She was terrified.
For the last thirty days, ever since Malcolm dropped the mother of all secrets on her head, Amanda had been living in a state of constant paranoia. The damned Suliban could be anyone he wanted – was he even the right pronoun? Did these shapechangers even have genders? – so she found herself watching everyone, waiting for the smallest hint that they weren't who they appeared to be. She even began seeding conversations with leading questions, references to things that never happened, or intentionally misremembered events, just to get a reaction. If they had been anywhere else, she suspected her behavior might have gotten her removed from the XO position of the whisper team and probably subjected to a battery of intense psychological screenings, but here, in the Expanse, even her fellow MACOs just chalked it up to stress.
That didn't stop many of them from looking at her funny every now and then.
The paranoia did absolutely nothing to heighten her senses like the vids always claimed. Instead, it was exhausting. Five years ago, Amanda had participated in the five hundred kilometer RMOD – Command had another name for it, something involving Readiness and Fitness, but every MACO in uniform, including the staff officers, called it the Road March of Death – and even that had not left her so mentally drained that she could barely do her normal job like this did.
She very briefly toyed with the possibility that this entire thing was simply a snipe hunt and Malcolm was using it to avoid discussing this changing … thing between them, but she discarded that notion the instant Reed brought her along to discuss the hunt's status with Captain Archer. Yes, Malcolm would go to great lengths to not talk about them, but under no circumstances could she envision him enlisting Archer's assistance. Hell, she wasn't even sure if the two liked each other or not!
So here she was, skulking about on E Deck, at oh-dark-thirty, following up on something she'd overheard during chow. Two of Kelby's junior engineers – the creepy one, Masaro, who really need to be sucking vacuum instead of oxygen, and one of the life support techs – had been arguing about some abnormal power consumption near the former quarters of a steward named Daniels. For reasons Amanda still hadn't been able to figure out, this Daniels was listed as MIA and his cabin was completely sealed; only the captain could gain entrance and event then, Enterprise's security system required authorization by three other senior officers. There was nothing in the official log explaining this unprecedented layer of encryption and the one time Amanda mentioned it to Malcolm, he'd looked at her like she grew a second head before stating that it was classified. From his tone and body language, he clearly thought the matter closed.
But Amanda didn't.
From before she could even walk, Amanda had hated secrets. Her parents split apart because of them and Amanda could count on one hand – one finger, really, and so far, it was still active – the number of romantic relationships she'd involved in that did not disintegrate due to deception and lies. Which was ironic, really, given the layers and layers of secrecy intertwined with her life these days. She was part of a covert – read: secret – taskforce that, according to the United Earth charter, was officially not supposed to exist. Even though pretty much everyone aboard (including the captain and the first officer Amanda suspected) knew she was sleeping with Mal, she couldn't talk to anyone about how her intent to not get emotionally involved with the armoury officer was blowing up in her face, since the relationship was against regs … which made it an open secret. And now, her lover, whom she had developed legitimate feelings for despite her best efforts otherwise, had recruited her to help him hunt down a shapechanging alien … and of course, she had to keep this op a fucking secret.
Yes, the universe had a very finely honed sense of irony.
The clank of metal against metal allowed her to push aside her angst and refocus on the mission at hand. Gripping the PADD that was the primary part of her 'disguise,' she strode forward, an annoyed look on her face. She kept her shoulders straight and concentrated on presenting the image of a pissed off commanding officer. Three of her MACOs were billeted in this section, which gave her a perfect excuse to be here.
She rounded the corner soundlessly – a good soldier knew when to be heard and when to be a ghost – and her eyes automatically darted to the only other person present in the corridor. Amanda hesitated, her stride faltering ever so slightly. What the hell was Masaro doing here? According to the duty roster, which every she and every other MACO memorized at the beginning of each duty morning, the damage controlman was on midwatch – twenty three thirty to zero five thirty – and had no business even being off of D Deck.
"Shouldn't you be in Engineering, Crewman?" she asked, the words tumbling from her lips before she could stop them. Disgust dripped from her words.
With an inarticulate cry of surprise and fear, Masaro sprang away from the door he'd been standing in front of – it was the one that Archer had sealed off – and twisted around to face her. In his left hand, he held a universal spanner and his right …
In his right hand, he had a plasma torch.
Time seemed to freeze around them, though Amanda knew it was just her adrenaline surging. For a lowly engineer, Masaro recovered amazingly fast. His left hand blurred forward and he hurled the spanner at Amanda with surprising accuracy. He continued the motion by bringing the torch up with his other hand and steadying its aim with the newly empty left one. His features were abruptly contorted with fury, a soundless snarl that turned him ugly. At this range, a plasma torch could seriously maim or even kill an unsuspecting target.
Amanda was not such a person.
Even as Masaro threw the wrench, she was already reacting with the instincts of a highly trained combat specialist. Dropping to one knee, her gun hand flashed to the holstered weapon at her side. In a single, fluid motion, she drew the EM-33, brought it up to chest level, sighted her target and fired. Too late, she realized that the weapon was set at its highest intensity.
Masaro was dead before he hit the ground.
Alarms began howling instantly as Enterprise's internal sensors detected the unauthorized weapons fire and sounded the alert. Having spent more than a few hours familiarizing herself with the bridge tactical controls, Amanda knew the procedure by heart. Grimacing – Malcolm was going to kill her; he'd wanted to trail Masaro, not shoot him! – she reached for her communicator to identify herself and orient the security response teams to her location.
But something, a giant's fist or perhaps a runaway truck she hadn't seen, smashed into her and sent her tumbling into darkness.
When she opened her eyes again, everything hurt. A rhythmic tone beat time with her heart and she frowned at the annoying sound. There was a heavy weight holding her arm down. She couldn't see.
She couldn't see!
"Ah, I see you're finally awake, Lieutenant." The voice was familiar but it took Amanda long moments to recognize Phlox. "Now don't worry – you're quite safe. Try not to move." The doctor moved around – why couldn't she see? – and something buzzed. "I've temporarily immobilized your left arm. The break was quite severe and I was worried you would damage it further. In a few moments, we'll get you set up with a working cast." Phlox clucked over something. "You were quite lucky, being that close to the explosion." Amanda moaned – why couldn't she see?
"Eyes," she managed to get through her less than cooperative lips.
"There was some … unexpected damage," Phlox replied, his voice sympathetic but still quite jovial. "Don't worry, Lieutenant Cole," he said, gripping her shoulder. "I already have a treatment plan in mind. I believe you can make a full recovery."
Amanda almost sobbed in relief.
Some time later – she wasn't sure how long; floating in this unrelenting blackness left her with no real sense of time – she heard the hiss of sickbay's door opening followed by approaching footsteps. There were … four of them? Yes, it sounded like four. She recognized Malcolm's distinctive aftershave instantly and was about to greet him when the captain spoke.
"How are you doing, Lieutenant?" Archer asked. Amanda smiled in the direction of the man's voice, hoping she looked less terrified than she was. Phlox's description of his treatment plan was still ringing in her ears and she doubted the captain would appreciate her vomiting on his boots.
"I've certainly been better, sir," she replied quickly.
"Then maybe you can tell me why I have a dead engineer splattered across two decks and a critically injured MACO in sickbay." Archer's tone was frustrated and dark. "And why internal sensors reported weapons-fire immediately before the explosion."
"The second part I can answer, sir." Amanda squared her shoulders – she was a MACO, dammit, and blind or not, MACOs held onto discipline. "I encountered Crewman Masaro outside those sealed quarters," she began more calmly than she felt. "As he was supposed to be on duty in Engineering, I challenged him. He responded by first throwing a wrench at me and then, trying to use a plasma torch on my face."
"So you shot him." Commander Hernandez. Curious. She smelled more like Archer than Amanda expected. Were they knocking boots or did they just use the same deodorant?
"That's correct, ma'am." Amanda frowned. "I was about to call it in, but … there was an explosion, I think. I … honestly, I don't remember much anything past shooting him. He hit the deck and then I woke up here."
"Preliminary analysis indicates Masaro was fitted with a heartbeat monitor attached to some sort of trinary explosive material in his body," Malcolm announced. He sounded furious.
"What?" The shock in Hernandez's voice could not possibly be faked and Amanda could easily imagine the commander's aghast expression. "Why?"
"I am reviewing that now, ma'am." Malcolm's voice was harder than Amanda recalled ever hearing. "I would like Major Hayes' demolition specialist to coordinate with my department in this investigation."
"Done." Hayes. Ah. So, he was number four. Of the officers arrayed around her, he was the quietest.
"Agreed." Archer sounded grim. "One last thing, Lieutenant. Why were you in that corridor in the first place?" Amanda turned her face toward his voice.
"Corporal Chang needs some wall-to-wall counseling, sir." It was a partial truth – ever since her battlefield promotion, Chang had been a serious thorn in her side and still needed someone to slap some sense into him – which was always the best way to lie.
"That's God's honest truth," Hayes muttered. He, the captain and Commander Hernandez withdrew a few moments later, after expressing their well wishes. The major promised to stop by again later and Amanda could hear the three begin a discussion with Phlox regarding her injuries, but she tuned it out the instant Malcolm touched her right hand. She reacted without thought and gripped his fingers tight.
"I'm sorry," Amanda whispered, her voice pitched for his ears only. "I know you wanted him alive."
"That's bollocks," Malcolm replied. "I'll take a live you over him any day." Amanda grinned, hoping that she did not look like a goofy, lovesick fool. It would be bad enough if the captain and Hernandez saw it; God help her if Hayes did. She'd never live it down. "I'll be back later," Mal whispered. She heard movement – it felt like he had turned but hadn't left – and then, for a single, impossible moment, his lips were on hers. He was gone before she could react and Amanda knew he wouldn't have done that if anyone could see it, but the fact he did so in public? Her breath caught.
She was still grinning when Phlox approached with the Aldebarian maggots.