The situation had just gone from bad to worse.
Behind her, crouched in the narrow crawlspace leading to engineering, Lieutenants Mayweather and Kelby waited, their eyes wide. Both held phase pistols at the ready. Thus far, neither of them had been forced to fire, but Erika was desperately afraid that it was only a matter of time. She hadn't pulled the trigger yet either and the reason for that knelt beside the access hatch in front of her.
Lieutenant Cole's decision to back Erika in this … impromptu mutiny was more than a little surprising, but the MACO's capabilities had been undeniably useful. She moved like a ghost, struck like a cobra when necessary, and possessed an uncanny ability to recognize the traps that Major Hayes' team set up. The latter shouldn't have been a surprise, really, considering Cole had been on Hayes' team longer than anyone else and, as far as Erika knew, none of the other members of her team even knew she had defected yet.
They were creeping toward engineering with the intent of trying to undo the damage caused by Jon's command override and Lieutenant Taylor's neurotoxin-induced meltdown. The plan was simple: neutralize any of the crewmen infected by the insectoid venom, reinitialize the warp core, and then use the master controls in engineering to seal off all the interior bulkheads so they could sort out this mess later.
Unfortunately, it appeared that the MACOs, led by Commander Reed and Major Hayes, had beaten them to it.
Erika bit back the urge to curse. From what she could tell, Reed believed she was infected as well, so attempts to negotiate weren't an option. On the bright side, Reed's team had already secured Jon before he could do any more damage and were, even now, transporting him back to Enterprise via shuttlepod. Once the captain was aboard and they had regained control of the ship, the armoury officet evidently intended to destroy the rest of the derelict ship, thereby spoiling what Erika saw as the best chance at peace.
And to think, this entire disaster could have been avoided if they hadn't found this damned ship.
When Jon began talking about trying to salvage the … hatchery, Erika had been relieved. That act of compassion she took as a sign the Jonathan Archer she knew wasn't wholly lost in this war, but his inexplicable decision to relieve Lieutenant Commander Reed of his duties for simply opposing the decision had staggered her. When she questioned that decision, Jon had once again surpised her by doing the same to her; at least she was only confined to quarters and not escorted to the brig. She had been so stunned at his actions that she hadn't known what to do until long after the two MACOs assigned to her sealed her cabin door behind her.
By then, of course, it was too late. Her door was security sealed and, even when Enterprise shivered and manuevered in a way that could only mean combat nearly an hour later, Erika hadn't been able to leave to reach her duty station. Later, when Cole entered, accompanied by Phlox and Soval, she learned that Mayweather had been on watch and, under his command, the Starfleet vessel destroyed an insectoid craft investigating the distress signal from the crashed hatchery ship that had drawn Enterprise's notice in the first place.
"The captain is acting erratically due to a neurotoxin in his system," Phlox announced grimly. "And it appears that, under its influence, he has exposed other members of the crew to these chemicals."
"He has also relieved Lieutenants Mayweather and Kelby," Soval added with something vaguely resembling annoyance. He went on to explain how, following the destruction of the investigating insectoid craft, Jon lost his temper and ordered Travis to the brig. Kelby, who had been on the bridge at that time, refused to stand down when Archer ordered Mayweather into custody out of either misguided loyalty or friendship to the helmsman and quickly found himself sharing a cell with Mayweather in the brig.
"It gets worse," Cole said grimly. "Malcolm thinks you're infected too and has convinced the major to help him secure Enterprise. They're going to reduce that derelict to scrap."
That decided her then, and Erika decided to take a gamble. Phlox and Soval were sent to the bridge in an attempt to talk some sense into Reed, while she and Cole headed to the brig to spring Mayweather and Kelby. Under normal circumstances, there would have been little chance of getting to the brig without detection, but Erika had an ace-in-the-hole named Hoshi.
Sato wisely kept her mouth shut on the bridge when Jon had Travis and Kelby relieved of their duties and then did everything to avoid drawing attention to herself. Thus far, no one – the infected personnel under Jon or the MACOs under Reed – seemed to have realized she was actually making the situation even more chaotic for all parties while discreetly providing Erika with updates on MACO positions. What should have been an impossible mission – sneaking to Deck F without being detected, disabling the two MACOs on duty inside the brig before they could sound the alert via the hypospray Cole possessed before they even knew they were in danger, and then liberating the two officers secured within – almost seemed too easy thanks to Lieutenant Sato.
"We have a problem," Cole hissed softly. She was kneeling next to an access hatch, having attached some sort of device to the wall terminal next to it. Travis' head snapped around to lock onto the woman's form. Fear warred with disgust and fury on his face for the briefest of seconds, but vanished behind his mask of professionalism almost before Erika noticed it. He didn't like Cole, it appeared, or didn't trust her. Or both. In any event, this hint of deeper emotion put a stake through the heart of Erika's theory as to why he and Reed were at odds.
Worry about that later, she told herself.
"What kind of problem?" she asked in a voice that was equally low.
"A Chang-shaped one." Cole glowered and narrowed her white on white eyes. "Looks like he's the only MACO in there, but he's in the perfect spot. He has clear lanes of fire and pretty good cover."
"Can we sneak past him?" Kelby asked. Cole shook her head.
"Not through here," she said. "He may be a lazy showoff, but Chang is one of the best shooters on the team. He'll drop us all before we could even get clear of the hatch." Erika frowned.
"Options?" she asked.
"We can't trigger anything engineering-specific because it'll alert Commander Reed," Kelby mused.
"It's worse than that," Travis said. "If we do anything from that terminal, it can be traced to that terminal inside twenty seconds." He glowered. "And it'll look suspicious if Hoshi suddenly can't track it down."
"Damned if we do, damned if we don't." Kelby blew out a frustrated breath. "Sure hope Phlox and the ambassador can get through to Reed."
Erika nodded. Negotiation was always preferable to violence and was certainly more her area of expertise than all of this sneaking around. She frowned. That was certainly an interesting idea…
"How is the corporal receiving his instructions?" she asked suddenly. Three pairs of eyes swivelled toward her. "If we could hijack his comm-signal," she began.
"We could prevent him from calling for reinforcements," Cole quickly said, nodding her approval.
"That wasn't quite what I had in mind," Erika remarked dryly. She'd reviewed the declassified parts of the MACO team's files and had observed several notes in Chang record that indicated he had a tendency to question orders much to his commanding officers' annoyance. Perhaps she could use that to her benefit.
It took several long minutes – and some covert assistance from Lieutenant Sato; Erika made a mental note to attach a glowing commendation to the linguist's file later. She was extremely impressed by Sato's cool head in this crisis – but finally, Cole nodded. The jury-rigged device wasn't Kelby's best work, but they'd only had a pair of scanners, some communicators and a handful of power cells to work with. When Cole expressed her surprised pleasure that Kelby actually carried tools everywhere, he gave her a withering look.
"Engineering rule number one," he said. "Do you ever go anywhere without a knife? Same principle."
"Only less bloodshed," Travis interjected. Cole's head snapped up in an almost repeat of how he had looked at her earlier and they locked gazes. To Erika's surprise, it was the MACO who looked away first. She filed the interaction away for further review later and reached for the communicator.
"Corporal Chang," she said into it once both Cole and Kelby gave her the thumbs-up, "this is Commander Hernandez."
"I wondered who was dicking around with that hatch," he replied almost instantly. "Neat trick with the personal comm … you do realize I can just use the wall panel to call the bridge, right?"
"Harah," Cole muttered.
"Don't try to breach that hatch," Chang continued. "If Lieutenant Cole is with you, tell her it's like Blagee." Erika gave Cole a sidelong look.
"Wired to explode," the MACO replied. "I should have thought of that. Chang really likes making things blow up."
"I just want to talk, Corporal," Erika said calmly.
"No," Chang interrupted. "You want to try and convince me to switch sides." Even across the comm-line, Erika could hear the frustration. "So tell me, Commander," he said darkly, "what the hell is going on? Have all of the officers on this boat gone insane?"
"It sure seems that way, doesn't it?" Erika tried to inject some calm in her voice. She considered her options and decided to gamble on the truth. "As best as I can tell," she began, "it started when the captain went down to that insectoid ship."
She left nothing out, telling him how Jon foolishly (in her opinion) removed his EV suit helmet while in the hatchery and, as a result, received a face full of the self-defense neurotoxin that caused him to act so erratically. Even now, after this entire mess, she still thought helping the defenseless insectoid eggs was the right thing to do – these unborn children weren't guilty of any of the crimes of their parents – and she said so, while acknowledging that the captain's way of helping was not hers. She only briefly touched on Reed being relieved of duty and escorted to the brig – when it originally happened, she had not been on the bridge, though Travis tracked her down and advised her of the tense situation soon after – but her own confrontation with Jon wasn't something she would soon forget. Some things – Taylor and Rostov being exposed to the bugs, for example, or how Reed got out of the brig – she made educated guesses about since she had no idea how those events actually played out. Rather than incriminate the doctor or Soval for any wrongdoing, she bent the truth slightly and made it appear as though everything that happened after was her idea.
"At that point," she said, "I attempted to make contact with Phlox to initiate a command change under Starfleet Order 104, Section C." She frowned. "Unfortunately, by then, Commander Reed had already enlisted Major Hayes' assistances and the two had decided to act themselves which is when things went … crazy."
"The major said you were infected like Lieutenant Taylor and Petty Officer Rostov," Chang said.
"Not sure how that could have happened, Corporal," Erika replied, "since I didn't go planetside with them and haven't come into contact with any of those affected since." She shrugged even though he couldn't see her. "Phlox can verify that I'm not under the influence."
"Say that I believe you," Chang said slowly. "What then? What are your intentions?"
"We need to get clear of this planet," Erika said at once. "Everyone … and I mean everyone needs to go through decon and be given a clean bill of health before any new decisions are made. We still have a mission to complete and right now, we're more of a danger to each other than the Xindi could possibly be."
Silence answered her and Erika held her breath. It was all out of her hands now.
"Commander Hernandez, this is Lieutenant Commander Reed." The armoury officer's voice across the intraship caused Erika to jump. "The ship is yours," Reed said flatly. "As Lieutenant Sato is the only bridge officer present, I am surrending command to her and remanding myself to her custody. Lieutenant, you have the conn."
"That little …" Cole glowered at the hatch, her expression seemingly torn between annoyance and approval. "Chang piped you to the bridge."
"Good thinking on his part," Erika said with a nod.
"This is … this is Lieutenant Sato." Hoshi's trepidation was apparent in her voice – she didn't quite squeak but came really close – but she did not sound under duress. "I have the bridge. Commander Reed and Major Hayes have surrendered their sidearms to me." A murmur of voices could be heard briefly. "Doctor Phlox is scanning them now."
"Commander, I recommend you return to the bridge to assume command." Soval sounded like he usually did – bored and perhaps a tiny bit angry.
"Yes, please," Hoshi added, a trifle too eager. Erika made another mental note: clearly, Sato needed some more time in the Captain's Chair.
Before she could respond, the hatch they were crowded around swung open. Kelby jerked back in surprise, losing his precarious footing and falling onto his butt, but both Mayweather and Cole reacted identically, swinging their respective pistols around to cover the hatch. Chang stuck his head through the open access point, a bright grin on his face.
"Make sure you spell my name correctly on the citation for creative thinking," he said as he gestured for them to follow. "Hideaki. E before the A. Ends with an I."
"To hell with that," Cole muttered. She was the first to follow the corporal. A positively feral smile crossed her face. "That's the kind of thinking you see in sergeants." Chang stumbled and he gave her a horrified look.
"You wouldn't dare," he said. Cole grinned.
"Whatever you say, Sergeant." She glanced back at Erika. "Looks clear, ma'am." Erika nodded and leaned down so she could step through the hatch.
"Kelby," she called out as she straightened, wincing at the resulting pops and crack, "see about undoing the damage Taylor's people did." Kelby nodded. "Lieutenants … Sergeant." Cole snickered and Chang actually looked sick. "With me."
"Come on, Mandy," she heard Chang grumbling as they strode toward the exit. "I tried to help you guys."
"The reward for work well done is the opportunity to do more," Cole replied. Travis snorted, though it sounded to be more of an agreement than anything.
"And we have a lot of work to do," Erika added.
It was going to be a long day.