Today was turning
out to be a terrible day.
Enterprise was in orbit over Vulcan, dispatched her by Starfleet Command to carry Commander Tucker and Subcommander T'Pol back to Earth for the latest debrief regarding their activities while on that Zeon world. Or was it Ekos? He couldn't quite recall. From the tone he perceived in his instructions, Command was pissed about something, though to be honest, it could be anything from Vulcans being Vulcans to Trip eloping with Jon's Vulcan former first officer (if the rumors were true.) Orders were orders, however, and since he was to make 'best speed' back to Earth, Archer was eager to once more get underway.
So naturally, they couldn't locate Trip or T'Pol.
Ambassador Soval had rejoined the crew only hours earlier and had indicated that the two missing officers were likely with Fleet Command, going over something involving that Vulcan ship they'd finally got back in-system. Orbital Control was giving Hoshi the runaround, first directing her to one department and then to another, but she'd indicated that she doubted this was intentional. Rather, it was just one more sign of how badly the post-Kir'shara reforms had gutted what had once been a powerful military.
Retreating to his ready room, Jon stared at the planet below. He was in a really weird mood today and could not quite figure out why. At least part of it was the rash of recent diplomatic assignments that Enterprise had been tasked – they were supposed to be the tip of the spear, out there exploring strange new worlds, but recently, Command had kept the NX-01 close for irritating escort missions or to ferry ambassadors back and forth. Meanwhile, Challenger was out there, seeking out new life and new civilizations. Dammit, that was supposed to be his job, not Erika's.
His continuing discomfort with the new Trip Tucker was also another major component to strange mood. They'd both made the effort but Jon was saddened to learn that he could no longer talk to his old friend the way he used to. It was not either one's fault – Trip obviously still struggled with re-acclimating to large groups of people but Jon's temper, honed to a fine edge during the Xindi campaign, bubbled UP at various inopportune times and he still woke screaming from time to time thanks to that Insectoid goop that had rewired his brain for a while. Jon scowled. His friends were alive. That should have been enough. He should have still been giddy over their survival.
But he wasn't.
Sighing angrily, he retook his chair and once again, pulled up the joint report that Trip and T'Pol had issued to both Starfleet Command and the Vulcan High Council. Reading this was like reading the tale of Odysseus struggling to get home after the Trojan War, and Jon inevitably turned to it whenever he was feeling angry or irritated at Trip for changing into the man he currently was. No one could live through these events and not change. Hell, hadn't he himself changed following the Xindi attack? He'd done a lot of things he wasn't proud of, things he still lost sleep over or wished he could have done differently, but the past was the past.
"This is Archer," he said when his comm-panel chirped.
"Commander Tucker and Subcommander T'Pol are on their way, sir." Hoshi sounded relieved which was frankly better than the way she usually sounded these days. Not for the first time, Jon wondered if should have discreetly suggested Erika take his communications officer with her when she absconded with Travis. He shoved the thought into a corner. "Estimated time of arrival: nine minutes."
"Thank you, Hoshi." Jon drummed his fingers along his table. "Have a course set for Earth. Once we've got confirmation they're on board, let's get underway."
He was halfway through his latest re-reading of the report – had Trip seriously fought a Klingon named that? Or was he screwing with Starfleet Command? – when Malcolm entered his ready room. The diminutive commander did not even bother buzzing the door, but then, that was fine. They'd found a tolerable equilibrium these days.
"Something on your mind, sir?" Reed asked as he took the seat across from Jon. Enterprise's engines growled as they accelerated to warp speed. "You've been hiding again."
"Have I?" Jon frowned. "Dammit." He shook his head. "Didn't mean to." Malcolm remained silent which was quite possibly his favorite trick at making suspects – or senior officers – talk. "To be honest, I'm a little irritated at these milk runs that Command keeps sending us on."
"I had been wondering about that."
"The official explanation is that we're the most famous human ship in this quadrant and we have a record for resolving trouble spots before they go critical … but I think it's something else." Jon frowned again. "Have you read the latest intel about the xenophobes back home?"
"I have." Malcolm expression was bleak. "It's … troubling."
"To put it kindly. I think Starfleet wants us close by in case some of those lunatics get out of hand."
"That would be a very good idea, sir." Malcolm's lips twitched. "Are you absolutely certain that Starfleet Command came up with something like that?" Jon had to laugh.
"Yeah," he said. "They don't always have a great track record there, do they?"
"Military intelligence and all that," Reed offered wryly. He sobered quickly. "I've been fielding some questions from the crew, sir. About the commanders."
"I don't know if they're coming back to Enterprise," Jon said automatically. He wondered for a moment if he wanted them to come back. "Right now, I'm as much in the dark as everyone else. Command hasn't seen fit to even give me a hint." He shook his head. "And speaking of our commanders…"
"Safe and secure, Captain." Malcolm offered a tight smirk. "Doctor Phlox has already scheduled a detailed check-up to ensure that they did not get themselves into too much trouble while away." Once, that would have been a joke – Trip and T'Pol had been running neck and neck in the contest over which one of them was the more danger prone – and Jon suspected his first officer was trying to be funny even though he was frankly rather terrible at it, but in the wake of their previous escapades, the attempt at levity fell flat. To his credit, Malcolm realized that immediately, but he clearly didn't know how to recover from some a poorly timed crack. In the end, Jon took pity on him and simply redirected the subject.
"What's the mood concerning their return anyway?" he asked. At this, Reed's expression closed up. Ah. That couldn't be good.
"Conflicted, sir." Malcolm seemed intent on picking his words carefully. "They've been gone for a very long time, Captain. Questions regarding the chain of command will inevitably come up and certain of the junior officers might wonder if we do not have faith in them if they are effectively demoted." He was talking about Taylor, of course.
"Have you read their report?" Jon asked abruptly. "I'm not even sure they want to come back, Malcolm." He glanced away. "But please let the crew know that I am aware of their concerns." Dammit, he really needed to speak with Trip and T'Pol. "Where are they quartered?" he asked.
"Forward guest quarters." Well, that in and of itself said something, didn't it? If they were sharing quarters, it wasn't likely that they were just friends. Oh, Jon had known better for a while know – the itch in his brain that was the lingering after-effects of Surak had finally rattled free, leaving behind a wealth of mostly useless information regarding Vulcan marriages – but as long as he didn't take official note of it, he could easily plead ignorance if Command freaked out.
"All right." Jon stood and Malcolm automatically followed suit. "I plan on inviting them to join me for dinner tonight. I'll try to figure out their plans." If they'll tell me, he added to himself.
"Very good, sir." Commander Reed flashed one of his rare smiles. "With your permission, sir, I would also like to run an unscheduled drill today."
"I haven't quite decided, sir."
Once Malcolm had left, Jon leaned back in his chair once more. He composed a quick message inviting Trip and T'Pol to dinner and shot it to the guest quarters. And then, like clockwork, he was back to reading their report.