Anoat System, 30 June 2157. 0536 Hours Earth Standard Time.
“Bring her home.”
The captain's last command rang in Rick Eisler's ears as reality re-materialized around him. His breath came in ragged gasps and Eisler flexed his fingers, still experiencing the uncomfortable tingle that always accompanied a transport. No matter how many times he had to use the damned thing, or how much the flag officers of Command insisted that it was perfectly safe, Rick knew that he would never get accustomed to the idea of being disassembled at a molecular level and then reconstructed somewhere else.
It just wasn't a natural way to travel.
A quick glance around revealed that the members of STAB Team Two were all accounted for, and Rick checked the digital readout in the top corner of his helmet HUD. Aside from some slightly elevated heart rates, everyone was good to go. His features concealed by the armored helmet, Eisler allowed himself a discreet smile: no member of the Security force really liked using the transporter but, to their credit, the STAB teams were the least vocal about their complaints.
“STAB Two green,” he declared into his helmet comm before giving a hand signal to his team. CPO Mitchell took point at once, his weapon primed for combat as he moved toward the cargo bay hatch. Relatively isolated from the high traffic areas, this particular cargo bay was also on the same level as the command deck, which made it ideal for this operation. “Moving to secure bridge,” Rick continued before issuing other nonverbal commands, using hand and arm signals that had remained unchanged for centuries. PO3 Hoffman and Wakulich responded immediately and took up cover fire positions in front of the hatch as Petty Officer 3rd Class Hernandez approached the hatch controls.
“STAB One green,” came the voice of the Team One commander across the intersquad comm seconds later. “Moving to secure engineering.”
On Eisler's go signal, his team spilled out of the cargo bay and into the corridor beyond. As always, Mitchell was in front, with Crewman Victrim covering his six. Angry red lights flashed through the corridor, providing the only source of illumination for personnel not equipped with the light enhancement technology in their helmets. Rated for EV operations, the armor was another holdover from MACO black ops that Rick had insisted on acquiring when he joined Endeavour. After reading the reports of the MACO teams that had been assigned to Enterprise during the Expanse mission, Rick had seriously considered tracking down and having some words with the idiot who had assigned Major Hayes to the NX-01 without appropriate equipment.
Sometimes, he still thought about doing it.
“Contact,” Mitchell whispered across the team comm-channel seconds before he opened fire with his rifle. Caught completely by surprise, a pair of startled Orions toppled to the ground. A part of Rick vaguely wished that Captain Tucker hadn’t mandated the use of the stun setting.
A pulse of disruptor fire suddenly whined past him, slamming into the corridor bulkhead in a shower of sparks and explosion of debris. Rick didn't hesitate; instincts honed by years in combat sent him into a dive away from the incoming fire even as the rest of the team oriented themselves toward the unseen target. Orders weren't necessary: this sort of reaction had been drilled into the teams so harshly that they responded without real consideration of the actual danger that it put them in. Each trooper assaulted forward, spraying the corridor with such a volume of fire that anyone who dared pop out to return fire would have been dropped instantly. Crouched at the corner of the corridor, Eisler took aim with his rifle and paused.
“Cease fire,” he grunted across the team channel. Seconds after the team obeyed, an Orion male scrambled from his cover and tried to flee down the corridor, away from the aggressive STAB team. Rick exhaled softly as he squeezed the trigger of his rifle and dropped the man.
“Reading Vulcan life signs in that direction,” Crewman Victrim quietly announced, gesturing with his hand-held scanner in the direction that the male had been heading.
“Can you confirm?” Eisler asked instantly, swallowing the sudden urge to contact the captain and relate the good news. It wouldn't do if they discovered Commander T'Pol was mortally wounded.
“Negative.” Victrim fiddled with the scanner briefly, muttering a soft curse under his breath that he clearly didn't think would be broadcast over the comm line. “Too much interference, sir.”
“Mitchell, take point,” Rick ordered without a second thought. It would mean heading away from the bridge, but retrieving the commander and Lieutenant Hayes was still their primary objective. “Stay alert,” Eisler muttered.
“Stay alive,” came the instinctive response from the rest of the team, clearly imitating his own accent as they finished the almost ritualistic comment. Rick smiled wryly to himself. In other words, shut up and let us do our jobs. For long minutes, they crept down the darkened corridor with barely a sound.
“Uh, Commander...” Mitchell sounded unexpectedly anxious, and Eisler felt his amusement dissolve. Two steps later, he understood the chief petty officer's unease.
They paused just outside an empty room that appeared to have once been used for storage. Face up in a pool of his own blood, the corpse of an Orion male drew their immediate attention, primarily for the fist-sized hole that seemed to have been punched through his abdomen. Less than a meter away, a second body was collapsed along the corridor bulkhead, its leg bent backwards as if his knee had been inverted and now bent in the opposite direction. Two meters beyond that was a third male body, this one facedown and unmoving.
“Holy shit,” Hernandez muttered with something approaching awe in his voice, “That guy has a hole in his stomach! The XO must have been seriously pissed off!” Rick found himself nodding as his eyes locked onto the hole in the first Orion's chest. He knew that Vulcans were stronger than Humans, but he hadn’t realized that they were that much stronger...
“Got a fourth one,” Hoffman commented from several meters away. He crouched to examine the body that was sprawled out in front of what appeared to be a turbolift. “This one's female. Ouch.” The petty officer straightened with a visible wince, letting the corpse fall back. “Disruptor shot to the face. Not a pretty way to die.”
“Vulcan readings in that direction,” Victrim relayed, and Rick frowned.
“Move out,” Eisler growled. Less than a step later, they heard the sound of disruptor fire. “Go!” Rick ordered and the team quickened their pace. It wasn't quite a run, but it was more than a walk and ate up distance quickly.
They passed two opened doorways and three more bodies on the way, one of which had been stripped of its clothes. Once more on point, Mitchell suddenly stopped at a corridor intersection and held up a fist; a half second later, he tapped his helmet and then gestured toward the corner. Kneeling at once, Rick glanced in Victrim's direction. The crewman held up two fingers in response to the unspoken question before pointing to the Starfleet symbol emblazoned upon the back of his scanner. Keying his helmet comm to external broadcast, Eisler spoke.
“Commander T'Pol,” he said loudly, “this is Lieutenant Commander Eisler.” A heartbeat later, a familiar voice answered.
“Authenticate,” came the unflappable voice of the Vulcan commander. “Bravo Zulu X-Ray.” Rick smirked under his helmet; why wasn't he surprised that the commander had the Roughneck security verification codes memorized?
“Yankee Foxtrot Echo,” he replied before standing and lowering his rifle. Lieutenant Hayes was the first around the corner, his face burned and a disruptor pistol held in one hand. He was dressed in ill-fitting Orion clothes splattered with blood. Several steps behind him, Commander T'Pol approached, limping slightly. At any other time, Eisler would have found her appearance almost comical: pants meant for a male significantly larger than she had been tightly cinched at her waist, and a jacket that on her looked like a tent hung off her shoulders. She too was armed with a disruptor pistol.
“Commander,” she said in greeting, acting as though she were in uniform and he was reporting to her on the bridge. “May I presume you're here to assist us in capturing the bridge?” A snort of laughter escaped CPO Mitchell from where he crouched to cover the empty corridor.
“Aye, ma'am,” Rick replied without a trace of amusement in his voice. “It's that way, though,” he finished, gesturing toward the command deck. She inclined an eyebrow.
“Curious,” was her only comment before she looked back at Rick. There was a frown on her face as she continued to speak. “It is essential that we capture the commander of this vessel.” She pinned Eisler with an unyielding look. “Harrad-Sar was acting for the Romulans.”
“Mitchell, take point,” Rick said quickly, noting that Lieutenant Hayes had already accepted a rebreather from PO3 Wakulich and was securing it on his face. It would protect the lieutenant from any potential pheromones in the atmosphere should they encounter additional Orion females. Eisler blinked in sudden surprise at the dried streak on the back of Hayes' hand. It was blood.
Rick said nothing as they retraced their steps past the dead Orions, made no comment as he observed the lieutenant shying away from the corpses in the corridor, and swallowed the questions that he wanted to ask as he again glanced at the brutal hole in the Orion's chest. He frowned, studying Lieutenant Hayes through narrowed eyes as a theory began racing through his brain.
It was a dangerous thought.
Anoat System, 30 June 2157. 0558 Hours Earth Standard Time.
He wasn't sure what to think.
Standing outside the primary starboard docking hatch, Hannibal Black found himself frowning as he took in Captain Tucker's appearance. In the minutes since Lieutenant Commander Eisler had commed Endeavour with the information that his teams had not only located Commander T'Pol and Lieutenant Hayes, but had also secured both the bridge and Engineering without suffering a single casualty, the captain had appeared on the verge of physical collapse. It was as if the inner fire that had been driving Tucker for the last fifteen hours had abruptly burned out, leaving behind a fragile shell that seemed poised to fall.
At the same time, there was an eerie sense of strength about the man that Black couldn't explain. The set of Tucker's jaw, the way he held himself, and just the way his eyes narrowed slightly when someone even gave the appearance of mentioning his need for rest – all of it lent Tucker the image of an unyielding force of nature despite his obvious injuries and physical frailty. Twice in the last several minutes Doctor Phlox had cleared his throat and given the captain pointed looks, but Tucker had responded with glares so dark that Hannibal almost pitied the Denobulan.
Though he didn't want to admit it, Black found himself revising his initial opinion of the young captain since encountering the Orion craft. Contrary to how they had originally appeared when he came aboard, the crew of the Endeavour had displayed a sense of professionalism during the engagement that Hannibal hadn't seen in a long time. There had been no panic from the younger enlisted personnel or officers, no indication that the civilian scientists aboard the starship had been anything but effective members of the crew, and the entire operation had been planned with no input from the commanding officer.
Tucker, it seemed, ran a very tight ship after all.
Once more, Phlox cleared his throat as he crossed his arms; Tucker, now leaning heavily on the cane that had been at his side since his discharge from Sickbay, glowered at the sealed docking hatch before speaking.
“No,” he said, clearly intending the word as a reply to the doctor's unspoken comment. Tucker shifted his weight slightly as the light above the airlock access changed to green. With a loud hiss, the door opened and Black thought he heard the captain draw in a sharp breath.
Two security troopers were the first to emerge, encased in their distinctively dark armor. They were intimidating by their very presence, and both moved with a frightening grace that Hannibal recognized of men long accustomed to zero gee operations. Immediately behind them was Lieutenant Commander Eisler; his rifle now slung, the tactical officer bore a grim expression of triumph that bordered on a smile.
Commander T'Pol was two steps behind him.
This time, Black did hear a sudden intake of breath from Captain Tucker, and the admiral frowned. He glanced at the captain, but was startled to see no indication that Tucker was greeting anyone but his missing executive officer. The Vulcan commander, unsurprisingly, gave no hints as to her mindset aside from a single incline of her right eyebrow.
“Commander,” Black greeted with a nod as he studied her curious clothes with a flicker of amusement. T’Pol returned the salutation with a slight incline of her head before turning her full attention to Tucker.
“You appear unwell, Captain,” she said flatly, ignoring Phlox's snort of amusement as the doctor conducted a less than subtle scan of her.
“Long day,” Tucker replied with a hint of a smile on his face. “How're you doing?”
“Early stages of hypothermia,” Doctor Phlox announced before she could reply, his eyes and fingers still on the hand-held medical scanner. “Not to mention severe bruising that could indicate some internal bleeding. And that neural inhibitor needs to come off as soon as possible before it causes permanent damage.” He lowered the scanner and pinned the Vulcan with a flat look. “Sickbay. Now.” Again, her eyebrow climbed.
“In a moment, Doctor.” T’Pol glanced away from the outraged expression on the Denobulan's face and addressed Eisler. “Secure the prisoners in the brig. Twenty-four hour guard rotations.” The tactical officer nodded as she continued, this time directing her comments to Tucker. “Apparently, Harrad-Sar was working for the Romulans, Captain. You and I were his primary targets.”
“What?” The words tumbled out of Hannibal's mouth before he could stop them. “You're saying that he had direct contact with a Romulan?”
“Evidently,” came the commander's reply.
Ambition abruptly burned brightly in Black's stomach, and he swallowed the lump that suddenly tightened his throat. If they could subvert this Harrad-Sar and use him to feed false intelligence to the Romulans, the entire fortunes of the war could be swayed. Failing that, this Orion was a vital intelligence asset: he had actually seen a Romulan. Starfleet Intelligence had yet to find a single individual with similar experience. This was what Hannibal needed to catapult him to the job that he wanted. This was what he needed to win the war...
What Earth needed, that was.
“Can Endeavour travel at warp with that tractor beam operational?” he asked, mentally calculating what favors he would need to call in to head up the team that would work on this Harrad-Sar person. Admiral Gardner would be the hardest to convince, and it was unlikely that Commodore Casey would back down without a fight...
“Not indefinitely,” Tucker replied. “But we do still have the grapplers and I'm sure Hess' team can get that tub runnin' again.”
“Do it.” Hannibal exhaled slightly, not even caring that Tucker was standing too close to T'Pol to be considered entirely professional, or that it had been the Vulcan who had moved that close in the first place. “Get us underway ASAP, Captain. Set a course for Earth.”
“Aye, sir,” the captain said, a slightly sardonic tone in his voice. Black glanced at him, ego still smarting from their earlier confrontation, and frowned at the younger man's expression. Tucker was paler than usual, his complexion verging on pasty, and his jaw was clenched so tight that Hannibal thought he could hear teeth grinding. Black opened his mouth to comment.
And, in that moment, Tucker's legs buckled.
Commander T'Pol caught the captain before he could fall to the deck and Doctor Phlox was at their side nearly at once. His hand-held scanner buzzing, the doctor scowled fiercely at Tucker.
“I warned you,” the Denobulan said, anger in his voice. Hannibal looked on in slight surprise; he hadn't known that the normally ebullient doctor was capable of getting angry. “But you wouldn't listen, would you?” Phlox continued, now openly glaring at Endeavour's commanding officer. “As of this moment, I am exercising my authority under Starfleet order one-oh-four, section C, to officially relieve you of duty.” He gave the Vulcan an identical look. “You as well, Commander. Both of you are to report to Sickbay immediately.”
“No,” the doctor said sharply, cutting off the captain's argument before it could get under way. Phlox pointed down the hall toward Sickbay, his expression imperious. “Go,” he ordered, “before I have to involve Security.” For a long moment, Captain Tucker studied his chief medical officer with a blank expression on his own face. Being held upright by his Vulcan first officer, however, did nothing for his air of command. Finally, he sighed heavily and tried to pull free of Commander T'Pol's hold.
“Rick,” the captain said as the Vulcan shifted her grip on him but did not let go, “you're in command.” With another sigh, Tucker draped his arm over the petite commander and Hannibal watched the pair briefly before glancing away.
“Aye, sir,” Eisler replied as he turned back toward the docking hatch. Phlox stood nearby, his hand-scanner still buzzing as he ran it over the rigid form of Lieutenant Hayes. For a brief moment, the lieutenant locked eyes with the doctor and Black frowned at the curious interplay. When the doctor next spoke, there was an unusual undertone to his voice.
“Lieutenant, report to Sickbay.”
Anoat System, 30 June 2157. 0919 Hours Earth Standard Time.
Gaining release from Sickbay had not been easy, but Commander T'Pol found herself illogically glad to be free of the medical facility.
Dressed in a spare uniform devoid of command pips, the Vulcan walked slowly through the corridors of E Deck. At her side, still relying heavily on the cane that Phlox had provided, Trip limped forward. Every step sent a jolt of pain through his abdomen, and T’Pol winced as the flashes of agony lanced through their bond. It was sheer human stubbornness that kept him placing one foot in front of the other.
Following their discharge from Sickbay, predicated on their agreement to go straight to their respective quarters for a period of not less than twenty-four hours, Trip had insisted on escorting her to her cabin. Unable to convince him of the illogic of that desire, T'Pol had grudgingly acquiesced and had spent the entire walk watching her mate for further signs of distress. He made no mention of the discomfort he felt, but she had long ago realized that Trip rarely complained when he was in actual pain.
To their surprise, a Medical quarantine lock had been placed on her quarters. T'Pol recognized Phlox's handiwork at once and made a mental note to have a conversation with him regarding the boundaries that he was not allowed to cross in the future. Sensing Trip's flagging stamina, she made the suggestion that she escort him to his quarters where she could use the comm system to sort out the quarantine lock. It was an indication of how much pain Trip was in that he agreed without arguing.
“Ladies first,” Trip said with a poorly concealed grimace once they reached his quarters. She gave him a concerned glance before quickly stepping through the open doorway. Almost instantly, a wave of very agreeable heat washed over her and she breathed in the warm air. The door hissed shut behind Trip and she turned to face him.
Almost instantly, she found herself wrapped in a tight embrace. Trip clung to her, burying his nose in her hair, and she instinctively brought her arms up to reciprocate the distinctly human gesture. Shared emotions bounced between them at the speed of thought as the bond, no longer hampered by the neural inhibitor, sang within them. T'Pol relaxed at the sensation of safety she experienced within Trip's grasp.
“I couldn't feel you,” he whispered and T'Pol could feel the overpowering fury and terror that had filled him in the hours when she had been absent from his mind. Never before had he been as filled with wrath as he had in those horrifically long hours. He had wanted to kill anything that stood between them, wanted to sear planets to ash, to exterminate entire populations until she was returned to him. “You weren't there,” her mate emphasized, his entire body shaking with the pent-up emotions that he had been forced to conceal from his crew. “And I couldn't feel you!”
“I know, Trip,” T'Pol replied softly, looking up at him as he held her. The doubt and fear in his eyes was still there, and she offered him a slight smile, knowing that it would lighten his mood as it always did. “But I'm here now,” she said as she once more rested her head against his chest. “And I'm not going anywhere.” The steady beat of his heart was soothing and she inhaled his familiar scent. Had it been possible, she would have remained standing there forever with his arms around her. But a wave of exhaustion suddenly washed over her, and she looked up at Trip in surprise, recognizing instantly that it originated from him. He offered her a sheepish grin that did not hide how tired he was.
“Phlox's meds are startin' to kick in,” Trip muttered as he struggled to keep his eyes open. His jaw cracked with a sudden yawn and T'Pol carefully hid the smirk that threatened to spoil her Vulcan poise.
“Then you should rest,” she stated as she began backing him toward his bed. He only made a half-hearted attempt to resist.
“Wait. We need to talk,” he slurred as she maneuvered him across the cabin. “This isn't workin'...” T'Pol quirked an eyebrow at that and he continued. “This,” Trip said, gesturing toward the both of them. “Us not bein' together. 'S not workin'.”
“We can talk later,” T'Pol assured him as she pulled the blanket back. Swaying on his feet, he looked at her through unfocused eyes.
“Promise?” Trip asked and she gave him her half-smile once more.
“I do not lie. I am Vulcan.”
“My Vulcan,” he smiled as he dropped onto the bed, pulling her with him. Caught off guard, T'Pol gave an indignant squawk as she hit the mattress, but Trip was too far gone to notice. “My pretty, pretty Vulcan ...”
Within seconds, he was sound asleep and T'Pol found herself still entangled in his embrace. After a moment of consideration, she readjusted her position slightly and drew the blanket over the two of them; after all, she decided, attempts to extricate herself from his hold would likely wake him, thus interfering with his rest. Remaining at his side was the course that logic dictated. Satisfied at the complete lack of emotion in her decision-making process, she rested her head on his chest and let herself listen to the constant drum of his heart. Sleep overtook her moments later.
When she next opened her eyes, T'Pol immediately realized that several hours had passed. The ambient sounds of Endeavour had changed and she recognized that they were now traveling at warp speed. Glancing at the wall chronometer, she started in surprise at the time: over six hours had passed since they arrived in Trip's quarters. She couldn't recall the last time she had slept this long, and she deduced that the bond must have been at work; mated pairs were known to heal more quickly while in one another's presence, but it was news to her that they apparently slept more soundly as well. She suppressed a flicker of embarrassment as she noted that neither she nor Trip had shifted even a centimeter.
Long minutes passed as T’Pol let herself simply luxuriate in the welcome sensations of being alongside Trip again. It had been too long since they had been together like this, and she silently lamented the necessity for their enforced separation. With another look at her mate's sleeping features, she silently agreed with his assessment: This wasn't working. Though it was unspeakably emotional of her, she was tired of not sleeping in the same bed as her mate.
Chastising herself for the illogic of her musings, she rose from the bed, wrinkling her nose at the smell of antiseptic and decontamination gel that still clung to her skin. As she divested herself of the uniform in preparation for a shower, T'Pol abruptly noticed a medical kit resting atop Trip's desk. She frowned at its presence: it had not been present prior to their arrival. A PADD was inside the case and she activated it at once. Skimming the contents, she raised an eyebrow at Phlox's curious instructions; phrased in such a way as to sound like standard medical protocol, they effectively made her part of the medical team necessary for the captain's well-being and provided an excuse for her presence in his quarters. Once again, T'Pol found herself hiding a slight smirk as she saluted Phlox's inappropriate but welcome duplicity even as she fought another flash of embarrassment that she hadn't even heard the doctor enter.
She spent more time in the shower than was necessary, but the feel of the hot water against her bare skin was pleasant. The towels smelled like Trip, and she was amused to discover that he hadn't even touched the hygiene products that she had left behind. Dressed in one of his large robes, she emerged from the bathroom to discover her mate still deeply asleep. Another long moment passed as she quietly watched him slumber.
Meditation was her next goal, and she sank into the appropriate trance-like state before Trip's candle-holders. These meditation accessories had originally belonged to her father, and had been a gift from T'Les following Trip's first disastrous visit to Vulcan. At the time, he hadn't been aware of the symbolism behind T'Les' gift to him and, by the time that he discovered its significance, T’Les was already gone. Once more, T'Pol briefly acknowledged her still unresolved emotions involving her mother's passing before she focused on restoring control.
To her surprise, a ghostly half-image of Trip was present in her whitespace. He was sprawled out, still asleep, but the physical manifestation of her mate brought to mind additional questions that she decided to forward to T'Pau at the earliest opportunity. A smile crossed her lips as she listened to Trip begin snoring lightly and she made no effort to school her features to stoicism. Here, in this place, she was free to let her emotions show.
Nearly an hour passed as she rebuilt the fractured mental control within her meditative state. Her decision to shoot Navaar instead of Lieutenant Hayes didn't trouble her in the slightest, and T'Pol decided that her logic had been flawless in that decision; there had been no time to familiarize herself with the weapon, and it could hardly be considered her fault that the disruptor did not have a stun setting. Neutralizing the origin of the pheromones had, fortunately, resulted in the lieutenant recovering his self-control a half step before he reached T'Pol; but his speed had been too great to allow him to adjust his momentum before he had knocked her to the deck. T'Pol considered it a significant improvement over being killed, however. His apologies afterwards had been profuse but unnecessary.
Her telepathic abilities had also been greatly strained by the incident with the Orion male and she was particularly careful to examine the entire situation from every conceivable angle. It was essential for her sanity that she be assured that her actions had been the logical ones and had not been rooted in emotion. Accepting that the emotion of fear had played a part in her decision but was not the driving factor in it, she opened her eyes, satisfied that she had acted in a way worthy of Surak.
From her sense of him, T’Pol knew that Trip would be waking soon and would likely be hungry. Rising to her feet, she studied the contents of his closet before extracting one of her older jumpsuits. It was scarlet in color, and she decided that the circumstances were such that wearing it once more would not be untoward. After all, she was still recovering from the early stages of hypothermia, and the thermal-lined jumpsuit would assist in that regard. That Trip had often called it his favorite had nothing to do with her decision.
Quickly donning the jumpsuit, she was satisfied that it still fit perfectly. Pausing briefly before the comm panel, she watched Trip sleep for a moment longer before deciding against contacting Chef Killick. The risk of waking her mate with the conversation was too great and he needed all of the rest he could get. For a moment, T'Pol wondered if Trip would be opposed to her placing him in another healing trance to further accelerate his recovery. Brushing her lips against his forehead in an illogical gesture that she didn't even try to explain to herself, she quietly exited his cabin and proceeded to the galley.
Surprisingly, Killick was cordial when she asked him to prepare a meal for her and the captain. In the past, the chef had not been afraid to speak his mind about whatever he thought and had been one of the loudest sources of complaints during the Expanse mission. Today, however, he seemed oddly eager to please.
Sensing eyes upon her, T'Pol glanced briefly around the slowly filling dining facility. Almost at once, she found herself looking at Lieutenant Hayes.
Seated at a table near the back of the facility that was often called a “mess hall” (for reasons that completely defied T'Pol's understanding), the lieutenant was studying her with an unblinking gaze. The large burn on the side of his face was mostly gone, due to one of Doctor Phlox's curious treatments involving some sort of leech that emitted a surprisingly disagreeable stench. Dressed in gym clothes, the lieutenant appeared alert and healthy. Once again, T'Pol made a quick decision and approached the young man.
“Lieutenant,” she said by way of greeting, noting immediately the tension in his expression and body language. Without asking permission, she seated herself across from him, quirking a slight eyebrow at the uncomfortable expression that flitted across his face.
“Ma'am,” Hayes responded as he refocused his attention on his tray of food. He gripped the fork tighter than was absolutely necessary.
“Doctor Phlox has released you to active duty?” T'Pol asked, and the lieutenant glowered at his food.
“Not exactly, ma'am.” He glanced up. “Medical leave for another twenty-four hours and he'll make a judgment call afterwards.” Hayes looked away before lowering his voice. “What happens now?” he asked softly. T'Pol lifted an eyebrow.
“Elaborate,” she instructed. The lieutenant's likely concern was about his own career, but T’Pol intended to avoid any of the miscommunication that was inherent in speaking with humans.
“About me,” Hayes muttered, once more giving her a look. “About the ... things ... you know about me.”
“You are a security risk,” T'Pol stated bluntly, ignoring the slight wince her words evoked from him. “And your loyalty to Endeavour is questionable at best.” An outraged expression crossed his face at that but she continued. “According to Starfleet regulations, I am required to report potential security threats to my commanding officer.” The tightness in the lieutenant's face was clear to anyone who might have looked at him as she continued. “I have done so, and Captain Tucker has agreed with my suggestions.”
“And what are they?” he asked, tension in his voice. “Turn me over to Starfleet Command?” The contempt in his voice revealed exactly what she expected to hear; without saying a word, he was letting her know that if she ordered this, he would disappear from custody. It was to be expected, she momentarily mused, since this mysterious Section organization had such unexpected penetration of Starfleet.
“No,” T'Pol replied, fixing him with her most resolute expression. She and Trip had made this decision together while in Sickbay, even though neither of them had been entirely comfortable with it. “You will continue in your capacity as commander of the security force.” Hayes was surprised at that and it showed on his face. “And as Gold Shift officer of the deck.”
“Why?” The lieutenant leaned forward slightly, giving discreet looks to assure himself that no one was eavesdropping on their conversation. “You don't trust me.”
“No, I don't,” she responded, frowning slightly as she spoke. “But you have access to vital intelligence assets that neither I nor Captain Tucker possess.” Understanding flashed in his eyes. “You will put those assets at our disposal for the duration of this crisis.”
“I can do that,” Hayes declared as he gave her a smile. “We're on the same side, after all.”
“Are we?” T’Pol’s question hung in the air and Hayes’ light expression faded. “You will further cooperate fully with Doctor Phlox for a complete physical.” She raised an eyebrow at his disgruntled frown. “I have little doubt,” she remarked coolly, “that any classified information gleaned from such an examination will be lost due to computer failure should the circumstances warrant it.” It was a less than subtle reminder of his earlier illicit computer activity, and he nodded sharply in acknowledgement.
“Is that it?” the lieutenant asked, voice flat.
“No.” Hayes exhaled and gave her a dark look. “If by your action or inaction,” T'Pol continued, her own expression unyielding, “Captain Tucker comes to harm, I will spare no effort in bringing you and your organization to justice.” She stood.
“I thought vengeance was illogical,” Hayes muttered, and she turned on him with a hot look.
“It is,” she replied, and departed the dining facility.
2 July 2157. 1815 Hours Earth Standard Time.
The door that led to the mess hall slid open, and Charles Tucker glanced up from the work he had spread across his table.
Had T'Pol been present, Trip mused, she would likely have been impressed by the blank expression he displayed as Admiral Black entered the Captain's Mess. Though it had been difficult, Tucker had successfully managed to avoid that admiral all day, and had been looking forward to a quiet dinner alone that would allow him to get some work done. That hope, unfortunately, had just been dashed.
“Admiral,” he greeted as he started to stand, knowing the older man's unhealthy appreciation of the protocols that most officers in Starfleet loathed. To his surprise, however, Black waved off the standard courtesy.
“As you were, Captain,” the admiral said as he walked to take his place at the far end of the dining table. “Will Commander T'Pol be joining us?”
“No, sir. She's in the command center going over some sensor telemetry from the Anoat system.” Trip frowned at that. “She thinks that she may had discovered indications of a Romulan ship hiding in-system during the battle that observed the whole thing.”
“What?” Black's expression darkened as he glared at Tucker. “How the hell did you miss that?”
“We were a little busy at the time, sir,” Trip replied flatly, feeling his own temper starting to flare at the admiral's intimation of incompetence. “And Lieutenant Ricker isn't as qualified to identify sensor readings as T'Pol.” Once more Black frowned, and Trip spoke before he could comment. “I don't think I need to remind you, sir, but my people are spread pretty thin right now. I can't spare Ricker for additional training.” That was putting it lightly: off the top of his head, Tucker could name four jobs that Ricker did above and beyond being T'Pol's Science department 2IC.
Silence descended on the Captain's Mess, and Trip returned his attention to the technical schematics laid out in front of him. It was difficult to concentrate when his annoyance with the admiral continued to simmer in his stomach, but Tucker forced himself to focus. That it gave him something to think about beyond the possible court-martial waiting for him back at Earth was an added bonus.
“Those are the schematics for the Gagarin,” Admiral Black commented moments later, and Trip looked up. “Why are you looking over them?”
“Because Endeavour's current configuration isn't good enough for a sustainable warp six, sir.” Tucker hated to admit that, hated to think that the Enterprise-class was already close to becoming obsolete, but the numbers didn't lie. “Our engine can't put out enough power, so I'm looking at this engineering hull as a solution.” Originally planned to be the NX-07, the construction of the UES Gagarin had not gotten beyond the mostly finished engineering hull before the war had necessitated that it be set aside. Trip now found himself trying to determine if they could refit Endeavour again, this time with Gagarin's engineering hull. By his calculations, such a refit could be completed in a couple of months… maybe less if things went well.
“We held warp six for several hours...” The confusion in Black's voice reminded Trip that the admiral wasn't an engineer by trade, and Tucker nodded.
“Yes, sir, but the core readings were fluctuating the entire time.” Trip glanced toward the door, wondering where Killick was. “The power output for a stable warp six is beyond what our current warp core is capable of.” Trip sighed and gestured to the schematics before him. “So engineering needs to be bigger and this appears to be the most logical solution.” Too late, he heard the “L” word slip past his lips and mentally rolled his eyes. He could easily imagine T'Pol's barely-there smirk had she been present.
Black, however, didn't seem amused, and Trip sighed. He placed the schematics aside and looked into the admiral's eyes.
“I want to apologize for my comments to you earlier, Admiral,” Tucker started. There was little chance that Black would overlook the incident, even if the situation had turned out as positively as it had. “I was concerned for my missing crewmembers, but that doesn't excuse my comments. I was out of line.”
“Yes, you were,” Black replied grimly. “But you were also right.” Trip blinked in surprise and wondered if he had heard correctly. “Commander T'Pol is an irreplaceable asset to Starfleet, and allowing the Romulans to gain access to her would not only have been a disaster for Earth, it would have been an abrogation of our duty as officers.” The admiral looked away for a moment before returning his gaze to Tucker. “Your decision to pursue the Orions was the correct one, even if your ... relationship with the commander affected that decision.” Exhaling slowly, Trip fought to keep the frown from his face.
“That had nothing to do with it, sir.” The struggle to keep his voice even was more work that Tucker had expected. “I would have done the same thing for any member of my crew, regardless of rank or position.”
“Don't try to bullshit me, Tucker,” the admiral snapped, his own voice sharp. “It's not exactly a secret that the two of you are sleeping together.” Black glared as he continued. “If it was up to me, both of you would be drummed out of Starfleet.” He abruptly shook his head. “But,” the admiral pointed out, “it isn't up to me.”
Thank God for small favors, Trip reflected. His attempt to conceal what he was thinking apparently wasn't as effective as he would have liked; Admiral Black gave him another dark look before glancing toward the viewport.
“So, if you're wondering,” Black said, eyes fixed on the streaking stars, “I won't be pressing for a court-martial.” He sighed heavily, as if he was tired or worn out, before speaking again. “We've got enough problems with the Romulans right now and you have too many damned advocates at Command for it to even be worth the trouble.” Trip frowned at that; aside from Jon, he wasn't aware of anyone really being on “his” side at Starfleet Command.
“Thank you, sir,” Tucker said honestly. He glanced toward the door and briefly considered paging Killick to find out where dinner was, but decided against it; if there was one thing he wanted to do even less than sit across from Admiral Black, it was to anger his chef.
“Don't thank me, Captain,” Black responded. He continued to stare at the viewport. “If Starfleet didn't need every resource at its disposal right now, I would make it my mission to have you brought up on charges.” Finally, he looked back at Trip. “I do intend to mention my concern about the command structure of Endeavour when I issue my official report.”
“As I recall, sir,” Trip said through clenched teeth, “you were the principle opponent of our command change proposal.”
“Because it shouldn't be necessary!” the admiral retorted, anger once again surfacing in his voice. “She's your goddamned first officer, not your girlfriend!”
No, she's my wife, Trip corrected mentally as he concentrated on maintaining his poise. Don't screw this up, he told himself. If Black found out about the bond, there was no way of knowing what he would do. Once more, Tucker found himself glad that he could tap into T'Pol's control when necessary.
“Then back my recommendation to promote Eisler to full Commander,” Trip suggested. “He could replace T'Pol as the first officer.” Black's eyes narrowed.
“Even then, she would outrank him according to time in grade,” he pointed out. Tucker shrugged.
“So? She was the first officer on Enterprise after the Expanse mission and I outranked her by time in grade and time in service.” The admiral grunted in acknowledgment of that point and Trip pressed on. “She's a scientist, sir, and would gladly turn the administrative duties over to someone else.” Black gave him a wry look.
“I suppose you've already suggested this to her?” he asked, not entirely hiding his distaste at the idea, and Trip gave him a tight smile.
“Actually,” Tucker revealed, “it was her idea.”
“Why doesn't that surprise me?” Black muttered under his breath. As the door finally slid open to reveal Killick bearing dinner, the admiral looked at Trip and frowned. “I'll consider it, Captain.”
“That, sir,” Trip said with another slight smile, “is all that I ask.”
Aschaffenburg, Germany. 12 July 2157. 0336 Hours Earth Standard Time.
Asking for better directions might have been a good idea.
Dressed in unremarkable-looking civilian clothes, Nate Hayes ducked into a darkened alley, eyes and ears straining to detect any pursuers. Long moments passed in silence before he discreetly checked the hand-scanner that he kept concealed in his jacket pocket. Capable of tapping into the CCDTV network scattered throughout the small city, the modified scanner allowed him to quickly identify any potential threats to his anonymity.
Satisfied that he wasn't being followed, Nate jogged down the narrow alley and paused at a nondescript side entrance. A covered keypad was hidden to one side of the door, and he quickly entered his access code before glancing around once more. The door opened silently and he entered without hesitation. Soundlessly, the door slid shut behind him.
Complete darkness surrounded Hayes, and he breathed in calmly. There was no way for him to tell exactly what sort of surprises might be waiting for him should he appear anxious or tense. A soft beep sounded, and he recognized his cue.
“One scanner,” he stated to the darkness, “and a phase pistol in a shoulder harness.” Attempting to hide what he was carrying was a quick way to get identified as a threat; and threats never walked out of a Section safehouse. “I'm also carrying three blades in concealed holsters and one in my left boot.”
A second beep sounded, this one louder than the first, and Nate winced at the sudden light that briefly blinded him. Blinking his eyes in an attempt to clear them of the spots that danced in his vision, he took a step forward.
“I told you not to contact me,” came a soft voice to his left. Hayes glanced in that direction; he could just make out the shape of his Control.
“I'm sorry, sir,” he replied, making sure to keep his hands away from his body. “I needed to report that my primary objective was completed.”
“So soon? That's unexpected.”
“Yes, sir,” Hayes nodded. “I was forced to accelerate the time table based on circumstances.”
“But T'Pol agreed?”
“With conditions, sir.” Nate frowned slightly at the memory of that uncomfortable discussion. “She's willing to look the other way as long as I put the Section's intelligence assets at her disposal.” He offered a tiny smirk. “Frankly, sir, I think she was more worried about Captain Tucker's welfare than anything else.”
“Not surprising.” The older man stepped forward, his expression unrelenting and cold. “Continue with phase two, Lieutenant.” Hayes drew in a sharp breath at that: phase two was recruitment. He hadn't expected to be put in charge of that. “Keep a low profile for a few weeks.”
“Yes, sir.” Nate turned to go. “Will there be anything else, sir?” he asked, and the older man smiled tightly. It was an odd expression that he wore – an almost-smile that somehow appeared devoid of any human warmth – and it stretched the hideous scar that covered the man's face.
“Not at this time,” Lieutenant Commander Malcolm Reed replied calmly.