Denebris Freeport, 29 June 2157. 1520 Hours Earth Standard Time.
His frown had turned into an outright glare, but Lieutenant Commander Rick Eisler didn't care anymore.
Eisler had spent the last twenty minutes desperately trying to talk sense into the surprisingly obtuse Admiral Black and, despite his respect for the older man's rank, he found himself on the verge of lashing out physically. The still ongoing investigation by Denebris officials had already provided voluminous circumstantial evidence that pointed to the deaths of both Commander T'Pol and Lieutenant Hayes; Black, apparently eager to acquire a new ally in the “government” of Denebris, had agreed with their findings. The admiral’s apparent willingness to write off the XO and Hayes was infuriating, and Eisler briefly wondered if Starfleet would actually have the balls to punish him if he blew the arrogant son of a bitch out the nearest airlock.
It wasn't entirely Black's fault that Rick found himself in a killing mood, though; discovering that he had less than two years to live had done a pretty good job of that on its own merits. As he had told Phlox earlier, the diagnosis hadn't exactly caught him by surprise: Krupitzer Syndrome was hereditary, and Eisler couldn't help remembering the miserable years during which his mother slowly wasted away. Knowing that he was a good candidate for the genetic disorder had been one of the reasons he had joined the MACOs in the first place. He'd rather his death be on his own terms; after all, if he died doing this grim and bloody job then at least other normal people wouldn't have to.
If Rick was being entirely honest, he’d have to admit that this outlook had negatively affected his personal relationships as well. Friendships were rare and lovers nonexistent; he had made the decision to completely avoid romantic relationships on the day he had buried his mother. No one, he decided, would grieve when he died; and he would not pass the already rare Krupitzer's on to another generation. It was a lonely existence, but he had learned to cope with the lack of companionship by burying himself so completely in his work that he could forget how much he actually disliked himself.
Occasionally, it even worked.
“Sir,” Eisler began once more, his voice tight with the effort it took to keep himself fully in control, “Starfleet regulations require that we expend all available resources to locate missing crewmembers.” It was the one thing that Starfleet had in common with the MACOs, and was best summed up by a centuries-old maxim that many militaries had adopted: Leave no one behind.
“Don't quote Starfleet regulations to me, Major,” Black replied sharply, his own expression grim. The use of Eisler's MACO rank was clearly intentional. Rick glowered at the older man while trying to determine the best way to make his point. They had had this same conversation at least three times since the admiral had last spoken with the Denebris officials, and Rick had no doubt that Black was as tired of it as he was.
Out of the corner of his eye, Eisler noticed the less than subtle frown that Lieutenant Hsiao directed toward the admiral and, inwardly, he sighed in frustration. Twice, he had tried to convince Admiral Black to take this disagreement to the captain's ready room where junior officers wouldn't see the spectacle of a flag officer making an ass of himself. Both times, Black had only glared in response.
“You have your orders,” the admiral said, his voice slightly louder than necessary. This was, Rick had come to realize, Black’s way of exercising his rank. It was also patently unnecessary. “Effective immediately, this investigation is over,” Black stated firmly. Thinking the conversation was finished, the admiral turned away. Rick didn't hesitate to respond.
“I am afraid, Admiral, that I cannot recognize your authority to issue such an order aboard Endeavour.” It was the trump card, the one angle that Eisler had not wanted to use. There was a very strong chance that this could end his career. It's not like I've got anything to live for anyway, he reflected morosely.
“What?” The admiral turned back to glare at him, his expression incredulous, and Rick noted the hushed silence among the bridge crew.
“I cannot recognize your authority to issue directives contrary to our standing orders, Admiral,” Eisler repeated, never once giving in to the urge to abandon his parade rest stance. “The chain of command is clear, sir. I answer to Captain Tucker, who reports to Commodore Archer. The commodore answers to Fleet Command ... of which you are not a member in your capacity as Commander, Operational Test and Evaluation Force.” The older man's expression was darkening by the moment and Rick continued, carefully keeping his tone calm. “If you wish to consult Captain Tucker's orders, you will find that Endeavour was never officially placed under your command and still answers to the commander of the Sixth Fleet.” Black appeared on the brink of a meltdown, and Rick tried not to enjoy it too much. He was mostly successful. “Your rank exceeds mine, Admiral, but Starfleet regulations are clear: you cannot assume command of Endeavour without explicit orders from Fleet Command.”
“Disobeying a direct order in a time of war is a capital offense,” Black nearly hissed, and Rick nodded.
“So is attempted piracy,” He answered calmly, taking in the admiral's expression of surprise before adding, “Sir.” The outrage in Black's face grew as Eisler finished. “Continued attempts by you to assume command of Endeavour without orders signed by Fleet Admiral Gardner will be construed as attempted piracy and I will have you placed in the brig until such a time as you can be turned over to the Judge Advocate General's office for prosecution.”
Absolute silence claimed the command deck as Admiral Black stared at Rick in stunned disbelief. The conflicting emotions that played across the senior officer's face were easy to read, and Eisler quickly recognized that Black was trying to determine if Rick was bluffing. It was entirely understandable that he might consider that: there was no way that a charge of piracy against the admiral would hold up, and both of them knew it. The more likely scenario would involve Eisler being stripped of his rank and probably thrown into prison. A charged moment passed.
“You wouldn't dare,” the admiral finally stated, his posture belligerent, and that was all Rick needed.
“Master Chief Mackenzie,” he called out, eyes never leaving Black's. “I want Roughnecks with sidearms up here on the double.”
“Not necessary, sir,” the COB declared, stepping up beside Eisler as he drew his phase pistol from its holster. It was an audacious move, one that caught both Rick and the admiral by surprise, and it put the master chief squarely against Black. The COB had to realize that this could be a career-ending move for him.
“Be careful, Master Chief,” Admiral Black said softly. “You don't want to make a decision that you'll regret.”
In response, Mackenzie rotated the selector switch on his pistol to stun.
“What are your orders, Commander?” the COB asked, his expression deceptively calm. The emphasis he placed on Eisler's rank was unmistakable, and the fury in Black's eyes grew.
In that moment of silence, a familiar voice emerged from the opening turbolift.
“What the hell is goin' on?” Captain Tucker demanded as he limped forward. He was pale and leaned heavily on a cane, but the fire in his eyes was intimidating and fierce. Wincing with each step he took, Tucker approached slowly, his features set in a scowl darker than any Rick had seen before. Phlox followed closely behind the captain and, from the expression on the doctor's face, he was not happy that his patient had chosen to become mobile.
“Lieutenant Commander Eisler was making a mistake,” Admiral Black responded crisply, his eyes taking in Tucker's wan appearance.
“Lieutenant Commander Eisler doesn't make mistakes,” the captain retorted in an equally sharp tone. Rick straightened slightly, a flush of pride washing over him at the unexpected praise. Master Chief Mackenzie gave him a slight glance and Eisler nodded in response to the unspoken question; without comment, the COB quietly returned his pistol to its holster.
“Then threatening to throw me into the brig wasn't a mistake?” the admiral asked through clenched teeth, and Tucker's eyes flickered briefly to Rick. He wasn't sure, but Eisler thought that he saw sympathy there.
“I don't know, Admiral. Did you deserve it?” The captain's comment was a surprise; Tucker had never been this openly aggressive with Admiral Black in the past, despite their clear dislike for one another. Even the admiral reacted to that, giving Tucker a heated look that spoke volumes. Rick shifted anxiously, growing less comfortable with this situation by each passing second. As if he sensed Eisler's thoughts, the captain gestured toward his ready room door.
“My ready room if you will, sir,” he suggested in a tone that clearly stated it was not a request. Black said nothing as he spun on his heel and strode toward the door, but his features were tight with anger. If we're lucky, he'll suffer an aneurism and solve all of our problems, Rick mentally groused before reminding himself that such thoughts about a flag officer weren't appropriate.
“You have the bridge, Commander,” Captain Tucker said as he limped to the now open doorway and disappeared through it. As the door slid shut, a collective sigh of relief sounded from various members of the bridge crew. Rick shared a knowing glance with Master Chief Mackenzie before shrugging slightly; if the captain lost this pissing contest, both of them were in deep shit.
“I think the captain is going take the admiral to the woodshed,” Hsiao gleefully commented, his words obviously meant only for Devereux's ears, and Eisler winced slightly at the disrespect in the comment.
“Lieutenant Hsiao,” he said loudly as turned back toward the command chair. The helmsman straightened in his seat. “In the future,” Rick said firmly, “you will keep your personal opinions about superior officers to yourself.” Hsiao's expression quickly melted into one of regret. “You are an officer, and it is your duty to act like an officer at all times.” The lieutenant nodded quickly in acknowledgement. “No matter how accurate or well founded such an opinion may be about an incompetent senior officer who couldn't find his ass with a map and a flashlight,” Eisler continued, his own expression unchanging, “you will keep your mouth shut. Is that clear, Lieutenant?”
“Crystal, sir.” Hsiao's efforts to keep from grinning were rapidly failing.
“Good.” Eisler glanced around as he rapidly began formulating plans. “I want you and Lieutenant Ricker to coordinate efforts. Tag and identify all ships that departed Denebris space between the time of the attack and the present.” Both of the lieutenants nodded. “If necessary, hack into planetary satellite data; but find me a ship.”
“What kind of ship are we looking for, Commander?” Ricker asked from the Science station.
“An Orion interceptor,” Eisler replied. “Fast with a stealthy profile. It needs to be capable of atmospheric re-entry and evading passive sensor scans.” His attention shifted to the COB. “I want the SEALs standing by for planetary operations in ten minutes. Someone must have seen something. We're going hunting.” That wasn't the only reason that Rick wanted the SEALs planetside again, but the revenge he craved for the deaths of two of his troopers wasn't something that he was quite ready to admit.
“And the STAB teams?” Mackenzie asked.
“Threat level bravo. I want them on immediate standby for boarding operations.” As the master chief nodded, Rick glanced at the OOD. “Tell Hess that she has command authority to recruit whomever she needs to get us fully operational again. That includes any and all of the civilians. We need high warp capability ASAP.” Once more, Eisler paused as he glanced over the assembled bridge crew. “Make it happen, people,” he ordered before turning away. “Officer of the deck, you have the bridge.”
Phlox was waiting for him in the turbolift and offered a forced-looking smile as the door closed behind him. An odd thought popped into Rick's head as the lift began to move: he missed the more optimistic and extroverted doctor he had first met when coming aboard Endeavour. The war had affected even Phlox’s normally cheery outlook.
“How is the captain?” Eisler asked into the silence. Phlox smirked at that.
“Not dead,” was the quick reply, and Rick almost smiled. “And stubborn. He shouldn't be on his feet, but he insisted on coming to the bridge.” The doctor sighed. “I'll be monitoring him closely to make sure he doesn't push himself too hard.” Eisler grunted his doubt; he had seen Tucker's work ethic firsthand and doubted the doctor would manage to rein it in entirely. Phlox glanced at him, clearly recognizing what Rick was thinking. “I have experience in dealing with the captain,” the doctor commented as the lift slowed.
The door slid open, and as Eisler started forward the Denobulan spoke once more.
“And what are you going to do, Commander?” The question was obviously intended to have a double meaning and most likely referred more to the issue of his Krupitzer Syndrome, but Rick ignored the subtext as he responded.
“What I do best.” The turbolift door slid shut on Phlox's response, and Eisler put the brief exchange out of his mind.
There was work to do.
29 June 2157. 1530 Hours Earth Standard Time.
It was difficult to work in the icy room, but T'Pol managed to keep from shivering.
She couldn't remember the last time she had been this cold, but, using every single mental trick she had learned, she forced herself to ignore the temperature. As she hugged herself in a vain attempt to retain body heat, she found her attention once more beginning to drift and she struggled to refocus on the problem at hand. At least three standard hours had passed since their captors had accelerated to warp speed. She mentally calculated the distance between the ship and Denebris, factoring in probable warp capabilities of a ship this size. She seriously doubted that it could top warp four, but she made adjustments to her calculations in the unlikely event that it could. Such mental calisthenics served no real purpose beyond distracting her from their current situation; but focusing on the simplicity of pure mathematics and warp calculations was far preferable to obsessing about her mate's current condition.
No longer could she sense Trip's mind as she had while she had meditated earlier. With each moment that passed, an even greater amount of distance was put between them. It was ironic, she mused, that there had been no problem connecting with him during his short-lived transfer to Columbia; but now, years after they had acknowledged the mental bond that linked them, she found it impossible to replicate. Even in the weeks after his return to Enterprise, they had still managed to retain the ability to converse telepathically but, as they grew closer both physically and emotionally, the connection gradually changed from a simple touching of the mind to something more akin to communion. No longer did they need to use words: thoughts alone were enough. Having finally set aside their absurd games of miscommunication and misunderstanding, they had truly become of one mind.
Thus was the nature of the Vulcan mating bond.
T'Pol leaned her head back against the cold wall of the cell, mildly grateful for the length of her hair as it cushioned her neck against the chill. Growing it out had been an interesting exercise in hygiene, one that occasionally necessitated additional meditation due to the frustration inherent in dealing with longer hair, but the result had unexpected uses that she had not anticipated at the outset of the experiment. The ability to conceal a micro-transmitter within the filamentous outgrowth of dead cells from the skin, for example, was something she would not have considered before. And despite some of the rumors circulating among Endeavour's officers and crew, Trip's positive reaction to the new length of her hair had absolutely nothing to do with her decision to allow it to go uncut.
Nothing at all.
Once more, Lieutenant Hayes paced across the room, passing through her line of vision as he slowly conducted another anti-surveillance sweep. By her count, four hundred and thirty-seven such sweeps had been made in the last hour. In that time, he had discovered no additional eavesdropping equipment, but that did not stop him from continuing to seek what was not there. She recognized the effort for what it was: a distraction.
Hayes paused at the hatch once more, fingers tracing the piece of metal that covered its access pad. T'Pol said nothing as he tapped the welded metal, clearly pretending to seek weak points in its surface. Had she not been Vulcan, she would have smiled at his attempt to feign incompetence. It was time, she decided, to address his unique heritage. Escaping from this situation would require both of them to utilize their respective talents to their fullest. Now was no time for continuing deception.
“The hatch is vacuum-sealed,” she said into the too quiet cell. Hayes glanced at her once before returning his attention to the hatch; his fingers had now shifted to the hinges and he knelt to examine the lower one. Inexplicably, she found herself grateful that he did not look at her for longer than several seconds. On the rare occasions when he did so, an unexplained threat seemed to lurk in his eyes that disturbed her.
“Yes ma'am,” he responded stiffly and she raised an eyebrow as the sharpness of his tone. “This is an old ship, Commander,” Hayes pointed out as he began toying with the middle hinge of the hatch. “We might get lucky.”
“In my experience,” T'Pol stated calmly, “there is no such thing as luck.” The moment the words emerged from her lips, she realized the inaccuracy of the statement. More than once, she had marveled at the ability of Commodore Archer to defy the laws of probability and emerge relatively unscathed from any number of situations that should have led to a certain death. Trip also had displayed an uncanny ability to emerge intact from improbable circumstances or to be in exactly the right place at the right time. Luck was as good an explanation as any.
The lieutenant gave her another look, this one half amused, and she tried not to frown at him; nothing she had said should have been amusing. After spending a moment reviewing her words, T'Pol mentally shrugged. Humans were impossible to predict; human males doubly so. Six years around Trip had taught her that lesson remarkably well.
“Well, Commander,” Hayes smirked, “this time, we happen to be in luck.” He gestured to the three hinges. “These aren't as sturdy as they look. I think, with a little effort, we might be able to work them free.”
It was a lie, and she recognized it as such immediately. The hinges on the hatch had been one of the first things she had checked upon waking, and they were as secure as any she had seen before. Vulcans possessed, on average, between two and four times human strength and, if she was unable to budge the hinges, the probability that a normal human could do so was statistically null.
But then, Lieutenant Junior Grade Nathaniel James Hayes was far from normal.
“It is fortunate,” she stated calmly, “that you possess sufficient strength to accomplish such a task.” Hayes looked at her out of the corner of his eye, and she returned his gaze with a bland expression that revealed nothing. Trip had occasionally called it her 'poker face,' and that expression had led her to additional research into human card games, research that had finally resolved her lingering questions regarding the curious human picture of canines that she had seen on Vigrid Station. As in many other cases, she found the human expression to be surprisingly apt.
“Yes, ma'am,” the lieutenant said in response, once more glancing away quickly and focusing far too exclusively on the middle hinge. She recognized an attempt to evade additional questions and was nearly amused. A moment of silence passed as T'Pol assessed the situation and made a decision: now was as good a time as any other.
“I am curious, Lieutenant,” she said cautiously. Hayes shifted his attention to her without actually looking at her, and she continued. “How exactly are you planning to dislodge the hinges?” She waited until he opened his mouth before pressing the point. “The hinges that I, as a Vulcan, could not dislodge.” Again, he started to respond and she spoke over him. “A normal human does not possess the tactile strength necessary for such a task.”
The lieutenant’s reaction was interesting to observe: His eyes narrowed immediately and he studied her for an extended moment, neither breathing nor moving. Emotion played across his features; he wet his lips as his eyes darted away for an instant. When he looked at her again, T’Pol met his eyes calmly and waited. The silence stretched into minutes as he stared at her, but she gave him no indication of her own thoughts. Slowly, his expression transformed into one that was half-stricken and half-relieved.
“You know,” he finally whispered. It was not phrased as a question. T'Pol said nothing in response, instead inclining an eyebrow. It was a tactic that she had learned in her youth from her mother, and one she had used to considerable effect while aboard Enterprise. By remaining silent and focusing her entire attention on the person she addressed, she managed to present the illusion of knowing much more than she actually knew. In most instances, the person in question would then make additional comments or excuses, which then often gave her insight into what was being concealed. It had worked quite well for several years, until Trip had happened to tumble upon the secret during the Expanse mission and then later revealed it to Archer.
She still hadn't quite forgiven him for that.
“How long have you known?” Hayes asked, still crouched by the hatch. Another eyebrow quirk was her response, and he glowered at the floor briefly before looking up again. “It was the computer crash, wasn't it?”
“You aren't as efficient as you think,” T'Pol answered him smoothly, giving nothing away. Lieutenant Hayes sighed heavily as he ran his fingers through his hair.
“I was following orders,” he started to explain before shooting her a glare. “As an ex-spook, I figured you would understand.”
She blinked in surprise at that. Her past career as an operative for the Ministry of Security was not commonly known, nor was it something that a junior lieutenant should be aware of.
“I was not a spook,” she replied, hyper-annunciating the slang term. Trip had used the expression once following one of their ... explorations, so it wasn't entirely unfamiliar to her; the idea of her once being a covert agent had inexplicably excited him, which T'Pol still didn't understand.
“Close enough,” Hayes muttered. He glared at the wall before sighing once more. “Harris warned me you were dangerous,” he grumbled and T'Pol fought the urge to raise an eyebrow in surprise at the name. She recognized it, of course, as the mysterious individual that had once been Lieutenant Commander Reed's employer. It answered one question that T'Pol had been wrestling with in regards to Hayes: clearly he had been noticed by someone. “I guess you can understand why I'm supposed to keep a low profile.”
“Genetic augmentation is illegal on Earth,” she responded coolly. Hayes winced at that but nodded grimly as she continued. “There are severe repercussions for those involved in such research, regardless of intentions.”
“It's not like I had any choice in the matter,” the lieutenant snapped in response, and T'Pol rewarded the comment with an eyebrow raise. It had the desired effect, and Hayes looked down. Another long moment of silence passed.
“It was called the Achilles Project,” Hayes said after several minutes, apparently taking her continued silence as an indication that she knew much of what he was revealing. Inwardly, she smiled. “A Canadian research team funded by a MACO black ops unit. They were trying to recreate Project: Superman from the twentieth century.” He grunted and sank down to sit, wrapping his arms around himself to ward off the cold as he leaned against the wall. “They wanted to use modern technology and science to recreate the successes that led to Khan Noonien Singh, but without the failures.”
“They were successful,” T'Pol stated, her tone partially questioning, and Hayes shrugged.
“Mostly,” he replied. “I'm faster, stronger and tougher than a human.” T'Pol nearly frowned at the implication that the lieutenant no longer thought of himself as human. “My reflexes are quicker, I process information at a rate better than most computers, and I heal really fast.” Hayes gave her a half smirk. “I also rate a five on the Vulcan intelligence test.” She nearly frowned at that: a five was the highest level currently listed, and less than one percent of Vulcans were capable of such high level thinking.
T'Pol only rated a four point five six.
“Your parents?” she prompted, not liking the implication that this human was potentially more intelligent than she was, and his smirk faded.
“My mom was recruited by the black ops team straight out of Boot Camp,” the lieutenant said, looking away from her as if he was embarrassed. “As far as I know, my dad was never told the entire truth.” That didn't surprise her; from her interactions with Major Hayes during the Expanse mission, she had perceived him to be a rigidly honest individual who would have not been involved in something like this. “I'm pretty sure he suspected something, though,” Hayes continued, his expression turning sad as he recalled his lost parent. “He knew my mom went to a fertility clinic in Montreal, but he didn't know that it was a cover for the program. And then he was always being deployed to hot spots so he wasn't around enough to actually see many of my temper tantrums.”
T'Pol was silent as she studied the lieutenant, processing this new information; he squirmed under her gaze. Finally, she spoke again.
“The research team?”
“They were shut down by the Canadian government,” Hayes replied, shrugging. “My mom never told me the specifics, but I did some research a couple of years ago.” He began rubbing his hands together for warmth. “One of the researchers, a Doctor Castanaveras, started questioning some of the more unethical experiments that were being done, and he went to the government. There was a firefight when the authorities came, and that started a fire.” Hayes shrugged again. “Or a fire was started. Either way, the complex was burned to the ground along with most of their records.” He smiled slightly. “Apparently, they never made digital copies of their work. Some sort of safety measure, I guess.”
“And Harris?” The lieutenant broke eye contact at hearing the man's name, and glanced away once more.
“He recruited me during high school,” Hayes grimaced at some memory. “That was a difficult time for me. Teenage hormones and Augment fury don't exactly mix well.” He looked back at her. “Harris saved a couple of lives when he brought me into the Section,” the lieutenant stated, and T'Pol made a mental note of the word: Section. “He gave me a purpose and a goal… one that didn't include killing the captain of the football team because of an incidental slight.” It was said with such absolute conviction that T'Pol knew Hayes was not exaggerating.
To her surprise, she found herself experiencing something akin to sympathy for Lieutenant Hayes. According to what she had learned about Augments, they were more like primitive Vulcans before Surak's Reformation than modern humans. Blessed with superior physical and mental gifts, they were also cursed with untamed emotions that could run wild at a moment's notice. Anger and hate were dangerous in a creature with such physical might as the lieutenant, and giving him something on which to focus his entire life was not only essential, it was familiar. For Vulcans, that focal point was Control; Lieutenant Hayes' focus was this mysterious Section.
A sudden beep sounded, and T'Pol felt the neural inhibitor activate. She slumped to her side, once again unable to force her limbs to answer her demands. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Hayes in a similar state and, judging from his grunts, he was struggling as hard as she to defeat the inhibitor.
The hatch opened with a hiss and a familiar-looking Orion male entered. Harrad-Sar stepped through the doorway, his face set in grim lines, and looked down at Hayes' limp form. At once his expression transformed into an angry scowl, and he turned upon the Orion male following him. Furious words were exchanged in their native tongue, and Harrad-Sar's aggressive gestures forced the second male from the room. With a final glare at Hayes, Harrad-Sar stepped through the doorway and sealed the door once more. Another beep sounded and T'Pol felt control return to her muscles.
“This is bad,” Hayes said before T'Pol could speak. She narrowed her eyes, and he continued. “The big Orion was pissed that they got the wrong guy.” The lieutenant speared her with a look and she was suddenly reminded that he understood Harrad-Sar's language. “They wanted you and Captain Tucker.”
“Why?” she asked, although she already suspected the answer.
“Because the Romulans want you.” Hayes was bleak. “Ma'am, we are in deep trouble.”
Denebris Freeport, 29 June 2157. 1710 Hours Earth Standard Time.
He knew he was in trouble the moment Phlox entered his ready room.
The doctor paused at the open doorway and fixed Trip with a dark scowl that looked odd on his normally jovial face. Two hours had passed since Tucker had awakened in Sickbay with T'Pol's name on his lips and had made his way to the bridge against Phlox's wishes, and nearly an hour since Trip had last seen the Denobulan. Tucker leaned back in his chair at the doctor's approach, wincing slightly at the twinge of pain that lanced through his abdomen.
“You need to rest,” Phlox declared without preamble. He crossed his arms and frowned, and Trip gave him an annoyed look.
“I've tried,” Tucker replied sharply as he turned his attention back to the reports on his desk. “I can't.”
“Captain.” The doctor's voice was soft. “You can't keep doing this. Your body needs to recover and if you keep pushing this hard, you could reinjure yourself.” Phlox's voice hardened. “And reinjury could lead to death.”
“I can't feel her, Phlox,” Trip said quietly. He slumped forward, dropping his head into his hands as pain and grief and exhaustion conspired against him. Never before had he felt this old and tired. “It's like I have a hole in my mind where T'Pol is supposed to be...”
“She's still alive, Captain,” Phlox stated confidently. Somehow, he had managed to come around the desk without Trip being aware of it. “The bond is still active even if you can't currently sense her. Distance is the most likely reason you can't connect with her right now.”
“You don't know that!” Anger exploded from him hot and fast, and Trip glared fiercely at the doctor. Phlox opened his mouth to respond but Tucker continued over him. “She could be dead right now and I'd never know...” The fury dwindled away into grief, and his head sank even farther into his hands. “She could be dead,” he repeated softly.
“Trip.” The Denobulan's voice was firm, and the feel of his hand on Tucker's shoulder was as unexpected as his form of address. Normally, Trip would be grinning broadly; he had been trying for years to convince his longtime friend to unbend and actually use the nickname, but now he was too confused, too grief-stricken, too pained to really notice. “We've been over this before. If Commander T'Pol were dead, you would know it. The bond is only active when both parties are alive and well.”
“Between Vulcans, yeah,” Tucker muttered as he pinched the bridge of his nose in an attempt to ward off a headache. “But I'm not a Vulcan. For me, it could be different. It could be like...” He paused in momentary reflection before continuing. “It could be like a comm signal. I'm transmitting but there's nothing there to receive.”
“Bridge to Captain Tucker.” Lieutenant Devereux's voice echoed through the ready room, preventing Phlox from responding, and Trip hit the transmit button on his desk comm-panel without hesitation.
“Sir, Commander Eisler is returning to Endeavour. He wants to meet with you ASAP.” Hope started to well up within Trip, and he fought the urge to jump to his feet and head for the door. From the expression on Phlox's face, Tucker suspected that the doctor wouldn't approve.
“Send him to my ready room once he arrives. Did he say what it's about?”
“No, sir,” Devereux replied.
“All right.” Trip paused for a heartbeat. “And get me a status report from Hess on the repairs.” He hated pestering his ChEng, but he desperately needed to know what was going on. Phlox had already flatly forbidden him from even visiting the engineering deck and, even with the extra personnel that Hess had drafted from the civilian scientists, Trip knew that Anna Hess was working with a skeleton crew.
As it was, every single department aboard Endeavour was already operating with less than the normally required crew. The decision to refit the ship as a mobile R&D platform had come with the realization that an Enterprise-class starship already had limited crew space and couldn't handle such a significant increase in personnel; the addition of a platoon of MACOs for the Expanse mission had proven that. Starfleet Command, in their infinite wisdom, had decided to halve the serving crew to make way for the civilian scientists brought aboard, not even taking into account Trip's rather vocal complaints about the hazards of trying to operate a starship with such a significantly reduced crew. At the time of Endeavour's original deployment, there had been one hundred and twenty-five trained enlisted personnel, forty of which were Security Force, and fourteen officers; the refit had reduced the standard crew to a mere sixty-five enlisted, twenty of whom were security troopers, and eleven officers. It was nothing short of a scheduling nightmare.
The sixty civilians brought aboard answered directly to Doctor Laleh Jalali, a computer and sensor specialist who held a civilian rank equivalent to lieutenant commander; the rank existed more for the scientists' internal pecking order, as none of them were in the chain-of-command or allowed to interfere with shipboard operations. Unsurprisingly, the crew transition wasn't a smooth one. There had been some incidents early on when the scientists complained about the stringent policy of cross-training, and the Starfleet crew complained about what they perceived as special treatment for the civilians, but the integration had gradually begun taking place. T'Pol's presence in the research labs and Trip's own contributions toward warp theory had actually helped the transition a little bit; though Tucker still found it amusing that several of the civilians continued to dismiss him as a simple-minded hick because of his accent.
Ironically, it was many of those very civilians who were instrumental in establishing the rapid pace of repairs aboard Endeavour. Without the same sort of doctrinal training in engineering that Hess' teams had received, the scientists that had been drafted to assist had made suggestions that led to the discovery of a more efficient and faster way of effecting the necessary repairs.
The comm line went dead after Devereux acknowledged the command, and Tucker glanced up at Phlox. The doctor had moved back to the spot on the other side of Trip's desk.
“You need rest,” Phlox repeated as if they had never been interrupted. Trip frowned as Phlox continued. “I don't think I need to remind you of Starfleet order one-oh-four.”
“Section C,” Tucker finished grimly as he again leaned back in his chair. “You'd do that to me?”
“If you keep pushing yourself like this, yes.” The doctor fixed him with an unyielding look, his eyes unblinking. “You'll be no good to Commander T'Pol if you pass out from pain, or if I'm forced to relieve you medically.” Phlox suddenly smiled. “Please don't make me involve security.”
Trip couldn't help himself. He laughed.
“Remind me never to buy a car from you,” he smirked at their private joke. His mirth faded quickly, however, as he glanced at the PADDs scattered on the desk in front of him. Phlox seemed to notice his distraction.
“Status reports?” the doctor asked and Trip sighed.
“Condolence letters,” he corrected. “For Petty Officers El-Hamdani and Sharett.” Glancing up again, he frowned at the doctor. “I've been trying to figure out what to say to their parents beyond the usual stuff but ... I barely even knew either of them.” He looked away. “I didn't want to know them...”
It was an admission that he'd made only once before, to T'Pol, and it was one that continued to bother him. For the first time, he truly understood why Jon had isolated himself so effectively during the Xindi mission. Nothing was quite as difficult as the knowledge that he, as captain, was expected to put the mission ahead of the personnel; and sometimes, that meant sending people to their deaths. Even now, Trip found himself struggling with the knowledge that at this moment, he was technically putting the needs of the mission behind the needs of the crew. Black had even pointed that out, here in this ready room, when he had asserted that Trip's relationship with T'Pol was the driving reason behind their current actions. In part, Tucker knew that the admiral had been correct – he needed T'Pol and would do whatever it took to recover her. But Black hadn't been prepared for the cold logic of Trip's arguments for recovering the missing Vulcan: If Orions had taken her, the next step in that line of thinking was that they would either sell her to the Romulans or ransom her back to Starfleet. And when the admiral had still balked, Trip had fired his final broadside.
“If I give the order for my people to ignore you, Admiral,” he had asked calmly, “who do you think they'll listen to?”
And, with those words, Tucker knew that he had made a lifelong enemy in the admiral.
The door chime abruptly brought Trip out of his moment of reflection, and he responded instantly.
“Enter,” he ordered. Lieutenant Commander Eisler, still wearing his black combat armor, walked through the open doorway with an air of grim satisfaction about him. He nodded once at the now-seated Phlox before offering a battered-looking PADD to Trip.
“We have it, sir,” he declared as he shifted slightly. “It was an Orion smash-and-grab. That's the warp signature of the ship responsible.”
“How did you get this?” Trip asked, already cycling through the data on the PADD. Giddy excitement was racing through his veins.
“Planetary authorities picked up some locals that they suspected to have links with the Orions.” Eisler rolled his neck slightly, causing it to pop loudly. Phlox frowned at that. “They let me take a crack at the prisoners.”
“Hope you didn't kill anyone,” Tucker commented wryly.
“No, sir. Not this time.” Before Trip could think about that comment, the lieutenant commander gestured to the PADD and continued. “One of the locals was the Orions’ eyes and ears on Denebris. When he got word of your presence, he contacted the interceptor.”
“Yes, sir,” Eisler replied, once more grim. “You and Commander T'Pol were the targets.” That was information that Trip hadn't wanted to know. Eisler continued, “Apparently, the commander of this Orion interceptor – one Harrad-Sar – has been lurking in this sector for nearly a month waiting for Endeavour to make an appearance somewhere.”
“Harrad-Sar?” Phlox asked, surprise in his voice. Trip exchanged looks with the doctor.
“You know him?” Eisler's eyes darted between the two, and Tucker nodded.
“We've had dealings with him a couple of times in the past. He tried to capture Enterprise at least twice.” Trip looked up at his tactical officer. “How did this local know I was here? We haven't exactly been advertising our presence.”
“A member of the Vissian crew sold the information, sir.”
Conflicting emotions warred within Trip, and he focused on keeping his 'captain's face' intact. He supposed that it made a sick sort of sense that a Vissian had sold him out; the incident with Charles had led to something of a continuing internal problem within the Vissian culture, and the already rare Cogenitors had begun demanding better treatment. Part of him was glad that Charles' death had actually had some meaning, but another part, the emotional part that bound him to T'Pol, growled with fury that that a Vissian had been responsible for his mate's abduction.
“Pass that on to Admiral Black,” he ordered Eisler, his voice sounding calmer than he felt. “I'm sure that the Vissians might want to know about their security failures.” He offered the PADD back to the lieutenant commander. “You've already given this to Ricker?” Eisler nodded. “Good. What news there?”
“She's working on it with Lieutenant Hsiao right now, sir. They should have the interceptor's trajectory and probable course in a matter of minutes.” The tactical officer straightened slightly. “Sir, I'd like to request that we begin drilling the STAB teams for a combat insertion.”
“Engineering to Captain Tucker.” Lieutenant Commander Hess' voice cut off whatever else Eisler was about to say.
“This is Tucker. Give me some good news, Anna.”
“All boards are green, Captain.” Trip could hear the smile in her voice. “Endeavour is one hundred percent and ready for action.”
“Captain?” Eisler asked softly, gesturing to the comm panel, and Trip gave him a nod. “Engineering, Eisler. We need maximum warp for extended use. Can you provide?”
“Why, sweetheart,” Hess' voice mocked over the comm line, “I thought you'd never ask.” The tactical officer's expression hardened slightly even as he shifted uncomfortably, and Trip found himself smiling. He'd never quite been able to figure out the nature of the relationship between Eisler and Hess; Anna flirted constantly with him but neither seemed to take it seriously. Which was surprising, Trip mused, given Eisler's vocal disdain for officers who acted unprofessionally. If Tucker didn't know of Hess' orientation, he'd suspect that she was sweet on Rick.
“Warp factor six is available,” the chief engineer declared proudly. “We're rigged and ready for action down here.”
“Damn fine work, Anna,” Trip said into the comm panel. “Stand by for warp.” He released the transmit button and looked up at Eisler. “Rick, get us moving.”
“Aye, Captain,” the tactical officer replied, briefly straightening to a position of attention before about-facing and heading for the door. He was issuing commands to the bridge crew before the ready room door had closed. “Sound general quarters and rig for warp speed. This is not a drill.”
The door closed behind him and Trip gave Phlox a broad grin.
“You need to rest,” the doctor said and Trip sighed.
Moments later, the ship’s ambient sounds changed as they broke orbit, and Endeavour went to warp.