With a flash of light, Endeavour slowed from warp.
From her station, Commander T'Pol exhaled a discreet sigh of relief and spent a long moment studying her sensor readings. She could feel Trip's eyes on her and could sense his urgency, but she refused to be rushed. Haste could lead to errors, and they could not afford any mistakes.
"Scans indicate no pursuit," she declared once she was satisfied with her work. Her statement prompted an immediate look of befuddled worry from Trip, and T’Pol raised an eyebrow at his moment of disbelief. That slight motion was enough to prevent his asking her to confirm her scans, an unnecessary request which contained an unstated critique of her ability. He knew better than to do that.
"Are you sure?" Commodore Archer asked from the helm station, and T'Pol directed her sharp look to him instead.
"Positive," she replied flatly.
"Contact Horizon," Trip ordered Lieutenant Ricker as he stood. "Tell them to stand by for transport." As he spoke, T'Pol began mentally reviewing the billeting situation in an attempt to determine where the uninjured or walking wounded could reside during the twenty day journey to Sol. It would be a tight squeeze and would likely require personnel to share bunk space on a rotating schedule, an undesirable practice that the humans referred to as hot bunking, but it was manageable. Much depended upon the number and nature of Horizon's casualties.
"I'll be at the transporter," Trip continued. The fury that had nearly overwhelmed him earlier was inexplicably gone, but T'Pol could now feel his absolute need to do something. Manning the transporter was as good a task as any and, given their current location on D Deck, it was only meters away. That it would not require any members of the already overstressed engineering team to abandon their damage control duties was an added bonus. Tucker was about to speak again when Commodore Archer interrupted.
"I'll join you," the commodore stated as he stood, the tone of his voice brooking no disagreement. T'Pol frowned slightly and exchanged a quick glance with her mate; never before had she seen Jonathan Archer in this mood and, from her sense of Trip, neither had he. It was most troubling.
"Aye, sir," Trip said hesitantly as he gestured toward the door. "You have the bridge, T'Pol," he declared before stepping through the hatch.
"All stations report," T'Pol ordered before the door had closed behind the captain. She pinned Lieutenant Ricker with a look. "You are relieved, Lieutenant," she said. It was mildly amusing to see the offended and slightly angry expression that flashed across Ricker's face for a heartbeat. "Consult Sickbay for a sedative. In eight hours, I expect you to report back here to assume normal watch rotation." Understanding caused the lieutenant's face to darken in embarrassment as she nodded.
"Aye, ma'am," the young woman replied as she headed for the door. Remembering her extensive study of human psychology, T'Pol spoke up again.
"Lieutenant." Ricker paused at the doorway and looked back. "Excellent work. I will be recommending that you receive a commendation for your performance today." The lieutenant smiled broadly.
"Thank you, ma'am!" At T'Pol's nod of dismissal, Ricker stepped through the open doorway.
"Tucker to bridge." Trip's voice echoed out of the wall speakers. "We're beginning transport now. Have Phlox stand by to receive casualties."
"Acknowledged." T’Pol gave the petty officer now manning the communications board a nod that carried with it an unspoken command before addressing the captain once more. "Recommend you transport personnel from Engineering first." She frowned slightly at the hint of the mirthless chuckle that returned across the comm line.
"Already ahead of ya," the captain replied. "Let me know immediately if you pick up any Romulans on the sensors." The urge to point out that this order was entirely unnecessary was difficult to suppress, but T'Pol found it within the reservoir of her self-control to accomplish the task. Barely.
"Acknowledged," she said in response, annoyance making her reply slightly sharper than normal. Somehow, she doubted that anyone but Trip would recognize the change in her voice.
Department status reports began appearing on her station monitor, and she spent long moments studying them. Comparatively, damage to Endeavour was relatively light, due in no small part to the highly efficient hull polarization system devised by the engineering team and deployed prior to launch. She suspected that Master Chief Mackenzie would be pleased to learn that fact. There were still some serious concerns, however; a hull breach in the vicinity of a deuterium tank understandably remained the current focus of the damage control teams. Weapon repair teams under the command of Lieutenant Hayes were already working on restoring power to several of the offline phase cannons.
"Tucker to bridge." Without taking her eyes from the display, T'Pol reached for the integrated comm panel on her station and depressed the transmit button.
"This is T'Pol."
"We've got the last of Horizon's crew aboard. Get us out of here."
"Aye, captain." She gave the petty officer at the helm a steady look. "Take us to warp four," she ordered. "Resume heading zero zero one." It was the height of arrogance to identify the Sol system as Sector 001, but T'Pol had learned to indulge the Terrans in their human-centric value system. By evolutionary terms, they were still quite young and had much to learn.
She tried not to think about how Vulcan starcharts listed their homeworld as Sector Veh.
Endeavour's engines growled as the Starfleet ship once more made the jump to faster-than-light velocities. It was entirely understandable if they sounded a bit more strained than normal, given the added mass of the mostly derelict Horizon being towed; T'Pol made some rapid calculations to determine how long they could travel with the Neptune-class at their back before setting those concerns aside. If necessary, they could scuttle the Horizon and continue on without its additional drag. Satisfied, she gave the sensor array a quick glance.
"Sensors indicate no pursuit, Captain," she said into the comm. His reply was immediate.
"All right. I'll be in sickbay. Tucker out." The commline chirped once before going dead.
An ominous silence descended upon the auxiliary bridge, broken only by the occasional beep of a computer system. At a glance, T'Pol could see that the personnel present were beginning to experience the after-effects of combat stress. No longer did fear or excitement-induced adrenaline course through their bodies, and each was forced to deal with the stress in his or her own manner.
For a Vulcan, the hormone secreted during situations like the one they had just escaped was many times more powerful than the human equivalent, and T'Pol found her hand trembling slightly. No one saw this, of course, and she bent her considerable willpower to suppressing the physical effects. Had her duties not demanded that she remain present on the bridge, she would have retreated to her cabin for some much needed meditation. Sexual activity accomplished similar results following such stressful events, and she had always found that Trip was quite amorous after a near death experience. It was ... unfortunate that he too was forced by duty to be elsewhere, but T'Pol made a decision to visit his cabin later that night.
A flood of anger and sadness washed over her in that moment, and she instantly recognized the taste of it as Trip’s. Tentatively, she reached out through the bond, recoiling almost instantly at his grief. Her mate was with the commodore, and the realization that Captain Hernandez had perished sent another stab of anguish through her. This time, it was her reaction, not Trip's, and she closed her eyes against the rampaging emotions that pulsed between them. She could not imagine how the commodore was able to press forward, knowing that his mate was lost. To a Vulcan, it was nearly inconceivable. Trip's struggle with the silicate virus many years earlier had nearly destroyed her fragile control, and she could not envision how she would have been able to move forward had he died.
"Ma'am?" Lieutenant Commander Eisler's voice was soft, and T'Pol opened her eyes to discover the tactical officer standing a half meter away from her, a look of slight concern on his face.
"I am fine," she replied to his unspoken question. He didn't look entirely convinced, but did not press the matter. It was one of the things she appreciated the most about Commander Eisler. Unlike so many other humans that she had dealt with since Enterprise had launched, he understood personal and professional boundaries. In many ways, he was more Vulcan than human, especially in his personal interactions.
That should not have saddened her, but, for some reason, it did.
"If you don't mind," he said, "I'm going to head to the Armory." She quirked an eyebrow, recognizing in him the same need to accomplish a task that she had felt in Trip earlier. At her nod, he marched toward the hatch.
The rest of the duty shift passed relatively uneventfully. T'Pol allowed herself to become distracted by the workload before her, and spent nearly the entire shift directing repair teams to the locations where they were most needed. When Lieutenant Ricker gently touched her shoulder, T'Pol experienced a momentary flash of surprise at just how distracted she had become. Fatigue pressed down upon her, and she gratefully turned over command to her relief before departing the auxiliary bridge. She needed food, meditation and sleep. And Trip, of course, but that could wait until the time was more appropriate. From her sense of him, she could tell that he was deep in ship repairs; maintaining the extended warp field around Horizon was proving to be much more difficult than Trip had anticipated. It was to be expected, of course, given both his work ethic and Lieutenant Commander Hess's injuries.
She could also tell that Commodore Archer was alongside him, evidently burying his grief with work.
Her sense of duty carried her to sickbay, and she paused at the threshold of the medical facility, momentarily overwhelmed at the putrid stench of seared flesh and human blood. Doctor Phlox stood before his master display and barely spared her a glance as she entered. His normally pristine medical smock was smeared crimson, and T'Pol forced herself to suppress the urge to recoil from the acrid stench of blood.
"Please make it quick," Phlox said as she approached, his eyes never leaving the monitor that he was studying. "I am very busy." T'Pol raised an eyebrow at his business-like manner; she could not recall witnessing him react in such a way.
But then, she realized, she had never seen him with quite as many patients at the same time.
"Can I be of assistance, Doctor?" she asked immediately, and he gave her a sidelong glance before shaking his head.
"Thank you, but no." He gestured toward the medical technicians swarming around sickbay. "My team has everything well in hand." Phlox started to turn away, but hesitated as something occurred to him. "You should have the revised casualty report in ten or fifteen minutes. I have attached Horizon's crew status to it as well." His normally jovial features were creased in an unfamiliar-looking frown. "Was there anything else?"
For a moment, T'Pol considered informing him about Captain Hernandez's demise and seeking any suggestions he may have about how to aid Commodore Archer in the grieving process. One look at the Denobulan's grim expression, however, banished that plan instantly. The doctor had enough to deal with at the moment, and adding to his workload was both illogical and cruel.
"No," she said in response. "That is all, Doctor."
With a sharp nod, the doctor turned away.
The medical officer's prognosis was damning.
"Three vertebrae were crushed and your spinal cord was damaged," she was saying as she studied the admiral's biological readouts. The junior lieutenant's tone bordered on callous as she spoke, and it took every gram of D'deridex's self control to not draw the dathe'anofv-sen at his side. "There is massive internal bleeding that we have been unable to stop," the physician continued, finally turning her eyes toward Admiral Valdore who was, impossibly, awake and aware.
He had regained consciousness as D'deridex struggled to carry him free of the shattered command section of Ra'kholh. Fires had been raging throughout the corridor as electro-plasma system conduits ruptured under the stress. Alarms wailed, and sparks tumbled to the deckplates from smoking junction boxes. Overhead lights flickered in erratic patterns, casting sinister shadows across the long corridor. It had been an image out of the darkest imaginings of Areinnye.
"I'm sorry, Daise'Khre'Riov," the medical officer finished, straightening as she did. She lifted her head, exposing her throat in a gesture of complete submission. "If you wish, I can ease the pain, but there is nothing else I can do with the tools available." She gestured briefly to the heavy damage within the medical facility.
Anger pulsed through D'deridex in that moment, a fury that clouded his mind with a green haze that made it difficult to think. His hand instinctively tightened on the hilt of the blade at his side, and he tensed, hoping for the admiral to issue the order. He wanted to lash out at anyone or anything. To his surprise, however, Valdore gave a sharp grunt of bitter laughter, grimacing almost instantly.
"Witness," he gasped. His eyes shifted to D'deridex. "By my authority," Valdore wheezed through clenched teeth, "I promote you to ... grade Daise'Erei'Riov." Blood trickled from the admiral's mouth as he forced himself to speak through the pain.
"Witnessed," the physician said instantly. She lifted her data device and began inputting notes. It would serve as an official record for the promotion to the rank of commander, providing the medical officer was not suborned by one of D'deridex's rivals. As it was a deathbed promotion by a fleet admiral, it would carry even greater prestige than a regular promotion, and D'deridex's relative youth would further mark him as different and worth watching. Few who served in the Fleet ever reached the rank of commander, and none did so at his age. Simply reaching the rank made one powerful enemies.
Valdore gave a sharp hand gesture of dismissal, once more groaning with the pain that it caused, and the physician obeyed without question. She caught D'deridex's eye as she turned, quirking an eyebrow slightly in a less than discreet gesture intended to convey her desire to speak with him later. D'deridex ignored her, though, focusing his attention on the agonized expression on Admiral Valdore's face.
"You honor me, sir," D'deridex said truthfully. Once more, he was surprised as the admiral reached out and grasped his arm with a crushing grip.
"Finish ... my task," Valdore gasped, clearly struggling to get the words out before he lost his last and greatest battle. "My quarters," he continued through the pain. "Command codes ... for operative ... human fleet." D'deridex blinked in surprise at the revelation; he knew that the Tal Shiar had Infiltrators among the Vuhlkansu, but to have an actual operative among the humans? "And keep Chulak ... from Xin'di. Our objective ... there too important..." The admiral grimaced, and D'deridex froze at his fierce look. "Sthea'hwill?"
D'deridex nodded, too stunned to respond vocally to the courtesy in the question's phrasing. By simple nature of their respective ranks, the admiral could have ordered him to obey without question, but instead he spoke to D'deridex as if they were equals. There was no higher compliment in the Rihannsu culture, and it shook the young commander to his very core.
"It will be done, Daise'Khre'Riov," he declared, gripping his mentor's hand with his own. "By my honor and the honor of my House, I will see it done." At his words, the admiral smiled grimly, blood staining his teeth emerald, and he closed his eyes.
A moment later, Valdore i'Kaleh tr'Irrhaimehn was dead.
D'deridex stood there for a long moment, holding onto the limp hand of the male he had come to respect more than life itself. A frown crossed the young commander's face as he realized what this death would mean for the Fleet; now, instead of pressing their advantage against the Terrans, the war would grind to a halt as the captains and admirals competed against one another to be appointed fleet commander. Against all military doctrine and logic, the humans would be given a reprieve.
Releasing the admiral's hand, D'deridex turned away, his eyes instantly seeking out the medical officer who yet remained the key to his promotion. He loathed this part of the service, hated having to deal with the politics inherent in promotion. If the system was truly efficient as S'Task had desired prior to his death, there would be no need for this game of politics. The junior lieutenant was mere meters away, attending to a horrifically burned engineer. As if sensing D'deridex's eyes on her, the physician looked up.
"Daisemi'Maenek of whatever vessel I command," D'deridex promised her, hoping that the lure of being named the chief medical officer would be enough. His was not a wealthy House, and if another offered her a greater prize to block him, he would be forced to kill her. He had no desire to kill a fellow Rihannsu, not when there were still Enemies of the state.
"Mnek'nra," the physician accepted. She used the inferior mode, acknowledging that she was of lesser status than her future commanding officer. It was a good sign.
"How are you named?" D'deridex asked.
"I am known as S'enrae," she replied, bending her neck slightly. By offering only her given name in such a manner, her interest in an intimate relationship was also made apparent. It was a bold move that revealed even more information about her: she wanted power and saw in him an opportunity to grasp it. D'deridex frowned slightly, pushing those thoughts aside. He was not unwilling – she was slightly younger than he, quite attractive, and his time was nearing – but Valdore's task remained unfulfilled. There was no time to think about sex, not now, no matter how appealing such thoughts could be when centered around one such as she.
"We shall speak later," he declared as he strode from the medical facility.
Nearly ten siuren later, he was standing outside the admiral's quarters. To his complete surprise, the door annunciator accepted his thumbprint as a valid code for entry, an indication that the admiral had already planned for this contingency. The respect that D'deridex had for the now deceased Valdore increased exponentially as he stepped into the executive cabin.
Compared to his own quarters it was enormous, easily four to five times larger. A massive bed dominated the quarters, and a low couch added to the feel of luxury. Valdore's dathe'anofv-sen was upon the floor, evidently jarred from its place of honor by the massive shockwave that had nearly sliced the Ra'kholh in half. Kneeling before the Honor Blade, D’deridex studied it with a hint of awe. It was old, older than any dathe'anofv-sen that he had seen before, and beautifully crafted. With reverent motions, he lifted the weapon from the floor and returned it to its place of honor. He would have to see that it was returned to ch'Rihan and the admiral's House lest one of Valdore's opponents acquire it. The idea of Commander Chulak in possession of such a priceless heirloom sent a shudder of disgust through D'deridex's body.
As he rose to his feet, the computer abruptly chirped, drawing his immediate attention. A disembodied voice echoed from the integrated speakers, and a sense of unease caused D'deridex to tense abruptly. Though he could not explain it, he knew that he was in danger.
"State identity," the computer demanded.
"D'deridex," he replied, pausing only briefly before adding, "Daise'Erei'Riov." Another chirp sounded.
"Identity accepted." The sense of danger faded. "State the nature of your inquiry."
"Display command codes for human operative," D'deridex ordered as he took a seat in front of the computer. He steepled his fingers as the computer hummed. A moment later, the operative's identity was known to him.
And he blinked in surprise.
He was good at feigning surprise.
"Are you sure?" Commodore Alexander Casey asked, an expression of perfectly simulated astonishment on his face. Behind his facade of surprise, however, his mind was racing.
"I am," Admiral Gardner said grimly. He looked up from his computer, pinning Alexander with a fierce look. "This doesn't leave the room until I announce it, Casey." At Alexander's nod of understanding, the fleet admiral exhaled heavily and began rubbing his temples as if to ward off a headache. "Starfleet Medical put their report on my desk thirty minutes ago, and Security agreed with their findings. It was suicide." He glowered at the table. "A single gunshot wound to the head."
Relief swept through Casey, and he felt the tension in his muscles lessen. He had been so worried that his handiwork wouldn't be enough, that the planted forensics evidence in Black's home would give him away. His contempt swelled as he realized that Starfleet Security would have headed up the investigation, and as experience had taught him, they were patently incompetent.
With the catastrophic end of Operation: Pandora, it was hardly a surprise that Hannibal Black had tendered his immediate resignation. He would go down in history as a total failure responsible for the loss of over a thousand officers and crewmembers. Casualty reports coming in from ships still in transit had been leaked by "anonymous sources," and the public had already started clamoring for heads to roll in Starfleet Command. To those properly briefed, there was never any doubt that Black would take the lion's share of the blame. Operation: Pandora was, after all, his baby. Resigning in disgrace was his only option.
Black had been surprised when Commodore Casey arrived to pay him a social visit that afternoon, ostensibly to offer his respects to the ex-admiral in the wake of the disaster that the news media was calling the greatest catastrophe since the Xindi assault over four and a half years ago. The admiral had already been partially drunk on Andorian ale when he let Casey in, and hadn't even noticed the gloves that his visitor was wearing, or the resolute expression on Casey’s face. The antique pistol had been on the table where Black was sitting and drinking, a clear indication of the disgraced admiral's state of mind already. Sensing an opportunity, Casey had acted.
He held no regrets in that regard.
"I was at his house," Casey revealed to Gardner. By volunteering this information, he would be setting himself up as a potential suspect; but if he concealed it and the incompetents at Starfleet Security happened to stumble upon that fact, he would look guilty. The best lies, he reflected, were often rooted in the truth. "He was drunk, but I didn't think he was suicidal."
"Why were you there?" Gardner asked suddenly, a suspicious glint in his eyes. Casey shrugged.
"I didn't like him, sir," he admitted, "but we had a tolerable working relationship." Shifting his feet, he adopted a slightly embarrassed expression. "I was there to tell him that I respected his decision to resign the way he did." The fleet admiral grunted before turning away.
"In one hour," Gardner groused, "I get to brief the president about this nightmare. Since next year is an election year, she's screaming bloody murder because her poll numbers are dropping." The admiral glared at the framed picture of United Earth's head of state on the far wall. It was standard issue for any government office, and revealed no hint of the woman's true nature. If one hadn't interacted with her on a semi-regular basis, one could be fooled into thinking she was the grandmotherly figure that she carefully cultivated in the public consciousness, instead of a vicious political animal who didn't know the meaning of mercy. Gardner's face suddenly contorted into a snarl. "One thousand, one hundred and six people are dead or presumed dead, and this bitch is worried about her fucking poll numbers!"
"She's a politician, sir," Casey pointed out. "That's what they do." He was suddenly eager to get out of this office and finish his clean-up work. Black had made a terrible mess of things, and Alexander was too deep in that mess not to get his hands dirty.
"I know." Gardner let out a heavy sigh, before studying Casey for a long moment. There was a weighing look in the admiral's eyes, as if he were attempting to determine how much he could trust Alexander. Finally, Gardner spoke. "I have a job for you," he said. "It's ideally suited to your talents. Can I trust you to handle it with discretion?"
"Yes, sir." Alexander assumed a position of attention as he replied.
"Good." Gardner frowned as he continued. "Black had a source of information about the Romulans. I want you to find out what or who it was." Casey blinked in slight surprise at that. He already knew the identity of the source, but couldn't let himself be connected to the Orion prisoner in any way.
"I'll do my best, sir." Alexander shifted slightly. "Admiral, I'll need my own people on this." He winced; this had to be phrased delicately. "Nothing against your Starfleet Security," Casey lied, somehow managing to keep a straight face as he did, "but I need people who I know and who know me."
"Get whoever you need," the admiral responded. "But find me that source."
"Yes, sir. Will there be anything else, sir?"
"No," Gardner said as he shook his head. "Dismissed."
The trip to the secret holding cell took nearly ten minutes, and during that time Casey decided on a course of action. He gave the two ex-MACOs standing guard outside the cell a glance, matching their faces to what he recalled of their files. A sigh of relief worked its way past his lips. They were Red Sabre, ex-black ops who had absolutely no compunction with murder. Fewer than twelve members of the outlawed Red Sabre team were still alive, and these two were the only ones on the planet.
With a hiss, the pressure door slid open, revealing the hulking Orion male. Harrad-Sar looked up at Alexander's entrance and started to smile. It wasn't the Orion's usual obsequious smile, but rather a mocking smirk of sinister amusement. Casey's eyes narrowed.
"You know," he said coldly, and the Orion's smirk broadened.
"That the Romulans were waiting for you?" Harrad-Sar asked before chuckling. "I warned Black that they had sources of intelligence you silly monkeys don't know about." He leaned back in his less than sturdy looking chair. "Will the good admiral not be joining us today?"
"No." Casey crossed his arms. "Our arrangement is at end, alien," he declared abruptly. The flicker of understanding that crossed the Orion's face was almost enjoyable. "You have outlived your usefulness to us."
"Wait!" Harrad-Sar stumbled to his feet, a pleading look on his face.
But it was already too late.
At Casey's signal, the two security troopers drew their sidearms in what appeared to be synchronized motions. Phased energy flashed out, slicing into Harrad-Sar's body with lethal results. The Orion dropped like a puppet with its strings cut, and the two men advanced into the room, weapons still trained on him. They fired again. And again.
Satisfied that the Orion was dead, they glanced in Casey's direction. He gave them both approving nods.
"Sterilize this cell," he ordered. "I want there to be no trace that he was ever here."
"Aye, sir," they replied in unison, and Alexander turned away.
An hour later, Casey was in his apartment, sitting in the dark and sipping scotch. He stared at the framed MACO flag on his wall, wondering when it had all gone wrong. He was a patriot, after all, and had only wanted the best for his home world. Despite his efforts, though, the United Earth Senate had foolishly voted to fold the Military Assault Command Operations into MACO Starfleet, placing his professional soldiers under the command of fools who didn't understand the first thing about waging a war. One would think that Earth's tepid response to the Xindi assault would have been proof of that. It was only by gritting his teeth and accepting the rank of commodore (an absurd rank, if there ever was one) that Casey could attempt to keep his troopers safe. And even then, they were getting killed.
Desperate times had called for desperate measures, he told himself. It was poor comfort.
The hiss of his door opening caused him to scramble for his sidearm, but he lowered it when he recognized his visitor.
"What are you doing here?" he asked urgently. "You could have been recognized!"
"Do you want me to go?" she asked, and Casey felt his fear evaporate as her distinctive perfume washed over him. Of course he didn't want her to leave!
"No," he whispered as she glided toward him, her eyes sparkling with amusement. He could feel his heart racing, and hated that she could do this to him.
"Is Harrad-Sar dead?" she asked as she stroked his cheek, and Alexander nodded quickly. She smiled. "Good." Her fingers danced on his neck, beating time with his rapid pulse. "Now tell me about the rest of your day." She smiled, but it held no warmth. "And leave nothing out." As in all things, he was her slave.
So, he began to speak.
He didn't know what to say.
"And that's why I wanted to talk to you, sir," newly promoted Lieutenant Commander Hsiao was speaking, an expression of discomfort on his face. Despite the circumstances, Trip couldn't help but smile at the familiarity of this situation. He'd struggled over the very same decision nearly two years ago when Starfleet Command had offered him a captaincy.
"What I think doesn't matter here, Dan," he replied slowly. "But if you really want my opinion, I think that you've already made your decision." Hsiao gave him a conflicted look before glancing away, already deep in thought. Trip leaned back in his seat, glancing quickly at the chronometer. He still had twenty minutes before his shuttlepod departed for Earth, but the long transit time at impulse made the ferry schedules nearly impossible to alter. They waited for no one.
"I guess I have," Hsiao finally admitted, which brought another smile to Trip's face. Because of Hsiao's battlefield performance, coupled with glowing reports from the officers and crewmembers of Hyperion who credited him with saving their lives, Starfleet had promoted the young helmsman and offered him the job as commanding officer of the Daedalus-class. The job offer was an indication both of Dan’s abilities and of Starfleet's continuing need for effective combat leaders..
Trip also saw it as a warning: it now seemed inevitable that T'Pol, as one of the most experienced officers in the fleet, would also be promoted and reassigned.
"You realize," Tucker said with a joking smile as he stood up, "that this leaves me without a helmsman, right?" Hsiao rose as well, an expression of mild surprise on his face.
"Ensign Jefferson," he started, but Trip interrupted.
"Is at Starfleet Medical." The smile faded as Tucker recalled the doctor's prognosis. "Shrapnel punctured his left eye," he revealed grimly. "His piloting days are over."
"My God," Hsiao whispered. "I didn't know..." He suddenly looked uncomfortable, as if he were reconsidering his decision.
"Dan," Trip said calmly as he offered his hand. "Hyperion needs you. We'll get by." As the young lieutenant commander took his hand, Tucker smiled once more. "And once you get her up and running again, I'll expect a tour."
"Any time, Captain." As Hsiao disappeared through the ready room door, Trip collapsed in his chair once more, his mind buzzing. Dan was a popular officer, and his loss would have an effect on the ship's morale, especially in the wake of the disaster at Zeta Reticuli. For a moment, Tucker wondered if Hsiao knew that Lieutenant Devereux was also at Starfleet Medical; the same shrapnel that had ended Jefferson's career as a pilot had also punctured Devereux's left eardrum.
Exactly thirty-six seconds after Hsiao exited, T'Pol entered the ready room, a PADD in her hand. Years earlier while on Enterprise, Trip had timed how long it took her to leave her station and walk to the ready room; it was nice to know that she hadn't changed much since then.
"Here are my suggested revisions," T’Pol said without preamble, offering the data device as she spoke. Trip nodded as he accepted the PADD, wondering why she even bothered submitting this sort of thing for his approval. Unless it involved engineering in some capacity, he usually just signed off on it once he saw that she was the author. Most of the time, he didn't even bother to read what she had sent and simply approved it upon receipt.
This time, however, he gave it a quick once-over since he had asked her for input. The battle at Acheron had been a wake up call to him regarding the dangers of keeping the command staff in such an exposed location like the bridge. With this standing order, Trip was making the A Deck bridge off limits to all personnel without his express permission. From now on, auxiliary command was the bridge. Placing his thumb upon the small optical scanner, he made the decision official. Perhaps someday, after this war was over and Starfleet returned to its original job as explorers, the bridge could be used again, but right now, it was just too dangerous.
"Is everything ready?" he asked cryptically, knowing that she would understand. She quirked an eyebrow at his curious choice of words, but did not remark on the illogic of his statement.
"Yes," T'Pol replied. "Have you spoken to him yet?" There was no need to identify whom she was talking about and, once more, sadness competed against anger. Trip handed her the PADD, his face grim.
"Not since we arrived at Earth," he responded. It was frustrating, knowing that one of his best friends was hurting as badly as Jon was, even if one couldn't tell by looking at him. For the entire twenty-three days it had taken Endeavour to reach Earth, Archer had buried himself in work, refusing even to speak about Erika. By the third day, Trip had given up trying to get his old friend to open up and had simply turned over command to T'Pol while he labored alongside Jon, hoping that his presence would be enough.
A frown crossed Tucker's face when he realized that he vaguely recalled seeing Archer like this once before, when Henry Archer had passed away. That led to a moment of confusion as Trip tried to reconcile his curiously jumbled memories. Though he had never met Henry, he had odd memories of doing that very thing, many years before he even knew Jon. But that didn't make any sense either, what with Henry Archer dying of Clarke's Disease before Jon's thirteenth birthday. Trip shook his head in annoyance, trying to focus his attention back on the present. These sorts of conflicting memory flashes had happened sporadically over the years, beginning a couple of weeks after Enterprise's jaunt to the Second World War. T'Pol had admitted to experiencing the same sort of thing on occasion, prompting her to theorize that the temporal manipulation by Daniels' associates was not quite as precise as it could be.
For Trip, that sort of thinking inevitable led to headaches.
He stood, grabbing his personal PADD as he did so.
"You're in command, T'Pol," Tucker said as he turned toward the door. He offered his right hand, two fingers extended, and very nearly grinned at the expression of surprise that flashed across her face. It was gone almost before it appeared, and she reciprocated, touching her fingers to his. The warmth that always washed through his mind when they exchanged the ozh'esta caused him to smile as he soaked in her affection.
Five hours later, he was finally stepping out of the shuttlepod, grateful that the ridiculously long trip was finally over. Shifting his small duffel back to one shoulder, he gave the pilot an appreciative nod before beginning the short trek from the landing pad to the entrance to Command. A trio of heavily armed and armored guards was standing outside the doorway, and he offered them his identification without being prompted. The duffel went onto a scanner; the young girl operating the device gave Tucker an odd look at the contents, but cleared him without question.
Nearly twenty minutes passed before he reached his destination. He recognized the petty officer outside the office, and gave the young man a questioning look.
"It's after midnight, Tyner," Trip pointed out. "Shouldn't you be in quarters?"
"He needs me here, sir." Tucker frowned at the petty officer's obvious exhaustion and made a decision.
"Go home," he said. "I'll take care of him." He didn't wait for a response or clearance, and pushed the OPN command on the door annunciator.
As he expected, Jonathan Archer was seated at the desk, dozens of clipboards and several PADDs on his desk. The wall monitor was split-screened, with the two most prominent news channels on; both were muted. Evidence of the previous occupant was still present, especially with the thick smell of coffee that seemed to permeate the entire office, but Jon had already made it his own. Curled up on the couch, Archer's new beagle Dumas gave Trip a wary look before resuming his nap.
"I'm busy, Trip," Archer said without even looking up from his computer. His fingers were tapping out a steady rhythm on the keyboard.
"Yes, sir." Tucker made his way to the chair in front of the desk and lowered himself into it. The duffel he carefully placed on the floor. "Congratulations on the promotion, Admiral." Archer grunted slightly before giving the wall monitor a glance. A frown crossed his face instantly, and Trip followed the admiral's line of sight.
Prominently displayed on the less reputable station was a headline that caused Tucker to sigh in disgust. At face value, "Xindi Link to Romulans!" wasn't entirely inaccurate, but the implication that the Xindi attack had been instigated by the Romulans was completely unfounded. Trip's stomach tightened at the thought of that attack, and he pushed down the bitter sadness over Lizzie's death that always seemed to resurface at the most inopportune times.
"I need you on your ship, getting her battle ready, Captain," Archer groused. He was going out of his way to avoid making eye contact as he spoke. "If the Romulans press the attack, then you'll be on the front line."
"T'Pol has everything under control." Trip frowned as he glanced at one of the PADDs on Archer's desk; it had some vaguely familiar schematics upon it. "Endeavour is battle ready now, sir. The new hull polarizers worked better than expected." The PADD's screen abruptly blanked out as the power saver mode activated.
"Good." Archer glared at his personal computer but, once again, didn't make eye contact. Trip's concern grew as he recognized his old friend's attempt to avoid uncomfortable subjects by focusing on work. "Command will probably be issuing you new orders in a day or so. The Third has already been deployed to Alpha Centauri, and the Fourth to Tau Ceti." He shuffled through the papers on one of the clipboards. "Until we have a better picture of the strategic situation, Endeavour is probably going to remain in-system, though."
"Jon." Use of Archer's given name caused him finally to meet Trip's eyes. For the briefest of seconds, a hint of the pain that the admiral was hiding could be seen before he managed to conceal it. "How are you doing?" Trip asked.
"How do you think I'm doing?" Archer snapped. He gestured to the mess on his desk. "Thirteen ships got out of Acheron, Trip. Thirteen out of thirty." Anger was stamped on his face. "And every one of them is in need of repair!" He glared as he continued. "The damned Coalition is falling apart because the Tellarites won't help us, the Vulcans can't help us, and the Andorians are too damned busy shooting at Orions to even listen to us! How the hell do you think I'm doing?"
"That wasn't what I was talking about," Tucker pointed out.
"I know." Jon's anger dwindled, and he offered Tucker an apologetic look. "I can't think about that right now, Trip." Glancing at the computer monitor once more, Archer seemed to shudder slightly. "If I think about her, I'm afraid I'll lose it," he admitted.
"I understand," Trip said, and he did. When Lizzie had died, he had refused to face the loss and had wrapped himself up in anger so he wouldn't have to. He didn't want to see Jon suffer from the same thing.
"I hate them," Archer said abruptly. At Trip's look, he explained, bitterness in his voice. "The Romulans. I hate every single one of them." He glared at his computer and visibly composed himself. "But I can't afford the luxury of hate. Not now. Not while wearing this uniform." The sadness was once more in his eyes, and he blinked away a tear. "Too many people are relying on me to be something I'm not."
"If you need anything, Jon…" Tucker offered as he reached into his duffel. Archer interrupted with another sad frown.
"I know, Trip." The admiral was back, replacing the wounded friend who had been there if only for a moment. "I appreciate that, but I've got too much work to do."
"Start tomorrow," Trip said. He placed the bottle of bourbon on the desk. Jon looked at it for a long moment, clearly torn between duty and sorrow.