Denebris Freeport, 29 June 2157. 1236 Hours Earth Standard Time.
Light glittered off the hull of the assault re-entry craft as it dove toward the atmosphere of the planet, and Rick Eisler braced himself for the coming turbulence.
Shooting a quick glance at the rest of the team, Eisler noted with approval that every member of SEAL Team Two appeared poised and ready for action. Weapons were stowed in appropriate positions to avoid being jostled by the hard re-entry, yet were close enough for easy access. Safety harnesses were secured over each member of the team to prevent injury. Expressions were grim yet resolute.
Exactly as it should be.
“Three minutes!” Chief Gray announced from the pilot's station, and Rick gave him a thumbs-up as he double-checked his own safety harness. It was an understandable precaution: the ARC-16 was old, even by MACO standards, and had only recently been reintroduced into service. Based on a similar airframe as the standard Starfleet shuttlepod, the re-entry vehicle was wider, longer and significantly better armored. Two blister turrets, each manned by a Security crewman, were on either side of the -16, and a retractable rocket pack awaited deployment on the roof. Retired nearly ten years earlier, the ARC-16 was ugly yet efficient, like all good weapon systems. A pair of the venerable -16s was assigned to Endeavour, but this was the first time they had been used for anything beyond a training mission.
As it hit the outer atmosphere the small craft began to shake, and the temperature in the cramped troop compartment skyrocketed. One of the team began to mutter something softly under her breath; to Rick, it sounded vaguely like a prayer, but as he didn't speak Spanish he couldn't confirm that guess. Hidden by his helmet, he very nearly smiled when it occurred to him that praying was probably a good idea if one happened to believe in a higher being of some sort: the ARC-16 hadn't exactly had a great reputation for safety even when it had been in widespread use.
It was complete happenstance that found Rick in combat gear when Lieutenant Hayes' emergency beacon was activated. As the tactical officer on a ship that rarely needed a tactical officer, Eisler had joined SCPO Luckabaugh's team during their latest training exercise; as was often the case, it had been an exercise that he himself had developed based on his own record in the MACOs, one that he had loathed because it was so effective.
Drawing in a sharp breath as the -16 suddenly made a stomach-lurching drop, Rick found himself reflecting on his duties aboard Endeavour in an attempt to avoid thinking about just how ancient the engines on the old re-entry craft were. With Commander T'Pol spending more and more time in the Science Labs, Eisler had assumed many of her duties as executive officer, all the while recognizing that the captain was grooming him for the actual job. For the most part, Rick didn't mind: with Tucker's tacit approval, he had instituted a series of shipwide policy changes that fixed a number of things that had annoyed him from day one. Physical training was no longer optional, and fitness tests were now routine. Every member of the crew was required to meet certain weapons qualifications, and cross-training was the order of the day. Drills – whether they were Repel Boarders or Hull Breach or General Quarters – had become commonplace and had honed the crew into a well-oiled machine. On several occasions, the civilian research scientists had complained about the fact that Eisler expected them to participate as well; but, each time, Tucker backed Rick up.
The changes to the Security Force were more extensive. Given free rein, Rick had immediately split Security into two distinct branches, each of which was further broken down into two teams. The first branch was known by the acronym STAB, which was short for Starside Tactical Actions and Boarding. These two teams were trained to specialize in zero-gee tactics and assault operations aboard starships. STAB teams were essential in a Repel Boarders scenario, and the senior enlisted man – SCPO Gray – doubled as the weapon systems officer, despite the Fleet-wide consensus that the WSO should be an officer of at least lieutenant rank.
The other Security branch operated under the name SEAL, an acronym Rick had taken from Earth history that stood for Sea, Earth, and Land. Specializing in planetary operations, they were responsible for the security of landing parties. SCPO Luckabaugh had even been given veto authority regarding the make up of teams going planetside. PO1 Sharett and PO3 El-Hamdani were SEALs.
“One minute!” Gray said abruptly, and Eisler reached back to hit the 'Ready' button. An amber light illuminated instantly, informing the team to prepare themselves. The team moved quickly but efficiently, unstrapping themselves from their seats and securing their zip-lines to the deployment collars near the doors of the troop compartment before grabbing their weapons. The zip-lines were an old technology as well: The deceleration cables that attached to the combat armor worn by the SEALs would allow them to exit the re-entry craft from a height of up to ten meters. Rick checked his own weapon, secured to his battle harness with a safety cord, and waited.
The light changed to green as the ARC suddenly jerked to a stop. The whine of the engines changed in pitch, a clear indication that the craft was now in 'hover' mode. The twin side doors on the -16 slid open and the SEALs moved, jumping through the open hatchways without hesitation. Rick was the last one out, but only because of his seat placement; he plunged to the ground, slowed by the deceleration cable, and he hit the release button the moment his feet hit the ground. The cable retracted without a sound.
“Team Two dirtside,” he stated into his helmet comm as the four other team members held their circular formation around him. “Moving to last known position of Endeavour Six now.”
“Team One dirtside,” came SCPO Luckabaugh's voice across the comm, and Eisler let loose a soft sigh of relief that the other ARC had arrived without incident. “Moving to Roughneck Six beacon point.”
“Copy.” Rick gave a sharp hand gesture, and Team Two began moving through the shattered remains of the marketplace. “Eagle One, Eagle Two, maintain overwatch.” The acknowledgment from the two circling assault re-entry craft was instantaneous.
Fires burned unchecked all around them, appearing to have been caused by explosions of some sort, and craters had replaced several stalls that Eisler recalled from his visit to the marketplace the previous day. Bodies were everywhere, many mangled beyond recognition from shrapnel, concussive force or flame. He was glad for the biofilter in his helmet: the stench of burned flesh must be powerful.
“Our people come first,” Rick reminded PO1 Simons when the corpsman started to break formation to attend to wounded locals. For a heartbeat, Eisler thought that he would have to make it a direct order; but Simons nodded and fell back into formation.
Minutes later, they arrived at the captain's comm signal location, and Rick felt his stomach clench at the sight of Tucker sprawled out next to PO1 Sharett. Lying in a pool of blood, neither appeared to be breathing. Simons sprinted forward, slinging his rifle as he drew his med-scanner. PO3 Chao followed, his own weapon held at the ready to protect the corpsman if necessary.
“Sir.” It was Petty Officer 3rd Class Hensen, the computer and sensor operator. Pointing with his rifle, the CSO drew Eisler's attention to another body that had to be El-Hamdani; at a glance, Rick could tell that the young petty officer was beyond help.
“Orions,” one of the team muttered as she rolled the body of a dead figure over with her toe. With effort, Eisler bit back the guttural oath that he wanted to snarl at the stupidity of the SEAL: the figure could have been booby-trapped.
“No life signs, sir,” a subdued Simons announced, taking in the readings from his med-scanner. Rick glared at the dead Orion, fury and regret competing for dominance. The death of Captain Tucker would hit the ship hard. The corpsman hung his head and began to lower the scanner, when suddenly the instrument beeped. “What the fuck?” he muttered, his voice carrying across the squad frequency. Dropping to his knees, Simons adjusted the med-scanner for a long moment before urgently setting it aside and reaching for his field trauma kit. In seconds, he had torn open Tucker's pant leg, exposing the captain's upper thigh, and, muttering something under his breath, quickly donned a pair of surgical gloves. Still grumbling softly, he swiped the captain's leg with antiseptic before pulling a large needle free from the trauma pack. He tore the needle free of the sterilized package and, with a smooth motion, began inserting it into Tucker's leg. Using the scanner as a guide, he slowly fed a catheter into the captain's body.
“Commander,” the corpsman said through clenched teeth, his eyes never leaving the scanner display, “I need Phlox.” At the grim tone of Simons' voice, Eisler reacted without hesitation.
“Endeavour, TAC-Six,” he said into his helmet comm. The reply was nearly instantaneous.
“I need MED-Six on the line ASAP.” The doctor's voice echoed across the comm line seconds later.
“Phlox here,” the Denobulan stated, and Eisler frowned at the improper communications protocols.
“Doctor,” Simons broke in as he continued to work, “I have a critical patient suffering a laceration of the portal vein. Patient is hemorrhaging and I'm applying a vascular patch now. Stand by to receive vitals.” He glanced up briefly at the petty officer who stood over him. “Chao, hit the transmit button on the scanner.” The addressed SEAL complied, and seconds later the Denobulan’s voice filled the line once more.
“Vitals received.” The doctor's voice was flat and grim. “After you've achieved patch adherence, begin plasma expanders and stand by for emergency transport,” he ordered abruptly, no trace of his normal jovial demeanor in his voice. “I'll meet you there.” Simons barely acknowledged the instruction as he quickly rooted through the pack for an IV bag: The plasma expanders that Phlox had referenced, Eisler presumed. Attaching the intravenous bag directly to the catheter, the corpsman began squeezing it with one hand as he double-clicked on his helmet comm, indicating that he was ready.
Time seemed to slow to a crawl as the distinctive whine of an active transporter sounded around them. Simons and the captain dematerialized slowly, finally fading from sight after an impossibly long moment. Rick released a breath that he hadn't realized he’d been holding.
“TAC-Six, SEAL Six.” Luckabaugh's voice crackled across the squad frequency and Rick answered immediately, his eyes still fixed on the spot where the captain and PO1 Simons had been.
“We are at the last known location of Roughneck Six. There is no sign of him, but we did find Endeavour Five's communicator.” Eisler frowned; he couldn't believe that Commander T'Pol would ever be that sloppy.
Rick’s interactions with the commander had improved considerably since he had first come aboard, and he knew more about her relationship with the captain than anyone aboard Endeavour save Phlox. When they had given Starfleet their command change proposal, Captain Tucker and Commander T'Pol had also informed Eisler of the mating bond that telepathically linked them together. While he couldn't help but disapprove on principle of the relationship between them, Rick had to admit that their behavior after Starfleet refused the proposal had impressed him.
He didn't want to think about how her death would affect the captain.
“Extend your search pattern,” Eisler ordered grimly. The centuries-old maxim for men like him came to mind: no one is left behind. “Find T'Pol.”
29 June 2157. 1245 Hours Earth Standard Time.
T'Pol of Vulcan opened her eyes.
For a single extended heartbeat, she was remarkably confused. Her last clear memory was of melding with Trip in an attempt to ease the pain that had knifed through their bond. Instinct had taken over as she neared him, causing her to rush forward in an ill-advised charge, but she had felt his body begin to slide into the trance when suddenly light had consumed everything. There had been a sensation of motion, and then voices speaking in a language that she did not immediately recognize. Reflexively, she reached out to Trip through the bond.
A wave of panic swept through her when she realized that she could no longer sense him. His presence in her mind had become such an integral part of how she defined herself that the absence of his sometimes chaotic emotions was unsettling. Fear, anger and grief pulsed through her veins with each beat of her heart, and she struggled to recover control: acting without all of the facts was dangerous and emotional, she reminded herself, and had resulted in tragic consequences in the past. Gradually logic reasserted itself, and she clung to the hope that the reason she could not sense Trip was because of the healing trance.
For now, hope would have to be enough.
Having suppressed the raging emotions that were every Vulcan's curse, T’Pol finally took notice of the fact that her body was not obeying her. She was aware of feeling – the floor was cold and her uniform uncomfortable – but try as she might, her limbs would not respond to her efforts to move them. Sweat broke out across her brow as she bent her considerable willpower into combating the lack of motor control; but the only result was a single finger twitch.
T'Pol allowed herself to feel concerned.
Hands rolled her over and began to peel the uniform from her body. Fear surged through her at the sight of the leering Orion male suddenly kneeling beside her, but she concealed it behind the control that had been instilled in her since childhood. Meeting his lascivious gaze with the coldest eyes she could manage, she mentally recited Surak's litany against fear in an effort to fortify herself against what she knew was coming.
A sharp feminine voice sounded, speaking in the language of her captors, and the male that was fondling her reacted instantly; leaping to his feet, he bowed deeply before the unseen speaker. Feet appeared within T'Pol's line of vision and then a face that she recognized: Navaar.
“Commander T'Pol,” the Orion female said with a smirk. “So good to see you again.” Had her body obeyed her, T'Pol would have answered in an appropriate manner, one that would likely have included a nerve pinch; instead, she allowed her eyes to convey the message. Again, the female smiled in response before glancing away; Navaar's expression darkened and she snapped something in her native tongue, something that included Trip's name. Hope warred with fear in T’Pol’s mind, but she suppressed them both as an unseen male responded to the female's query.
“You are always in the company of such beautiful males,” Navaar abruptly stated, a forced-looking smile on her face. “This one, however, is much more to my tastes than your captain.” One of the males dragged a body forward and T'Pol recognized Lieutenant Hayes immediately; unlike T’Pol, he appeared to be genuinely unconscious. A serious but non-fatal burn covered part of his face, and he wore nothing but his undergarments. Attached to his neck was a device that T'Pol recognized instantly: a neural inhibitor. Commonly used by slavers, the inhibitor disrupted the electrical impulses of the subject's nervous system, effectively paralyzing them without causing actual injury. The presence of the inhibitor explained her own lack of motor control, and she desperately tried to recall methods of defeating the device.
“A pity about your Mister Tucker,” Navaar continued, her smile cold and absent of true emotion. “I am told that he was already dead.” Grief struggled to manifest itself, but T'Pol forced it down as she watched the Orion stroke the side of Hayes' face, fingers lingering briefly on the burn. “Such a pity...”
Abruptly standing, Navaar said something in her native language and hands immediately seized T'Pol, lifting her unresisting body off of the floor. Hefted over the shoulder of one of her captors, the Vulcan hung limply, unable even to voice a complaint at the indignity of the situation. Instead, she concentrated on memorizing the route they took from the airlock; such information would be valuable, she told herself. That it gave her something to focus on other than the hole in her mind where Trip should be was an added bonus.
Approximately twenty meters and three right turns later, they arrived at their destination. The hiss of a pressurized door echoed loudly and a draught of cold air washed over her body; had she been able to, T’Pol would have shivered with the unexpected chill. The Orion that carried her – the same one that had fondled her earlier – lowered her to the floor and propped her against the wall. He met her eyes and gave a wicked smile as he caressed her face with a meaty hand. The promise in his expression was dark as he stroked her ears.
T'Pol endured his touch with no hint of emotion in her eyes, but memorized his features for future encounters. Vengeance was illogical, she reminded herself, but that thought did nothing to cool the fire burning in her stomach. In one way, it was fortunate that Trip was not present: the primal emotions at the core of the mating bond would drive her mate to kill this creature with his bare hands for daring to touch her, and T'Pol had no desire to see Trip so enraged.
Once again, Navaar's voice prevented the male from progressing beyond a mere touch. A flicker of fury passed across the male's face but was gone nearly before T'Pol registered it, replaced by an expression of dumbfounded awe that the Vulcan recognized; She had seen it often during the incident when Navaar and her sisters had been aboard Enterprise. His head hanging low, the male followed Navaar to the door. The female Orion smiled mockingly as she met T'Pol's eyes.
“Please enjoy the amenities,” Navaar sneered before pressing a button that shut the door.
The moment that the door sealed behind the Orions, a low beep echoed in the room and T'Pol felt a tingling in her extremities. She exhaled in heartfelt relief when her arms finally obeyed her, and she spent several long moments experimenting to determine if her reflexes were still inhibited.
As she suspected, the inhibitor was secured against an easy release; initial attempts to dislodge it caused a painful electrical jolt. She suspected that further attempts to remove the device would result in electrical shocks of greater intensity that would eventually culminate in unconsciousness. She believed it was unlikely to cause death, however; Killing their captives would not fit the Orion personality profile, since corpses never sold as well as living subjects.
Grief again threatened to overwhelm her, and T’Pol focused her attention entirely upon Lieutenant Hayes in an attempt to divert herself from reflecting on Trip's fate. Although it was illogical and highly emotional, T'Pol felt that she would know if her mate was dead. There had to be an explanation for her inability to sense him...
Hayes was breathing evenly and T'Pol took the opportunity to study him, a slight frown touching her face as she let her mind puzzle over the lieutenant. His unprecedented skill as a pilot during the battle in the Vigrid System had not escaped her notice and, while his official records did indicate extensive flight training from a maternal grandparent who was a noted pilot, her curiosity had nonetheless been piqued. When she had learned of the failure of Endeavour’s medical computer, a data corruption that just happened to include Hayes' records, logic immediately told her that the data loss had been deliberate; as Surak had once said, there were no coincidences. It had taken several weeks of careful work, but she had managed to reconstruct over forty percent of the lost data.
Although her specialty was astrophysics, T'Pol knew enough about genetics to recognize several discrepancies in Hayes' record. That in itself caused her growing suspicion, and she spent an additional month conducting discreet observations of the lieutenant. Hayes, it turned out, was in better physical condition than any other member of the crew, including the fitness-obsessed Lieutenant Commander Eisler. The lieutenant was also significantly stronger and better coordinated than his fellow humans, a fact that he generally managed to conceal; on no less than three occasions, T'Pol had observed Hayes simulate exhaustion around other crewmembers before resuming his duties with no trace of actual fatigue.
Hayes’ scholastic history was remarkably uneventful. According to every record that T’Pol had examined, he was an above average student who attended regularly but wasn't memorable in any way. He did not participate in extracurricular activities despite his clear athletic ability, and he was not known for excessive alcohol consumption – something that, according to Trip, was apparently a requirement for most humans in institutes of higher learning. Hayes’ record, for lack of a better word, was perfect… too perfect, in her opinion.
T’Pol had taken her observations to Phlox, enlisting the Denobulan's medical expertise regarding the apparent genetic discrepancies. When the doctor confirmed her suspicions about the lieutenant's abnormal genetic make-up, she had then relayed this information to Tucker. It had taken considerable effort, but she had managed to convince Trip to refrain from revealing their newfound knowledge; recognizing that she was trained to deal with this sort of subterfuge, Trip had then told her to use her own judgment in how to proceed. Thus far, she had done nothing beyond suggesting that Hayes be given an increased workload that would keep him too busy to do much thinking. That he was an Augment was obvious once one had the appropriate information; what interested T'Pol was how he had managed to avoid notice from Starfleet Medical.
If he had, in fact, avoided notice.
Lifting her eyes from the lieutenant's unmoving form, T'Pol took a moment to study the room that was serving as a cell. It had a vaguely ellipsoidal shape and was, by her estimation, perhaps three meters at its widest. The room’s single door was oversized, indicating that this may originally have been a storage room of some sort. The wall access pad beside the door had been covered by a flat panel of metal. The temperature of the room remained unnecessarily cold, furthering her hypothesis that this had originally been a freezing unit for food storage. In her rudimentary scan, she identified the location of two concealed vid-cams in addition to the prominent one just above the door.
A slight change in the ambient noise was her first warning and, seconds later, she felt a subtle tremor run through the floor that denoted a ship going to warp. There was no trace on her face of the despair that she suppressed with some effort. Fear is an emotion, she reminded herself, and Vulcans do not experience emotions.
Instead, she focused on her breathing.
29 June 2157. 1255 Hours Earth Standard Time.
His breathing was so shallow it was virtually nonexistent and his cardiac rhythm was barely detectable, but the captain was alive.
Kneeling at Tucker's side, Phlox released the breath that he had been holding since the captain and PO1 Simons materialized on the transporter. He exchanged a knowing look with the corpsman before glancing up at the silent COB.
“Stretcher,” Phlox said as he rose, his eyes once again focused on the small med-scanner in his hand. Master Chief Mackenzie gave a sharp hand gesture to the two crewmen standing behind him and they moved forward at once. As they expertly transferred the captain to the stretcher, Phlox momentarily glowered at the small display on his scanner: it was every bit as dire as Simons had indicated.
A foreign object, presumably from a weapon of some sort although Phlox hadn't yet ruled out shrapnel, had punctured Captain Tucker's liver, clipping the portal vein that ran through the organ, but had then lodged in the tenth thoracic vertebra; a half centimeter lower and the object would have missed the vertebra entirely and sliced into the captain's spinal cord. A half centimeter to the left and it would have lacerated the aorta and he would have been dead in two minutes. Right now, Phlox wasn't concerned about the damage to the liver, however; for a vascular organ, it was surprisingly resilient. What did concern him was the continuing risk of hemorrhage. Already, the captain's abdomen was filled with blood from the lacerated portal vein and, although Simon's quick application of a vascular patch had temporarily sealed the vein, the doctor was eager to fix the laceration definitively. There were other concerns, of course, but repairing the damaged vein was the doctor’s priority.
None of Tucker’s injuries explained his abnormal vital signs.
“I have him now,” Phlox told Simons as the two crewmen hefted the stretcher, now bearing the captain. The petty officer nodded as Phlox turned his attention to the engineer manning the transporter console. “Have Cutler prep for surgery,” he ordered before giving the COB another nod. Mackenzie took the lead and, close on his heels, the crewmen carrying the captain followed, with Phlox a half step behind them.
The trip to Sickbay took longer than Phlox was entirely comfortable with, and he made a mental note to suggest that future Starfleet ship designs place the transporter on the same deck as the medical facility. The ideal solution, of course, would be to situate the transporter immediately adjacent to Sickbay to facilitate casualty collection more readily, but doing so would likely be seen as a security threat of some sort.
Master Chief Mackenzie led the way, his bleak expression keeping most crewmen out of their way; he resorted to verbal commands only once, when a pair of research scientists wandered into their route, so totally absorbed in their own conversation they weren't even aware of the medical emergency.
“Make a hole!” the COB bellowed, his voice loud and demanding; both scientists flattened against the wall instantly, having long since learned to obey the master chief without question. Had the situation not been as grim, Phlox would have smiled at the expressions of worry on the faces of the two scientists.
Admiral Black was lurking outside Sickbay, and Phlox nearly frowned in annoyance. He had barely interacted with the admiral but, in that admittedly brief time, the doctor had grown to share Captain Tucker's opinion of the man. Before Black could open his mouth, no doubt to request another absurd status report, Phlox spoke up.
“The captain is in critical condition,” he announced, his expression daring the admiral to contest it, “and requires immediate surgery.” The two crewmen continued through the open door into Sickbay as Phlox paused for one final comment. “Master Chief, standing order number three is in effect.” As he entered the medical facility, the doctor could hear the COB calmly refusing to allow the admiral entry. Endeavour Standing Order 3 was simple: when the Chief Medical Officer was in surgery, nothing short of a warp core breach was to interrupt him.
Lieutenant Cutler was waiting for him as he approached the operating table. Quickly running his hands through the sterilizer field, Phlox took a moment to study the biobed display. Once more, he frowned: there was no reason for Tucker's vitals to be this low! Glancing at the captain's unmoving form, Phlox pushed down a sudden memory of Sim and focused on the present: he had a job to do.
Surgery took less time than the doctor expected. The first step was to suction all the free blood in the abdomen with a laparoscope so he could repair the vein permanently. The peritoneal defect then needed to be mended from the inside, both anteriorly and posteriorly. Removing the foreign object – which turned out to be an arrow-shaped article that he recognized as a flechette weapon of unfamiliar design – required a three-centimeter incision near the spine. Once he was positive that there was no nerve damage, he sealed up the damaged vertebra with the bone annealer and closed the incision.
As Cutler cleaned up, Phlox once more turned his attention to his patient's vital signs. Attempts to restore the captain's blood pressure and pulse rate to normal levels had thus far failed, and the doctor found himself at a loss to explain it. All of the captain's autonomic functions were reduced to the point of being nearly nonexistent. His core body temperature was lower than it had any right to be, and even the electrical impulses running through his nervous system had slowed to a crawl. If Tucker had been a Denobulan, Phlox would have thought that he was in hibernation. Had the captain been Vulcan...
“Elizabeth,” he said abruptly as the idea suddenly spiraled through him. “Bring up the captain's neural patterns again.” Cutler gave him a slightly confused glance, but obeyed without question. Phlox studied the display for a few moments before grinning broadly.
“Doctor?” Lieutenant Cutler asked hesitantly, and he addressed her without taking his eyes from the readout.
“What do you know about Vulcan healing trances?” he asked, and she gave him another odd look.
“That's no surprise, I suppose.” The optimism that made Phlox who he was bubbled over into his voice, and he made no effort to restrain it. “It's an instinctual response, like hibernation, and they don't often discuss it openly. When a Vulcan is seriously injured, he or she automatically slips into such a state to accelerate healing or extend life until medical assistance can arrive. From what I recall, part of the training that young Vulcans receive is to learn how not to enter such a state if badly injured.” He paused and glanced at her. “There's a religious order on Earth that uses a similar technique in their meditations, but human science refers to it as 'biofeedback'.”
“That's ... nice, Doctor,” Cutler said after another moment of confused silence. “But what does that have to do with the captain?”
“Captain Tucker,” Phlox declared as he gestured to the biobed display, “is in a Vulcan healing trance.”
“But he's not Vulcan,” Cutler pointed out, and the doctor nodded.
“Do you see these neural readings?” Phlox asked as he highlighted the pertinent data. Liz nodded and he smiled again. “Those readings are indicative of a Vulcan mind meld.” Her eyes widened as the pieces of the puzzle fell into place.
“Commander T'Pol put him in the trance!” she exclaimed in understanding.
“That is, to coin a phrase, the logical explanation.” Cutler rolled her eyes at his pun and the doctor glanced to the doorway, his smile faltering slightly. “Speaking of which,” he said, “I wonder where she is.” Glancing at the wall chronometer, Phlox realized that it had been over an hour since the captain was first brought into sickbay.
Outside the door, Phlox discovered two of the security force standing guard. For a moment, he was surprised; never before had Roughnecks been given such a duty. Before he could comment, one of the two spoke up.
“Master Chief's orders, sir,” the grim-looking woman said. Glancing quickly down the hallway, she continued in a low voice. “The admiral was gettin' antsy so the COB sent us here to keep him from botherin' you.”
“Ah,” Phlox said in understanding. “You may tell the Master Chief that Captain Tucker is out of surgery but will be unconscious for some time.” He paused briefly, unsure how to phrase this without giving away too much. “Where is Commander T'Pol? There are some Vulcan techniques that I'd...” He trailed off at their expressions; a sick feeling began to churn in his stomach.
“I don't think she made it, Doc,” the other security officer said softly. “The SEALs haven't been able to find her body, but...”
“I see.” Phlox swallowed the grief and gave the two a forced smile. “Thank you.” He retreated into the medical facility. Two steps beyond the door, he grabbed the edge of a biobed and closed his eyes. Composure briefly failed him and he struggled for control. It was impossible for him to imagine T'Pol dead. After everything that she had gone through, to die in such an absurd manner... it was inconceivable. This would kill the captain.
Phlox's eyes snapped open and he quickly darted to Tucker's bed, heart pounding with something he could only define as hope. Scrolling through the displays, he paused on one and narrowed his eyes. On a normal human, it was an unused portion of the brain, a vestigial element that served no discernible purpose, much like the vermiform appendix. On Captain Tucker, however, it was constantly alive with activity; this had prompted Phlox to tentatively identify it as the origin of the telepathic linkage between the captain and Commander T'Pol. Although Phlox had no absolute proof, he was confident the theory was more than sound.
If the commander was dead, then why was the link still alive?
The hiss of the sickbay doors opening drew the doctor’s attention away from the display, and he watched Lieutenant Commander Eisler enter. Still wearing his combat armor, the tactical officer approached with a grim expression.
“Doctor,” he said by way of greeting before glancing at the captain. “How is he?”
“He should survive.” Eisler nodded, almost as if he expected such a reply, and glanced at Phlox once more.
“We haven't found Commander T'Pol,” the tactical officer stated with no hint of equivocation. “Local authorities are operating on the assumption that she's among the dead.” He frowned as he continued. “So is Admiral Black.”
“The admiral is wrong,” Phlox replied. At Eisler's pointed look, the doctor gestured to the readouts above the biobed. “Captain Tucker's vitals indicate that he's in a Vulcan healing trance.” The lieutenant commander's eyes widened fractionally at that. “Since he's not a Vulcan, it's my theory that Commander T'Pol placed him in this trance.”
“Do you have any other evidence?” Eisler asked, and Phlox paused. From the commander's expression, it was clear he too doubted that T'Pol was dead.
“There are certain changes to his neural patterns that seem to indicate a telepathic meld.” Lowering his voice, the doctor continued. “And if T'Pol were dead, Captain Tucker would be displaying ... other symptoms.” Eisler nodded in understanding at that.
“That tracks with my theory,” the tactical officer said. “Based on the vectors of attack, this looks like a smash-and-grab. The casualties they inflicted were meant as distractions while the capture team moved against the real target.” He looked up, meeting Phlox's steady gaze with his own eyes. “Commander T'Pol.” He suddenly glowered. “Now I have to convince the admiral of this.” Black's rank was said with such contempt that Phlox nearly smiled.
“And if he doesn't listen?” It was a legitimate question, based on what they had seen of the admiral thus far. Eisler shrugged slightly before turning away. “Commander,” Phlox said suddenly, and the tactical officer hesitated. “In regards to that ... matter we spoke of earlier,” he started; the lieutenant commander stiffened slightly, but nodded for Phlox to continue. “The initial diagnosis stands. I'm sorry.”
“It's not unexpected, Doctor.” Eisler glanced at him again. “How long until I'm unable to perform my duties?”
“I can't definitively say,” the doctor dissembled. He hated giving this sort of news, hated seeing hope die in the eyes of his patients. “There are a number of treatments that we can still try, many of which have promising results.”
“How long?” Eisler repeated, his voice harder than before, and Phlox sighed.
“Two years if we're fortunate.” The lieutenant commander winced slightly at that, but gave no other indication of what he thought. Finally he nodded, as if he had made a decision.
“Thank you, Doctor.” He began to walk toward the door, but hesitated once more. “When will you inform Starfleet Medical?”
“When I have to,” Phlox replied instantly, “and not before.” For a moment, Eisler said nothing. Once again, he looked Phlox in the eyes; this time, there was emotion behind the gaze.
“Thank you, Phlox.” The lieutenant commander was through the door and out of sickbay before the doctor realized that Eisler had used his name. An overwhelming sense of sadness washed over him and he closed his eyes.
29 June 2157. 1415 Hours Earth Standard Time.
He opened his eyes.
He had been awake for several minutes but, instead of leaping to his feet and revealing this fact to any potential observers, Nate had instead used the time to silently take stock of his situation and surroundings. The room was cold, perhaps twelve to fifteen degrees Celsius, and a low hum vibrated through the deck that he was lying on, indicating that he was aboard a starship of some sort. It wasn't much of a cell and actually appeared to be have once been a storage room pressed into service for this job; he gave the room a quick once-over before focusing his attention on Commander T'Pol.
The Vulcan commander sat in a far corner of the room, her eyes closed and her breathing steady. For a moment, Hayes found himself admiring her exquisite physique as she meditated; he'd found her attractive from the moment that he first glanced over her file, and this was the first time that he had seen her in such a state of undress. Her recent decision to allow her hair to lengthen only accentuated her exotic beauty, particularly as her features were partially concealed by the shoulder length hair. The effects of the cold were immediately evident upon her anatomy and he licked his lips before finally tearing his eyes away from her breasts. Lust thundered through his veins and he struggled for control as a darkly seductive part of his brain began to whisper terrible things to him. If he really wanted her, he could take her. She couldn't stop him. No one could stop him. It was his birthright: take what he wanted, when he wanted.
Stop it, Hayes snarled to that familiar and hated voice. I'm better than that.
He wished that he could truly believe that.
Like the ever-present anger that simmered within him, the voice was another part of his Augment heritage that he wished he could lose. A physical superiority that he could never forget had combined with his already conflicted sense of morality to awaken a primal arrogance in him that, at times, urged him to act in completely inappropriate ways. Superior ability breeds superior ambition was how one Section psychologist had explained it to him, and Nate found himself struggling with it on a daily basis. He fought the urges, fought against them with every scrap of his self-control, but times like this made him wonder if he wasn’t already too dangerous to be allowed freedom. A civilized man, he mused bleakly, doesn't think about rape.
The moment passed and he breathed in deeply, desperately trying to regain his composure. By concentrating on the current situation, he found himself sliding back into a normal frame of mind, and he slowly felt control returning. Ascertain your assets, he reminded himself as climbed to his feet, and determine a plan of attack. Pretending to be unsteady for the vid-cam that he had already noticed, he stumbled and dropped back to his knees; in that moment, he touched the side of his left foot and noted with some satisfaction that the electronic lockpick was still secured there. Concealed by a strip of synth-flesh that appeared to be nothing more than a childhood scar, it was designed not to show up on sensor scans and would be helpful for any escape attempt.
He briefly studied the piece of metal that covered the access pad of the door before turning away, confident that, with a little effort, he could rip it free. Long minutes passed as he conducted a visual and tactile search of the room; three listening devices and a second concealed vid-cam were found and he crushed all of them underfoot. A third vid-cam was hidden in the ceiling but he pretended not to notice it.
It wasn't the first time that he had been put in a situation like this. During his early training as an operative for the Section, he had been placed in a maximum security facility deep within China. False identity papers were created for him; as far as the Chinese authorities were concerned, he was a cold-blooded sociopath who had the blood of dozens, if not hundreds, on his hands.
Nate tried not to think about the accuracy of that description.
It had been a dangerous training exercise that had lasted over six months. Daily physical and mental abuse had strained his control to its breaking point, and he still suffered occasional nightmares from those days. One guard in particular had delighted in trying to break him and, had the Section's orders not explicitly forbidden injuring any of the prison guards, Hayes would have killed the man during the escape.
Instead, Nate had tracked him down and killed him months later, long after his superiors in the Section had forgotten about the exercise.
In the course of his search of the storage-room-turned-cell, Nate found a discarded label from what had probably been foodstuffs of some sort. He recognized the writing instantly and felt his stomach lurch slightly. If this was an Orion craft, then he realized that he would soon discover if his anosmia would give him any advantage over Orion pheromones. Another deficiency in the process that had been used to augment his genetic structure, Nate’s lack of a sense of smell was an admittedly trivial medical problem, but it had led to some difficulties in the past. Humans took for granted how much of a role the sense of smell played in day-to-day activities.
Sinking down against the wall, he hugged himself in an apparent attempt to keep warm in the biting cold. Keeping the cell temperature below the comfort zone was a familiar technique, one that the Chinese had used with considerable success on him, and he wondered briefly how Commander T'Pol would fare against the cold. As he sat quietly, he let his fingers trace another false scar on the underside of his right arm. It too had gone unnoticed; he forced his face to display no emotion.
Once more he studied T'Pol, although this time he found himself wondering how useful she would be. If Tucker had died, it was probable that she would sense it through that telepathic link of theirs and, according to everything that the Section had acquired on bonded couples, she would either fly into a homicidal rage or slip into a catatonic depression that would culminate in self-termination. The information on bonds was still incomplete, of course, but Nate wondered exactly how accurate it was: he knew of numerous Vulcans still alive that had lost their husbands or wives. Still, he decided to keep an eye on T’Pol just in case she did display such symptoms.
Her intelligence background could be useful, Hayes mused as he again glanced at the sealed door. According to the information that his Control had provided him, T’Pol had spent a number of years serving as a member of the Ministry of Security, and had specialized in fugitive retrieval. Nate smirked suddenly at the thought of the petite Vulcan serving as a government-mandated bounty hunter. If nothing else, he thought, no one would expect it from someone who looked like an underwear model.
He quickly realized that the device attached to his neck could be a problem, and spent a few minutes trying to get it off. Electrical shocks lanced through his body as he tried to pull it free, and he gritted his teeth against the agony that burned away coherent thought. Gasping for air, he abandoned the attempts and spent several long minutes trying to recover from the pain. It was altogether too much like his time in the prison; they too had used electricity as an instrument of control.
An odd sound drew Nate’s attention back to T'Pol, and he tensed at the expression on her face. She was frowning slightly, and he could see that her eyes were darting around beneath the closed lids, almost as if she were in a state of REM. Abruptly, her breathing began to come at a more rapid and shallow pace, and Hayes glowered at the closed door. Her reaction could only mean one thing: Tucker was dead.
“Trip,” she muttered softly in the moment before her eyes snapped open. To Nate's surprise, she appeared almost visibly joyful. A smile played across her lips for a fraction of a second before she smoothed her features back into the stoic mask she wore most of the time. Confusion swamped him momentarily; she wasn't acting as though the captain had died.
“Lieutenant,” T’Pol said by way of greeting. She gave him a slight nod and he returned it cautiously, but said nothing as she glanced around the room. She noticed the smashed remains of the eavesdropping equipment immediately and raised an eyebrow that he took as an unspoken question. Shrugging slightly, he let his eyes drift toward the ceiling and the third vid-cam in hopes that she would recognize his meaning. Another nod came from her and he exhaled slightly in relief.
“I'm sorry about the captain,” Hayes said after a long moment of silence. It was the only way he could potentially find out about Tucker's fate without revealing that he had information he shouldn't have; after all, the bond between the captain and Commander T'Pol was ostensibly a secret.
“Captain Tucker survived,” she declared, no doubt at all in her voice, and Nate glanced at her in surprise. “We should look to our own situation and focus our respective talents on escape,” T’Pol continued. As he nodded in agreement, Hayes abruptly recognized a double meaning behind the commander's words.
And he frowned.