empire,” she said. She brought up a third image. “And this is the list of hostages.” A document in Vulcan script filled the screen. The print wavered at Hoshi’s keystrokes and became English. Along one margin was a series of thumbnail photographs, seventy-three of them. At least one third of them were children. All were identified as non-combatant merchants and their families. Virtually every race present on the Orion station at the time of its destruction was represented. Archer continued the presentation after a second of shocked silence.
“The Sehlat is already on her way to a rendezvous site near the origin of the transmission,” he said. “We’ve been asked to escort Lerteiran back to the Orion station so that the Le’Matya can take over as her protector. We’ll also be picking up two portable sensor baffles before heading back to rendezvous with Sehlat. Supposedly the devices will allow Damin and the Romulans’ other target to move more freely without revealing themselves to the Romulans, but I’ll need you to look at them, Trip…Malcolm.”
The captain caught Trip’s attention with that one. Mal looked interested, too. “It isn't very often that Vulcan freely shares technology with us, no strings attached. I want the two of you to get me a complete analysis of those sensor baffles before we let them get out of our hands. The sensor baffle we have in our brig takes up an entire wall. I can think of more than a few situations we’ve been in where something more portable would have been a life-saver.”
“That’s putting it rather mildly, sir,” Malcolm said fervently. He looked as if he was holding back from rubbing his hands together by sheer willpower.
Archer turned back to Trip. “I also want you both working on techniques for piercing that Romulan cloak. Start with the premise that it operates on the same or a similar principle to the holographic projectors they used for the unmanned probes we encountered.”
“You don't think they’re using a cloak like the Suliban?” Hoshi asked tentatively. Trip thought she looked like she was ready to duck at any moment.
“Frankly, I doubt it.” The captain seemed to be making a special effort to keep his voice calm and steady. Trip was getting more and more determined to find out what was going on, and sooner rather than later. “If the Romulans had access to Suliban technology I doubt that they would be moving this cautiously, and if the Suliban had Romulan backing, I suspect that they would be making more of a noise for themselves right now.” Hoshi nodded thoughtful agreement.
The captain turned his gaze to T’Pol. Her spine straightened to a near military posture.
“T’Pol, I need you to have a conference with Senek. Any information or cooperation you can convince him to give us would be helpful in this situation. Are you comfortable doing that?” The question was peculiar, Trip thought. Why would the captain have to ask?
“Of course, Captain. Consider it done.” T’Pol’s voice was firm. There was no hesitation. The captain’s lips quirked up in the trace of a smile.
Daniel was plodding along at a dispirited pace on the treadmill when Jenrali entered Lerteiran's tiny gym. He looked up and tentatively raised a hand, acting like he was afraid that Jenrali was going to walk over and take a swing at him. Not that the thought wasn't mildly tempting, even now. Jenrali turned toward the weight machine and chuckled softly. He set the resistance to 30 kilograms and started doing arm curls. He really had let himself get soft lately. Maintaining the ship at low gravity to save power may have been false economy after all. “Feeling better, lad?” he asked.
“Uh, physically better. Yeah,” Daniel answered in a dejected tone of voice. He looked down and kept plodding onward. Jenrali gave him a sharp look.
“Nobody blames you,” he said, concentrating on maintaining a steady rhythm between his breathing and his muscles. “You can't be held responsible for your physiology. Phlox said Orion pheromones hit Humans like a case of ale.”
“That's what it felt like,” Daniel told him morosely. “Like being stone blind drunk. Except I remember it. At least when I wake up hung over I usually don't remember what I fool I made of myself.”
“So that's it.” The older man let the tension off and turned to face his protégé. “Lad, listen to me. There is no way to get through life without embarrassing yourself. It can't be done. Remember, 'A real miner trusts his antennae.'”
“A real miner trusts his antennae?” Daniel repeated, wrinkling his nose in that way he did when something didn’t compute. “What the heck does that mean?”
“It means,” Jenrali told him seriously, “That you have to follow your instincts. You have to keep going even when you may have taken the wrong passage. You just have to deal with it and work your way through it, not waste time worrying about it.”
Daniel stared at him. “Where do you get these? Every time something happens you come up with a new one to throw at me.”
Jenrali grinned. “I keep 'em packed in a satchel, tucked in behind the desk in my quarters, ready for any contingency.”
“Must be nice to have the answers already figured out in advance,” Daniel sighed. He turned off the treadmill and took two steps across the tiny space to the parallel bars. He hoisted himself up and started hand walking down the length of the bars. When he reached the end he quickly swapped hand positions and started back.
“Not all the answers,” Jenrali told him. He took a deep breath and started tip-toeing gingerly into the mine field. “It does look like you have bad luck with women...”
Daniel snorted derisively and barked a hoarse laugh. “No shit. Women are the bane of my existence. I’m seriously thinking about entering a monastery.”
Jenrali chuckled. “A Human monastery? That's a cute joke.”
“No, seriously,” Daniel insisted, “we have monasteries.”
Jenrali gaped. “You mean... oh. With both sexes?”
“No,” Daniel told him. “Celibate. The sexes are kept separate.” Jenrali was stunned into silence. After a moment Daniel glanced over and added uncomfortably, “It's not like we don't have any self-discipline at all.”
“Not as painful as the alternative sometimes,” Daniel growled. “Every woman I ever let get near me has either gotten me beat up or shot at. Or both.”
“Shall I tell Sehlra you said that?” Jenrali needled.
“She's the only one,” Daniel admitted. “The first girl I ever fell for was on the first ship they put me on after I lost my parents. She was the captain's daughter. He didn't think I was good enough for her, so he had her brothers use me as a training aid in their martial arts exercises.”
Jenrali winced. “It turned out to be useful later though,” he pointed out. “You have always been able to hold your own in a tavern brawl.”
“Then there was Althea,” Daniel sighed.
“The girl you said you met on Vulcan?” Jenrali's antennae perked up. Daniel seldom talked about that part of his life.
“Yeah.” He brooded and flipped directions again. This time he ducked under the bars and started working his way along hanging beneath the rails with his knees tucked to his chest. “She was doing inventory tracking in the office of the shipyard where I worked. There were exactly seven Humans in the entire shipyard, and only the two of us were anywhere near the same age. We got kinda close.” He dropped to the floor and stood up.
“What happened?” Jenrali asked carefully. Daniel looked rueful.
“Different goals. She wanted to move to a farming colony and start a big family. I wanted to go back to space.” He stared into distance for a moment. “She's probably married with two or three kids by now. I wonder sometimes...,” he shook his head violently. “I made my choice, and I don't really regret it. I would have gone crazy planetside… back then anyway.”
“What you need,” Jenrali said slowly and delicately, “is a woman who will stay with you. A woman you can trust to guard your back. A woman who is willing to travel with you.”
“A woman who doesn't exist,” Daniel dismissed the idea. “There aren't any Human women this side of beta Triangulus, much less one like that, unless you count Starfleet. And I could just see one of those tight puckered …”
“Would she have to be Human?” Jenrali asked mildly. Daniel stopped and considered.
“I don't know,” he said slowly. “You don't see too many mixed couples anywhere. My people almost never marry outside of our own species.”
“You have some kind of law against it?” Jenrali wanted to know. “Is it taboo? Or against custom?”
“No, that's not it,” Daniel assured him. “But we haven't been in space that long, and there aren't that many compatible races out here, or we haven't met many so far. It's not everyone that could tolerate living with a Human, you know.”
Jenrali turned his head and covered a strangled cough with his hand. “I suppose you might be right, at that,” he managed to agree. The old man cleared his throat and went on, “What about Vulcans? You’ve known them for generations, and your people are physically similar.”
“I’ve heard about that happening,” Daniel said, to Jenrali's surprise. “Rarely. But it's always a Vulcan man and a Human woman. I’ve never heard of it happening the other way.” He paused. “Human women want men who’re stronger than they are.”
“Would that be a problem for you? Picking a strong woman?” Jenrali wondered. Andorian women were as strong as the men, in some cases stronger.
“Not really,” Daniel told him, shrugging. “We Humans are hard coded to find strength attractive. Both genders are. But I’m guessing that Vulcan women probably look at it the same way Human women do, which might explain why you never see a Human male and a Vulcan female together, not even mentioning the difference in lifespan and the difference in sex drives…and the difference in lifestyles…and the fact that Vulcans consider us stinking barbarians who carry parasites and might bite if we get too close,” he finished with a smirk.
Jenrali pointed out. “But not everyone thinks alike. What about T'Riss? She seems to be a fine lass.” He held his breath.
Daniel flinched. “Are you crazy, old man? With what she’s been through, if a guy even tried to put a hand on her T'Riss would rip his arm off at the shoulder. She's scared to death of men now. Believe me, I do not want a frightened Vulcan getting hold of me.”
Jenrali sighed in frustration. “Not necessarily, lad. She likes you,” he pointed out. “I can tell that much. She never acts afraid when she's around you.”
“That's because I never push her,” Daniel answered. “I keep my distance and respect her space. The one time I didn’t, she ran away.” He gave Jenrali a wry smile. “One thing I did learn on Vulcan is that Vulcans aren't anywhere near emotionless. You know that as well as I do,” he pointed out.
“Yes,” Jenrali admitted. “And when their control breaks, it breaks all the way.”
“And then I’d have a raging wildcat on my hands,” Daniel finished up. “A wildcat that’s stronger than I am and completely insane with fearful rage. No, thank you. I’d like to survive long enough to see my kids grow up, or at least to have a few kids.”
“You have to admit, though,” Jenrali tried a new tack, “that she is a fine looking girl.”
“Well, yeah,” Daniel tried unsuccessfully to sound indifferent. “She's, um, nice. In fact, she’s definitely what my people would call 'hot'. But in this case I think that just means she’d end up burning me.”
Jenrali shut up and started considering. It was time to consult with Sehlra again. The lad was going to be difficult. Hopefully she was having better luck with the girl.
Damin opened his eyes. Something was different.
He lay on the only slightly uncomfortable bunk—he’d certainly slept on worse—and reached as far as his mind would go. Closest to the brig, he felt the minds of the security officers stationed in the armory. Alpha shift was just coming on duty. Their surface thoughts were of weapons maintenance, memories of a recent breakfast, and the occasional dream from the night before. Pushing outward, thoughts became less clear, causing emotions to come to the fore. A flash of intense curiosity blared from engineering. He tried to get a closer look, but whoever it was had mental shields up. It was probably Tucker, the engineer, since Damin could feel his Vulcan mate in sickbay, and she had shields up, too. Someone must have warned them about his abilities, probably the Vulcan telepath.
He caught the sense of something anticipated from the bridge crew—something potentially dangerous—but the details were too far away to read. To Damin’s surprise, Captain Archer wasn’t on the bridge. Damin could tell, because the Human captain’s unusual shields made him stand out like a Betazoid wedding guest at a fancy dress ball. He searched the ship mentally, trying to find the man, and finally located a tightly closed mind in rapid transit.
He must be in the turbolift.
Then Archer was walking down the corridor toward the brig, and Damin realized that it was time to get up and get ready. By the time the captain walked into the brig’s antechamber flanked by two armed security guards, Damin was sitting atop a neatly made bunk dressed in nearly transparent cream colored trousers overlying a pair of metallic gold briefs, bare-chested, with his curls attractively combed and his multicolored silk jacket artistically draped around his shoulders. It never hurt to be prepared. One never knew where a person’s interests might lie, especially in the case of someone with such impenetrable shields. Damin smiled at him through the glass partition.
“Hello, Captain. How kind of you to visit,” he said, trying to project sincerity and just the proper amount of innocent vulnerability. Archer raised a brow, eyeing him from head to foot with a dubious expression. Damin sighed mentally.
“If you want to get dressed before we start, I’ll wait,” said Archer. Damin smirked, shrugged into his jacket, and buttoned it up.
“That’s all right, Captain. I’m accustomed to doing business half dressed,” he said. Archer snorted, shaking his head, then walked into the cell, leaving the guards out of reach, presumably out of Damin’s sphere of control, and handed Damin a padd.
“What can you tell me about this ship?” he asked. On the padd was a sensor image of the Aehallh. “Before you say anything, you should know that if you provide me with false information you’re endangering the lives of a whole ship full of innocent refugees.” He stood waiting with his arms crossed over his chest. Damin feigned a study of the image while he tried to probe the surrounding minds for details. The captain’s frustrating shields held firm, and the guards had no idea about what was going on. Their minds were fully occupied with watching him to make certain he didn’t harm their captain—not that they could have done anything about it had Damin had any desire to do so.
“The ship is definitely Romulan,” Damin conceded. He looked up, holding to his innocent façade. “What does it have to do with refugees?” he asked. Archer’s jaw tightened. Damin could sense his suspicion. The Human knew he was holding something back. The realization disturbed Damin, because he was usually a superb liar. His life often depended on it.
“Page down,” growled Archer, jerking his chin at the padd. Damin did so, and what he read caused a chill to run up his spine. His mother was cold-blooded and calculating, but She rarely killed people en masse. She much preferred doing it one-on-one. She was getting desperate now, though, and was going to slaughter seventy-three innocent beings unless he gave himself up—or unless he could help these Humans outwit Her. Damin considered his options. He could continue running—if, indeed, this captain would allow that—or he could finally stand and fight Her with a Human warship as his ally—and quite possibly a D’Kyr cruiser as well if he could convince the Vulcans that his plan would work. He looked up at the captain.
“I know this ‘representative of the Romulan Empire’, Captain, and she’s no such thing. She’s just a stealth ship commander caught behind enemy lines,” he said. “Her ship is no match for yours.”
Archer looked surprised by the sudden turnaround. “So, you’ll help us?” Damin stuck out a hand, Human fashion, and dredged up a bit of the Human vernacular he’d been picking up from those around him since coming aboard. “I’ll tell you what. I’ll give you information if you’ll keep my ass out of a Romulan brig. Deal?” Archer grasped Damin’s hand with a bemused expression. They shook on it. Damin grinned confidently. Now he just had to come up with a plan.
T’Pol entered sickbay preoccupied. She’d intended to speak with Trip immediately after the briefing, but the arrival of the sensor baffles by transporter had effectively side-tracked her plans to get him alone. It was fortunate, she supposed, since she hadn’t yet decided what to tell him about her early morning meeting with Captain Archer. Although she’d worn the Starfleet issue uniform that day to reassure her commanding officer, she still felt the need to discuss the situation with her mate before making a final decision. The captain’s new persona was, not surprisingly, hard to read. If this situation was going to permanently impair the captain’s trust in her, her position as first officer of Enterprise might have just become untenable. She needed Trip’s opinion. He knew Jonathan Archer so much better than she did.
“May I help you, Commander?” Phlox’s expression was attentive but subtly disapproving. He’d made no secret of his dissatisfaction with the captain’s decision to hold Senek in sickbay.
“I’m here to invite Agent Senek to breakfast,” T’Pol replied. Phlox’s face broke out in a smile. T’Pol raised a brow. The Denobulan was so easy to please.
“Of course, Commander…right this way.” He led her to the isolation chamber and activated the comm placed by the airlock..
“Agent Senek? Commander T’Pol is here to see you.”
“I’ll be right there, Doctor.”
“The isolation chamber, Doctor?” asked T’Pol, puzzled.
“He’s been here for two days, Commander. He needed a private place to meditate,” Phlox explained. T’Pol blinked at that, and then nodded, somewhat ashamed that the need had not occurred to her. The airlock hissed and Senek stepped out, looking rested.
“It is agreeable to see you this morning, Commander,” he said.
“And you, Agent Senek. Have you eaten?” T’Pol asked, her manner as pleasantly social as any Vulcan diplomat’s.
“Not since my evening meal yesterday,” Senek replied. “Are you my rescuer, by any chance?” He wasn’t smiling, but he might as well have been. Either he’d grown considerably less rigid in his emotional control in the years since they’d served together in the Security Directorate or the man was making a deliberate attempt at humor. The change was a pleasant one.
“Our chef makes a Human specialty called pancakes which I believe you may find appetizing,” T’Pol returned. “Would you join me for breakfast?”
Senek gave a genteel nod and gestured for her to precede him. She did so. He undoubtedly knew that she wanted something from him, but the proprieties had to be observed.
I recommend the chamomile tea,” T'Pol said, extracting her cup from the dispenser. “I find it aids concentration, and the taste is not unpleasant.”
“You are the native guide in this circumstance,” Senek told her amiably. He placed an order and watched with evident interest as the dispenser filled his cup. They retrieved their trays and headed for the farthest corner of the room. They seated themselves and, to T’Pol’s surprise, Senek immediately demonstrated his familiarity with Human table utensils. “Pleasant. I had not sampled pancakes before this. Human cuisine is so vast and varied that I believe it would be impossible to try it all in one lifetime.”
“You may be correct,” T'Pol allowed, carefully spreading the syrup over her single pancake with her fork. “I am only now beginning to truly understand the extent of Human cultural wealth, both in variety and depth.”
“You are in a unique position, T'Pol,” Senek told her seriously. “I truly hope that you will consider documenting your experiences. Future generations of Vulcans would benefit greatly from your insight, and perhaps even future generations of Humans also, by providing an alternative viewpoint from which to observe themselves.”
T'Pol raised an eyebrow. “I will consider it. Some Humans have adopted the custom of keeping a personal log, in parallel with the official log that every crewmember is required to maintain. Such a document might be useful.”
“Indeed,” Senek agreed. He took another bite. “Now that we have satisfied Human custom by engaging in small talk,” he continued, “feel free to proceed with the interrogation.” He chewed complacently and washed the bite down with a sip of tea.
T'Pol closed her eyes in resignation. The man hadn’t changed much after all. “The Romulans have captured one of the refugee transports from the Orion station.” Senek tensed visibly. “They demand the return of the Vulcan operative as well as Mr. Damin within twelve hours or they will kill the hostages.”
Senek's face was ice. “What has been done so far?”
“ Sehlat has set course for the coordinates from which the message originated. Enterprise is on course for the Orion station with Lerteiran so that Le'Matya can assume escort responsibility. We will collect sensor baffles at the station, after which Enterprise will rejoin Sehlat.”
“And?” he prodded.
T'Pol took a deep breath. “Trip and…” She stopped and stiffened. Focused so intently on her conversation with Senek, she had not noticed the approach of her bondmate. Suddenly a flash of irritation, approaching the level of anger, broke through her shields. She surreptitiously glanced over her shoulder to see Trip moving down the line and assembling a breakfast tray. The morning crowd had thinned out to almost nothing and he had obviously seen them. She felt her ears getting hot. This could not go on. She owed him an explanation. She had sworn to herself, and promised him, that her days of hiding things from him were over. Besides, this was going to affect his life just as much as hers, and she could not possibly make this decision alone.
Senek was an old friend and mentor, the closest thing to a father she had left. He would understand.
“Excuse me for a moment,” she told Senek. His brow went up, but he nodded. T'Pol stood up and headed for Trip, intercepting him halfway to his table. “T'hyla,” she whispered. He stopped in shock. She never used that word in public. “Will you join us? I have much to tell you, and I hope that my elder may advise us both.”
“Uh. Sure.” Trip looked rattled. “Let me get... nah. Leave 'em for Malcolm. Shit, Malcolm's coming. He... oh crap. To hell with it.” Trip turned and headed for the table where Senek waited. T'Pol followed nervously.
Trip sat with his forehead resting in the palms of his hands, while his fingernails dug into his scalp. This was too much to swallow in one sitting. “Why didn't you tell me?” he demanded hoarsely without raising his head.
“It was the middle of the night and you needed sleep,” T'Pol said. “I have not had the opportunity since then until now.”
“That's not what I meant.” Trip abruptly slammed both hands down on the table. He straightened and saw Senek watching him carefully. Too bad. If Senek didn't like it, he could shove it. “Why didn't you tell me about the other thing? You promised me no more secrets!” His voice was suppressed, but emotion forced it out in the form of a shrill whisper.
T'Pol looked unhappy. “I have just told you, Trip. It didn't seem important...”
“Bullshit.” He glared at her. “If you’re going to sit here and lie to my face, I'm leaving.” She flinched. “You told me now, after Hoshi figured it out, and after the cap'n dug it out of Surak's memories. Something tells me that if neither of those things had happened, you never would have mentioned it to me, would you?”
“If I may?” Senek interjected delicately.
“No you may not,” Trip retorted rudely. “This is private.” Senek raised his brow and obediently subsided. Trip turned back to T'Pol. “Well?”
T’Pol sighed and gave in. “It might have endangered you to tell you, and you had no need of the information,”
“Oh that's beautiful.” Trip threw up his hands. “So now we’re on a strictly need to know basis. Do I get the same privilege? Can I keep anything secret that appeals to me unless you absolutely need to know about it?” He ignored the heads turning toward them at the nearby tables.
T’Pol raised a brow at him. “It was my judgment that telling you would do more harm than good,” she replied quietly. “If my decision distresses you, I am sorry, but it is my duty, both as your mate and as your superior officer, to protect you from harm when possible.” Trip opened his mouth to debate the point, but she interrupted him. “Tell me… if you had information valuable to the enemy…information which might put me in danger if the enemy discovered I had possession of it… would you reveal it to me unless I had a need to know it?”
Trip gritted his teeth. Her cool response infuriated him. Her reasoning infuriated him. She was always thinking of him as the weak one because he was Human.
“I’m not your child, dammit. Stop treating me like one,” he growled between his teeth. Then he stood up and stomped off, heading straight for the door, shouldering aside a perplexed looking Malcolm Reed on the way out.
Senek watched the young man stalk away and felt tired. They were both so very young, and Trip was even younger than T'Pol. Like all young things, they were both easily hurt. He looked across the table and saw his former protégé with a look of distress on her face.
“His irritation will subside,” Senek told her quietly in Vulcan. “Your bond will ensure this. What has just happened is merely part of the process of learning about each other.”
“The longer we are together,” T'Pol said with a sigh, “the more I hurt him.”
“Foolish child,” Senek told her gently. “Your marriage is in its infancy. Even if you were both Vulcan or both Human, your time together has barely begun. It takes time to learn of each other. It takes time for each of you to gain insight into how the other thinks, into how the other is likely to react to any given circumstance. He will come to understand that you meant no harm—that you were trying to act in his best interests. Just as you will learn from this that it is imperative for you to avoid even the appearance of hiding anything from him, even to protect him. Give yourselves time.”
“I hope you are correct.” T'Pol visibly pulled herself together. “Surely after all we have been through together it cannot be much longer before such misunderstandings subside.”
Senek fought back a smile. “I have spoken to several experienced Humans who assured me that it takes approximately twenty years for the average Human marriage to stabilize.” T'Pol looked horrified. “My own wife and I eventually reached a state of peaceful coexistence after a somewhat longer period.”
T'Pol closed her eyes. “Perhaps we should return to discussing the Romulan situation.”
“That would be best,” Senek agreed. “Plainly, a prisoner exchange is out of the question. A battle plan is being prepared?”
“Tentatively,” T'Pol told him. “We are accessing all of our available information regarding Romulan technology and tactics. However, it would be of inestimable assistance if the Security Directorate would be willing to share its knowledge of the Rihansuu.”
“Captain Archer's knowledge is insufficient?” asked Senek with mock innocence.
“It is several centuries out of date,” T'Pol pointed out.
“A valid point,” Senek admitted. “However, I am in no position to provide anything at the moment.”
T'Pol’s only evidence of disappointment was a slightly heavier exhalation. Senek felt a pang of regret nonetheless. T’Pol deserved his trust after recent events. Of course, she was now wearing a standard Starfleet uniform. The significance of the wardrobe change wasn’t totally lost on him.
“After our meeting Captain Archer wishes to meet with you,” she said. “Once we reach the station you are free to board the Le'Matya or return with us to join the Sehlat.”
Senek nodded, and then relented. “I can promise nothing until I speak with T'Lar, but I personally see no disadvantage in sharing some of our tactical data. Security must sometimes be tempered by pragmatism.”
“There is one other matter,” T'Pol told him. “The young man, Damin. He is, by his own report, Betazoid. The captain would appreciate your assessment of him. I suspect him to be a powerful telepath. At several points since his arrival I have detected probing contacts against my shields, very light, and very brief, as if he were merely testing me.
“Agreed,” Senek said quickly. “I have also detected probes. I would be very interested in meeting with him. Perhaps I can convince him to assist in this situation.”
Malcolm Reed stepped over the threshold of the engineering department in full search and rescue mode, with a padd in one hand and a wrapped sandwich in the other. He stood near the door and scanned the room with his eyes.
“He’s in his office,” Lieutenant Hess called from her station. She grimaced. “Careful. He’s in a mood.”
“Warning duly noted. Thanks,” Malcolm replied with a wry smile, and headed for the closed door of the office. He hesitated for a moment before pressing the button. The tail end of the public row he’d witnessed in the mess hall less than an hour ago had been impressive, almost like old times for the two commanders. He debated whether he should give Trip some more cooling down time, but the project they were working on was too urgent for that. He the button and spoke into the voiceplate. “Trip. It’s me. All you all right in there?’
“Come in,” answered the engineer in a dispirited voice
The door opened and Malcolm stepped inside to see Trip hunched over his desk with his head in his hands. The Englishman grimaced briefly, and then smoothed his expression. He put the sandwich on the desk. “I noticed you left without eating… so, here.”
Trip straightened and pulled a padd from the top of the stack beside him. “Thanks,” he said without looking up.
“Feel up to a bit more work? I have some questions about the parasitic harmonics in the holoprojectors we saw aboard that probe.”
Trip raised his head and blinked. “Sure.” He rubbed his eyes. “Sorry about leaving you hanging like that, Malcolm. I just... I’m sorry.”
“Not to worry,” Malcolm said heartily, pulling up a spare chair to the opposite side of the desk. “I supposed you could use a few moments to collect yourself.”
Trip hit the desk with his fist. “Why does she keep doing this? I’m just so tired of all the damned secrets!” He expelled a harsh breath. Looking sheepish, he glanced up. His lips twisted. “Sorry.”
“Care to talk about it?” Malcolm kept his tone carefully noncommittal as he spread the padds out on the desktop.
Trip looked torn. Then he nodded. “Listen, Malcolm. I need to tell you something. As Security Chief you have a right to know this anyway.” Malcolm looked up, suddenly on high alert. “But this is absolutely top secret, understand? This is in the same basket as me and T’Pol being married. You have to give me your word that you won’t let anyone else know that I told you this. Please? I won’t ask you to lie. If the cap’n asks, then... I guess you have to admit you know about it, but please don’t tell him I’m the one who told you.”
Malcolm’s mind was racing. What was Trip talking about? T’Pol was ex-Security Directorate. There were probably hundreds of things she knew which her ex-employers would never want her to reveal to her Human husband. The possibilities just boggled the mind. Had she been Human, she would certainly have been asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement prior to her reassignment. As an ex-agent of Section 31, Malcolm was nothing if not sympathetic to the confidentiality issues her marriage to Trip might cause. He had no idea how she dealt with them. “Does the captain already know this information?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Trip laughed painfully. “Oh, yeah. The captain knows. That’s what the fight was about that I had with T’Pol. It’s also what got Hoshi in trouble.” Malcolm tensed and leaned forward.
“Tell me,” he demanded.
“It’s about the Romulans,” Trip said moodily. “It’s about who they really are.”
“Who they really are,” Malcolm repeated carefully. “Who are they, Trip?”
Trip laughed again. His voice was hoarse with irony. “They’re Vulcans, Mal. Romulans are the descendants of renegade Vulcans who left because they wouldn’t follow Surak.”
The remaining padds fell out of Malcom’s nerveless hands to clatter across the desk. He snapped to his feet and took a couple of dazed steps across the room. “Oh, my Lord,” he murmured, wandering blindly over to lean against the bulkhead. “Do you have any idea of the damage that this could do to the alliance if it gets out?”
“That’s what has T’Pol so scared,” Trip told him.
“Are you sure?” Malcolm whispered. Potential consequences chased themselves in circles in his mind.
“T’Pol is,” Trip told him tiredly. “So is Senek. So is the cap’n I guess. It seems that Hoshi found all kinds of similarities to Vulcan in the Romulan language and mentioned it to T’Pol. T’Pol talked her into keeping quiet about and hiding it, but...”
”Bloody hell!” Malcolm spun around to face Trip, staring in horror. “No. She didn’t.”
“She did,” Trip confirmed sympathetically. “Except the cap’n still has some of Surak’s memories rattling around in his head, and he eventually dug out who they were anyway. So Hoshi got busted.”
Malcolm rubbed his forehead, trying to erase an incipient headache with little success. “She deliberately conspired to withhold tactically critical information and deceive her commanding officer? Trip...” He dropped his hand and looked agonized, “This is a court-martial offense.” He paused, “Oh, Lord. They might even charge her with High Treason.”
“Relax, Mal,” Trip advised him. “If the cap’n was gonna charge her with anything she’d be in the brig right now. You know that.”
Malcolm stood a moment before nodding slowly. “I asked her why she was so upset, and she told me that she had gotten a dressing down. I asked her if I could help, and she told me that it was no more than she deserved, and asked me to let it go. But this...” He shook his head. “My Lord, Trip. She committed treason.”
“She didn’t commit treason, Mal,” Trip said. “She obeyed T’Pol, and they both thought that they were doing the right thing. You said yourself that it would damage the alliance if it got out.”
Malcolm’s face twisted. “T’Pol had no right to ask this of her,” he retorted.
Trip stood up. “Easy, Mal,” he said in an aggrieved tone. “Hoshi had the right to refuse an order she considered treasonous and appeal to the captain, but she agreed with it. They’re equally responsible.”
Malcolm faced off with him, fists clenched. Trip took an identical stance. They glared at each other. The tension in the room was palpable. Then Trip’s stomach growled—loudly. He just scowled more, but Malcolm smirked.
“Hungry?” he asked.
Trip stuck his tongue in one cheek in an obvious attempt to keep from smiling, then he flashed his friend a reluctant grin. “Yeah. I guess I am,” he admitted.
“Trying to understand women is hungry work. Care to share that sandwich?” Malcolm asked. Trip chuckled and shook his head. He walked over to the desk, grabbed the sandwich, unwrapped it and took a huge bite of sliced turkey, cheese, and bread. Chewing, he looked over the padd that was on top of the stack. His eyes widened, and he picked it up, handing the sandwich off to Malcolm without looking at him.
“What is it? “ Malcolm asked curiously, shoving the other end of the sandwich in his mouth as he stepped up to look over Trip’s shoulder. Trip pointed at the padd. The dual nature of the sensor readings they’d done of the Romulan ship the Enterprise had encountered in the mine field, and again when they’d so briefly hosted the Romulan defector, suddenly made sense to him. Malcolm chewed quickly, so he could speak. Trip wasn’t so fussy about it.
“Do you see it?” he asked, spraying minute fragments of turkey on the screen as he pointed, excited. “There? The Romulan cloak has a dual function.” Malcolm nodded, still chewing. “It’s got holoemitters. They fool the sensors that detect radiant energy in the visible spectrum. We can’t beat them, but the rest of it works like a sensor baffle to fool the sensors that pick up non-visible radiant energy.” Trip swallowed and grinned. “And… whaddaya know, we’ve got a Vulcan sensor baffle!” Malcolm swallowed his bite finally, and returned Trip’s grin.
“Care to do a bit of reverse engineering, Commander?” he asked.
“Don’t mind if I do, Lieutenant,” said Trip.
“Mission Year Twenty- Romulan calendar year 1619 After Settlement,” began Llahir, speaking directly into the microphone of the padd he’d been issued to make his debriefing report. He paused to gather his thoughts as he sat on his bunk in the brig.
Llahir had an eidetic memory, a gift considered by the Security Directorate to be a necessary requirement for such a lengthy undercover mission, but thirty years was a very long time. He’d mentally grouped events into years and associated vital information with trigger words for ease of recall.
“On 28 Ael of this year I was promoted to Centurion by the usual means among officers. That is, by the death of my immediate superior. The general assumption was that I was responsible. I was in no way involved, but an acquaintance of mine, a fellow junior officer with an eye on me as a potential mate, had decided that I required an increase in pay grade. Unfortunately, her role was discovered and she was executed.
“I therefore took it upon myself to secure the loyalty of my subordinates in order to avoid assassination as I advanced in rank, and in the ensuing months used a strategy of verbal positive reinforcement for exemplary performance, irregularly supplementing my verbal support with gifts of ale or other consumables. Combined with consistent and fair disciplinary measures for substandard performance involving increases in distasteful duties but no violence, a tactic those around me found unusual, my techniques soon resulted in a vigorous competition for my approval amongst the staff and a general upgrade in efficiency. I experienced only one assassination attempt during this period which was discovered by another member of my staff prior to the event. The would-be assassin was easily eliminated.
“An unusually large number of merit promotions occurred that year among those serving under me. My methods of discipline and the loyalty and superior performance of my subordinates caught the attention of Commander Sienae, who had recently been granted her own command, and she requested that I be reassigned from my duty as an aide at the Central Headquarters at Gal’gathong and placed in her service on the stealth vessel Aehallh. I had by that time gleaned a great deal of useful information and was eager to make my report. Leaving Romulan space under the command of a relatively young and inexperienced commander seemed a good opportunity to seek retrieval. Unfortunately, although she seemed intrigued by my methods, it soon became clear to me that my new commanding officer was firmly committed to more traditionally Romulan methods of discipline…”
Llahir paused in his dictation at the entry buzzer. He set the padd aside and rose, straightening his unadorned ship’s coverall. The outward facing walls of the cells in the Sehlat’s brig were usually transparent for security, but the captain had ordered his made opaque for privacy, converting the cell into a windowless and claustrophobic space.
It could only be one person at the door. There were only two individuals aboard authorized to have direct contact with him prior to the completion of his debriefing, and one of them was extremely busy dealing with the latest crisis. Sienae wanted him back, and, typically, she was willing to kill to get her way. He knew that it was only a matter of time before T’Lar got desperate enough to ask for his help. Until that time he was a prisoner to his current circumstances, confined to a secure area until a portable sensor baffle arrived while activities of much greater interest occurred elsewhere.
Llahir stood waiting for Raijiin to enter, looking forward to her company, but after several seconds the door remained closed. He stepped forward to the opaqued outer wall of his cell, remembering only then that his door had just been modified to lock from within as an additional security measure in case of boarding action. He paused before opening the door, puzzled by the sound of a childish voice from the other side.
“You weren’t in your cabin, so I asked the computer to find you. Can we have our sweet tea and cakes now?” it asked eagerly.
“Selim, you really shouldn’t be here, dear one,” Rajiin’s voice replied. “I know I promised we’d have a treat this afternoon, but I’m very busy working. I’m afraid we’ll have to do it some other time.”
Llahir activated the door. As it whooshed open, a small Vulcan boy looked up at him wide-eyed. Standing beside the child with one arm curved protectively around him, Raijiin greeted him with an embarrassed smile. Llahir pursed his lips, considering the wisdom of what he was about to do. The boy was obviously the younger brother Commander T’Lar had spoken of, and he couldn’t afford to alienate the Vulcan commander. On the other hand, except for the Human food Raijiin had shared with him on the first day of his arrival, he hadn’t had anything but unseasoned vegetables in days.
“I would enjoy some sweet tea and cakes. May I join you?” he inquired.
A fleeting smile lit the boy’s face before he sobered and, nodding at Llahir as if to an ally, turned to Raijiin with an expectant look. His attempt at Vulcan decorum nearly brought a smile to Llahir’s lips. The boy was like children everywhere, willing to do anything, even behave as he should, in order to obtain sweets. Raijiin crossed her arms over her chest, gazing reprovingly at both of them.
“I’m not sure how we’ll manage that, since you…” she pointed at the child, “…aren’t allowed to talk to strangers, and you…” she wagged a finger in an identical fashion at Llahir, to his amusement, “…aren’t allowed out of here until your report is done, by express order of both Commander T’Lar and your superiors back on Vulcan.” Llahir sighed and rolled his eyes. The Security Directorate was taking no chances with the precious information in his head. He maintained no illusions about their desire to safeguard his wellbeing, though, after being left to his own devices and assumed dead for thirty years.
“He’s not a stranger. You know him,” protested the boy. “Besides, he looks hungry.” He shot Llahir a conspiratorial look.
“I am, indeed,” Llahir confirmed in a sober fashion. Raijiin bit her lip. Her eyes shone with suppressed amusement.
“All right,” she conceded, shaking her head. She turned to the boy. “Selim, come with me.” Her tone was brisk and businesslike. “We’ll be back in five minutes. Please use the time to dictate,” she called over her shoulder as they walked away.
Llahir pressed his right fist to his left shoulder and nodded in a mocking salute to her retreating back. After she left the brig’s antechamber with the boy he allowed himself a smile.
“Captain Archer, I have no wish to be deliberately difficult,” said Jenrali in a strained voice. He exhaled heavily and shifted in his chair on Lerteiran’s small bridge. “We are very appreciative of your assistance.” Daniel bit his lip to keep from laughing and focused his attention on the weapons console. The Andorian captain was actually getting diplomatic in his old age. The effort looked painful. Daniel glanced at T’Riss, stationed at helm. She was eyeing Jenrali with what looked to Daniel like concern. Daniel scowled. Since when did she care about Andorians?
“Then why are you following us, Captain Jenrali? Your ship is a civilian vessel. You and your crew will be much safer back at the station under Vulcan protection,” replied Archer from Lerteiran’s forward viewscreen.
“Under the protection of the Le’Matya, Captain? Excuse me if I’m skeptical,” countered Jenrali. “Our last encounter with the Le’Matya left us in need of a new reactor core.”
Daniel grimaced, rubbing his nose. It was still sore where he’d broken it during the Vulcan ship’s attack. He glanced at T’Riss again. Now she looked guilty. What was with the girl?
“Commander T’Lar assures me that the Le’Matya has strict orders…,” began Archer.
“We’re well armed,” Jenrali cut in impatiently. “You’ve made certain of that. If we join you then this Romulan will have three opponents instead of two.”
Archer blew out a breath and gave up. “Very well, Captain,” he conceded. “Follow us if you must, but please stay out of the line of fire. And any damage to your ship this time is your responsibility, not ours.”
Ouch, thought Daniel, grimacing. Jenrali straightened in his chair as if stung.
“Agreed,” he retorted. “Please keep us informed. Our weapons are at your disposal.” Without further courtesy, Jenrali closed the connection on Archer’s startled face.
“You’re going to let him talk to you like that?” asked Daniel, amazed.
“The man’s used Earth resources to repair our ship twice and hasn’t asked for anything but the cost of supplies,” Jenrali replied in a resigned tone. “He’s got no reason to trust my combat skills. Every battle I’ve been in since he’s known me has ended with the Lerteiran dead in space.”
“The Vulcan thing was a misunderstanding, the Nausicans had us outnumbered four to one, and he can’t expect us to defend ourselves against an invisible opponent,” protested Daniel.
“You mean the same opponent we’ve just volunteered to fight?” asked Jenrali rhetorically. He nodded at T’Riss’s questioning look, and Daniel saw the Vulcan girl make the required course change. She certainly wasn’t saying much, even for a Vulcan. Then he remembered that she’d been on late watch before he’d come on duty that day. She must be getting tired and hungry by now.
“Want me to take the helm while you take a break and get something to eat?” he offered in a quiet voice. She blinked at him, looking startled. She said nothing for several seconds before replying, looking as if she were searching for an appropriate social response. He gave her a wry smile, waiting for it. The woman was hopeless at personal interactions, but at least she wasn’t trying to get him out of his pants.
“Thank you,” she finished finally, and rose from her chair. She took a step toward the access ladder and then turned. “Do you wish me to bring you something from the galley?”
Daniel grinned. She was getting better at this. “No thanks, I’m fine,” he replied. He got up from his seat at the weapons console, stepped to the helm, seated himself, and eyed Jenrali, who was studiously not looking at them. The old Andorian had a small, pleased smile on his face. Great, nothing like giving the old man encouragement with his harebrained matchmaking scheme. “What about you, Captain? Need anything?”
Jenrali raised his mug. “I am well-fortified,” he told them. Coffee-scented steam wafted through the room. Daniel snorted.
“Better be careful with that stuff, Captain.”
“It’s decaf!” insisted Jenrali. “Tastes good, though,” he added, taking a sip and closing his eyes with a sigh.
“If you say so,” said Daniel, rolling his eyes. He couldn’t throw stones. He couldn’t function in the morning without his coffee.
“Just close your mouth and drive, you impertinent boy,” retorted Jenrali.
“More tea, Selim?” Raijiin asked, amused. The boy’s cheeks bulged like a ground rodent’s. Crumbs escaped his lips to shower over his chest. He nodded vigorously in response, being unable to respond otherwise while chewing, and extended his cup. She poured as requested, reveling in the waves of bliss the boy was radiating. His happiness was contagious. Even the hard-bitten Vulcan agent seemed susceptible. He claimed to be utterly non-telepathic and therefore should have been immune to Selim’s unusually strong empathic talent, so it must be something else. As they sat around the small table she’d had brought in to his cell, pouring in turns from the teapot she’d borrowed from the galley, she could see the man relaxing by stages.
“The cakes have a pleasant flavor,” said Llahir, looking with interest at the half-eaten round in his hand. “Are these native to your home world? I don’t recognize the spice.”
“They’re Human,” replied Raijiin. “Something called ginger-bread.”
Llahir raised a brow and then took another bite, closing his eyes and rolling the cake around in his mouth as he chewed. Raijiin had never seen a Vulcan savor his food like that. Then he swallowed. “I’ll have to check the Earth database for the recipe and add it to my list,” he said. “These will be an excellent addition to the dessert menu when I open my restaurant.”
So he was an aspiring chef, Raijiin thought. Interesting. She smiled at the thought of him in a kitchen with an apron on. With his rigidly military bearing and lean physique he hardly looked the type.
Selim choked, took a large gulp of tea, and finally managed to swallow his huge mouthful. “You cook?!” he exclaimed, spraying crumbs. Among Vulcans, Raijiin knew, cooking was a service occupation requiring neither skill nor imagination, analogous to doing laundry or cleaning floors, and was not something commonly done by an officer unless his survival was at stake.
“The life of a soldier of the Romulan Empire, in my experience, is 95 percent stultifying boredom interspersed with short periods of abject terror,” Llahir responded. “One must have something to occupy one’s time.” He took a sip of tea while the boy regarded him in surprise. “I also sew and darn socks,” he said. Raijiin bit her lip and looked studiously into her teacup.
“Terror? You mean, you were afraid?” asked Selim.
“Fear is a natural biological response to being threatened with imminent death, and when properly controlled, increases one’s chances of survival in a life-threatening situation,” Llahir told him.
“Increases?” inquired Raijiin, sipping her tea. This was a justification she’d never heard before, especially not from a Vulcan.
“Indeed. Fear, properly channeled, causes an increase in vigilance, physical strength, and stamina. That is its biologic purpose, to increase one’s chances of escape from a physical threat,” replied Llahir. “It is a perfectly normal, and quite useful, response in some situations.”
The boy just stared at him and blinked. Raijiin couldn’t blame the child. What Llahir was saying was eminently logical, and yet the admission that emotion was a useful and normal response in any situation was not an admission most Vulcans would ever make.
“So, being afraid is logical?” Selim asked, cocking his small head and wrinkling his brow with the effort of getting his mind around the concept.
“It can be, given the appropriate circumstances,” Llahir confirmed. Then he downed the rest of his tea. The boy smiled slightly. Raijiin could sense his relief and pride, and suddenly understood. He’d spent months on the Orion station afraid, an emotion which his Vulcan heritage did not allow him to treat as an acceptable response. Llahir had just normalized the entire experience for him. Raijiin studied the agent, who was complacently pouring himself another cup of tea. Did he realize what he’d just done for the boy? Probably not, but she couldn’t be sure. It was frustratingly hard to read his emotions without touching him, an attribute she’d found to be common to members of non-telepathic species, but not a difficulty she generally had with Vulcans.
The entry buzzer sounded. Selim gave Raijiin an alarmed look. She smiled reassuringly, but his concern was understandable. He wasn’t supposed to be here, and T’Lar’s favorite punishment for disobedience, confinement to their cabin with a computer console for his only company, was very hard for a boy his age. Llahir rose and stepped to the door, partially blocking the view from outside as the door swished open. “May I help you?” he asked.
“Agent Llahir, Commander T’Lar requests your presence in her ready room,” announced the young centurion at the door. He extended a wide belt with what looked like a rectangular control box attached to Llahir, who fastened it around his waist, looking pleased. It was the portable sensor baffle, Raijiin assumed, which meant that Enterprise had joined them. Raiijin didn’t recognize the Vulcan at the door, but Selim obviously did. He ducked beneath the table.
Raijiin rose and stepped to stand beside Llahir, effectively blocking the centurion’s view of the interior of the cell. She motioned with one hand behind her back, trying to signal to Selim to stay hidden, and smiled pleasantly at the centurion. “Does the Commander also require my assistance?” she asked him. The young man tipped his head in assent.
“She asks that you escort Agent Llahir to the meeting, while I…” His eyes traveled past her into the cell behind them, and she realized that Selim’s efforts had been for naught. “I will take charge of young Selim,” his voice rose reprovingly to resound in the confines of the brig, “Since his tutoring session was scheduled to begin thirty minutes ago!”
“I’m sorry, Samel. I’m coming,” said a small voice from beneath the table.
The captain’s ready room on Enterprise seemed crowded when Senek stepped over the threshold escorted by Commander T’Pol. The atmosphere was tense but less hostile than the last time he’d been there under interrogation. Captain Archer nodded politely to him as if he were a member of the team, and motioned for him to take a chair. Seated about the table were Commander Tucker, Lieutenant Reed, Ensign Sato, and the Betazoid telepath Damin, who had a portable sensor baffle belted about his slender waist and looked uncharacteristically somber seated next to Captain Archer. A computer console rose from the center of the table. The screen was split between views of Commander T’Lar aboard the Sehlat and an older Andorian male that Senek assumed was the captain of the Lerteiran. The Andorian was a surprising addition to the group, since the Lerteiran was supposed to be tucked safely under the Le’Matya’s figurative wing back at the Orion station. That was obviously not the case, for the interference wrought by the nebula would have made such clear transmission impossible.
“Now that we’re all here,” began Archer, “I’d like to present a plan for the resolution of this crisis suggested by Mister Damin, who claims specialized knowledge of this woman identifying herself as ‘the representative of the Romulan Empire in this sector of space’.
“What sort of ‘specialized knowledge’?” asked someone male from behind the Andorian. “What’s his plan? Seduce the Romulan?”
“Daniel! Be quiet!” chided another voice, female this time, in maternal reproof. The Lertieran’s captain turned around and growled something in Andorian, too quickly for Senek to catch the sense of it. Then he turned back to the screen with an apologetic expression. Archer cleared his throat and went on, ignoring the young Human’s comment with admirable aplomb.
“The Romulan commander in question will, according to Mister Damin, not hesitate a second to do what she is threatening to do,” Archer continued. “She will have no mercy, and any attempt at negotiation is pointless. Fortunately, we have an alternative.” He leaned back in his chair and nodded at Commander Tucker. Tucker rose from his chair and, with a self-conscious smile, moved to Archer’s side so as to be within range of the transmission cameras. Commander T’Pol’s gaze followed him. She had pride on her face, clear for any Vulcan to read.
“Lieutenant Reed and I have been working on a way to penetrate the Romulan cloak,” he said. “We’ve determined that the cloak operates in two ways simultaneously. The first is camouflage in the visual spectrum provided by holograms. There’s not a whole lot we can do to see through that, at least not without some quality time with a set of Romulan holoemitters. The second way the cloak works is like a huge sensor baffle, and that we know something about, even though it’s much more sophisticated than the device we’ve been studying.” He gestured at the belt around Damin’s waist. “Standard sensor baffles create an area of sensor masking that’s detectable, although nothing within the area can be identified or transported out.” He gestured at the computer console, and Ensign Sato reached out to the keyboard. The split screen with the paired faces of Commander T’Lar and Captain Jenrali converted to a screen full of unreadable gibberish.
“We’ve determined that the Romulan cloak’s version of a sensor baffle relies on computer generated false sensor readings which are transmitted to fill the void left by sensor masking. These transmissions are an attempt to imitate the radiation patterns which would be generated by what the observer is seeing if the image were real. They’re amazingly accurate, but they’re not perfect. Ensign Sato is sending you an encrypted program which should allow your computer to identify areas of repeated patterns, where the Romulan’s computer is using the equivalent of canned footage to fill the gaps.”
Senek raised a brow. The reference was obscure, but his theory was sound. The quiet little ensign spoke. She could barely be heard. Senek had once thought that she was Section 31. Now he wasn’t so sure. She seemed too timid.
“The program will report positive findings as the percentage likelihood of a cloak being in use,” Ensign Sato said softly. All eyes in the room focused on her. The screen reverted back to the split view of the captains of the other two ships, and their attention seemed riveted as well. “I would recommend a preemptive strike with full destructive force at any location which registers greater than a seventy percent likelihood. A continuous barrage of the area will provide the best chance for a direct hit.” This rather bloodthirsty statement was made in the same soft tones as before.
Perhaps timid was not the most accurate term.
“There’s a lot of space to hide in,” came the same young voice from behind Captain Jenrali. “It could take forever to find this Romulan if she doesn’t want to be found.” Jenrali shot a reproving look off camera.
“That’s a very good point, Mr. Johansen,” said Tucker. “That’s why we’re going to use bait to lure her out.” He gestured again at Damin, and abruptly Senek understood the Betazoid’s grim expression. “Mister Damin has volunteered.”
“She won’t reveal herself unless we’re both there.” The speaker stepped into the screen beside Commander T’Lar. Senek had never met him before, but he’d seen the man’s dossier. He looked the part of a pre-Surak warrior—older, leaner and fiercer looking than the thirty year old images Senek had seen. Few Vulcans now had facial scars from swordplay. Llahir had several. “So…how do you propose we do this?” Llahir’s question was addressed not to Archer, but to Damin. The Betazoid’s lips twisted in wry amusement.
“If you’re so eager to see her again, why don’t you go without me? I’ll just stay here and watch the show,” he quipped.
Three of them, thought Sienae, her hands gripping the arms of her command chair in a white-knuckled grip as she stared at the viewscreen. What am I supposed to do against three of them? The Earth ship, the Vulcan D’Kyr cruiser and the Andorian freighter weren’t on the viewscreen together, of course. Their captains weren’t so stupid that they would get that close to one another. Sensors had identified all three of them in the system, though, and just because her disappointingly inept comm officer was unable to break the encryption the three ships were using in their communications with each other didn’t mean that the transmissions weren’t detectable. She could guess the content. They were hunting her.
“The Vulcan shuttlecraft has reached the designated rendezvous point, Commander,” announced Sub-centurion Nuhir at ops. The girl’s voice was icily calm, like Llahir’s had always been. All of the young officers he’d given personal attention to were like that. It was annoying.
“Did they meet our demands?” Sienae asked.
“There are two life signs aboard,” replied the girl. “One matches the criteria you supplied for the Betazoid. The other is Vulcan.” She brought up a closeup of the shuttle on the viewscreen.
Sienae gritted her teeth, studying the image. The vessel was a standard issue Vulcan shuttlepod, unarmed. It was a blatant trap, of course, but none of the ships pursuing her had Betazoids aboard other than her son, so at least the bait was likely genuine. That surprised her. The rumors she’d heard about the Human captain didn’t describe him as someone who gave up easily. She had no way of knowing whether the captain of the Vulcan vessel that pursued her was the type to give in to demands and attempt negotiation or not. Interrogating the Vulcans she’d acquired from the Tellarite freighter had been singularly unrevealing. Either they’d known nothing about the D’Kyr cruiser that pursued her or they’d been willing to carry the information with them to their boringly logical afterlife.
“Three of them,” she muttered. Uncloaking to collect her prizes would be suicide. She was outnumbered and outgunned. Then the inkling of an idea began to take shape, and she got on the comm.
“Sienae to Maklan.”
”Yes, Commander?” Sienae heard female shrieks in the background.
“When your men are finished, I’ll need your opinion on which of them would be suited to a mission I have in mind. I’ll need two volunteers who can pilot a shuttlecraft,” Sienae told him.
“The shuttlecraft remains untouched, Commander,” said Subcommander Verlen.
“Nothing above forty percent probability within sensor range, Commander, and still no sign of the missing freighter,” put in the centurion at tactical.
T’Lar said nothing. A response was not required.
The whoosh of the lift doors sounded loudly in the tense and nearly silent room. Senek stepped to her elbow. She acknowledged him with a nod.
“Your timing is fortuitous, Agent Senek.”
“I am grateful for your intervention, Commander,” Senek replied.
“He agreed to send you back when I agreed to use one of Sehlat’s shuttles for this,” returned T’Lar.
“Yes, I was present during that negotiation. He was pleased. Something about ‘not giving the bastards any more technology than they already have’,” said Senek in a deadpan voice.
If T’Lar hadn’t been so tense already, the statement might have alarmed her. Archer was assuming the existence of Romulan/Vulcan cooperation and technology sharing. It was much too close to the truth for comfort. No Human should be party to the reasons for Vulcan’s recent governmental upheaval. “How much do you think he knows?” she asked.
“Enough. He knows enough to destroy everything.”
“Commander, I’m reading a locus of sixty-five percent probability, closing at one-half impulse along bearing 23.08 X 12.9 X 36.543, Delta -6.3. ETA with the shuttlecraft in 17.2 minutes ,” interjected the tactical officer. “Probability sixty-nine percent and rising as it approaches.”
“Lock disruptors. Load forward torpedoes, maximum spread. Prepare to fire on my order,” ordered T’Lar, pushing aside more remote concerns to deal with the present.
“The locus is at seventy percent…”
Space wavered at the targeted area, but no wreckage materialized.<.p> “Commander, there’s a second locus now coming in from a completely different direction…eighty-five percent probability…”
Two of them? T’Lar hesitated for a fraction of a second.
“The original locus now reads ninety-seven percent.”
“Ignore the new locus,” said T’Lar, her hands squeezing the arms of her command chair. “Fire at our original target.” The Sehlat’s disruptors seemed to produce no result, firing as they did on what appeared to be empty space. On the view screen, she saw a volley of photon torpedoes depart the Enterprise and converge on a different point in space, one that also seemed empty.
“Enterprise is firing on the second locus,” said Verlen.
“There is a third locus, Commander,” announced the tactical officer, in a voice that sounded more alarmed than was proper for a Vulcan. “It reads eighty-seven percent and is on an intercept course with this vessel. Its estimated time of collision with us at its current speed and trajectory is…”
“Change targets. Lock phase cannons on the third locus and fire,” interjected T’Lar.
The third barrage produced results at last. A winged ship flickered into view, painted with the raptor’s wings and trailing debris.
“Sensors detect an impending warp core breach, Commander. We should leave the vicinity,” recommended Verlen with his usual caution. T’Lar opened her mouth to give the order, but paused as she studied the viewscreen. Enterprise fired again on the second locus without obvious effect. Lerteiran, smaller and with a smaller firing range, was just coming around to bear on the first locus. Something was wrong. Why three loci?
“What are the readings now, Centurion?” T’Lar asked.
“The first locus is at ninety-five percent, Commander,” reported the tactical officer. “Locus two is up to ninety-nine percent and locus three….” He paused, his brow wrinkled in puzzlement. He exchanged a perplexed look with T’Lar. “At locus three there is a ninety-eight percent probability that a cloak is still in use.”
“Commander!” T’Lar looked up to the viewscreen at Verlen’s cry. A raptor had appeared at the site that Enterprise was firing upon. Uncharacteristically, it fled, leading Enterprise away from the baited shuttle.
Simultaneously, a third Romulan ship materialized at the site of the first locus. It was different from the other two in that it had a Tellarite freighter in tow via tractor beam. It remained visible for only a moment beside the Vulcan shuttle—long enough for Lerteiran to fire a single barrage of phase cannons at it—and then disappeared again. “Sensors detected transporter activity, Commander. The shuttle now has no life signs aboard,” said Verlen in a resigned voice. As he spoke, the remaining Romulan ship, which had shown every evidence of impending warp core breach, just vanished, leaving in its place a scattered bit of wreckage roughly the size of a shuttlecraft.
“Pursue the first locus,” T’Lar said, breathing deeply to combat her frustration. “Subcommander Verlen, inform Captain Archer that the ship he is pursuing is a decoy.”
“I believe he knows that, Commander,” said Senek, finally breaking his observant silence. He nodded at the screen. Both Enterprise and Lerteiran were departing at warp following the trajectory of the ship that had just taken the bait, leaving the system.
“Pursue and overtake, helm. Warp six,” growled T’Lar.
“Dammitrekloqsunovabitch!” Daniel swore. “I missed!” He pushed back from his console, running one hand through his hair in distress.
T’Riss completed the course correction to pursue the locus of cloaking, which now showed a seventy-eight percent probability. It was heading directly for the nebula, which meant that they’d likely lose it soon due to sensor interference, an unfortunate outcome considering that two valuable agents had sacrificed themselves as bait and the Romulan still had custody of the hostages. Although killing the hostages now would serve no useful purpose, T’Riss’s previous experience with both Nausican and Orion hostage takers told her that their lives would probably be forfeit nonetheless, if only because they were an inconvenience.
“Don’t kick yourself about it, lad. You had only a second or two. You did your best,” Jenrali said. T’Riss considered his statement for a moment. Daniel was quite capable of locking phase cannons and firing with precision within two seconds, and so Jenrali’s statement was not accurate. Daniel’s performance had not been the best he was capable of. He obviously knew this, for Jenrali’s statement did not seem to relieve his distress. T’Riss decided that it was likely to be her own thwarted maternal instincts that made her wish that she could comfort him.
“Sehlra’s gonna kill me, Jenrali. I let the Romulans take him. She made me promise not to!” Daniel’s plaintive cry made him sound like a child fearful of disappointing his mother. In this case, perhaps the analogy was close to the truth. Jenrali sighed heavily.
“She’ll be upset, no doubt about it, boy… but Damin volunteered. In his own way, he was a warrior. She’ll honor his memory, as will we all,” replied Jenrali with no sign of irony. T’Riss raised a brow. Jenrali’s attitude was a far cry from the disdain he’d manifested earlier. Apparently, for an Andorian, dying at the hands of the enemy was the ultimate honor restoring experience.
“I find it unlikely that Damin is dead just yet,” T’Riss put in. “She’ll want to interrogate him regarding his time in Human hands, at the very least.” She glanced back at the sensor readings. Sehlat was outdistancing Enterprise in the pursuit of the Romulan vessel, leaving Leirteiran a distant third. “If Sehlat can maintain sensor contact long enough to overtake the Romulan, there’s a chance that Commander T’Lar may be able to disable the ship rather than destroy it, and so recover all of the hostages, including the two used as bait.”
Both men glanced back at her. Jenrali smiled and shook his head.
“How much of a chance?” Daniel wanted to know.
“Given the fact that the usual Romulan response to being disabled is self-destruction,” T’Riss replied in a forthright manner, “I would estimate the probability at between point zero two five and point zero two seven percent.”
Llahir materialized in a very familiar brig. There was a copper smell to the air, the cuffs hanging on the back wall of the cell were stained with greenish-brown spatters, and he was capable of naming every instrument to be found within the small locked cabinet mounted on the bulkhead just outside the cell door. Damin, who’d been transported with him, took one look around them and then retreated to one corner with a look of deep concentration on his face. There were no guards in evidence. Llahir activated his homing beacon per protocol.
“Come here, Vulcan,” ordered Damin. Llahir sighed. He was still unaccustomed to taking orders from someone who looked like a pampered child, but Damin had insisted on being placed in command of the mission as a condition of his participation. Since the Betazoid/Romulan crossbreed’s unique genetic makeup caused a detectable variance in biosignature which was impossible to duplicate on such short notice, Llahir had agreed. He approached the corner where the boy was curled in a fetal ball, knees to chest, staring at empty space in front of him, and stood over him, puzzled. Abruptly, Damin grabbed his wrist and pulled him down face to face. As soon as the telepath made skin to skin contact, Llahir felt a presence in his mind. He winced as pain lanced through his skull.
”By the Holy Rings, are you always this hard to link with?” groused a voice in his head. “Ahh!” gasped Llahir aloud, grabbing for his temple with his free hand.
”Silence! We’re being monitored! Just think what you want to say, but fall on the floor first and close your eyes, as if I’d just stunned you,” said the voice. Damin’s gaze met his. The telepath’s pupil-less night-black eyes seemed to bore into his katra. Llahir had half-expected something like this from a telepath, but he’d anticipated some warning at the very least. He obeyed anyway, his soldierly instincts taking precedence, and slumped to the floor with his eyes closed.
“Excellent. Stay there. Don’t move, no matter what happens, until I say so. You’ve got to be removed as a threat or they’ll separate us, and I’ll need your help soon.” Llahir gathered his thoughts and then projected them as best he could while lying as if dead on the cold metal deckplates. “WHAT SORT OF HELP?” He felt the Betazoid recoil.
”No need to try so hard! ” He sensed frustration. ”Hasn’t anyone trained you to communicate with a telepath?” ”The skill was not a requirement for a mission involving undercover work with non-telepaths,” Llahir returned with less effort but considerable resignation. ”Unlike other Vulcans, I have no telepathic ability. The difficulty you are experiencing is not unexpected.” It was the same difficulty, Llahir reflected, that had always dogged him. His anomaly was related to the birth trauma which had also resulted in his “gift” for forgetting nothing, and one reason, aside from his eidetic memory, that he’d been chosen for the undercover mission. A Vulcan incapable of a betrothal bond had no one at home to miss him if he failed to return. ”Understood,” returned Damin, ”Just reply as you’re doing now and we should have no further difficulty communicating when in physical contact with each other. The main problem I’m anticipating is that unless I take complete control of your mind, I won’t be able to communicate with you telepathically without touching you, so our signal must be verbal for you to retain the independence we need. You’ll know the signal when you hear it. Meanwhile, here’s the plan…”
“So, the source of the nebula’s signal interference is radiation. Why can’t we compensate for that?” asked Malcolm Reed in a puzzled voice. He ran fingers into his hair and scratched his scalp while studying the readouts on the table display in the tactical room. He was scruffy looking and exhausted, but no less so than anyone else in the room, and still looked delectable to Hoshi Sato.
“The radiation levels fluctuate at unpredictable intervals. They’re a random phenomenon generated by natural sources,” she explained. “The computer can’t compensate because there’s no pattern to follow.”
“So, when the Romulan ship gets close enough to the nebula, we’ll lose our ability to detect its cloak and there’s nothing we can do about it,” summarized Commander Tucker in a bleak voice.
“The Sehlat’s ahead of us. They might reach the Romulan ship before that happens,” put in Hoshi.
“And do what? Attack the Romulan ship? Destroy it?” protested Malcolm. “Even if the hostages are still on the freighter, the Tellarite ship’s well within the blast zone of the raptor’s warp core while under tow, and I certainly wouldn’t put it past this Romulan captain to bring the hostages aboard her vessel to prevent us from destroying it. “ His frustration was obvious. No one had expected that the Romulan would limit her maneuverability in combat by going in with the freighter in tow—but then, no one had expected her to use two cloaked shuttles as decoys, either.
“Both of the volunteers are carrying concealed homing beacons. If one of them can get free of the cloak and activate his beacon we might find him…assuming we can get through the nebula’s interference,” Hoshi ventured.
“And so we should do an intensive search for the homing beacons…” announced a cool voice. Commander T’Pol entered the room wearing the same standard issue coverall she’d been wearing for the fourteen hours since that morning’s briefing, a surprising change of wardrobe which had the entire crew talking. “At the same time, we will continue to pursue the cloaked Romulan vessel for as long as we can. That is all we can do at the present time.” Her summary made the situation sound simple.
Hoshi avoided her gaze. The whole Romulan/Vulcan issue was a confusing one. On the one hand, Hoshi felt guilty about hiding things from her captain, strategically important things which might make a difference should the Romulans actually go to war with Earth. On the other hand, worry over possibly destroying diplomatic ties between Earth and Vulcan gnawed at her. Humanity owed a lot to the Vulcans. They could learn so much from each other. It had been a relief to make her report as ordered by the captain, but now that Starfleet had access to it, nightmares about what the admiralty might do with the information were going to keep her up nights for a long time to come.
Commander T’Pol approached Commander Tucker, who looked about as happy as Hoshi had been to see her. “This is a copy of the report I presented to the captain a few moments ago. I thought the contents would interest you,” said T’Pol. She handed a padd to Commander Tucker, who took it from her and laid it on the table beside him without looking at it.
“We’re kinda busy right now, T’Pol,” he told her, glancing up at the Vulcan first officer and then back down at the table, busily bringing up screens with equations on them as if the work he was doing required every bit of his attention. Hoshi knew better. So, apparently, did T’Pol, for she straightened as if offended.
“I am available to discuss the contents of my report as soon as you have the opportunity to review it, Commander,” said T’Pol stiffly. Her gaze swept the room. “I will inform the captain of the change in protocol. We will begin scanning for the homing beacons immediately.” Then she turned and left the room, her back ramrod straight. Once she was gone, Commander Tucker straightened and stepped back from the table. He gave Hoshi and Malcolm a tired smile. “Guess there isn’t really anything else we can do but chase a probability,” he told them. He collected the padd T’Pol had given him. “I’m gonna go do my homework. Ya’ll oughta go get somethin’ to eat.” Then he walked out.
Hoshi eyed Malcolm warily. Recent events had probably not favorably affected his opinion of her. He smiled and extended a bent elbow.
“Will you join me for dinner?” he asked. She blinked at his unexpected boldness, then tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow and gave him a hesitant smile.
Sienae stepped into the brig, inhaling deeply at the coppery scent of blood. She walked to the locked door of the occupied holding cell and peered through the bars. As she’d expected, Damin cowered in the corner of the room. He had changed very little since she’d last seen him, and was still just as effeminately lovely as ever. It turned her stomach. With a quickly suppressed pang, she noted Llahir on the floor next to her son, motionless, his scarred face and lean muscular body familiar in every detail, prompting memories of past, more pleasurable events.
“What did you do to my first officer, Damin?” she demanded imperiously.
“He’s a Vulcan spy, Mother,” whined Damin. “He’s one of them…they were keeping me from coming to you.” His eyes filled with tears. “Please don’t hurt me. I’ll tell you everything.”
Sienae sighed and shook her head. The boy was such a disappointment. She reached out to the wall and activated the comm.
“Sienae to Maklan.”
“I have another interrogation for you. Send your best man.”
She smiled. Being obeyed without question was so gratifying. She returned to the cell door to find Damin grasping the bars with a pleading look on his face.
“Please, Mother!” he begged. “I promise I’ll do anything you say!” His wide dark eyes, so like his father’s and so eloquent, did his supplication for him. The tactic had worked with her when he was a child, before he’d betrayed her. Now it just made her angry.
“It’s too late for that, Damin,” she replied coldly. “The Tal Shiar wants you and the threat you represent eliminated.” She paused, studying his evident panic, and then relented. “But…because you are my son, and as a token of the service you’ve given, I will grant you this. If you tell me how our pursuers are tracking us despite our cloak, I will make certain that your death is swift and relatively painless.”
Trip sat numbly at the desk in his quarters with the padd in his hand, just staring at it. It contained a detailed account of the history of T’Pol’s childhood, her education, and her service record, with clarifying notes giving details which were most certainly classified. What struck him was its length. She’d begun her career at her majority, which for a Vulcan was roughly thirty Earth years, and had to date worked as many years as he’d been alive, a career that spanned the equivalent of four university PhD’s, a decade of research with the Science Directorate, and another as an active agent for the Security Directorate.
The only gap in the record was during her time with the Security Directorate. Apparently she’d had a psychological breakdown near the end of it, an event all too common among Vulcan agents forced to go against a lifetime of non-violent programming in order to obey orders. Treatment had involved the deliberate induction of amnesia after she was forced to kill a fugitive in self-defense, followed by re-assignment to a position which theoretically would not require violent behavior, and so the record during that period was limited to official documents, and was sparse.
Unfortunately, her “low risk” assignment as the assistant to the ambassador to Earth had morphed into something which had proved to be more of a challenge to her Vulcan conditioning than anything else she’d ever experienced—her assignment to Enterprise. The delayed consequences of her final mission for the Security Directorate caught his attention deeply. He spent several minutes reading and re-reading it, then considering the ramifications.
Her admission to addiction to trellium-D had been a shock. Trip wondered whether the confession would cost her her commission. He’d known about it, of course. She’d at least been truthful enough to tell him about it before their wedding. What astonished him was that she’d revealed it to the captain, right along with the details of their marriage. Trip had asked for an end to secrets. He’d gotten it in spades.
The entry buzzer sounded. Simultaneously, Trip felt the barriers that T’Pol had erected between them fall away, and he could sense her presence clearly on the other side of the door. He kept his guard up, still not trusting her seeming change of heart, but T’Pol’s hesitance and fear over his response to the document she’d given him clinched it. It just didn’t feel right to avoid her anymore. He got up to answer the door.
Her face was emotionless as she stepped over the threshold, but with the bond newly opened on her side, Trip had no need of any outward show of emotion. He could tell she was terrified of losing him, and he was still just angry enough at her not to say anything quite yet. He followed her in. The door shut behind them. The room was dimly lit, and her eyes shone liquidly in the semi-darkness. He paused to turn up the thermostat before turning to face her, close enough to touch. “I read it…but I guess you know that,” he said.
“The captain said the same thing that you did…no more lies. It’s up to him now,” replied T’Pol.
“I guess it never really registered that you’re so much older and more experienced than I am,” he admitted. “Is that why you have so much trouble treating me like an equal partner? Am I just a kid to you?”
T’Pol raised a hand and laid it gently on his chest. “You are my husband. It’s my responsibility to protect you from harm, and there are times when my experience has taught me more than you have learned just yet,” she told him, “…but you are far from a child.” Her words were accompanied by a wave of desire that was anything but maternal. Trip took a deep breath and dropped his barriers. The rush of emotion nearly dropped him to his knees. She caught him and steadied him until he recovered his equilibrium.
“You’ve got to respect me, T’Pol… stop over-protecting me. I’m a grown man…” His voice trailed off as her arms encircled his neck.
“I am well aware of that, husband,” she whispered, and rose to her toes to kiss him.
The tactical alert siren was almost predictable.
“All hands to battle stations. Command crew to the bridge.”
"Helm. Status." Sienae snapped.
"Approaching the protostar, Commander," the subcenturion replied. "ETA to the asteroid field seven minutes.”
“The D’Kyr cruiser has overshot our position and remains enroute to the nebula. Disengaging the cloak within the protostar’s influence appears to have been effective,” answered the centurion. “The Human ship approaches, but there is no sign that they are aware of our presence."
Sienae smiled. Damin’s information had been valuable after all. Perhaps she’d let him live a few days longer. She pressed the comm.
"Maklan, status report.”
"The auto-destruct mechanism aboard the transport has been engaged as you commanded, Milady. The prisoners are ready for transport."
"Begin transporting them back to their own cargo bays," Sienae ordered. "Are you certain that they cannot escape or interfere?"
"Confirmed, Commander," Maklan replied. "The cargo bay doors have been welded shut, with cross bars welded into place for reinforcement. There is no possible way for them to get out."
"Excellent," she said with relish. "Notify me when transport is complete." She keyed the comm off and turned back to the helm. "When I give the command, activate the transport's engines at minimal power and send it into the heart of the asteroid field." Sienae looked down and lovingly ran her finger over the new panel insert that she had ordered installed into the arm of her chair. Giving the order wasn't enough this time. She wanted the satisfaction of actually pressing the switch.—and why not? Why should her underlings have all the fun?
"Affirmative, Commander." The helm officer checked his readings. "ETA 2.5 minutes."
The comm came to life. "Transport complete." Sienae's eyes darkened.
"Helm. Launch the transport." She smiled and half turned her head toward the communications console. "Activate the internal monitors on that transport. Let's see how they are taking this." The communications officer obligingly activated a secondary viewscreen, split down the middle to show both cargo holds. From the speakers came a gradually rising hum of chaotic noise, barely distinguishable as voices. The volume slowly intensified until it reached a crescendo of panic when the erstwhile survivors discovered that they were still prisoners.
Sienae's smile curled into a snarl and she laughed silently, switching her attention back to the main screen as the transport drew closer to a particularly large rock. When the impact came, the voices on the comm blended into a single chorus of terror.
A delightful thought suddenly occurred to her. "Patch a feed of this to the brig as well," she ordered. "Make sure our guests have a good seat for the entertainment." The helm officer smothered a snicker.
“Commander, the Human ship has changed course,” put in the tactical officer as he studied his console. He looked up, alarmed. “It’s accelerated to warp five and is headed directly for us!”
Sienae scowled. Leave it to the Humans to ruin her fun. Now she’d have no time to do this properly. Torture just wasn’t enjoyable if it was over too quickly.
Llahir lay motionless on the floor of the cell with his eyes closed and his teeth clenched. Damin’s interrogation was progressing well. He’d told Sienae that the Humans had developed a way to detect when a cloak was in use, but were unable to use their standard long range sensors simultaneously, a reasonably believable half-truth that might just have convinced her to deactivate the ship’s cloaking device, and he was now in the process of waxing poetic about the military capabilities of the Human and Vulcan vessels pursuing them, making them sound roughly ten times more powerful than they actually were. The Betazoid really was a superb liar. Unfortunately, the lantern-jawed primitive who was interrogating him didn’t seem to believe in voluntary confession. His willingness to believe a statement seemed directly related to the volume of the screams which preceded it.
Llahir admired the telepath’s fortitude and inventiveness, especially since he’d heard Sienae give the interrogator orders to begin with Llahir once he was done with Damin. So far, though, all the Romulan had done was walk over, kick Llahir in the ribs, and then proceed to ignore him completely when he failed to respond.
The sound of terrified screams filled the brig. They weren’t Damin’s. Llahir cracked one eye open. On the vid screen above the cell door the image of a half-dozen faces of varied ages and races appeared in closeup. The faces changed moment by moment, as if people were climbing atop each other, clawing at something in hysterical panic which was positioned just beneath the camera. The image shook as if the camera had been violently shaken, and the screech of buckling metal almost drowned out their cries. Llahir squinted at the screen. Between the wide-eyed faces he could see what looked like the interior of a metal walled chamber partially filled with pallets and crates. A cargo bay? When he saw the sign on the bulkhead in Tellurian, Llahir realized where the camera was.
She’s killing them. She’s doing it right now, he realized. Behind him there was a pause in Damin’s moaning and whining, and Llahir was suddenly on full alert. He tensed muscles stiffened by hours lying motionless on cold metal, attempting to prepare for the signal. Damin had been correct. When it came, it was obvious.
The Human word was completely out of place coming from the mouth of a Betazoid in a Romulan brig. In response to it, Llahir jumped to his feet and rushed the burly Romulan interrogator, strong-arming him into the bulkhead where Damin hung in cuffs. The man’s neck twisted awkwardly, his face pressed skin to skin against Damin’s naked, emerald streaked chest. Llahir held him there until he stopped struggling while the shrieks continued from the vid display behind them.
“All right. Release him,” said the telepath in a hoarse voice. Llahir stepped back, pulling a shock rod from the Romulan’s belt as he did so. The Romulan, slightly glassy eyed and slow moving, straightened, shook his head, and then looked up at Damin. The telepath stared him down without a trace of the fear that he’d shown previously. Llahir activated the shock rod, just in case, but the Romulan ignored its crackle and proceeded to unlock Damin’s cuffs without saying a word.
Damin sighed with obvious relief, rubbing his chafed wrists. “There’s no need for that,” he told Llahir, tipping his chin at the shock rod as he stepped away from the wall. “I’ve got him under control.” He took the shock rod from Llahir and handed it back to the Romulan. Llahir eyed the Romulan cautiously, but Damin’s control over the man appeared absolute.
They stood to one side while the Romulan unlocked the cell, and then preceded him out of the brig. Llahir took the lead, followed by Damin and then the Romulan interrogator, who held the activated shock rod as if he were herding them down the corridor to the transporter room. No one gave them a second glance.
The sub-centurion manning the transporter looked up in surprise at his shock rod bearing compatriot. “Why are you here? I’ve received no orders…” The Romulan under Damin’s control stepped forward without hesitation and zapped the subcenturion with the shock rod, dropping him mid-sentence, and took his place at the controls.
Damin reached out and touched Llahir on the temple with his right hand. All at once, a deck plan of the Tellarite freighter and the disarm code that Damin had plucked from his torturer’s mind appeared.in Llahir’s head. Llahir took a deep breath and straightened his shoulders. There was a strong possibility that he would arrive too late to do anything but die with the hostages, but his orders had not changed, so he stepped on to the transporter pad.
The Aehallh’s main viewscreen gave Sienae an excellent view of the asteroid field. The prow of the freighter struck the first asteroid at a glancing angle, gouging deep into the nickle-iron surface and sending fragments spinning off in every direction. The reinforced structure of the Tellarite-built hull buckled but held. Recoil bounced the ship away from the surface briefly, just far enough for momentum to rake it along the dorsal surface of the transport. She imagined shrill vibrations echoing throughout the length of the craft, sending shrieks of tortured metal to the ears of the prisoners as if the ship itself were howling in pain. Momentum carried the ship farther and farther into the asteroid field, where it rebounded like a child’s ball from one asteroid to another. On the secondary screen, the view was closer still. Inside the freighter, in the cargo hold, total desperation reigned. Some of the prisoners were beating against the corridor hatch with futile fists, cursing and shouting. Others were fighting and climbing atop each other in an effort to reach the ductwork covers. Mothers huddled against the walls, trying to shield their crying children from being trampled.
Sienae grinned at the gratifying spectacle, flipped open the protective cover, and pushed the button.
In the freighter’s engineering room the warp reactor was a looming presence that dwarfed everything else in the area. Atop the reactor a small, nondescript box had been attached. At the side of the box a light began to flash. The Vulcan instrument scanned the incoming signal and confirmed that it matched the appropriate access codes. Obediently, the limited computer brain activated the virus program in accordance with its pre-prepared instructions and released it into the main computer core. The virus program, mindless and merciless, attacked its target like the weapon that it was. Every light in the engine room went dark. The hum of the cooling units went silent. Then the whisper of the environmental air circulation fans stopped and every light on the ship went out.
In the sudden darkness, Llahir materialized. He froze for a second and listened as the computer recited, in a pre-recorded harsh Tellarite voice, "Primary anti-matter containment failure. Warp core collapse in progress. Abandon ship. Repeat. Warp core collapse in progress. Abandon ship." At the word “failure” he turned to the darkened engineering console. By the time the recording reached the second “abandon ship” he had determined that the power loss was irreversible, the containment failure inevitable. He pulled a hand-held communicator from his belt and gave Damin the signal as he ran toward the cargo bay. The freighter’s two lifeboats could carry ten persons each. Perhaps he could at least get the women and children to safety.
Llahir stopped short in dismay at the cargo bay doors, hastily but effectively welded and reinforced. Panicked shouts and metallic pounding sounded faintly in the corridor. There was a viewport in the door, through which he could see the chaos, and there was absolutely nothing he could do about it. Then he heard a change in the recorded message resounding through the ship.
"Primary anti-matter containment failure in ten seconds…nine seconds…
Red lights flashed on the bridge of the Enterprise. The din of the tactical alert siren was nearly deafening. Captain Archer gestured brusquely to Lieutenant Reed, and both ceased. T’Pol exhaled in relief.
“There’s nothing above a thirty percent likelihood of cloak use within sensor range, Captain, but I’m now receiving one of the homing beacons,” reported Reed.
“Contact the Sehlat,” ordered Archer. “Inform Commander T’Lar that we’ve picked up a beacon signal. Send her the coordinates.” He sounded very self-satisfied, which was hardly surprising. When they’d lost the locus of high probability they’d been pursuing, T’Lar had insisted on going ahead, assuming that the Romulan had just outdistanced them. Captain Archer had been certain that it was a trick. He’d just been proven correct, and he’d never let T’Lar live it down. T’Pol was sure of it.
“Yes, sir.” Hoshi Sato’s response was firm and self-assured. T’Pol noted the change with satisfaction. The girl was regaining her confidence. Her resilience mitigated T’Pol’s sense of guilt only slightly, however. She owed the ensign an apology, one which would have to wait until this crisis was resolved.
“Captain, I have the source of the beacon on sensors,” put in Lieutenant Reed.
The damaged Tellarite freighter hung dark and silent on the periphery of the asteroid field, trailing debris. T’Pol ran a scan of the vessel, and the results were alarming. “I’m reading an impending warp core breach and a number of individuals in the cargo bay area,” she said.
“Lock on to as many as you can and beam them aboard,” ordered Archer.
It was unfortunate, Sienae reflected, that the freighter’s loss of power had deactivated its internal monitors, depriving her of a view of the prisoners’ faces in the final seconds of their pitiful lives. The external view was almost as enjoyable, however, and more exciting.
A light flared at the rear of the freighter, brighter than the glow of the proto-star. The equation was pure and simple. Every star-faring race learned it long before they left their home world. The energy locked up in a piece of matter was equal to the mass multiplied by the velocity of light... multiplied by the velocity of light once more. Raw power from a total conversion of matter into energy erupted outward and seared through the tough ship's alloys like tissue paper. The nickle-iron asteroid melted like butter under the onslaught, falling apart into softened lumps and drifting loose. The energy ball expanded and brightened until the watching Romulans felt their inner eyelids engage. Suddenly the flare quintupled in size, turning a rainbow of colors as the reaction broke through the containment barrier and engulfed the rest of the ship. An expanding fireball of burning oxygen and shattered debris flew outward in all directions.
Sienae leaned back in her seat and purred. "Helm. Set an intercept course for the Human battleship. Attack speed ahead. We have some business to finish."
Archer's belly clenched. He hit the comm button. “Trip. This is the captain. Did you get them all?” He waited while the universe aged around him.
“Tucker here, Cap'n. No. We didn't. We got some of 'em. But we didn't get 'em all. Not even close to all of 'em. We did get quite a few of the kids though.”
Archer bowed his head and clenched both hands on the arms of his chair. The bridge was very quiet for a few seconds. Then T'Pol announced, “Captain. The warbird is closing to intercept us at Warp 4. Their shields are engaged and their weapons armed.”
“Malcolm, lock all weapons at maximum power,” Archer growled. “As soon as we are within range, commence firing at will. Hoshi, notify Sehlat and Lerteiran that we are about to engage the enemy.” He turned toward the science station. “T'Pol, continue scanning in case they re-engage their cloak. Set up a continuous feed between your station and Malcolm's targeting scanners.”
\“Yes, sir,” she replied and got busy.
Hoshi spoke up, “Captain, I am reading a homing beacon in our cargo bay. One of the prisoners must have been aboard the transport.”
“Only one?” Archer asked.
“Yes, sir,” she confirmed.
“Find out which one,” he told her, “and continue monitoring for the other one. Keep checking all frequencies in case they send out a distress call of some kind.” Archer told Travis, “Be ready for some fancy moves, Ensign. That Romulan seems to be pretty agile.”
“So are we, sir,” Travis grinned and gripped the stick firmly. “This. Is. Going to be. Fun.” Archer shook his head turned back to Reed.
“Locked and loaded, sir,” Reed reported.
“Good,” Archer told him grimly. “I never liked the way Vulcans seemed to consider themselves the self-appointed police out here, but I think I’m starting to sympathize. If those people are going to get any justice, we’re the only ones who can deliver it.” He stood up and walked forward until he stood just behind the helmsman's seat. “T'Pol, ask Trip to be ready for maximum demand on both engines. This is going to get ugly.”
Damin turned from the transporter pad after sending Llahir on his way, his mind racing. Was there anything else he could do to help the hostages? He focused, sending his mind questing through the ship. Instantly he detected the sudden rise in tension. What...
“Enterprise!” The Human ship had detected them and was closing at attack speed. Damin smiled in satisfaction. His ruse had worked. Llahir would have to take care of the hostages himself. There was nothing else he could do for them in any case. Beaming them back to their pen aboard the warbird would be pointless; the Romulans would just shoot them. And there was nowhere else to send them. If Llahir could not save the freighter—or Enterprise could not get them off in time—they would simply have to die. He had done everything within his power.
Now he needed to get off this ship. Damin looked speculatively between his two captives. He could only control one at a time safely. The sub-centurion obviously would be the more useful of the two. An officer would have access clearance that a mere interrogator would not. Damin eyed the interrogator. The man was a product of his training, somewhat dull and unimaginative but dutiful and efficient. He’d inflicted considerable pain on Damin in the past few hours, but Damin still couldn’t find it within himself to desire the Romulan’s death. He always regretted killing, even when it was necessary.
“Give me your weapons,” he instructed his slave in a resigned voice. The interrogator obeyed promptly. “Good. You have done well,” he praised the Romulan, who smiled gratefully. Then Damin stepped behind him and activated the shockrod, sending his slave into darkness while swiftly blocking any feedback from the telepathic link. Relieved of the need to control the man’s cognitive and motor functions, Damin was free to go deeper—to the autonomic nervous system. The Romulan exhaled softly one final time as his cardiac and respiratory functions ceased. It was as painless a death as Damin could manage.
The half-Betazoid turned to the still comatose sub-centurion and placed his hand on the man's face. With little effort, he took control. Suddenly the Romulan's eyes opened. Damin stepped back and told him, “Stand up.” The officer obeyed mechanically. “Lead me to the commander's personal shuttle. If we are intercepted, you will explain that I am being transferred to a more secure area on the commander's orders.”
“Understood.” The Romulan headed for the door.
“Bearing 73.4 X 54.6 X 78.1, delta 4.3+. ETA Enterprise in 6 minutes. Both ships are in battle mode,” Daniel reported.
“All hands brace for battle maneuvers,” Jenrali snapped.
“Not again,” Daniel moaned. Suddenly the deck flipped sideways and the engines started screaming. Everyone was crushed back into their seats and Daniel felt blood beginning to rush into his head. “Do you... have to... do... EVERYTHING... at top speed...?” he forced out through the pain.
“Shut up and lock your weapons,” Jenrali growled. “And don't miss this time.” Daniel scowled and crawled his hands over the fire control board. He started keying in commands with quivering fingers.
T'Riss said, “Sehlat is sending for us to stand off. They wish Lerteiran to maintain position half a light year from the battlefield perimeter and stand by to reinforce as needed.”
Jenrali hissed a disgusted string of tangled syllables that not even Daniel could decipher. Abruptly he cut acceleration. “Tell them we will comply, lass. Daniel, keep the gun hot and those torpedoes loaded. Circumstances change fast in a fight like this. That Romulan could be on top of us in a heartbeat.”
“Understood,” T'Riss responded. Then she started speaking swiftly and softly in Vulcan into the comm. Daniel caught about one word in three, being several years out of practice with his Vulcan, but she seemed to be doing what she was told. He wondered then what she would have done if Jenrali had decided not to obey the high-handed orders Commander T’Lar was issuing. They were civilian volunteers, after all, and not under Vulcan command.
“Daniel? You listening, boy?” demanded Jenrali.
“Acknowledged.” Daniel told him. He got busy at his board and started broad spectrum scanning of the proto-system. “Sehlat is closing at warp 6. It looks like…” He adjusted the frequency. “Enterprise has engaged the warbird... I see weapons fire..” he paused, “ I can't get a clear reading. With that rekloq proto-star out there, plus the residual radiation from the freighter explosion, the sensors are royally screwed. It looks like Enterprise has taken two direct hits. She's breaking off her attack run and going into an evasive pattern. Sehlat is lining up for a strike... The Romulan is cutting out and heading this way!”
Jenrali's hands flashed and Lerteiran howled into action. Daniel felt something in his back crack and wanted to howl too, but he was too busy struggling to get a lock with the phase cannon. “Not this time, you…” Daniel had to stop and lock his teeth against a sudden flash of pain from his back. That last maneuver had definitely done something noticeable. Once this was over he would no doubt be visiting another sickbay. Vulcans were definitely bad mojo for him. He flicked a glance over at T'Riss, who was grimly hanging onto the console with both hands and continuing to monitor the comm. “Well. Maybe not all Vulcans. Maybe.”
T'Lar ordered crisply, “Lock disruptors on target. Prepare to fire on my order. Helm, display position and status of allies.” The dusky-skinned young helm officer obediently transferred the scan data to the main viewscreen, which produced a two dimensional map of the proto-system. T'Lar used the controls on her chair to zoom in on their local area until symbols representing the four ships, along with the freighter debris, became readily visible.
The comm officer reported, “Enterprise has engaged the Romulan, Commander. They are exchanging fire. The Humans have sustained damage but no casualties as yet. They also report moderate damage to the port nacelle of the warbird.”
“Advise the Humans to break off their attack,” T'Lar instructed. “We will arrive in 4.32 minutes. As soon as we open fire, they should re-engage the Romulan vessel with maximum force.”
“Acknowledged.” The communications officer turned to her station, leaving Verlen to look askance at his commander.
“Do you not intend to take prisoners?” he asked her in a tone just short of reproof.
T'Lar tightened her lips. “No, sub-commander. The probability of capturing live prisoners from a Romulan vessel is less than 0.1%. The risk involved in such an undertaking is unacceptable. By my assessment there is a 96% chance that we would suffer casualties while making the attempt, either through armed resistance or because our boarding party would be caught aboard when the Romulans self-destruct. Extracting prisoners via transporter is non-feasible due to the interference from Romulan shields and cloaking radiation.”
Verlen looked unsatisfied. “I suspect that the Humans will make the attempt nonetheless.”
“Another reason to finish this battle as swiftly and efficiently as possible,” T'Lar told him. “The Humans already possess far too much information about Romulans for my comfort.” The bridge rocked slightly. “Report.”
“Direct hit from a Romulan torpedo,” Verlen told her. “Shields are holding, no damage. The Romulans are cloaking themselves. We have a tentative target lock.”
“Fire,” she commanded. A green lance of disruptor fire stabbed across darkness to pierce the place the the warbird should have been... to find nothingness. T'Lar's only concession to frustration was a slight compression of her eyebrows. “Torpedos, full spread, maximum power.”
This time there was a response. Of the three torpedoes sent out by Sehlat, only one made contact. But one was enough. The port nacelle on the battered old warbird, already starting to leak coolant, could not withstand a full force blast from a state-of-the-art antimatter warhead. The Romulan cloak flickered and died. Finding itself revealed for all to see, and with both Sehlat and Enterprise closing at killing speed, the Romulan executed a rolling turn and headed for the nebula at maximum impulse.
“Pursue,” T'Lar ordered. “Overtake and destroy.”
Damin fell against the bulkhead again. He grabbed a support strut and managed to keep one foot under himself, enough to stay more or less upright. His native guide was not so fortunate. Sighing once more, Damin helped him up again. “On the other hand,” Damin mused, “I would never have made it this far without him. He will make a decent pilot, too.”
Damin was fairly certain that the Vulcans would accept the Romulan and offer him asylum as an alternative to certain death if he was returned to his people. Taking him along seemed like the least Damin could do, after everything else. From the way this ship was shaking, it didn't seem likely that his mother's pride and joy was going to be holding atmosphere much longer. Damin couldn't hold back a grin at the thought. “Bye, bye, Mother dearest. Say hello to Father for me whilst he is hammering you into the ground wherever you end up in the afterlife.”
“Here,” the sub-centurion stopped at a nondescript section of bulkhead that bore no marking of any kind. Damin nodded. Typical.
“Open it,” he ordered. The slave reached around the perimeter of the wall section, undoing fastenings in order. Then he lifted the panel out to reveal a standard doorway. Damin motioned him forward, following the Romulan directly into the cockpit of a small Romulan shuttlecraft. The ship had been retrofitted with weapon ports and a rather luxurious head, along with a ridiculously comfortable looking bed, but the controls looked standard. When Damin opened them to check, the supply lockers seemed full and properly stocked. “Good enough,” he decided. “Get us out of here.”
As they strapped in Damin spared a thought for his parent on the bridge. He wanted very badly to make telepathic contact just after launch to inform her of his departure, but decided not to tempt fate. Imagination would have to be enough. Still, he would give a year's pay to see the expression on her face if she did manage to find out that he had escaped before she blew up. A beatific smile on his face, Damin clapped his slave on the shoulder and leaned back to enjoy the ride.
Sienae snarled, “Incompetent fool!” She backhanded the luckless helm officer out of his seat and took the controls herself. “We were invisible and still you could not avoid a simple torpedo! When this is over you will spend three days in the hands of the interrogator, I promise you.”
The junior officer's shoulders hunched and he looked sick. Sienae's threats were never empty ones. Everyone on the bridge knew that exactly what was in store for the poor man, assuming that they survived the battle. He slunk away to the outer edge of the bridge and stood waiting, too frightened to ask for further orders but not daring to leave.
“The Human ship is coming around on an intercept course,” her tactical officer reported. “They are attempting a weapons lock.”
“Get that cloak back up!” Sienae demanded.
“Impossible,” he responded tensely. “Warp drive is offline. Insufficient power. We can't energize both shields and the cloak at the same time.” His commander responded with a howl of rage and sent the ship into a dizzying barrel roll that just barely evaded a searing blast from the D'kyr cruiser, which was closing in like a thrai leaping for a child's throat.
“You!” She glared at the helmsman. “Drag your worthless carcass down to engineering. Tell Pr'gil that if she doesn't get that nacelle back online in five minutes, I will personally bind her hand and foot, strip her naked and transport her along with a bottle of oil onto that Human bridge myself. Move!” The young officer jumped for the lift like his pants were on fire.
“You!” This to the tactical officer. “Plot me a course to the nebula. Best speed through the thickest part of this debris field…unless you want to choose between between Vulcan mind probes or Human torture?” Three seconds later telemetry data started appearing on her screen and Sienae triggered the impulse engine to maximum thrust. The inertial dampers started whining in protest, and even the artificial gravity field wavered a bit.
Suddenly the entire ship jumped and shuddered. “What was that?” Sienae turned to glare at the tac officer. He desperately checked his board.
“Nothing external,” he assured her in a panicked voice. “One of our shuttles just launched.” He pressed a button. “Your personal shuttle has just launched, Commander.”
This was too much. She was up here trying to save her ungrateful crew of incompetent fools, and one of the whining cowards had dared to run away? In her shuttle! “HOW MANY?”
The tactical officer winced at the volume of her shriek and checked his sensors. His eyes widened and all color left his face. He swallowed thickly before reporting, “I read two lifesigns, Commander. One Romulan and one Betazoid.”
Reed reported, “Near miss.” The frustration in his voice was under tight control, but becoming more evident with each passing minute. “Locking phase cannon for another shot.”
“Sehlat has also missed,” T'Pol reported. “They have released a volley of torpedoes… ineffective. The Romulan has changed course, Captain. They appear to be attempting to reach the nebula.”
“Naturally,” Archer muttered. “Where else around here can they hide? Travis, plot an intercept course. We want to hit them before they reach the outer limits of the nebula. Malcolm,” he turned to face the tactical station. “Be ready with a combination of phase canon and torpedoes. I want to hit them with everything we have at the same time. Their warp drive is already offline. If we can cripple their impulse drive too we may be able to stop them from initiating self-destruct.”
“Unlikely, Captain,” T'Pol dashed his hopes. “Romulan self-destruct mechanisms are self-contained and self-powered. It is one of their most basic tenets, death before surrender.”
“Well if nothing else maybe we can grab some prisoners for Starfleet to interrogate,” Archer said hopefully.
“Captain.” The tone of T'Pol's voice yanked his head around. “Lerteiran has broken position and is heading for the nebula. Their course intersects the projected path of the warbird.”
“Hoshi! Get me that Andorian idiot!” Archer fumed. Hoshi nodded and he ordered, “Lerteiran, this is Captain Archer aboard Enterprise. Break off your attack and return to your previous position.”
”Sorry captain, no can do.” Daniel Johansen's voice came through. “This is personal now. It's a matter of honor. Damin was a passenger of ours. It was our responsibility to protect him. We failed. Now we have a blood debt to pay. You understand, I'm sure.”
“Dammit!” Archer swore. “You are not equipped to face a Romulan warship. Get back behind us. Do it now. Tell your Andorian partners that we will collect their blood debt for them.”
“Not just them, Captain,” Daniel said. “I made a promise too. I gave my word. Like Shakespeare said, 'Take honor from me, and my life is done.' We gotta do this.” He cut the connection.
“Those suicidal fools,” Reed muttered, with a hint of reluctant admiration.
“Maximum speed, Travis,” Archer ordered grimly. “We have to get there before those crazy blueskins do.”
“I'm not sure we can, sir,” Travis told him, “with the head start they have. Lerteiran is pretty fast and maneuverable. When it comes to threading through the asteroids and debris in this proto-system, they may be able to make better time than we can.”
“Do your best,” the captain sighed. “If we can't save those fools from their folly, at least we can say we tried.”
“Weapons range in 31 seconds,” Daniel reported, with his eyes glued to the control board. The fire in his back was now a blazing inferno, but he steadied his breathing the way Sensei had taught him and pushed it to the back of his mind. Pain was nothing. Only the task at hand mattered. He was peripherally aware of T'Riss shooting him occasional glances, but he ignored her. He ignored everything except the readouts in front of him and the controls under his fingers. This time he would not miss. He was not going to go down there and tell Sehlra that he had failed her a second time.
“Incoming,” Jenrali stated calmly, just before the universe jerked sideways and Daniel's guts turned inside out. On the readout he could see that Jenrali had sent them in a 360 degree loop and they were coming up on the warbird from below and behind. Daniel skinned his teeth and adjusted the targeting sensors. The faint beeping increased in frequency and speed until it settled down to a steady tone, and the crosshairs locked directly on the dot in front of them.
“Locked and ready,” he whispered hoarsely.
“Stand by, lad,” Jenrali ordered. “Hold fire until we get a little closer. We want this one to count, because we may not get another one.”
“The Romulan has just launched a shuttle,” T'Riss reported in surprise. “It is moving off at a tangent, heading into the debris field.”
“Let it go, lad,” Jenrali told him quickly. “We can mop up later. First we kill the Mother. Then we clean out the nest.”
“The Vulcans are closing fast,” Daniel warned. “And Enterprise is right behind us.”
“Good,” Jenrali approved. “This isn't for money or glory, lad. It doesn't matter who kills them, as long as the dead get their justice.”
“Sehlat is opening fire,” T'Riss announced flatly.
“Do it, lad,” Jenrali told him. “For Damin.”
“For Sehlra,” he corrected. Daniel stabbed his thumb hard on the firing button. The overload conduit that Malcolm Reed had installed between Lerteiran's impulse engine and the phase cannon suddenly glowed white hot as space-tearing gigawatts of raw power surged through the guts of the old freighter. The massive shockwave hit the phase cannon and sent a wailing reverberation through the entire craft. The cannon's emitter blasted a column of hellfire through space toward the warbird, tearing into the exposed underbelly of the Romulan ship like an ancient battering ram.
“The Andorian has closed to within weapons range of the Romiulan ship, commander,” Verlen informed T'Lar. “Sensors indicate that they are attempting to establish a firing lock.”
“Enterprise?” she asked.
“Closing at maximum impulse,” Verlen reported. “ETA 45 seconds.”
“Lock disruptors,” T'Lar ordered. “Concentrate fire on engineering section. Attempt to disrupt their warp containment field.”
“Acknowledged,” Verlen answered grimly. He turned to transfer the necessary commands and initiate the deliberate termination of an entire ship full of fellow sapients. He was going to need another extended retreat at Mount Seleya after this. He always did. But even Surak allowed for the necessity of killing in self-defense or in defense of one's own. Intensely regrettable, but necessary.
Twin disruptor beams shot forward from the Sehlat's bow to rake over the dorsal hull of the warbird. They cut deep into the reinforced shielding over the engineering section and peeled away the starboard crew quarters, sending bunks, personal possessions, and charred bodies tumbling out into space. As the disruptor beams passed over the central section their green glow was brightened by the white heat of a raging phase cannon discharge – which had ripped its way up through the belly of the raptor and torn itself a passage out through the spine of the dying ship.
“Both ships have opened fire, Captain,” T'Pol reported.
“Now Malcolm!” Archer shouted. “Everything we have!”
Reed flipped two levers and ran his hand down a series of switches, triggering them one after another. Then he reached up and pressed three buttons simultaneously. From the leading edge of Enterprise's saucer, both phase cannon opened their throats and began to roar. Torpedo tubes spat wanton destruction as swiftly as the armory crew could reload them.
Blue-white lances pierced the Romulan ship’s bleeding flanks and tore them, as leopard claws rip the flanks of a dying antelope. Torpedoes struck the bow and bridge, delivering their loads of hull rupturing death. As the front of the eviscerated ship split apart, her disemboweled center boiled and melted from the tripled rage of disruptor and phase cannon fire.
From the first strike by Lerteiran's cannon to the final Enterprise torpedo was less than a full minute, not enough time for any of the five surviving crew members to reach the self-destruct mechanism, even if any of them had been conscious and able to get there. Afterward, no one was ever able to prove for certain which attacker succeeded in causing the containment failure, a moot point in any case, since all three ships were still firing when the Romulan ship blew up.
Sienae sat at the controls of the Aehallh's last remaining shuttle with all systems powered down and watched her ship explode. She smirked with satisfaction. It was perfect. Now she was safe. None of her cowardly crew of incompetents could betray her to the Tal Shiar or to the High Command. None would know that she had promoted and nurtured a traitor for all those years.
Now, she could simply report that her second in command was not capable of defeating three ships at once while his commander was on an away mission for the Tal Shiar. Her smirk became a grin. All she had to do now was find and kill Damin. She would be safe and free. Even if she never received another command, at least she would have bought back her life.
She checked the passive sensors. The other ships were still in the area, examining the wreckage; best to wait here, in the shadow of this asteroid. She had plenty of fuel and supplies, and her batteries were well charged. They would leave eventually. There was no particular hurry. Her grin broadened. Not even Damin knew about the remote codes embedded in her shuttle's onboard computer.
“Thanks, Anna.” Trip took the padd and looked over the list of repairs already completed. “Looking good. Better than I expected.” He grinned at her. “I knew you were angling for my job.”
“Somebody's got to keep this scow running,” She grinned back at him and took the padd. “I figure the lights in hydroponics will be next… either that or plumbing for the gym bathrooms. I'm guessing I’d better keep chef happy, and his herbs take priority. What do you say?”
“Oh definitely,” Trip threw up his hands in mock terror. “Deprive chef of his oregano? His parsley? Are you mad, woman? Get to it.” They shared a laugh and she headed out, toolkit in hand.
“Archer to Commander Tucker.”
Trip stepped over and pressed the comm button. “Tucker here, Cap'n. What can I do for ya?”
“Report to my quarters immediately, Commander.” The connection clicked off. Trip stood still for a moment, considering possibilities and probabilities. He walked over to his desk and picked up a padd, blanked it, and wrote something brief. Then he walked out of Engineering, still carrying the padd.
Trip did not dawdle on the way to the captain's cabin, but he didn’t hurry either. He strolled along at a steady pace, greeting people by name with a friendly smile. On rare occasions someone stopped him with a question or comment, which he always took time to respond to. By the time he reached his destination, the calming effort that he had been sending toward T'Pol was beginning to take effect. She still felt upset, though. Since she was inside the cabin with Archer, Trip felt fairly certain that he knew what the problem was. He also felt certain that he didn't give a damn anymore.
Trip pressed the annunciator button and received an immediate invitation to enter. He stepped inside to find T'Pol at attention in front of the captain's desk, while Jonathan Archer sat behind his desk in high dudgeon like a judge conducting a trial.
“Commander Tucker,” Archer told him, “this is a hearing. You will present yourself at attention.”
“Nope,” Trip said casually, “Don't think so.”
He tossed the padd on the desk. “There's my resignation. I won't say that all of knowin' ya has been nice, Jon, but it sure as hell has been interestin'.”
The stunned dismay that he felt through the bond from T'Pol was nothing to what he saw on Archer's face. “Trip... you...” He shook his head and his face hardened. “You're bluffing.”
“No, Jon. I'm not,” Trip told him in a firm voice. “We’ve all been through hell together. I know what this little get together is about. You’re feelin’ petulant because T'Pol and me didn't tell you about getting married, and maybe some other things. But if after everything we’ve been through together the best you can do for us is some little drumhead hearing, you can kiss my ass.”
“Watch it, Mister Tucker,” Archer stood up, crimson faced.
“Why?” Trip put his fists on the desk. “What are you gonna do? Court martial me? Go ahead. I’ve already resigned my commission. That’ll make an interesting trial. We might even set a new precedent.”
Captain Archer's mouth opened and closed, then he half turned away to run a hand through his hair.
“T'hyla,” T'Pol grabbed his arm. “Please. Do not let this end your long friendship. I am so sorry. I…”
“Hush.” He placed a finger on her lips. “You’re not at fault. It takes two people to make a friendship, T'Pol. It's been a long time since there were two people putting anything into this friendship.”
Archer froze. He let his hand drop. “Trip. I…” He was obviously searching for words. “I know that I haven't always been there like I wanted to be. But…”
“Give it up, Jon,” Trip told him. “That's not the issue, but forget it. It doesn't matter now. Too little, too late. I'm fed up and I give up. I’m tired of it.”
“Husband.” T'Pol's distress was piercing him through the bond. “No. This is not acceptable. I will not permit this.”
“It's not your call to make, wife,” he told her gently. “This is something that’s been building for a long time. I should have done this years ago.”
The pain on Archer's face intensified. “What is it Trip? Look, you were right. I overreacted. I admit it. But it hurt, knowing that the two people on this ship that I trusted the most didn't respect me enough to tell me something this important.”
T'Pol recoiled a step as Trip lunged forward and slammed both hands down on the desk. Archer stood frozen in shock and stared.
“Respect?” Trip's voice was so low as to be almost inaudible. A coarse whisper stroked with sandpaper. “Respect, Jonathan Archer, is a sword with two edges, meaning it cuts in two directions. You get back what you give. How much respect have you ever given me?”
“I have always respected you, Trip,” Archer replied indignantly. He couldn’t believe the direction that this was going. When had he ever offered Trip anything but friendship? He’d even created and killed an intelligent being to keep Trip alive. “You’re the best friend I’ve ever had, and you’re the best engineer in …”
It cut into the air of the room like an axe, silencing everyone's breath. Porthos crawled under the bed and lay shivering.
“”Secrets?” Trip finally brought his voice back to something resembling normal tone. But Archer noticed T'Pol still eyed her husband warily. A wisp of awareness from Surak's memories informed him that a Vulcan wife would be aware of more than the eye revealed. “Secrets bother you, Jon? But it doesn't bother you to keep them, does it? It bothered you that T'Pol and Hoshi bent the rules and kept a secret, doesn't it? And it bothered you that T'Pol and I kept our private business a secret. Isn't that so?”
Archer spoke carefully. “Trip. I'm the captain. There are things that I need to know. It isn't that I want to pry into your personal lives. And yes, I understand what T'Pol and Hoshi were thinking. But I needed to know those things.”
Trip nodded, and even managed a grim smile. “Maybe so. But you don't mind bending the rules when it suits your purposes, do you? You didn't think I needed to know anything about what was going on the time you abandoned your post and bailed out with T'Pol and Travis, did you?” Archer flushed and opened his mouth, only to have Trip roll over him. “What do you think would have happened if Starfleet command had tried to contact you while you were off on that jaunt? Hmm?” He turned to look at T'Pol, who dropped her eyes.
“I didn't…” Archer tried to say.
“Wouldn't I have looked like a prize fool though?” Trip chuckled derisively. “When Admiral Forrest asked me where you were and I had to admit that the captain, and the first officer, and the chief helmsman had all grabbed a shuttlepod and took off for parts unknown and left me holding the sack?” Archer gave up trying to interrupt and listened stoically. What could he possibly say? Trip had obviously been nursing his hurts for years, storing them for this moment.
Trip raised his voice to falsetto and continued, “Oh, I'm so terribly sorry, Admiral. No, I am afraid that the captain did not tell me where he was going. Why? Well, sir, he did not see fit to divulge to me the purpose of his trip. Why, yes, sir. I was supposed to be left in charge. No, sir. Oh no, Admiral, the captain made no mention of when he might be back. I'm sorry sir, I really can't say why the captain did not leave his dog in command instead of me.”
Trip glared. Archer gritted his teeth and exhaled. Trip didn’t sound finished, not by a long shot.
“When that Vulcan captain showed up I had to cover your ass, Jon,” he snarled. “If I hadn't, if he had gone back and reported you were gone, they would have hauled you in on charges, don't think they wouldn't. And when you all got back, did anyone figure that good old Trip deserved the courtesy of any kind of explanation? Hell, no!”
Trip stopped to breathe hard for a moment. T'Pol moved forward hesitantly and touched his arm. Archer looked at the floor, trying to come up with a way to express his regret. Trip was right. They’d taken advantage of him. T’Pol spoke. “Charles. The blame is mine. The mission was mine. The captain agreed to help me because I did not trust my own judgment after what happened to me the last time. Please do not hold this against him. I am the one who requested that he keep this secret. He was honoring my request.”
Trip looked at her. “I know that now. I read the report. Finally. I understand that you didn't trust me enough to tell me, but he had no excuse for putting me in that position. There are limits. He could at least have let me know where he was going, if not why. And there were other times.”
“What other times, Trip?” Archer kept his voice very calm. “You said that you should have done this years ago. I wish that you had. I wish that I had known this was inside you years ago, when I might have been able to stop things from reaching this point.”
“You wouldn't have.” Trip told him bluntly. “It would never have occurred to you. Like the time with the Xyrillians. Biggest joke of the year, right? Good old Trip. Only man in history that could manage to get himself knocked up. Everyone on the ship that knew about it was giggling.” He turned to his wife. “Even you thought it was funny, didn't ya, T'Pol? Don't lie. I remember the way you teased me about the sausages to make me puke.” She looked distressed.
“Funny, wasn't it, Cap'n? Everyone laughed. You sure laughed it up. So did Phlox, and Malcolm. 'Cept, ya know, I wonder. What if a female crew member had been impregnated against her will and without her knowledge. Would it have been so funny then?” Archer flinched. “Would you and Phlox have been laughing at her and making jokes all the time at her expense, Cap'n?” He waited. “WOULD YOU?”
Archer couldn't meet his eyes. “No.” Once again, Trip was correct. But why hadn’t he said anything? He’d always been so easy-going. The teasing had been part of their relationship, or so Archer had thought.
“And if that baby inside her wasn't even her own flesh and blood, if it was entirely alien and didn't have one speck of her DNA, if it was actually just a parasite that was feeding on her flesh and draining her blood, would you be so gung ho about trying to force her to accept responsibility for raising it? Cap-tain?” He stepped closer and glared into Archer's eyes.
Archer took a deep breath. There was really only one thing to say. “I'm sorry, Trip. I didn’t realize…”
“Sorry doesn't get it,” Trip told him. “Sorry only matters when you intend to change your ways. You couldn't change your ways if you wanted to. It's who you are. And I have put up with enough disrespect to last me a dozen lifetimes. Disrespect from you, from my wife, from anyone else. I'm done with it. One way or another, I am done with it. Do you both hear me? Done!”
Archer nodded, then sat heavily back down in his seat again, all thought of a formal military hearing completely gone in the face of his erstwhile best friend’s fury. He rubbed his eyes with thumb and forefinger while Trip, still standing next to T’Pol, glared at him from across his desk with his arms crossed defiantly over his chest. T’Pol stared in evident shock at Trip. At her husband, Archer thought numbly. His gaze fell on the padd with Trip’s resignation letter on it. He picked it up, and with two swipes of his finger deleted the file.
“I won’t accept your resignation while you’re this upset,” he said quietly, handing the padd back to Trip. When Trip didn’t reach to take it, he sighed and laid it back on the desk. “You have no idea how much it grieves me to know that you think I don’t respect you, Trip…but I can see how you might feel that way based on my past behavior.” He sat back in his chair and studied the two of them standing side-by-side. Neither of them said anything. T’Pol looked a little shell-shocked by Trip’s outburst. Trip looked like he’d said his piece. Archer was grateful that he at least seemed willing to stick around to hear what his captain had to say for himself.
“You’re right. I have to admit it. Even though I never meant to, I took both of you for granted,” Archer told them. His gaze fixed on Trip’s closed countenance. “And even though an apology isn’t enough, it’s all I have, Trip. I’ve always had to have feelings spelled out for me. That’s probably one of the reasons why I’m still single.” His lips twisted wryly. “It’s not an excuse, I know…but it’s a reason. My last girlfriend told me I was ten times more clueless than the average male. Apparently that’s the case whether I’m dealing with friends or lovers.” T’Pol raised a brow, but Trip’s expression didn’t change.
“I’m outta here before I say anything else I might regret,” the engineer said curtly. “I’ll be back in the morning.” He grabbed the empty padd, turned on his heel, and walked out. T’Pol’s gaze followed him out, but she stayed. She turned back to Archer and resumed parade rest. Archer shook his head.
“I never even had the chance to tell him that I sent your report ‘Eyes Only’ to Starfleet Intelligence. The content will be handled so confidentially that I doubt some of it will even make it to the admiralty unless there’s a need to know. The news of your marriage is a minor detail compared to the bomb this Romulan issue is going to drop, and I have the distinct feeling that Starfleet Command will suddenly be highly motivated to keep everyone involved happy and close to home. You two will be able to write your own ticket as long as you tell Starfleet Intelligence…and no one else…everything they want to know.”
T’Pol’s eyes widened. Then she tipped her head in understanding. “I see,” she replied thoughtfully.
“Will you talk to him? Try to make him see sense?” Archer asked her plaintively.
After a pause, she said in a regretful voice, “I will try to speak with him, Captain, but, as you can see, he and I are not on the best of terms at the moment.”
Archer’s lips twisted ruefully. “Maybe not, but even I can see that he likes you a hell of a lot better than he likes me.”
Daniel heard Sehlra climbing the ladder. He groaned silently to himself. What could he say? How could he face her? He leaned on his elbows and buried his face in his hands. ”Like a kid hiding your head under the covers, huh?” he jibed at himself. But he still couldn't make himself meet Sehlra's eyes when she stepped off the ladder into the control room. Jenrali had left to get some food and rest, leaving Daniel and T'Riss on watch. It wasn't like Sehlra to leave the engine room unattended so soon after a fight. He just knew what she had come for. He wanted to hide behind the console.
The footsteps stopped. Daniel heard T'Riss turn in her seat, but no one spoke. Odd. The room was silent. What were they doing?
“Daniel.” Sehlra sounded tired and sad. Unwillingly, but unable to avoid it any longer, Daniel dropped his hands and looked at her.
“I'm sorry.” His voice cracked in spite of himself. He blinked quickly, hoping desperately that he wasn't going to disgrace himself with watery eyes.
Sehlra's antenna twisted in puzzlement. “What for?” She brushed his hair off his forehead. “You need another haircut already.” She smiled wanly. “If I didn't keep my trimmers dull working on you, people would accuse us of shipping with a Tellarite.”
“I…” He looked down. “I am sorry. I didn't…” he swallowed. “I wasn't quick enough to…” He choked. “I promised you that I wouldn't let them…” he stopped and bent his head down, clenching both fists on his knee until the knuckles were white. “I'm sorry!” he cried out.
Sehlra sighed. Daniel felt her take his head between her hands and turn his face up to look at her. “You have never failed me, Daniel,” she told him with quiet sincerity. “Damin knew the risk he was taking. We all knew the risk. There is nothing certain in battle. You know that. You have been in enough fights yourself to know that, even if you are not a warrior. You did the best you could. That is all anyone can do.”
“I should have been able to stop them!” Daniel insisted. “I should have been fast enough. I should have been good enough!”
“The only person on this ship who expects Daniel to be perfect is Daniel,” Sehlra told him firmly. “You put too much on yourself, boy. You always have for as long as I have known you. To pursue excellence is a noble thing. But there is a line you must not cross, and you have crossed it. You refuse to admit that there are any limits to what you can accomplish. You are mortal, boy. You are flesh and blood. You can only do what flesh and blood can do. You did your best, and you did better than anyone else on this ship could have done. That's all I want to hear about it. Understand?”
Daniel closed his eyes so he couldn't see the pain in hers. “Yes, ma'am.”
“Now, I want you to go eat something and rest. T'Riss and I will stand watch for four hours, then you can come and relieve us. All right?”
Daniel nodded. He made a move to stand up and Sehlra stepped back to give him room. As Daniel placed a hand on the back of his chair and levered himself halfway to his feet, a bolt of liquid fire flashed up his back, into the back of his skull and down through his hips into both legs. He gasped and hit the floor, trying to draw breath through the agony.
“Daniel!” To his surprise, the voice belonged to T'Riss. She knelt beside him. “Are you injured? What is the difficulty?”
He forced out in disgust, “My back. I think I pulled a muscle during one of those maneuvers.” He tried to brace his hands on the floor and raise himself, but gave up instantly when his back screamed again. “Crap.”
“I have told that old fool not to play games like that,” Sehlra complained. “Humans aren't designed to take those kinds of accelerations.”
“Sehlll-ra,” Daniel protested. “Earth gravity is higher than Andorian. It isn't a matter of Humans not being tough enough. It's a matter of me letting myself get as soft as a marshmallow lately.” He flinched and locked his teeth together when the two women picked him up and placed him back in his chair. “Thanks.”
“Earth gravity may be higher,” Sehlra persisted, “but you are just not as limber, boy. I have seen it. You have the muscle, but your joints won't bend properly. You aren't as stiff as a Vulcan, I grant you. But you aren't far behind.”
“I guess that's the way it works,” Daniel allowed. “The heavier the gravity, the stronger the muscles and the more rigid the frame they’re fastened to.”
“Logical,” T'Riss raised an eyebrow. “I had not considered it in those terms, but it seems reasonable.”
“You didn't seem to have any trouble,” Daniel noted, with a trace of resentment.
“I am somewhat smaller,” T'Riss told him. “The restraint harness, even on its tightest adjustment, could not prevent me from being shifted in my seat. Instead of being twisted and wrenched, my entire body was being moved around. I believe I did pick up several bruises.”
“That's it,” Sehlra pronounced. “I am having a talk with Jenrali about his joyriding. This is not an iceskimmer. Either he calms down or he can pay for some new inertial dampeners out of his own share. That's the bottom line. Now let's get you down to your quarters. T'Riss,” she ordered, “you take the bottom and steady his hips on the ladder. I will reach through from the top and take some of his weight at the shoulders.”
“Perhaps it would be simpler if I carried him,” T'Riss suggested. Daniel groaned.
“Please,” he begged. “This is humiliating enough.”
By the time he got to his quarters, Daniel wished he had just given in and let her carry him. He couldn't stop the moan as they eased him out of his shirt and boots. When Sehlra reached matter-of factly for his belt, Daniel grabbed her hands. “Huh-uh.”
“What, boy?” He looked at T'Riss and tried to turn his back.
“Mr. Johansen,” T'Riss told him. “If you are concerned about offending me, please set your mind at rest. I have, after all, seen unclad males of many different species.”
“Uh...” He flushed. “That's not it. We... Humans don't...”
“Oh by the Mother's womb,” Sehlra said impatiently. “Humans have a taboo against nudity, girl. Turn your back until we get his pants off and get him under the blanket.” T'Riss looked curious but complied.
“If there is a taboo,” she asked, thirsting for information, “why does it not apply to you?”
“Um, she's the ship's medic,” Daniel explained. “The rules are different.”
“Ah,” T'Riss nodded. “I see. However, may I point out that I am currently attempting to offer medical assistance? It is also true that you have seen me in a nearly nude condition.”
“I.” Daniel's brain stuck. “Well. It's.”
“She has you there, boy,” Sehlra chuckled. “Here, girl. Come over here.” T'Riss joined her at the side of Daniel's bunk and looked down. “You see there, where the skin on his back is a little bit pinker than the rest? Put your finger on it gently.” Daniel winced. “Gently, I said. That's the one. Feel how much softer it is? Extra blood is flowing into it, causing the swelling. Human circulation is very high pressure, much higher than yours or mine. We need to dilate those blood vessels to bring down the pressure on his spine and relieve the pain,” she explained.
“While I go get some compresses and ointment, I want you to apply pressure here, and here,” Sehrlra demonstrated. “Not steady, use a rubbing motion like this. Very lightly and gently. The nerves along his back in this area are very sensitive, even a little too much pressure will cause a lot of pain. Be very careful down here, this is where his kidneys are located. Even a moderate amount of pressure here can cause serious damage. Do you think you can do that?”
Daniel listened in consternation at first. But as T'Riss began to massage his back his misgivings faded, along with the discomfort. The tension of the last few hours loosened out of his back and neck, allowing him to sink more comfortably into the pillow. “This is helping,” he murmured. “Your hands are nice and warm.”
“My natural body temperature is higher than yours,” T'Riss informed him.
“I know,” Daniel sighed. “Your hands are better than a compress. But if this is uncomfortable for you...”
“I will manage,” T'Riss told him. “Healer Tyvek has provided me with medication to assist me in maintaining equilibrium until such time as I am able to re-establish full control through meditation alone.”
Daniel blinked in surprise. Vulcan nerve pills? He had never heard of such a thing, but it stood to reason that some Vulcans would need them. “I hope things here aren't making it any harder for you.”
“To the contrary,” she told him. “My time aboard has been both educational and intriguing.” He snorted in amusement but did not reply. Her hands were so warm, unexpectedly soft, and yet strong. As T'Riss continued her careful stroking, Daniel reflected drowsily that being massaged by a beautiful woman was certainly the last way he’d expected to end this day. Then he gradually sank into sleep.
End of Episode Seven.
To Be Continued in Episode Eight.
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