Captain’s starlog, January 30th, 2158. This morning, we reached the Delphic Expanse … or rather, what used to be the Expanse. Orders from Starfleet Command are frustratingly simple: determine the nature of the connection between the Xindi and the Romulans and neutralize it without exacerbatin’ the situation while keepin’ as low a profile as possible.
And, for my next trick, I’m going to break warp nine before lunch.
She was hard at work when Endeavour’s ambient noises changed, a clear signal that the NC-06 had slowed from warp speed.
Looking up from her research, Commander T’Pol raised an eyebrow in slight surprise. Better than perhaps anyone else aboard, she knew their flight plan. They were not scheduled to slow from warp speed for at least another thirty-seven point five hours and then, only for a period of sixty minutes to allow the warp coils to cool down from extended use. She tensed, halfway expecting an emergency summons to the bridge.
But no call came.
Fighting the urge to frown, she turned her attention back to the data flashing upon her screen. With little to do during the initial stage of the journey, she had been spending much of her “on-duty” time in the stellar dynamics lab, conducting experiments and studying the data they had acquired during their journey. When she had explained her latest theory regarding micro-singularities, Trip had been inexplicably amused and had granted her request for additional lab time without hesitation. It was gratifying to tune out the nature of their current mission, even if only for a short time.
Forty-three seconds after Endeavour slowed from warp, T’Pol abandoned her less than successful attempts to remain focused on the data in front of her, and turned to the communications panel. Until she knew the reason for their unscheduled stop, she doubted that she would be able to adequately concentrate. Curiosity, ever her bane, would only increase exponentially with each second that passed until she was too distracted to accomplish anything useful.
Clearly, this was all Trip’s fault.
“T’Pol to bridge,” she said once she pressed the transmit button.
“Bridge.” Commander Eisler’s almost instantaneous response was clipped and precise.
“Why have we slowed from warp speed?” she asked.
“Captain’s orders, ma’am,” the tactical officer replied, and T’Pol raised an eyebrow at that. She glanced at the chronometer and frowned slightly. There was no reason for them to stop. She did some rapid calculations, and her eyes widened in sudden realization.
“Please relay our current coordinates to stellar dynamics,” she ordered quickly before turning toward the primary computer.
“Aye, ma’am,” Eisler responded. Seconds later, new data appeared on her display and T’Pol drew in a sharp breath. She knew exactly where they were, and she silently chastised herself for becoming distracted.
“Thank you,” she said as she turned toward the door. “T’Pol out.”
As she exited the stellar dynamics lab, she tentatively reached out with her mind. Unsurprisingly, Trip’s mental shields were up, and T’Pol frowned at how efficient her mate had become in concealing even his most errant thoughts. Not so long ago, it had been uncomfortable and, if she were truly honest with herself, positively annoying how frequently she would be deluged by random thoughts and images and sensations that were not her own. In the early days of their bonding, after Trip returned to Enterprise but before they found and lost their second child, T’Pol had very nearly lost hope that they could ever truly understand one another. He was too emotional, too chaotic, too … alien to be a true mate, but when they grieved together, her fear fell away and Trip wholeheartedly embraced the lessons she offered him. He rarely displayed how skilled he had become at blocking her and usually only did so when he wanted to surprise her with a gift of some sort. The date of her birth had already passed and the anniversary of their first neuropressure session – which Trip inexplicably considered an important date for reasons that totally defied her comprehension – was not for some months.
The twenty-three second wait for the turbolift to arrive seemed longer, but she took the time to arrange the most likely places Trip would be in sequential order. Since Commander Eisler had responded to her page to the bridge, her mate was clearly not there. And, although Trip had never said it aloud, she knew that he was rarely comfortable in his personal quarters alone; although she wasn’t entirely positive, she suspected it was due to his residual hero worship for Admiral Archer and Trip’s continued belief that he was unworthy of the rank bequeathed upon him, no matter the voluminous evidence to the contrary. Engineering was now Lieutenant Commander Hess’ domain (much to Trip’s rarely stated but always present dismay) and he disliked “breathing down her neck,” so he ventured there only when invited or circumstances warranted his presence. That left the mess hall and the technically off-limits topside bridge.
Two enlisted crewmembers wearing the dark tan of operations stepped out of the lift the moment it arrived. Neither made eye contact, but, as they were newly assigned to Endeavour, such an event wasn’t surprising. Disappointing, perhaps, but hardly unexpected. In T’Pol’s experience, it took at least six months for new members of the crew to grow sufficiently comfortable with her to even look at her face.
Much to her annoyance, however, their inability to make eye contact did not prevent many of the males (and some of the females) from admiring her physical assets when they thought she was unaware of their looks. Sometimes, humans made less sense than Andorians.
With her face reflecting nothing of her thoughts, T’Pol entered the turbolift and depressed the button for A deck. Immediately, a red light flashed on the small panel, warning her that the destination had been rejected; placing her thumb onto the biometric scanner, she input the override code. Barely a second later, the computer chirped its acceptance of the new instructions and the door slid shut. Clasping her hands together behind her back, she relaxed her posture slightly as the lift began its journey from C Deck. She spent the brief travel time trying to assess the most effective way to approach Trip. An emotional appeal was simply not feasible; as a Vulcan, she had been trained since birth to suppress emotions and even with the trellium damage, she found it difficult to express herself as openly as he did. A logic-based appeal was equally unlikely to succeed; although Trip respected her adherence to Surak’s teachings (and had begun to adopt many of them himself much to her surprised delight) he had a tendency to grow angry if she attempted to apply logic to the any of the emotional aspects of their relationship. With effort, she kept from frowning at the difficulties inherent in cross-species interactions.
The lift door opened with a hiss and she raised an eyebrow in mild surprise at the absence of her mate. Since he had issued the standing order that the A Deck bridge was off duty, it had become his preferred location to brood (though he would insist that he was doing no such thing) when the pressure of his position began affecting his judgment or his mood. Once again, T’Pol stretched out with her mind, this time succeeding in contacting him. A sensation that was not hers – hunger – momentarily washed across her perception and she redirected the turbolift.
Several minutes passed before T’Pol arrived at the dining facility. As she entered, Senior Chief Killick gave her a slight nod before discreetly gesturing toward the executive mess. She returned the nod and accepted the two mugs of tea that the chef silently offered, breathing in the agreeable smells of chamomile tea. At the doorway, she hesitated before pressing the annunciator with her elbow. With barely a sound, the door slid open.
Exactly as she expected (and feared if she were honest with herself), Trip was standing in front of the viewport, staring at the glittering white dwarf beyond. His hands were clasped together at the small of his back in a stance T’Pol recognized as how she often stood, and he seemed utterly unaware of the image he presented. It was yet another minor example of psychic bleed-over; in situations where he was extremely tired or highly emotional or deeply distracted, Trip often unconsciously adopted certain of her mannerisms or habits, much to his embarrassment. Even though she had superior mental gifts, T’Pol had discovered she often experienced a similar adoption of his traits at times when her self-control waned.
Trip tensed slightly at her approach, but offered no greeting nor even glanced in her direction when she placed the two mugs on the table behind him. Instead, his attention remained riveted on the distant star. T’Pol stood at his side for a long moment, wishing that she knew what to say. Vulcans were not loquacious by nature, and she had never mastered the art of “small talk,” despite his best efforts. Even in their most difficult times together, it had always been Trip who had engaged her, not the reverse. Mentally, she amended that, recalling their painfully difficult interactions following her return to Enterprise after her short-lived and ultimately unnecessary marriage to Koss; then, like now, Trip had withdrawn into himself.
Finally, she reached out and placed her hand upon his. He exhaled softly, relaxing fractionally and allowing her to lace her fingers with his as their joined hands fell to his side. It was a minor thing, but relieved her immeasurably.
“I’m sorry,” he said unexpectedly, eyes still locked on the glittering star. Despite herself, she raised an eyebrow at his words.
“Why are you apologizing?” T’Pol asked quizzically. In times like this, he continued to baffle her, despite their telepathic connection. She wondered if she would ever fully understand him.
“For shutting you out,” Trip replied. She winced at the sudden wave of angry frustration that rolled off of him, and his expression tightened further as he tried to rein in his rampant emotions.
“You have nothing to apologize for, Trip,” she stated emphatically. “Nothing.” He forced a smile but wasn’t able to maintain it for long. Another long moment passed in silence as they stared at the distant white dwarf. She knew exactly what was on his mind and, had she not allowed herself to become distracted by promising results with her experiments, would have been more prepared for it.
“I’ve never been able to entirely forgive them,” Trip whispered, an anguished expression slowly appearing on his face. “I know that they didn’t have a choice, and that Phlox never expected him to be sentient, but...” He trailed off, closing his eyes for a moment. “I never wanted anyone to die for me, T’Pol,” her mate said. “Never.” His hold on her hand tightened and she shuffled closer to him, hoping that her proximity would alleviate some of his distress.
“Have you spoken to Phlox?” T’Pol asked after a moment of consideration, and Tucker frowned darkly as he shook his head.
“Not a good idea,” he replied. “Especially right now.” T’Pol narrowed her eyes as she attempted to decipher the jumbled emotions that swirled through their cerebral linkage. “How do you tell a friend that you can’t forgive them for saving your life?” Trip asked softly, his tone making it clear that it was a rhetorical question.
“Spunau bolayalar t’Wehku bolayalar t’Zamu il t’Veh,” she reminded him, and he sighed heavily.
“I know.” Another sigh emerged from him. Abruptly, he gave her a sidelong glance and T’Pol could almost taste the hesitation in his mind. “Did you … did you and he … ?”
“Have sexual relations?” she finished for him. “No.” Trip grimaced and looked away, his self-disgust at even verbalizing the question swirling through the bond. “It was never an option, Trip,” T’Pol continued, suddenly recognizing one of the sources of his angst. They had discussed Sim’s attraction to her only once and it had led to their first exploration an eternity ago. “He may have looked like you,” she said, “and possessed some of your memories, but he was not you.” She tightened her hold on his hand, forcing him to look at her. “I can show you my memories of the event, if you wish,” T’Pol began, but Trip shook his head.
“No,” he said, “I trust you.” He exhaled again and his shoulders slumped, as if he were suddenly exhausted. “Is it wrong,” he asked softly, “that I wish there was more to remember him by?” T’Pol shifted awkwardly, unsure how to respond. The existence of the symbiont – Sim, she reminded herself – had been classified by Starfleet Command like so much of the Expanse mission. Logically, she understood the reasoning: to Earth, Jonathan Archer and the crew of Enterprise were heroes who had saved the birthplace of humanity and tarnishing their reputation by revealing some of the … less savory decisions made during that mission would negatively impair human morale. It did not matter that Admiral Archer was still haunted by the decisions he made here and likely would be for the rest of his life, or that Trip sometimes woke up screaming from nightmares wrought by the never fully healed transplant material in his brain, or that T’Pol herself struggled daily to cope with the self-inflicted damage that impaired her self-control. For the good of the many, the few had to suffer in silence.
“Remind me to put The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance on the docket for movie night,” Trip murmured. He gave her a sidelong glance and T’Pol realized he had caught the direction of her thoughts. “When the legend becomes fact,” he said, clearly quoting something, “print the legend.”
“I shall look forward to it,” she replied truthfully. Trip gave her a tight smile – it was a pale shadow of the one he usually gave her – before reaching for the communications panel and depressing the transmit button.
“Tucker to bridge.” Commander Eisler responded immediately.
“Resume course, Rick. Tucker out.”
“You have not eaten,” T’Pol accused the moment Trip released the button. He flinched before sighing heavily and shaking his head.
“Guilty,” he admitted and gestured toward the small dining table. It was covered with PADDs and printed technical schematics. “I’ve been lookin’ over the blueprints the admiral sent with Hoshi. Haven’t had time to eat today.” T’Pol quirked an eyebrow as she picked up one of the data devices and studied it with growing fascination. The proposed starship class design seemed a logical next step from the Enterprise-class, complete with the engineering hull that had been incorporated upon Endeavour and utilized extensively on the Daedalus-class. From just a preliminary examination, however, T’Pol noticed a number of unexpected discrepancies.
“This is Vulcan technology,” she remarked as she paged through the data. “And Andorian.”
“They worked in some Tellarite hull composites too,” Trip added, “and I think they’ve incorporated some Vissian tech for the sensor arrays.” He sipped his tea, made a face, and set it aside. “The nacelles are the only thing of purely human design,” he remarked with a hint of pride in his voice, although his expression remained troubled. Even without the bond, T’Pol could tell that something was worrying her mate and she gave him a questioning look. With a sigh, he handed her one of the PADDs. “Notice anything odd about that engine design?” T’Pol was silent as she glanced over the data.
“It is generating a substantial amount of energy,” she said after a moment.
“Six thousand terajoules more than Endeavour and Enterprise combined is just ‘substantial’ to you?” Trip retorted wryly. He shook his head. “Nothing we’ve got in the Fleet needs that much juice.” Trip collapsed in his chair and leaned back. “This is a warship, pure and simple.”
“And this troubles you?” T’Pol asked. She took her seat and began organizing the PADDs into a neat stack alongside the blueprints for the revised engineering hull intended for the Shenzhou and Gagarin, now being constructed at Jupiter Station; both were ostensibly Endeavour-class, but would look slightly different once deployed. “To win a war,” she continued carefully, suppressing her own trepidation, “one needs warships.”
“Which makes me wonder,” Trip asked softly, “what will Starfleet look like after this is over?” He leaned back and closed his eyes, exhaustion stamped upon his face. T’Pol frowned tightly and made a mental note to speak with Phlox later. The doctor had discovered no explanation for Trip’s recent tendency to sleepwalk other than exhaustion, and had encouraged her to simply make sure that her mate adhered to a more strict sleep discipline. Although Phlox insisted that the captain was in no real danger as long as she kept an eye on him while he was in the somnolent state, T’Pol silently worried that it was an unexpected side-effect of the mating bond and Trip’s adoption of many Vulcan attributes. According to all of the literature Phlox had made available to her regarding human psychological health, it was unhealthy for Trip to internalize so much of his emotional distress. Humans needed to vent their emotions, not suppress them, but T’Pol had no idea how to encourage such a thing and knew it would be positively hypocritical on her part to even suggest it. She sighed softly.
Nothing was ever easy for them.
Most of the time, Hoshi was too busy to really give it much thought. In between her duties as senior operations officer – the OPSO, according to Commander Eisler, though she still didn’t quite understand his need to turn everything into an acronym; sometimes, talking to the tactical officer who spoke in a language all his own taxed even her linguistic capabilities – she was also still trying to get up to speed with Lieutenant Devereux’s department as well as reprogramming the universal translator with the latest iteration of her proto-Romulan database and spending her nonexistent free time coordinating with Phlox and T’Pol over the study material T’Sai had provided her. Still, when she did have to interact with the junior officers, Hoshi had long since realized that the kids – and Lord, how she hated that she thought of the ensigns and junior lieutenants in such terms – were focused, intelligent and more professional than she’d ever been at that rank. With a Vulcan first officer, a third-in-command like the scary as hell Eisler, and the ever-present threat of death just lurking around the corner, such dedication was probably to be expected, even though it never ceased to make Hoshi a little sad and miss Travis that much more. In times like this, he would have said with a bright grin, the crew needed something to laugh about more than ever.
Trip had also changed since Enterprise – gone were his ready grins and jokes, only to be replaced by calculating looks that always made Hoshi wonder if Tucker was having to consider scenarios where he might be forced to sacrifice her for the good of the ship. Far worse, though, was that, for a Denobulan, even Phlox was positively grim these days, with his ebullient personality dimmed to the point he rarely smiled.
Today, however, was different.
She had noticed the shift in the atmosphere shortly after dinner, while she was taking the opportunity to simply relax and enjoy her conversation with Phlox about her lack of actual progress with T’Sai’s lessons – she and T’Pol were continuing to have difficulty determining a base line for the so-called telepathic ability Hoshi might be capable of; so far, the only difference she’d noticed was a constant headache and the occasional flash of déjà vu, not to mention the frustrating sense that she was wasting everyone’s time with this fool’s errand – when a pair of excited young officers drew her attention. At this distance, she could not quite make out what Lieutenants Ricker and Zhao were talking about, but her study of them caused Phlox to chuckle as he leaned back in his seat.
“Ah,” he remarked wryly. “It must be Wednesday.” Hoshi gave him a look.
“Wednesday?” she repeated. The Denobulan simply smiled in response and immediately went back to the meatloaf he was picking at. Hoshi shuddered at the very thought of tasting the horrible mess – with Chief Killick bedridden thanks to an especially virulent case of the flu, primary cooking duties fell to his number two, Petty Officer Williamson, who honestly wasn’t capable of boiling water without burning it. Ever adaptable, several of the Roughnecks had gone so far as to conduct a raid on the ship’s stores and were voluntarily eating the tasteless protein packs that were supposed to only be used in emergencies. So far, the only reason Williamson hadn't been lynched already was that he was the brains behind the illicit still constructed in hydroponics and was a veritable genius when it came to the brewing of alcohol. As for the still, it was an open secret aboard the ship, just like the one that had been on Enterprise … although now that Hoshi thought about it, she wasn’t so sure that T’Pol knew. How would a Vulcan react to something like that? It gave her something to chew on while Phlox studied his meal as if he were about to conduct surgery. The hiss of the mess deck door opening long moments later finally snapped Hoshi out of her distracted fugue and she glanced up at the newly arriving figure.
“It’s fight night!” Lieutenant Rostova exclaimed with a bright smile and an excited voice a touch louder than necessary as she entered the mess deck in the instant before the doctor could respond. Almost dancing across the floor, she joined her two cohorts, and all three dissolved into giggles that would not have been out of place in a college dorm or a high school locker. It took Hoshi a long second but she finally realized that all three were wearing workout clothes. She frowned – in her experience, visits to the gym weren’t something to be happy about, not with a fitness nut like Commander Eisler at least partially in charge of physical training.
“I think,” Phlox said, a mischievous grin on his face, when Hoshi turned back to him with a question in her eyes, “you should join them, my dear. It will be most illuminating.” He excused himself a moment later and cornered Doctor Reyes near the coffee dispenser; Hoshi couldn’t make out what they were discussing, but she was pleased to see that Phlox was smiling again.
Eventually, her curiosity won out, and Hoshi made a quick trip to her cabin to change into her sweats before retracing her steps to the mess deck where she discreetly trailed the three lieutenants to Gymnasium Three. To her immediate surprise, there was already a fairly large crowd of junior officers and enlisted personnel gathered within, all of whom were ostensibly exercising even though Hoshi could tell that their attention was almost entirely focused upon the two figures sparring on one of the tumbling mats. She unsuccessfully fought back a smile as the three lieutenants she’d accompanied nearly quivered with excitement and rushed to get what were the equivalent of ringside seats. Suddenly, Lieutenant Rostova’s comment about ‘fight night’ made a little more sense.
Dressed in the same sorts of exercise gear they’d been wearing since Enterprise originally launched so long ago, Trip and T’Pol circled each other, muscles tensed and eyes narrowed. Hoshi recognized the stances they were using instantly and realized that the Vulcan commander had finally convinced Tucker to learn Suus mahna. Many had been the overheard arguments about the subject aboard Enterprise back before Elysium, and Hoshi recalled laughing with Travis at how frustrated (in her own way) the Vulcan usually sounded when Trip insisted that he was an engineer who didn’t need to know how to fight. The harder T’Pol pushed, the more intransigent Trip became, especially when Malcolm had joined the argument on the Vulcan’s side.
As the two practiced defensive throws reminiscent of judo, Hoshi found herself noticing differences in Trip that his duty uniform normally hid. He had always been in good shape before, but the definition to his musculature was far more pronounced than she ever recalled it being. Sweat pasted his shirt to his chest, outlining a physique that was, even to someone who thought of him as an older brother, well worth a second (or third) look. By her calculations, Trip was only a few years shy of forty but looked to be in better physical shape than pretty much every twenty year old she knew. There appeared to be absolutely no hint of fat on his body, and with the poor diet she recalled him living on – stress, coffee, too much red meat and sugary sweets – that seemed to be a disconnect. If she didn’t know better, she could easily mistake him for a fitness instructor or a model for one of those ridiculously expensive gyms back home rather than the ship’s commander she knew him to be.
T’Pol also appeared to be in spectacular physical shape, with rock-hard abs that Hoshi would have killed for – Sato still hadn’t managed to completely shed the extra weight she’d picked up during pregnancy – and a butt so toned it looked as if it had been airbrushed. A light sheen of sweat coated the Vulcan’s exposed skin, though it was impossible to tell if it was hers or from Trip. Combined with the soft grunts of exertion and the constant physical contact, the martial display was surprisingly … erotic, though she knew the two well enough to recognize that it was not intentionally so. T’Pol probably didn’t even realize how sexy they looked while throwing each other around on the tumbling mat, and Trip was obviously too focused on preventing his mate from knocking him around to give it much thought.
Their audience certainly noticed though.
To her utter surprise, Hoshi realized she was able to vaguely sense something … different about the two, an intangible connection that she could almost taste but couldn’t quite touch or see. It made them stand out slightly, as if she was looking at a video of the gym and they were recorded in a higher resolution than everyone else. Everything about the two was … overwhelming – the red of Tucker’s shirt was so bright it burned her eyes, but deep blue of T’Pol’s exercise clothes soothed away the hurt, as if it was water – and Hoshi tore her eyes away from the visual spectacle everyone else in the gym was staring at. Her head pounded in time with her pulse, and she silently counted backward from ten. In Klingon.
“Your elbow is crooked,” she heard T’Pol declare calmly in Vulcan.
“It was not,” Trip replied, only a hint of his native accent coloring T’Pol’s language. He smiled then, and the colors between them intensified tenfold, nearly blotting everything else out. A low rumble, almost like thunder, seemed to envelop the two, and it took Sato an eternity – or perhaps only a few seconds, she couldn’t tell – to realize that it was actually a pair of sounds, one pounding faster than the other, but both oddly synchronized. Each time they looked at one another, the pitch of the soundless thunder spiked dramatically, and when they touched? Hoshi was certain that her ears were about to begin bleeding. She inhaled sharply and squeezed her left hand into a tight fist, focusing on the sensations from her nails digging into her palm.
And slowly, ever so slowly, she regained her equilibrium.
“Ah, Lieutenant Rostova,” Trip said abruptly, his voice clear and pitched to carry across the gym, “you’re just in time.” All eyes, including Hoshi’s, darted to the startled-looking damage control officer.
“Sir?” she squeaked, before just as quickly clearing her throat in embarrassment. “Just in time for what, sir?” Rostova asked.
“Suus mahna,” T’Pol said sharply. “As you and several of your junior officers have a clear interest in this defensive technique,” the Vulcan continued, her gaze encompassing Lieutenants Ricker and Zhao, both of whom were trying to back away from Rostova, “the captain and I have decided that a training regimen would not go amiss.”
“Oh.” Rostova visibly grimaced. “That’s … great,” she finally said.
“We’ll need one more person,” Trip interjected. His eyes zeroed in on Hoshi and he started to smirk. At exactly that moment, the acting chief of the boat stepped forward, weaving his way through the crowd with ease. Tall and well-built, Lee Luckabaugh was a good-looking specimen of humanity and he knew it. Hoshi had overheard dozens of discreet conversations between the junior officers and enlisted women aboard Endeavour about Luckabaugh and in every instance, they all agreed he would be an enthusiastic lover.
And from the way Lieutenant Rostova looked at him, she knew that from personal experience.
“I’d like to give it a go, sir,” Luckabaugh announced. Tucker glanced once at T’Pol, then beckoned for the acting-COB to join them.
Nearly an hour later, the three lieutenants and one senior chief petty officer were finally cut loose, and it didn’t escape Hoshi’s notice that Luckabaugh and Rostova left together. At a glance, she could tell that Trip had noticed as well, but she knew that he would simply continue to pretend to be oblivious. As long as they didn’t allow it to interfere with their jobs, Tucker didn’t care what they did in their off-hours. And besides, Hoshi reflected as the captain threw his spare towel to T’Pol, it wasn’t like Trip could say anything that wouldn’t make him a hypocrite.
“Dodged that bullet, darlin’,” he threw in Hoshi’s direction as he headed toward the door. From the treadmill where she was jogging, she flashed him a grin but kept her current pace. It felt good to loosen up her muscles again, to get her heart pumping and feel the slow burn in her legs. Ever since her reassignment to Earth, she’d been unable to stick to a normal exercise routine, in between all of the stupid briefings and little Malcolm conspiring to swallow up her time. As much as she hated being away from her son, she had to admit, if only to herself, that it was nice to have a few hours of solitude.
She spent another thirty minutes on the treadmill before finally winding down, knowing that there was already a line for the machine’s use. Before they departed human space, Commander Eisler had stripped the three Daedalus-classes originally assigned to the Endeavour strike group of their security detachments for this mission, effectively tripling the size of the unit already aboard. Most were former MACOs and as a result were accustomed to sleeping in tight quarters, but it was disconcerting knowing that the bridge officers were probably the only ones not sharing quarters with two or even three people.
Once back in her cabin, Hoshi used up her entire day’s allotment of hot water in the shower, knowing that she would pay in the morning for the treadmill. Already, she could feel the after-effects of the first long run she’d had in … goodness, was it really that long? She was just about to crawl into bed when she noticing the flashing light on her system terminal, indicating a new message. It was probably something from Eisler – her department status reports were overdue and the commander was almost as much of a stickler about punctuality as T’Pol – but there was also the strong possibility that Anna had made good on her threat to officially pass the upgrade work for the translation circuits to Hoshi’s department. In either event, it probably wasn’t something she wanted to see. Her sense of duty won out, so, with a heavy sigh, she took a seat in front of her terminal and powered it up.
And, exactly as she expected, it wasn’t good news.
“You may get dressed,” Phlox told him, but from the doctor’s body language, Rick Eisler could tell that he was not going to like what he was about to hear. He fought down a sigh as he reached for his uniform and silently began to don it. You knew it was unlikely that Phlox could craft a cure, he told himself bitterly, desperately trying to ignore the less than subtle tremor running up his left arm and the hollow ache in his stomach. Although he was as far from being an expert as one could get, Rick knew that curing a pre-existing genetic defect wasn’t something easily done, even with modern technology.
A mutated offshoot of the now mostly eradicated Huntington’s Disease, Krupitzer’s hadn’t appeared until the later years of the Eugenics Wars, but the relatively low number of those afflicted by the neurodegenerative genetic disorder had caused it to fall fairly low on the list of priorities during the early days of humanity’s recovery – when thousands were dying each day of hunger or radiation sickness, less than a quarter of one percent of the surviving population dying of an unknown disease hadn’t seemed especially important. Later, when Earth had clawed its way out of the dark days, the disorder remained a minor issue thanks to the small number of afflicted, a footnote in medical annals, or the usual short-lived research project for new doctors who, more often than not, abandoned it for more esoteric and glamorous diseases.
“How long do I have?” Rick asked the moment he rejoined the doctor. Phlox’s face crumpled for a moment and Eisler snorted in dark humor. “Not long, I see.”
“There are several promising avenues of research I am still examining,” Phlox said quickly. He gestured toward the bio-monitor where a colorful representation of Rick’s DNA was displayed. At Eisler’s half frown, the doctor immediately launched into an in-depth explanation of his theories, ideas for treatment regimens, and even a thorough explanation of the nature of the reason he was having trouble combating the disorder, all wrapped in medical jargon that likely made sense only to a physician. Rick tuned the doctor out – he’d heard it all before – and focused on a single fact: the hoped for miracle cure still didn’t exist.
He was still dying.
If he were honest with himself, Rick would have to admit that he actually wasn’t surprised. He’d had thirty plus years to grow accustomed to the notion that he would never see forty, and this fatalistic attitude had driven many of his life choices. Choosing a profession that frequently put him in life threatening danger had been a natural decision and one he’d never regretted.
“Thank you, Doctor,” he said abruptly, the sharp finality of his words cutting into Phlox’s suggestion regarding a radical gene therapy that had less than a ten percent chance of success. “I know you have done everything that you could,” Eisler added.
“And it still isn’t enough,” Phlox replied softly. He turned his eyes to the wall display. “I am so close,” he added. “A year, maybe two, and I will have a cure.”
“But I don’t have a year,” Rick guessed. He didn’t need to see the doctor’s slight head shake to know that to be the case, not with the sharp decline he’d noticed over the last two months. If his wild mood swings weren’t bad enough, the degradation of his physical skills was positively damning. His hands shook at the most inopportune moments, his balance was frequently off, and recently, muscle spasms in his legs made even walking difficult. So far, his cognitive functions remained unimpaired, but he knew that it was only a matter of time before he started making mistakes. “How long?” he asked flatly. Phlox heaved a heavy sigh.
“I cannot tell,” the doctor said. “Three to six months,” he added after a moment of consideration. “I wish I had better news to tell you…”
“As do I,” Eisler admitted. “Death doesn’t frighten me,” he added. His thoughts almost instantly turned in the direction of the Engineering deck and the addictive personality that claimed it as her domain, but Rick grimaced and pushed the momentary daydream away. Face reality as it is, his mother had told him before the disease robbed her of her mind, not as you wish it to be.
“As chief medical officer,” Phlox said with another slight frown, “I am obligated to inform the captain.” Rick nodded – he’d expected that – but the doctor continued, his eyes still locked on the wall monitor. “But not until I am positive you are incapable of your duties.” The smile he offered Rick was a pale shadow of the one that Eisler recalled seeing when he first joined the crew. “This means I will need to conduct weekly checkups,” Phlox said firmly, “and I expect you to be completely honest about your condition at all times.”
“I can do that,” Rick said. He gave the doctor a thankful nod and half-smile before turning away. Three steps from the door, he paused. “Phlox?” he called out. The doctor glanced in his direction. “Promise me you will eradicate this disease.”
“You have my word,” the Denobulan promised, his eyes glittering. “No one else will die of this obscenity.” Rick nodded.
It would have to be enough.
Beyond Sickbay, the corridors were thick with enlisted personnel, a sizeable portion still wearing the service patches from the Daedalus-class that they had been assigned to before Rick effectively shanghaied them to augment Endeavour’s numbers. Integrating them into the chain-of-command had turned out to be a logistics nightmare, especially when Commander T’Pol delegated the task to him. If she had been human, Eisler suspected that the task would have been retaliation for forcing her to deal with billeting assignments … although given what he knew about her personality, he had to admit, it still might be payback…
“Commander!” An all-too familiar voice called out to him and Rick barely fought back a disgusted sigh as he slowly turned to face the security detachment commander. As usual, Ensign Stiles’ uniform was immaculate and he looked every centimeter an effective Starfleet officer.
And that, perhaps, was the principal reason that Rick had trouble with him.
Unlike most of the security personnel aboard Endeavour, Stiles had never been a MACO and was, in fact, the latest scion of an honored Starfleet pedigree – his late uncle, Jacob, had been Eisler’s immediate predecessor as tactical officer and later ably commanded the UES Challenger until he’d been killed along with the rest of the crew thanks to an effective Romulan ambush. For his part, Ensign Stiles was technically proficient in most areas, but had a frustrating tendency to stop listening when he believed that his decision was the right one. Eisler knew for a fact that the entire security detachment loathed the ensign, not because he demanded too much of them or rode them hard during training, but simply because he was the worst kind of officer one could imagine.
“Ensign,” Rick greeted coolly, hoping that his tone would convey his disinterest in conversing with the junior officer. Naturally, Stiles was oblivious.
“Sir, I wanted to discuss my duty assignment,” the ensign began. Rick narrowed his eyes and bit back an instinctive response.
“What about it?” he asked instead.
“I feel as though my abilities are being wasted as security detachment commander, sir,” Stiles said without a hint of shame. Eisler blinked in surprise, but the ensign continued. “I would like to request reassignment to the Armoury and resume my position as ORDO, sir,” he said.
“Request denied,” Rick said flatly. His temper flared and he took a step closer to the … boy in front of him. “Do you know why I made Lieutenant Kimura the Ordinance Officer?” he demanded sharply, his voice low and hard. Around them, several of the enlisted personnel were making poor efforts to hide the fact that they were eavesdropping.
“Because he was a MACO,” Stiles said through clenched teeth.
“Wrong.” Rick shook his head in disgust. At the best of times, he had no patience for fools, but knowing that he would be dead in six months stripped away his already limited reservoir of tolerance for Stiles. “In addition to outranking you,” Eisler said harshly, “Lieutenant Kimura has specialized ordinance training that you do not possess.” He took another step forward and was darkly amused when Stiles backpedaled. “In short,” Rick snapped, “the lieutenant is the best man for the job. Period.”
“Stand at attention when you are addressing a superior officer, Ensign,” Rick growled. Stiles obeyed immediately, straightening his back so abruptly that Eisler could almost hear the vertebrae creaking. “I made you the Roughnecks’ commander because Commander Hess advised me that she had no need for a sanitation disposal officer,” he snapped, ignoring both the dark flush on the ensign’s face and the sudden silence that had descended upon the corridor. The enlisted personnel were no longer trying to hide the fact that they were watching, but Rick realized he couldn’t care less. Stiles desperately needed someone to slap some sense into him or people were going to die. “Fernandez and Mitchell are the real leaders of the Roughnecks so you can’t do any real damage there.” Stiles’ eyes widened even further. “So until I say otherwise,” Eisler added, “you have exactly one job and one job only: to keep your damned mouth shut and listen to what they tell you to do.” He locked eyes with the ensign – Stiles was quivering with anger and embarrassment. Good. Keep this moment in mind, boy.
“Yes, sir,” Stiles said, the muscles in his jaw jumping and quivering.
“Speak to your NCOs,” Rick said. “Learn from them. Prove to them that you are worth following.” He leaned closer. “When I see that you’ve earned their respect, you’ll have earned mine.” It was a lie – Eisler sincerely doubted he would ever see this boy as more than a jumped up example of Starfleet nepotism; any officer who whined to their commander about their job like a teenager in front of enlisted personnel was, in his opinion, someone unworthy of the uniform. He wheeled away, fighting to hide the effort it took to stay steady on his feet. “Dismissed.”
He nearly ran into Anna as he rounded the corner. She was leaning against the bulkhead, loitering just out of sight but well within hearing range.
“Damn, Rick,” she muttered as she pushed herself out of the leaning position. “You really let him have it.” Eisler grunted, but didn’t reply further. Instead, he resumed his stride toward the nearest turbolift and mentally rolled his eyes when Anna fell into step beside him. She waited until they were alone in the lift. “Was that entirely necessary?” she asked.
“Probably not,” Rick muttered. He shook his head. “That damned fool is going to get good soldiers killed.” His expression darkened. “That is,” he added, “if he doesn’t experience a combat accident of his own.” Anna’s eyes widened, once more reminding him how different their respective careers had been.
“Right,” she said hesitantly before abruptly reaching for the emergency stop button. “Is everything okay with you?” she asked. “Ripping Stiles a new one in front of the crew really isn’t like you.”
“It has been a bad day.” As if on cue, the muscles in his legs began to spasm and he automatically grimaced.
“Oh.” Anna’s voice was small as comprehension instantly flashed across her face and, for the span of a long heartbeat, they simply stared at one another. She looked lost, confused, frightened … and Rick could only wonder what she saw when she stared at him. Death doesn’t frighten me, he had told Phlox, but truthfully? He was terrified. For the first time in his life, he had everything to live for thanks to this damned, frustrating, irritating woman. If he believed in a higher power, Eisler suspected that he would be praying for a miracle of some sort.
But he’d lost the last vestiges of faith decades ago.
“Rick,” Anna began. She wet her lips and looked down. Eisler’s stomach lurched – he had some idea about what she was about to say but had no idea if he actually wanted to hear it … or if he even had the courage to respond in the way she deserved.
“Commander Hess, please report to Engineering.” The sudden hail caused them both to jump and Anna sighed heavily.
“Duty calls,” she said, her voice heavy with emotion. She stabbed the transmit button on the internal comm-unit. “This is Hess,” she snapped. “I’m on my way.” Shooting him a sidelong look, Anna blew out a frustrated breath. “One of these days,” she said, “you and I need to have a long talk.”
“One of these days,” Rick agreed. Six months, he reminded himself. Six months if I’m lucky.
Somehow, though, he knew that his luck had run out.
The taste of freedom, true freedom, was still new to her and the former slave now known as Briseis exulted in the sensation.
Briseis. The name felt good upon her lips and she could not help but to smile each time she said it or heard someone address her by it. For the first time in her life, she was more than “slave” or “whore,” and it set her apart from the other servants, made her unique. She was no longer a thing or an afterthought, but was now an actual person. The others had noticed, both the servants and the masters – the former now looked at her with envy, while the latter gave her a wide berth, principally out of fear that Khellius would do to them what he had done to her former master. In the early days of her new master’s presence on Voriolas, some of the younger warriors thought to test him and treated her roughly. One even went so far as to attempt rutting with her.
And Khellius had killed him in the blink of an eye.
Since that moment, none had dared touch her or mistreat her in any way. Her position remained undefined – as a non-tlhlngan, she could never be more than a servant, yet she was, in all ways that mattered, the Mistress of Khellius’ unnamed House. Those that needed to speak to her master first came to her, grudgingly in some instances, to be sure, but still, without her approval, one did not have access to the one who called himself Khellius, son of Peleus.
The rumors about his truename were plentiful and she heard them all. He was Duras, son of Toral, some said, the captain of the Bortas that had vanished in pursuit of the human, Archer, at the beginning of their war with the Xindi. Others insisted he was the disgraced heir to the House of Martok said to have been slain during a raiding expedition into the Klach D’Kel Brakt. The smallfolk had another theory: he was Kahless Reborn, back from Sto’Vo’Kor to return the Empire to its rightful glory and raise up those who were Fallen. Khellius’ rivals – those he defeated in single combat and let live in shame, or those he opposed in the Small Council here on Voriolas – had another tale: he was the second coming of Molor the Tyrant … or Morath the Traitor, the story varied according to who was speaking and how badly he had been beaten.
They were all wrong. None knew the truth of the matter, none save Briseis herself for she had a special gift, a talent that no one knew about because it would invariably lead to her death. With great effort and direct physical contact, she could see into the heart of a man, could pierce the veil of lies they always draped around themselves and see the Truth. And the truth of Khellius was damning: he was not tlhlngan. He was, in fact, a hooman.
But Briseis – how she loved that name! – did not care.
She had spent her entire life among these monsters, obeying one master after another as they rose and fell from grace. Some were brutal, some were callous, and a very few had been indifferent, but it was not until Khellius became her master that she tasted the flavor of worth. He looked at her differently, spoke to her – through his translating machine, of course – not to order her or chastise her, but because he valued her insight. She no longer feared offering an opinion without being prompted and when she retired to his bed, she knew he would treat her not as chattel, but as a living, breathing, thinking creature.
And she worshipped him for it.
Even now, as she sat quietly in the corner of the great hall that Khellius had claimed as his own, she could not tear her eyes from her master as he held court and slowly bent lesser beings to his will through sheer personality. Goron the Fat – that was not how he had been named at birth, of course, but very few on Voriolas clung to their old names – sat at Khellius’ feet, his thirst for a purpose so clear that it was rapidly reshaping him into something new. He had been the first to fall under her master’s sway but was far from the last. They were a growing minority, a slowly expanding force that Briseis knew would eventually control all of Voriolas.
And then, perhaps even more.
“You are too bold, my brother,” Goron the Fat declared with a laugh, his words booming. He was responding to Khellius’ latest plan to seize the assets of another lesser tlhlngan who had supposedly wronged him. It was yet another step forward, another piece of the master’s overarching plan, and not a single one of these fools were capable of realizing that they were being manipulated by one greater than they could possibly imagine.
Briseis wanted to laugh.
“Laneth has many connections,” Goron continued after a moment. “I’ve heard talk that she once bedded General K’Vagh himself!”
“Those who do not stand with me,” Khellius announced through his translating machine, “stand against me.” He leaned back in the throne chair that dominated the council hall and smiled mirthlessly as he glanced in the direction of the bat’leth still embedded within the far wall. It was an immediate reminder that the fool who had previously claimed this hall was long dead, buried in the street outside with only his head exposed to the elements and the targs according to the Old Code; when nothing was left but the skull, dirt would be piled over the corpse and his name would be forgotten for all of time.
“You know where I stand, brother,” Goron retorted instantly. “I merely wish to caution you – step too quickly and the others will unite against us.”
“Then it shall be a glorious death,” one of the younger warriors bellowed. The others – all twenty of them – began banging their mugs against the table and shouting their encouragement. Khellius’ expression faltered only briefly and Briseis knew that she was the only one who saw it.
“When that time comes,” he said through the machine strapped to his arm, “I will bring down ruinous anger and cast the souls of all who oppose us to Sto’Vo’Kor.” The warriors roared their approval. “And their bodies will be thrown to the targs and winged beasts of prey.” More explosions of support shook the rafters of the wooden building and Briseis winced at the sound. “But that is not this day,” Khellius stated. “This day, we plan and train and hone our strength to sharpness.”
“Point us to our doom, brother,” Goron the Fat urged. He was no longer laughing and his eyes glittered with a strange fervor. “We are your blades in all things.”
“Your blades!” another cried out, followed by another and another, and soon, they were all shouting and beating their hands against the table. Khellius’ smile was grim but set off another eruption of oaths and pledges. They were all willing to die for him, Briseis realized from where she sat in the shadows. He had played upon their broken egos and turned them into obedient servants. Am I so different? she wondered. Is this what he has done to me as well?
She wondered why she did not care.
“Laneth is no threat to you,” Goron said much later, after the younger warriors had retired to their quarters or passed out on the floor of the great hall. “I think you mean to make a statement with her death.”
“Her death is not necessary,” Khellius replied. Unlike his lessers, he had not touched the blood wine and his eyes were still sharp. “But you speak true. She is to be a statement.” Goron frowned, his lack of understanding writ upon his face. “I grow weary, my brother,” Khellius announced a moment later. It was an easy deception – Briseis knew that her master would spend another three or four hours conducting stealthy reconnaissance missions against his rivals before finally returning to their bed – but Goron nodded and began to back away.
“Then I shall leave you to it,” he said. He strode away, pausing only long enough to kick one of the younger warriors awake so he could steal away with the boy’s blood wine. Khellius watched him depart before rising from his dais and glancing in Briseis’ direction. She obeyed his unspoken request without hesitation and fell into step with him as he walked toward the thick door behind the throne.
“Laneth leads you to Goroth,” she said once they entered the master’s quarters. A single bed, large enough for five, was flush against the far wall, with thick blankets of wool and animal skin draped upon it. Three bat’leths – trophies taken from Khellius’ fallen foes – hung in positions of honor over the small, well-used desk adjacent to the bed, and a fourth was within easy reach for any who slept. Since her master had claimed this hall, Briseis no longer thought of this chamber as his – instead, she foolishly let herself imagine that it was theirs. Here they slept, here they rutted, here they plotted …
It was the closest thing to a home she had ever known.
“Yes.” Khellius collapsed onto the bed and began rubbing his temples. To her great delight, he did not bother hiding his exhaustion from her and Briseis slid to his side.
“She will be a canny foe,” she told her master as she began massaging the muscles of his back. Had he been capable of speech, she knew he would have groaned in appreciation. “It would be easier for you to break her,” Briseis added, using the tlhlngan phrase used so often by warriors seeking a mate. An uncomfortable sensation writhed in her stomach at the notion of her master rutting with female other than her and she frowned.
“I know war,” Khellius told her through the translating machine, “not seduction.” Despite her disgust with the thought, Briseis smiled.
“Seduction is war, Master,” she said. He gave her a sharp glare, though whether it was over her use of the honorific or the thought itself she did not know.
“I will give her the same choice I have given the others,” he declared. “Alliance or subjugation. If she is wise, she will choose correctly.” He inhaled sharply as her hands found an especially tight cluster of muscles upon his back. Sparks of arousal and blissful relaxation crawled up her arms, and she smiled at the tingle of sensation she knew was not hers. Her Gift had never before been a boon.
“Do you wish my advice?” she asked long minutes later. Khellius was face-down on the bed, his body loose and his mind drifting toward sleep. He was utterly relaxed and totally comfortable with her presence. She did not know how she knew this, nor did she question it. When he nodded sleepily, Briseis smiled once more and leaned down to rest her face against his broad back. “Approach her from a position of strength,” she murmured. “Laneth respects power above all else.” Her master began to stir and Briseis quickly continued. “If you will not break her in the traditional fashion,” she said, “then break her as you would a fellow warrior. Grind her face into the dirt and let her know you are mighty.” Khellius rolled to one side so he was better able to see her, and Briseis felt her face heat up at the question in his eyes. “A slave sees many things,” she said. “Most of us are looked upon only as property. Few consider our insights or knowledge.” When his lips tightened in anger, Briseis gave into an instinctive response; with her left hand, she reached up and touched his lips with her pointing and index fingers. Once, an eternity ago, she had seen her mother caress her father in such a manner, but that was before they were both put to death by her first master. “Laneth’s crime was not her own,” she said, abruptly distracted by the feel of Khellius’ skin against hers. “She was wronged by one greater than she but still, she seeks those who can overpower her.”
Khellius said nothing as he watched her with hooded eyes, and Briseis felt something stir within her stomach. He made no sound, made no gestures, did not even move, but she felt him call to her nonetheless, and she answered it automatically, instinctively, gladly. Their bodies became one and she allowed him to break her. Had he been anyone else, she would have fought him, tooth and claw and mind, but Khellius … Khellius owned her completely, whether he knew it or not.
Later, as he drifted off to sleep, his skin still damp from their rutting, Briseis allowed her body and thoughts to relax more completely. Khellius’ flickering mind was there, waiting, and she eagerly fell toward it.
It was … beautiful.