He couldn't believe what he was hearing.
Seated at the desk in his ready room, Jon Archer stared incredulously at the image on the small viewer before him. As the deadline elapsed, he had ordered Hoshi to make contact with Starfleet Command in the hopes of talking them into allowing him to extend Enterprise's stay for just a little bit longer. His arguments had been rational and entirely professional; he had taken great effort to make sure that they were devoid of emotional appeals.
And still, the answer was no.
"I'm sorry, Jonathan," Admiral Forrest said. From his expression, the admiral was sorry for being the one to relate Starfleet's orders, but that didn't stop him from doing so. "Command wants you back home immediately."
"Admiral," Jon began, knowing that, if given the opportunity, he could talk Forrest into letting him stay for one more day.
"No," Forrest interrupted firmly. "Your officers have had their seven days, Jonathan, and it's time for Enterprise to come home." The admiral gave a sour look. "This couldn't have come at a worse time. We're just getting over that Paraagan disaster, and the Vulcans are screaming bloody murder."
"They could still be alive!" Archer argued, and his old friend's expression darkened slightly.
"All of your proof is circumstantial, Captain," the older man replied. "This is a direct order from Command. You are to make best speed to Earth." Forrest's eyes narrowed. "There are to be no mysterious warp fluctuations that keep you at impulse, no shortcuts that keep you in that system for another week, no emergencies that you have to attend to. Immediately means immediately, Captain. Am I clear?"
"Yes, sir," Jon responded dully. It was easy to forget sometimes that Forrest had commanded a ship for years before rising to the rank of admiral; all of the tricks that Archer knew, he'd learned from the older man, and trying to fool him would feel too much like betrayal. "We'll break orbit at once, sir." Forrest nodded, once more appearing sympathetic.
"Losing people is never easy, Jon," he said sympathetically. "I'll be in touch. Forrest out." The admiral reached forward, and the screen blanked out to be instantly replaced by the UESPA Starfleet seal.
Slumping back in his desk chair, Jon felt like he was about to be sick. Ever since Malcolm had returned with news that the two bodies weren't Trip and T'Pol, Archer had been desperately praying that the two would make contact unexpectedly. They would have a wildly unlikely story to tell, involving giant slug monsters, or telepathic lizards that breathed fire, or maybe even an alien woman who had tried to seduce Trip and thus earned T'Pol's enmity. Tucker would probably be injured, but not critically so, and there was a better than fifty percent chance that so would T'Pol. Jon had even ordered the Suliban cell ship manned at all times and standing by for departure for when they received the inevitable hail from the two errant officers.
But time had run out.
Reaching for the transmit button on the comm panel was the hardest thing he had ever done, and Jon glared at the Starfleet seal as he spoke.
"Archer to Reed." The reply was instantaneous.
"Reed here, sir."
"Have Hoshi send the last transmission," Jon ordered grimly, "and then set a course for Earth, maximum warp." The long pause that followed his instructions was understandable, and Archer could easily imagine the horrified looks that the junior officers were sharing. It felt like they were abandoning Trip and T'Pol.
"Aye, sir." Reed sounded partially disgusted, which said a lot. Jon couldn't think of a single instance in which the lieutenant had spoken ill of senior officers, but the tone of his voice clearly expressed his opinion. Archer couldn't blame him, since right now, he felt the same way.
"Once we're underway," the captain continued, "I need to see you and Lieutenant Hess in my ready room."
"I'll let her know, Captain."
"Archer out." Jon released the transmit button and stood up from the desk. Anger and despair swirled within his gut as he approached the viewport. He couldn't see the planet, of course – the moon they were hiding behind blocked it out – but that didn't stop him from looking. "Stay safe, you two," he whispered, repeating the last thing he'd told them. Archer's eyes watered slightly as the moon began to slowly recede from view, and he blinked the pain back. For less than a second, he could see a sliver of the planet that had stolen his two best friends from him, and he experienced an entirely unreasonable sense of fury directed toward the uncaring world.
With a flash, Enterprise jumped to warp.
He wasn't sure how long he had stood there, staring out the viewport but not really seeing anything, when the door annunciator chimed. Jon didn't bother speaking as he glared at his reflection, mostly because he didn't want to do what he was about to do. It felt like another betrayal, even though it was entirely necessary.
"Reporting as ordered, sir," Malcolm Reed stated as he and Hess filed in. Archer slowly turned to face them, his face set in a dark frown. Both of the lieutenants wore knowing expressions as they waited for him to speak, evidently realizing what was about to happen, and Jon gave thanks for that. It was always best to deal with professionals, Jon mused.
"Admiral Forrest has authorized me to promote both of you to the rank of lieutenant commander," he said without preamble. A conflicted expression crossed Hess' face, and Archer found that he completely understood. Receiving a promotion was supposed to be a proud moment based entirely upon one's merit and skill, not one brought about by the loss of a superior officer. "As you are senior," Jon continued, directing his comments to Reed, "you'll serve as my first officer until we reach Earth."
"Aye, sir," Reed said. He and Hess exchanged a grim look that was devoid of the usual congratulatory emotion.
"We can arrange a promotion ceremony around your schedules," Jon began.
"With all due respect, sir," Hess interjected, her tone solemn, "I can go without one." She glowered at the floor. "Don't really feel like celebrating right now."
"Agreed." Malcolm muttered. He looked angry, sick and shocked all at once. Abruptly, Jon remembered the unlikely friendship that had sprung up between Trip and the armoury officer. As unlikely as my friendship with Trip, or Trip's friendship with T'Pol, he reflected darkly.
"That's up to the two of you," he decided. "I'll publish the orders on the shipwide web nonetheless."
"Captain?" Hess spoke hesitantly, and Jon gave her a nod to continue. "Should we have a memorial service?" she asked, and Archer felt another stab of pain lance through him. He glanced away so they wouldn't see his expression.
"Yes," he replied softly. "I think that's a good idea." His stomach began twisting into knots. "Malcolm-"
"I'll take care of it, sir," Reed responded to the unspoken question instantly. Jon nodded.
"All right." It was a struggle to maintain his professionalism, but Archer somehow dredged up the willpower. "This is going to hit the crew hard," he pointed out sadly. That was probably an understatement; Trip had been a popular officer, and T'Pol had earned everyone's respect numerous times in the past year. "It'll be our job to set an example, so pay special attention to what you say and do while in the presence of junior officers and enlisted personnel." The two newly promoted lieutenant commanders nodded in acknowledgment, and Jon exhaled softly. "If there's nothing else..."
"Captain?" Malcolm spoke before Archer could turn away, and Jon gave him a nod to continue. "What happens when we get to Earth?"
"I don't know," Archer replied softly. "An investigation, possibly a court martial." Hess looked aghast, and Jon forced a smile. "We'll worry about that later, though. Right now, the crew needs us and that takes priority over everything else."
As they departed from the ready room, Jon returned to the viewport. He stared at the streaks of light, hoping to find some reason in the chaos. A sense of failure pressed in on him, and he shuddered at what his father would think of him. Henry Archer's words seemed to float to his ears. There's nothing more important than loyalty, Jonny. Don't ever forget that.
"I'm sorry," Jon whispered to the darkness.
But there was no reply.