“You’re late, Captain.”
The doctor’s words greeted him as Jon stepped into Sickbay, causing Archer to hesitate in mid-step and glance in Phlox’s direction. With his back to Jon, the Denobulan was attending to one of the many cages of his menagerie, a cheerful smile on his ebullient face. He gestured for Archer to enter before turning his focus back to the … thing inside the wire mesh cage making sounds that shouldn’t come out of anything smaller than a bus.
Directly to Phlox’s immediate left, attached to the wall and enclosed in a decorative frame, was a slightly larger than life photograph of Elizabeth Cutler’s smiling face and, as it did every other time he stepped foot in the medical bay, the sight of the photo sent another rush of guilt through Jon. According to the doctor, this was part of an ancient Denobulan grieving tradition – when a close associate or friend died tragically, a representation of them in happier times was prominently displayed for at least a sidereal year – which translated to approximately a year and a half on the human calendar. From what Archer had gleaned from Phlox over the last eight and half months, the tradition was rooted in ancient Denobulan spiritualism and had once been intended to appease the spirits of those taken away far earlier than they should have been.
When Phlox had put up Cutler’s photograph but intentionally refused to do so for Trip or T’Pol, more than a few crewmembers initially took offense at the perceived slight, but the doctor had persevered, telling anyone who would listen – and a couple who didn’t want to – how he continued to believe their lost senior officers were simply missing. His constant insistence that they would eventually see the two commanders again was eventually accepted as one of the unusual quirks that made him so interesting, even if everyone else aboard thought he was refusing to accept reality. In fact, Jon had seen on no less than three occasions in the last week where one crewmember gave another a wide grin and said ‘Optimism!’ in a voice that sounded eerily like Phlox’s after being presented what was a daunting task. None of them seemed to be mocking the doctor – as far as Archer could tell, the Denobulan was the one person aboard who was universally liked – so he simply pretended not to notice.
The Denobulan tradition had caught on very quickly, though, and both the engineering and science departments had adopted it themselves. They had even agreed to use the same image – a candid image taken by the late Crewman Cutler herself of Trip laughing at something a vaguely amused-looking T’Pol had said to him during one of their later landing parties before the whole Paraagan disaster. Jon remembered the first time he saw the photo – he had been paying then Lieutenant Commander Kelby a visit and had been startled to find the image posted on the bulkhead next to the main engineering duty roster. He’d done a double take, but upon realizing that all eyes were upon him had nodded his approval and turned back to Kelby.
And then, secretly, obtained a copy himself for his quarters.
“And how are you this afternoon, Captain?” Phlox asked as he finished feeding the bat-looking thing in his cage. He turned to face Jon.
“Tired,” Archer replied calmly. He sank down onto his usual seat and leaned back to brace his head against the wall. As expected, Phlox approached, whirring hand scanner in hand.
“You appear to have fully recovered from your latest misadventure,” the doctor declared with a bright smile. The scanner vanished into one of Phlox’s pockets. “How have you been sleeping?”
“Not bad,” Jon replied. “No nightmares for a change,” he added.
“That’s excellent news, Captain,” Phlox said. He took a seat in the other chair and leaned forward.
“You know,” Archer said softly, “I think this whole mess with Skalaar was actually good for me.”
“In what way?” the doctor asked. As was usual in these informal counseling sessions, he wasn’t taking notes or recording their discussion, even though, according to regulations, he was required to do so in the case of any officer or crewmember seeking psychological counseling. For Archer, it was doubly important that these sessions remain unofficial; if Starfleet Command learned that the captain of their flagship exploration vessel was seeking help for what could only be a mild case of post-traumatic stress, they’d be forced to relieve him of command and his career would come to a virtual standstill. The one time Jon had asked Phlox about his ignoring regs, the doctor had pointed out with a wry smile that he technically wasn’t a member of Starfleet, so they didn’t apply to him.
It had been Phlox himself who initiated these meetings almost five months ago. The doctor had cornered Jon in the gym a little after midnight ship-time and threatened to exercise his right as chief medical officer to remove him from command unless he agreed to Phlox’s help. At first, Archer had balked – he was fine, he’d insisted, and didn’t need help – but the doctor continued to pester and harass him with questions about his diet, or his sleep schedule, or his increasing tendency to distance himself from the crew. It wasn’t until Malcolm began asking similar questions in a concerned tone of voice that Jon realized how badly he did need someone to talk to. One session with Phlox had turned into two, and then three, and suddenly, Archer discovered that his schedule was constantly cleared for this day and time thanks almost entirely to Reed.
And slowly, ever so slowly, Jon started to open up more and more to the non-judgmental Denobulan doctor.
“I felt more like my old self than I have for a long time,” Archer finally replied. “No second guessing, no hesitation, just … action.” He exhaled softly before smiling slightly. “I knew what had to be done and just did it for a change.” Phlox nodded for him to continue, so Jon added, “Sitting in that cell also gave me a lot of time to think.”
“And what did you think about, Captain?”
“Trip,” Jon said softly. “T’Pol.” He nodded in the direction of Cutler’s image. “Elizabeth,” he continued, using her given name rather than her rank. ‘Crewman’ was too dehumanizing.
“And what did you discover?” Phlox inquired. Archer was silent for a long moment.
“That I’ve been blaming myself for something that really wasn’t my fault,” he admitted. “I know you’ve been telling me that for months now, Phlox,” he said, “but I guess it never really sank in until then.” Jon made a face. “Trip was my best friend for almost ten years,” he said, “and he was only on that shuttlepod because I made it an order. So I’ve been blaming myself, even though I knew it was just an accident.”
“Such a reaction is only natural, Captain,” Phlox stated calmly. He was about to continue when Hoshi’s voice echoed over the intraship.
“Captain Archer to the bridge.” Jon shook his head as he pushed himself to his feet.
“Duty calls, Doc,” he said.
“Of course, Captain,” Phlox replied. He smiled broadly. “I would like to continue this conversation later,” he said.
“Why don’t you join me for dinner tonight?” Jon suggested. “I can’t seem to get Erika and Soval in the same room for longer than a few minutes and Malcolm has some sort of armoury inspection scheduled, so I’d be eating alone otherwise.”
“I’d be happy to join you, Captain,” Phlox said. At the mention of Commander Hernandez and the ambassador, the doctor quickly glanced away, his smile faltering slightly, and once again, Jon wondered what exactly it was that had happened while he was off-ship. Malcolm had been in command when Enterprise caught up with Goroth’s ship to retrieve the escape pod Archer was in, and afterward, Phlox’s report had only stated that he, Erika and Soval had been forced to remain in decon to deal with an unexpected microbial infection. The first officer’s after-action-review had been equally succinct, which, for a woman as in love with words as Erika was, sent up all sorts of alerts.
“Commander Hernandez was instrumental in resolution of this crisis,” Soval had said simply when Jon asked him about what happened, and the ambassador’s expression even more blank and rigid than normal. Further discussion was irrelevant, the Vulcan insisted before making excuses about needing to prepare for one of his daily seminars with selected members of the crew. Since then, Archer had seen them together exactly once, and that had been for all of ten seconds before Erika found a reason to be elsewhere and Soval excused himself without offering an explanation.
“I’ll see you then,” Jon said to Phlox as he headed for the door, still wondering what the doctor was concealing. He’d used the ‘doctor/patient confidentiality’ defense to skirt around going into any detail, and his general explanation bore a striking similarity to what Soval had said.
Shaking his head, Archer strode quickly to the turbolift, all the while wondering if he was imagining things. He’d been on edge for several weeks now, ever since Starfleet sent them on that wild goose chase after the missing research team. Despite their best efforts, they hadn’t been able to find even a hint of the missing scientists. There had been a decaying warp trail and then … nothing, as if the ship simply ceased to exist. A nearby Tarkalean freighter had provided them with their own sensor readings, which only confirmed Ensign Ling’s analysis – one moment, the transport had been traveling at warp 3.9, the next it was simply gone. The whole situation reeked of Daniels’ damned temporal cold war and Jon jumped at shadows for nearly a week afterward.
And then, just as he was about to relax, A.G. Robinson nearly got himself killed climbing Mount McKinley. If it hadn’t been for Anna Hess, Trip’s old number two and Robinson’s current chief engineer, A.G. probably would have never lived to see Columbia launched. According to the letter A.G. had sent later, he’d taken Hess along with him mostly because she was burying herself in work and looked like she needed to get off the ship for a while, but knowing him, Archer wondered if Robinson had really been trying to get into her pants. It would be just like the man, to sleep with a subordinate and not see anything wrong with it. As it was, Robinson ended up with a broken arm and a stern letter of reprimand from Admiral Forrest for being an idiot.
But still, Jon couldn’t quite shake the feeling that something bad was on the horizon.
“Good evening, Captain,” Malcolm said as he drew abreast of where Jon was standing, waiting patiently for the turbolift. “They’re running a bit slow today,” he added with a nod toward the still closed doors.
“Any idea why?” Archer asked.
“Depends on who you ask, sir.” At Jon’s sidelong look, Reed smirked. “Mister Kelby was trapped between C and D deck for almost an hour today,” he revealed. “They traced the fault to some faulty wiring that was damaged during that singularity incident but somehow missed being repaired.”
“Sometimes,” Jon mused as the door finally slid open, “I wonder if Travis isn’t onto something.”
“Superstitious rubbish, sir,” Reed retorted. He followed Archer into the lift. “I think its Rostov’s team keeping Kelby on his toes.” Jon chuckled softly and leaned against the wall. He was about to offer his own theory when Malcolm reached forward and pressed the emergency stop. The lift shuddered to a halt.
“Something on your mind, Commander?” Archer asked.
“I didn’t want to put this in an official report, sir,” the armoury officer said flatly, his eyes locked on the doors in front of him, “but I’ve discovered a number of security breaches in sickbay dating back almost nine months.”
“What kind of breaches?” Jon asked tightly.
“Someone accessed the DNA records of members of the crew,” Reed stated. “Whoever was behind it,” he added grimly, “knew exactly what they were doing. I was damned lucky to find the discrepancies in the access log in the first place.”
“Who are we talking about exactly?”
“Who accessed the records or whose records were taken?” Malcolm asked.
“Both,” Jon said.
“I have no idea who is behind it, sir,” Reed replied. “They deleted any recordings, wiped their digital fingerprints, the whole bloody nine yards.” He grimaced. “I’m going to keep digging, sir, so I will find them.” Jon nodded. “As to whose records were taken, well that’s where it gets confusing.” Malcolm’s expression darkened. “It doesn’t look like anything has been removed, but I think copies were made of your DNA code, as well as Subcommander T’Pol’s, Commander Tucker’s, mine, and Lieutenant Mayweather’s.” Archer frowned – four males and a female. Was that significant? Why wouldn’t they also copy Hoshi’s? Or Phlox’s? He was missing something but couldn’t for the life of him figure out what.
“Have you told Phlox?” he asked.
“Not yet, sir.” Reed glowered. “Until I have a better idea of who is behind this,” he added, “I’d like to keep it between us.”
“Very well,” Jon decided. “Do what you have to, Malcolm,” he said. “You cut the angle,” he added, “and I’ll cover your play.” Reed blinked, a look of confusion momentarily flashing across his face before vanishing behind the usual mask of detached professionalism he wore. Before Jon could explain – honestly, if these people would just watch water polo, they’d know what he was talking about – an alarm began sounding. Less than a second later, even as Malcolm was reaching for the emergency stop button to resume their journey, Travis Mayweather’s voice echoed over the intraship comm-line.
“Tactical alert,” the former Boomer said urgently. “All hands to emergency stations. This is not a drill.”
The bridge was a scene of chaos when Jon stepped off the turbolift, and his eyes darted immediately to the main viewscreen where he was surprised to see a grim-looking Admiral Forrest staring out. Hands clasped behind his back, Lieutenant Mayweather was standing in front of the helm station.
“The captain is on his way, sir,” Travis was in the process of saying, enough tension in his voice to indicate that he had been stalling for a few seconds.
“I’m already here,” Jon said as he fast-walked into the line of sight for the bridge cameras. “Admiral,” he greeted.
“You are to drop everything and get your ass to Earth,” Forrest said without preamble. “I want you here yesterday, Captain, so redline your engines.” Jon gave Malcolm a confused look even as he heard the soft hiss of the lift door opening once again.
“Yes, sir,” he replied hesitantly. A familiar scent – Erika – caused him to glance to his side where he saw his first officer wearing off-duty exercise clothes. “We’ll set course immediately, Admiral,” Archer added. “Can I ask why?” The answer wasn’t anything Jon was expecting.
“Earth has been attacked.”