The stench of wine caused him to flinch, and Hannibal Black felt his temper spike.
Pausing at the sealed door, he gave the two Security troopers standing guard a look that conveyed his disgust with them. His orders had been absolutely clear in regards to what amenities the prisoner was allowed, and yet he could smell proof to the contrary. Harrad-Sar was too important to be given access to intoxicants.
“Commodore Casey is waiting inside, sir,” the taller of the two guards said as his companion pressed the door release button. Fighting to keep his fury from his face, Hannibal strode through the entranceway and into the cell.
It was a comparatively luxurious prison cell, with a comfortable-looking bunk, a sonic shower, and smart walls that could be programmed to simulate the appearance of any environment desired. The temperature in the room was slightly below human norm, but Black barely noticed as his eyes fell upon the two figures that sat together at the desk in the center of the room. Although the hulking Orion was still wearing the mag-cuffs and was dressed in prison gray, there was no other indication that he was a prisoner as he chuckled at something Casey had just said.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Black hissed through clenched teeth, his eyes riveted on the commodore's face.
“Having a conversation with our guest,” Casey replied smoothly as he gestured toward the Orion. “I was interested in finding out how Harrad-Sar was doing today.”
For a heartbeat, Hannibal found it impossible to see straight. In that moment, he wanted nothing more than to grab the wine bottle on the small desk and smash it over Casey's head.
“Commodore,” he said tightly, “outside. Now.” He turned away and stormed through the doorway. The two guards gave him a glance, but said nothing. A moment later, Casey joined him.
“You know the fucking rules!” Hannibal snapped the moment that they were out of hearing range, and the commodore's eyes widened slightly at the venom in Black's tone. “You do not get to speak to the prisoner without my explicit permission!” He took a step closer, invading the ex-MACOs personal space. “Am I clear, Commodore?”
“Crystal,” Casey responded coldly. His eyes were chips of frozen ice as he returned Hannibal's glare with one of his own. “But, with all due respect,” the commodore continued, his tone making it clear that respect was the farthest thing from his mind, “you brought me into this to break him.” Casey crossed his arms and glowered. “I can't do that with you breathing down my neck.”
Black hesitated, suddenly wondering if he had overreacted. It had been against his better judgment to bring Casey into the ongoing interrogation of Harrad-Sar but, as time passed and the Orion continued to prove uncooperative, Hannibal had grown desperate. Casey's history in the MACOs included a stint in black ops, so Black had discreetly recruited the man into the select group of Starfleet personnel who were aware of the Orion's presence on Earth. So far, it had worked, with the commodore managing to gain Harrad-Sar's trust in a bizarre bit of misdirection that Hannibal wouldn't have ever considered. Three Security troopers – ex-MACOs all – had been instructed to utilize a brutal regimen of physical coercion on the Orion for a period of five weeks straight; at the beginning of the sixth week, Commodore Casey had entered the cell and played the part of a man aghast at what he was seeing. As far as Harrad-Sar knew, the two men and one woman who had beaten him repeatedly for days had been arrested and imprisoned for their “unlawful” actions.
As the Orion slowly recovered, Casey made it a point to visit him on a daily basis, generally bringing food and other luxuries. At no time during this convalescence period did he ask questions about the Romulans and, gradually, Harrad-Sar began to loosen up around the commodore. When Casey finally did ask about the disposition of Orion and Romulan forces, Harrad-Sar seemed almost eager to tell him what he knew, and that intelligence had led directly to the discovery of the Romulan installation at Zeta Reticuli.
“Have you learned anything new?” Hannibal asked, changing the subject slightly to avoid apologizing. He still wasn't sure if Casey actually deserved an apology or not. The commodore shifted slightly as he replied.
“Nothing we didn't already know,” came his response. Casey uncrossed his arms as he glanced in the direction of the cell. “He's on the verge of breaking,” the commodore began confidently, smirking coldly. “I've seen it in his eyes. Another couple of weeks and I'll have him almost housebroken.” At that, Black frowned. He hoped that he was able to hide his discomfort from the ex-MACO; the very notion of referencing another sentient being in the same way one spoke about training an animal made his skin crawl. It was just another one of the reasons he hated interacting with Casey.
“Keep me apprised,” he ordered before turning away. Disgust twisted his stomach and he swallowed his protesting morals. This wasn't the time to hesitate about the course that they had already embarked upon. It wasn't the time to second-guess himself. What I do, he argued silently, I do for the sake of Earth. I am not a bad person for what I'm doing.
He just wished that he could believe that.
The turbolift ride from the secure underground facility took nearly five minutes, during which time Hannibal studied an encrypted PADD containing the latest status reports. He sighed in frustration at the revised casualty list coming in from the Atlantis strike group. It seemed as if they were losing people more quickly than they could replace them...
Moving on to a fleet readiness report, he found his mood brightening at the latest news from Jupiter Station. The chief engineer in charge of the station reported success at integrating over ninety percent of the Endeavour upgrades with the Daedalus hull frame. According to those reports, he was incorporating a number of the design revisions to the ships currently under construction. The next run of these ships would be faster and tougher than even the ones already in service.
With a chirp, the lift slowed to a halt and Black stepped through the opening doorway, attention still focused on the PADD. A pair of security troopers assigned to guard the lift stood aside as he exited it, but he barely gave them a glance before continuing down the corridor. According to his schedule, he was supposed to meet with Admiral Gardner in a little over an hour to go over their daily presidential briefing. Grimacing, Black wondered what inane questions the commander-in-chief was going to ask today; all too often, she seemed less interested in how the war was going than she was in how it affected her approval ratings. Politicians, Hannibal grumbled with disgust.
Once inside his office, he plugged the PADD into his desk computer to allow the two to synchronize data before heading for his coffee pot. It was one of Black’s little quirks that he refused to drink resequenced coffee and, though it cost a small fortune, he had arranged for a shipment of naturally grown coffee beans to be shipped to his address on a weekly basis. Since the Xindi attack, the price of those beans had skyrocketed, of course, but, as Hannibal sipped from his cup, he decided that the cost was worth it.
A beep sounded from his desk, alerting him to the fact that the PADD had finished downloading data to his computer, and he returned to the desk. Glancing over the personnel reports, he frowned. Why the hell is he replacing Archer? Black asked himself before exhaling sharply.
“Zu?” he said aloud, barely able to contain his surprise and disgust. The man was even less competent than Archer! Stabbing the transmit button on the desk comm panel, he spoke. “Get me Admiral Gardner.”
“Aye, sir,” the yeoman manning the switchboard said in response. Within seconds, the admiral's voice emerged from the comm line.
“This is Gardner.” He sounded bored, and Hannibal frowned.
“Why are you putting Zu in command of Sixth Fleet?” Black asked without preamble. He didn't care if his superior officer was offended by the tone; the man already knew what Black thought about him. “The man has less fleet command experience than Archer does.”
“I'm not in the habit of explaining myself to you, Hannibal,” Gardner replied stiffly, using Black's first name as a less than subtle reminder of his superior position in the Fleet. It was a centuries-old tradition in military and paramilitary organizations. “Admiral Zu's qualifications are not in doubt, and I've approved his transfer on the basis of his continuing support of the war effort.”
“What?” Black didn't even try to hide his stunned disbelief. “We're on the eve of a major offensive and you're changing the command structure now?”
“I have every confidence in the admiral,” came the less than revealing response. “And this discussion is closed.” With a second chirp, the line went dead and Hannibal sagged back in his chair.
It didn't make sense. As much as he didn't like Archer, Black was well aware that the man had more experience in fleet operations than nearly every other flag officer currently in the Service. Removing him from commander of Sixth Fleet made absolutely no strategic or tactical sense ... unless something else was going on.
Frowning, Hannibal pulled up the commodore's personal record and spent a few minutes looking over it. Almost instantly, Archer's unexplained disappearances drew his attention, and Black narrowed his eyes in thought. In every single instance, Starfleet Command had classified exactly what happened during these instances, and had led the officer corps to theorize that Archer was actually on covert missions for Earth. Could this be one of those instances? After all, Archer and the commander of Starbase One's security detachment had vanished off Starbase One for three days two weeks earlier. Pulling up the lieutenant's personnel jacket, Hannibal's eyebrows rose when he realized that this Scott Reynolds spoke Andorian.
“You sly bastard,” he muttered under his breath. Clearly, Gardner was more effective than Hannibal had anticipated. The close personal ties that Archer had cultivated with Fleet Captain Shran gave the man an ideal insight into their culture and, as much as Black hated to admit it, the commodore was a surprisingly effective diplomat when he remembered to be. Up to now, United Earth diplomats had been unsuccessful in trying to convince the Andorians to provide concrete assistance. Archer may very well be the right man for this job.
Sighing, Hannibal closed the personal files and went back to work.
She wanted to go back to work.
As she sat quietly in her chair and watched Doctor Charles Tucker direct his two sons with the authority of a military officer, T'Pol fought the urge to squirm slightly. When the Tuckers began rearranging the furniture in the front room to make space for the medical equipment, she had naturally offered her assistance. It was only logical, after all, given that she was stronger than both Trip and William combined.
They had moved only the couch when Trip's father limped slowly into the room and froze. For a moment, T'Pol feared that the doctor was suffering a relapse of his previous condition. His face darkened to an almost purple color, and he appeared to experience considerable trouble breathing. To her surprise, however, Doctor Tucker pointed to her.
“Sit,” he ordered, authority ringing in his voice. He then turned to his two sons and an expression that T'Pol recognized from Trip's periodic flashes of rage crossed the older man's face. “What the hell do you think you're doin'?” he almost snarled at the two men, anger written plainly across his face. “It can't be what ah thought it was, 'cause no son o' mine is gonna be makin' a lady work like that!” To T'Pol's surprise, Trip and William looked at their feet, as if embarrassed. In that moment, the two men acted more like pre-adolescents than grown adults, and T'Pol raised an eyebrow at their curious body language.
“She's stronger than–” Trip began to explain, but Doctor Tucker glowered darkly at his eldest son and interrupted.
“Ah don't care!” the older man snapped, his accent particularly thick. “Ah thought ah raised the two o' you right, goddammit!” T'Pol's other eyebrow climbed at the man's words and the thickness of his accent; like Trip, his drawl intensified when he was in the grip of powerful emotions. She shifted slightly, unintentionally drawing his attention. “Ah asked you to sit, Miss T'Pol, while these two reprobates act like gentlemen,” Charles Tucker Junior reminded her. It was said politely, devoid of the raw anger in his comments to his sons, but there was a steely resolve underlying the words.
So she sat.
An hour passed while she sat in the chair. Initially, she wasn't sure if Doctor Tucker was angry at her as well as his sons, but within the first ten minutes she had discerned that his fury was directed solely at the two younger men. To her, he remained as polite and friendly as ever, going so far as to offer to have the two younger men bring her refreshments while they worked to rearrange the heavy furniture. As time crept by, however, the smell of William Tucker's perspiration became steadily more powerful, and T'Pol began calculating possible escape routes. While it was true that she had become accustomed to the smell of humans during her time aboard Enterprise and Endeavour, even so far as to almost completely eliminate her daily need for nasal inhibitors, in the enclosed room without the atmospheric reclamators of a starship, the smell was nearly overwhelming.
“Doctor Tucker,” she said softly to the seated Charles Junior. He turned toward her and, for a moment, she felt her stomach lurch at the familiarity of his eyes. Trip was correct: Lorian had inherited his forefather's eyes. That thought left her unaccountably sad.
“Yes, Miss T'Pol?” Trip's father replied, and she once more wondered at his use of the honorific. Despite repeated reminders that he could refer to her as simply T'Pol, Charles Junior persisted in calling her Miss. Sometimes, she wondered if her own formality dictated his use of the term or whether it was simply a sense of decorum that rivaled her own.
“I must excuse myself for a moment,” T'Pol stated. She rose, unsurprised to see him push himself to his feet as well, despite his recent near death experience. He had been ordered to ease back into activity while his heart continued to heal but had been encouraged to walk around during this convalescence; unsurprisingly, he did so at every opportunity. Based on her experience with Trip, she suspected that the elder Tucker's foul mood with his sons had more to do with his inability to return immediately to his previous level of activity than any actual anger.
The nasal inhibitor assuaged her immediate difficulty, and she inhaled deeply through her nose to test the efficacy of the medicine. When she detected none of the offensive smells that had been seriously testing her control, she relaxed slightly in relief before chastising herself for not effectively suppressing the gratitude she experienced in that moment. Instead of immediately returning to the front room, however, she extracted a PADD from the Starfleet duffel at the side of the bed and activated it. Instantly, an icon representing new messages appeared at the bottom of the display screen, and she spent a moment studying the data there. All but one were progress reports regarding Endeavour's refit, and she quirked an eyebrow when she realized that the final message had no sender annotated. According to the date-stamp, it had only been received within the last ten minutes. Her pulse quickened as she opened it and read the text message within.
Cell identified and infiltrated. Will inform of results. Continue mission until further notice. Maintain high readiness. Nothing follows.
Even as she digested the meaning behind the message, it abruptly disappeared from the display of the PADD and she raised an eyebrow in surprise. Inputting a quick command, T'Pol blinked in mild surprise as the data device was unable to recall any hint of the message. Another diagnostic, this one of her own design, revealed that the PADD was operating at peak efficiency and had not received any digital messages from unknown senders in the last hour.
Logically, the inability of the PADD diagnostics to detect or recall the message was indicative of either superior equipment on the side of the sender, or that the PADD itself had been compromised. She resolved to disassemble the data device at the earliest convenience and examine its circuitry for abnormalities or perhaps non-factory standard additions. In the house where Trip had grown up, finding tools would not be difficult.
“God,” Trip abruptly said as he entered the room. His face was sweaty, his hair disheveled and even with the nasal numbing agent working, she could almost taste the potency of his scent. It took every gram of her control to hide the arousal that spiked through her as he collapsed on the bed with an exaggerated groan. The tiniest of smirks crossed her lips as she gave him an appraising look, noting that his father had evidently worked him rather hard in her brief absence.
“I feel terrible,” he almost whined before shooting her a glare. “You could've pitched in, you know.”
“Your father thought otherwise,” T'Pol remarked.
“That's 'cause he's an old-fashioned dinosaur who hasn't heard of the women's movement!” Trip declared, louder than was necessary. It took T'Pol a half-second to realize that the comment had been intended more for the elder Charles Tucker than for her, and she raised an eyebrow. Sometimes, humans made less sense than Andorians.
“Everything okay?” Trip asked in a softer voice as he sat up on the bed. He nodded in direction of the nasal inhibitor before giving the open door a quick glance. “Any problems?”
The question that he left unspoken regarded the nature of Vulcan biology, and she appreciated the diplomacy of his query. Evolution had granted the females of her species an enhanced olfactory capability, but Trip was, as far as she knew, the only non-Vulcan to understand exactly why. A vestige of their uncivilized past, the heightened sense of smell allowed the female to detect the pheromones released by a male entering pon farr, which usually initiated her own reciprocal state of arousal. The pheromones of a bonded male were virtually undetectable by females other than his mate, but those of an unbonded male entering his amok time were indiscriminate and dangerous. To her absolute surprise, T'Pol had discovered that Trip had exactly such an effect on her; when he was aroused – which was far too often, in her opinion – she found it difficult to focus on anything but him.
“I'm fine,” she replied coolly, ignoring his leer. As much as she cherished his presence in her life, there were times when she found him difficult deal with. This was just such a time.
“You sure?” he grinned as he leaned toward her. “We can duck outta here for a while if you want. I know a place–”
“Trip!” Doctor Tucker's voice echoed from the front room, interrupting Trip's lecherous comment. “Get your ass out here!” Sighing melodramatically, her mate pushed himself off the bed and headed for the door. Giving the PADD another glance, T'Pol set it aside and rose. Disassembly could wait until tonight while everyone was asleep.
She followed Trip into the front room – inexplicably called a living room, although why T'Pol had yet to determine since the Tuckers lived in the entire house, not simply this room – to discover that Commodore Archer and Captain Hernandez had returned from their expedition to procure additional foodstuffs. The commodore was struggling to carry several large bags through the main door, while fending off the flagrant curiosity of the house feline at the same time. Captain Hernandez was carrying a pair of bags herself but had clearly not attempted to overburden herself with weight as the commodore had. As Trip stepped forward to lend assistance to Archer, T'Pol recognized that one of the packages that Captain Hernadez was carrying contained beer. She sighed in advance of the coming festivities and wondered if she had sufficient nasal numbing agent to eliminate her sense of smell entirely. There were few human beverages that she detested the smell of more than beer.
Naturally, Trip loved it.
“T'Pol,” Elaine Tucker's voice momentarily startled her, and she turned to give the human woman her undivided attention. The moment her eyes focused on Trip's mother, the matriarch of the human clan hesitated and glanced away. This was not unexpected, as T'Pol had long since deduced that her tel-ko-mekh was still not entirely comfortable with her.
“Yes, Professor?” T'Pol said in response even as she tracked Trip's movements out of the corner of her eye. She wanted to caution him against overconsuming alcoholic beverages tonight, particularly beer; if he smelled like a brewery, she would rather sleep outside before sharing a bed with him.
“A man approached me at the store,” Professor Tucker whispered, her voice pitched low enough that only T'Pol could hear it, “and instructed me to pass something on to you.” T'Pol narrowed her eyes as the human woman continued. “It's a phase pistol.”
“I see.” Not sure if she was entirely successful at concealing her surprise at this revelation, the Vulcan glanced away. “Where did you conceal it?” she asked.
“It's still in the car,” Elaine revealed, discomfort written on her face.
“Thank you.” T'Pol's mind was racing. If this person was related to Lieutenant Hayes' mysterious Section, they had to know that T'Pol already had a phase pistol with her. Why would they want her to have a second one unless it was a discreet way of indicating that their operation against the terrorist cell was guaranteed to succeed? She would have to scan it to determine that it did not contain a locator beacon or perhaps explosive material. “I will retrieve it at once.” She started to turn away, but Professor Tucker touched her on the arm to halt her.
“It's Terra Prime, isn't it?” the human woman asked. “They're trying to hurt Trip again, aren't they?”
For a fraction of a second, T'Pol hesitated. She had no desire to give her tel-ko-mekh something else to be concerned about, especially given Charles Junior's recent experience. Yet, if their roles had been reversed, the Vulcan knew that she would want to be as informed as possible, no matter how dire the situation. The decision was an easy one to make.
“Yes,” she said simply before heading toward the door.
The door opened with an angry squeal.
Balancing the computer equipment on his hip, Terrence Bailey quickly scooted into the derelict warehouse before the heavy door could slide back shut. He paused just beyond the entryway, noting without surprise that the other cell members had reached for weapons at his arrival. The vicious-looking German Shepherd that was leashed near the door growled softly, but made no move toward Terrence.
“You're late,” the gruff cell leader snarled, his already harsh features twisted into an angry scowl that robbed him of any charisma that he may have previously possessed. Once an officer in Starfleet, Franklin Bond had been court-martialed following the Xindi assault and had never quite forgiven that organization for ejecting him from their ranks. A joint Human-Vulcan investigation had linked the then-Lieutenant Commander Bond to a number of violent assaults on non-humans, and Bond constantly displayed an almost rabid hatred of the pointed eared aliens.
“The right equipment was hard to find,” Bailey replied cautiously. Around Bond, he did everything cautiously. From the moment that he had arrived at Terrence's door, the ex-Starfleet officer had terrified him, and Bailey knew that any misstep on his part would lead to his body being pulled out of the Atlantic Ocean.
That is, if his body was found at all.
“Were you followed?” Bond demanded, his eyes narrowed, and Terrence fought the urge to roll his eyes at the stupidity of the question. Of course he hadn't been followed. He held his tongue, though; there was no way to tell what the other man would do if he thought Bailey was mocking him, and he had no desire to actually find out.
“Of course not,” he said in response as he placed the bulky computer on the desk. Bond grunted once as he returned his complete attention to the explosive that he was still working on. As Terrence plugged the newer computer into the portable generator, he glanced around the warehouse with barely suppressed trepidation.
A police raid on Bailey's apartment the day before had forced them to relocate to the industrial outskirts of Jacksonville. None of the cell members had been captured in the raid, but the near miss was proof that their time was limited and at least some of their identities known. With Charles Tucker released from the hospital, the decision had been made to hit the house of the target with a vehicle-based explosive. Terra Prime had even acquired a half gram of tricobalt from offworld sources; amplified by this, the explosive yield would be more than sufficient to level the Tucker household and every other home within a kilometer of the epicenter. According to Bond, all who died within the blast radius were considered acceptable losses.
Terrence shivered slightly as he covertly studied the other members of the cell. Within hours of the conversation with his Terra Prime contact, he had realized that he was way over his head; but he had absolutely no way to get out. Bond was the first to show up on Terrence's doorstep, and was followed in rapid succession by four others the following day. Another pair appeared three days after that, and Bailey had briefly interacted with another man earlier this day who had the same fanatical light in his eyes as Bond.
Swallowing his unease, Terrence wondered how he'd let himself get swept up into this. He'd only wanted revenge for the death of his family and, in his anger, Terra Prime's precepts had made perfect sense. Humanity had been held back by the Vulcans, and if the aliens hadn't prevented it, Earth could have defended themselves better against the Xindi attack. Terrence was doing this for those lost to alien aggression. Instinctively, his hand sought out the small photograph of his wife that he kept in his breast pocket. Captured just three days before death from the sky robbed the world of her potential for all time, the image was a tangible reminder of what he had lost, of what he was fighting to avenge. Sometimes, it was enough.
Sometimes, but not today.
The squeal of the door opening caused him to glance up, and he frowned at the arrival of the man he'd spoken to earlier. Framed in the doorway with the setting sun casting a long shadow over his form, the newcomer paused for a long moment as his eyes ranged across the warehouse in an obvious visual sweep. Every hair on Bailey's body seemed to stand on end as he took in the man's unmistakably aggressive stance. He suddenly drew in a sharp breath as he caught a glimpse of the man's eyes.
They were red.
The dog began barking loudly in the moment that Terrence realized this, and it leaped toward the newcomer. As if the canine were a mere fraction of its actual size, the man backhanded it out of the air and sent it tumbling across the floor. Even before the dog struck the ground, the newcomer was lifting a large weapon out of concealment from underneath the longcoat he was wearing. Time seemed to slow to a crawl as the cell members scrambled for their own weapons and Terrence found himself frozen in stunned horror.
Spewing out a stream of superheated plasma bolts, the newcomer's weapon stitched a gruesome line across the chests of the Terra Primers. With the weapon discharging bursts of fire at a cyclic rate so high that they almost appeared to be a single, coherent beam, the newcomer scythed the stream of plasma across the room. Two of the Terra Primers were ripped apart almost instantly, followed by a third before the remaining cell members managed even to return fire. To Bailey's horror, the man barely reacted under the onslaught. Jacket and shirt smoking, the scarlet-eyed figure took another step forward, his weapon chattering its lethal song.
With a shriek, Bond fell as the weapons fire found him, clutching his ravaged face with both hands as he collapsed. The stench of seared flesh was suddenly overwhelming, and Terrence's survival instincts finally kicked in. He wasn't a fighter; fear spurred him to flee. Terror gave his legs strength, and he sprinted toward the service exit as he heard one of the remaining two Terra Primers scream a death cry.
Fire suddenly seared through his body, and an agonized shriek was ripped from his throat. He hit the ground hard as liquid pain stabbed him in the back and robbed him of control. His head smacked the duracrete floor with brutal force, and he spent an impossibly long moment trying to focus on anything beyond the molten lava that churned through his veins. Looking down, he gasped in horror at the mangled flesh that had once been his legs. Shock quickly began to set in, and he stared in numbed disbelief at his sizzling wounds.
The sound of sporadic pulse weapon fire finally roused him back to coherence, and he forced himself to look away from the smoking flesh of his lower limbs. There was no sign of the shooters involved in the exchange, until one of the Terra Primers abruptly lunged into view. Terror was stamped on the woman's face as she dragged herself forward. She was limping and carrying two weapons now as she sprayed fire back in the direction she had come from. With miniature explosions, the bolts of superheated plasma smashed into the various pieces of equipment that littered the warehouse, showering the ground with debris. Discarding one of the weapons, she all but dove toward the massive explosive that Bond had been working on and, without hesitation, she slapped her hand down on the palm reader.
In that moment, the newcomer appeared.
His longcoat hung off of his shoulders in smoldering tatters and he had evidently discarded the automatic weapon in favor of a smaller but no less lethal rifle. The shirt he wore was smoking, and underneath it, Terrence could see body armor of unknown manufacture. Moving without apparent haste, the man raised his rifle and fired once, dropping the woman with a precisely aimed shot to the head. As she slumped over the explosive, the man gave Bailey a quick glance before continuing toward the woman's body. With almost casual disregard, he tossed her body aside and grunted at whatever it was he saw. A flashing light bathed his face in an unnatural scarlet glow as he produced a Starfleet communicator and flipped it open.
“Achilles to Galahad. Lock onto this signal and beam up everything in a one meter radius. Code Nineteen.”
“Confirm code nineteen,” a British-sounding voice emerged from the communicator as the shooter – Achilles? - put the small device atop the explosive and stepped back. “No molecular reintegration.”
A noise that Terrence had never heard before sounded and, before his eyes, the explosive seemed to disappear. Displaying no hint of pain or injury, the shooter approached Bailey and knelt alongside him. This close, Terrence could see that the man was young, perhaps in his early twenties, and was wearing a pair of unusual contact lenses. Mostly transparent, they had a red glint to them, and Terrence could see some sort of data crawling across them.
“Terrence Bailey,” the man hissed as he placed the still warm barrel of the rifle against Bailey's chest. “You have exactly one chance to live.” A smile devoid of human warmth appeared on the man's face. “Are you interested?”
“Yes,” Bailey replied without pause. He didn't want to die. Not for a very long time.
“Good.” The man rose to his feet, grabbing Terrence's shirt as he did. Bailey clenched his teeth against the agony that pulsed through his body with each beat of his heart, and refused to look at his legs. Tears trickled down his face as he was dragged across the floor, and he whimpered at the effort it took keep from shrieking.
“Access code.” The demand brought Bailey back to the present, and he looked up in surprise. They were in front of the computer array that Terrence had only minutes earlier installed. Surprisingly, it hadn't been touched by the recently ended violence. His eyes narrowed, the man who had been called Achilles was glowering at Bailey. “Now,” he demanded. The code tumbled from Terrence's lips before he was even aware of speaking.
A feral smile crossed the man's face as the main screen snapped into existence, and he pulled a thumb-sized device from his pocket. He plugged it into one of the computer outlets before pressing a small button. Instantly, the computer came alive with activity and, despite his pain, Bailey's eyes widened when he realized that the man was downloading and uploading.
“What are you doing?” he asked through clenched teeth. To his surprise, he was no longer afraid of this man. Death was assured, after all, and he'd be seeing Laurie soon.
“Destroying a good man's career,” Achilles replied as the small device chirped. He pulled it free of the computer and replaced it in his pocket. Turning his attention to Terrence, he frowned. Here it comes, Bailey told himself. He closed his eyes against the death that was sure to follow.
“Achilles to Agamemnon.” The words came as a surprise, and Terrence opened his eyes to find the man still studying him even as he spoke into another communicator. This one was more compact.
“This is Agamemnon,” a voice answered. It too had a British accent, but was clearly a different man.
“Primary objective complete,” Achilles declared, his unblinking gaze on Bailey. “Secondary objective complete. I'm looking at tertiary objective. Request instructions.” Terrence swallowed as fear turned his stomach to water.
“Probably.” Achilles frowned. “Recommend exfiltration and stage two.”
“Understood. Permission granted.” As the line went dead, the man smiled that emotionless smile once more and leaned toward Terrence. Pressing a button on the communicator, Achilles then dropped it into the pocket that held Laurie's picture.
“Welcome to hell,” Achilles whispered. A moment later, the world began to disappear.
And Terrence began to scream.
He woke with a scream on his lips.
It was only his long experience with the nightmares that kept Trip from actually crying out as he bolted upright in the bed, but the strangled gasp that forced itself past his lips was nearly as bad. His heart was pounding like a jackhammer and, for an eternity that probably lasted only a minute or so, he couldn't hear anything but his pulse as it slammed through his skull.
Slowly, he became conscious of T'Pol's warm fingers on his skin and her beautiful voice whispering soothing words. Instinct took over, and he wrapped his arms around her and buried his face in her hair. He held her tightly as he struggled to reclaim his equilibrium, incredibly glad that she was Vulcan so he could hold her as tightly as possible. It always helped, having her near, and now was no exception.
“Are you all right?” she asked when he eased his hold on her some time later. The worry in her eyes warmed him, chasing away the last of the terror that had demanded its nightly tithe. Despite how well he had slept, he suddenly felt tired and worn out. That too was familiar.
“Yeah,” Trip muttered. He dropped back onto the bed, glad at her calming presence. She gave him something to focus on beyond the images now fading from his mind's eye and, as she rested her head upon his chest, he could almost taste her concern. “It's this house,” he whispered in explanation. “Being here reminds me so much of Elizabeth.” He sighed. “Too damned much, I suppose.”
“You called out for help,” T'Pol revealed softly, her hand now caressing his chest in a soothing gesture. “I didn't understand everything, but you called out Phlox's name.” She pushed herself up and looked him in the eyes. “You were dreaming of Sim, weren't you?”
Trip nodded in frustration. It was a recurring nightmare, one that only a few people knew he experienced on a fairly regular basis. In the weeks immediately after Sim's death and the surgery that had saved Tucker's life, dreams revolving around the last hours of the memetic symbiot had begun to appear in his mental landscape, sometimes supplanting the nightmares about Elizabeth that so frequently haunted his sleep. At first, the Sim dreams had been fragmentary and difficult to recollect, but as time passed and his guilt over the clone's fate continued to grow, those nightly visitations took a decidedly darker turn. Sometimes, he was being held down by both Malcolm and Jon as Phlox began to cut into his skull. Other times, Lorian was there, holding him down as T'Pol wielded the laser cutter. Worst of all was when Elizabeth was the one holding the laser.
Tonight, Taylor and Masaro had joined her.
“It was a bad one,” he said, closing his eyes tightly in an attempt to force the memories of the nightmare away. “A really bad one.” Usually, sleeping alongside T'Pol was enough to prevent the nightmares as her superior Vulcan mind allowed her to adjust the flavor of their shared dreams. In the past, Trip had joked that she was like a remote control while they slept. Tonight, however, ever her presence hadn't been enough.
“You should speak to Phlox when we return to Endeavour,” his mate suggested, and Trip instinctively tensed. He knew that she was right – she usually was – but on the heels of a particularly bad nightmare like this one, Tucker didn't even want to think about the Denobulan doctor. Especially not when he could still see Phlox smiling that inhuman grin as Elizabeth began sawing into Trip's skull.
“I'm fine,” he nearly snapped as he started to climb out of the bed. Only T'Pol's greater strength held him in place.
“You promised me that you would take better care of yourself,” the Vulcan accused, her expression bordering on anger, and his own emotions flared up in response.
“Just like you promised to tell me the truth,” he snapped. Suddenly angry, he pushed himself up and slid his legs off of the bed. This time, she didn't try to stop him.
“Trip,” she started to say, but he spoke over her as he pulled his underwear on.
“Don't,” Tucker interrupted sharply. “I know what you were doing, T'Pol.” He stood. “And I know why.” He gave her an annoyed look. “But I needed to know what was going on and you didn't trust me enough to let me know.”
She said nothing as he left the room, instead watching him with her beautiful eyes as he pulled the door shut. The muscles in his jaw ached as he gritted his teeth together. A flood of embarrassment washed over the simmering anger, and he groaned in self-disgust. I'm such a goddamned hypocrite, he silently chastised himself as he collapsed in one of the kitchen chairs. T'Pol's decision to keep him in the dark about the latest twist in the Terra Prime plot was really no different from his refusal to explain why he had barred her from landing missions. Even with a telepathic bond, they somehow managed to continue their miscommunications.
“You're up early.” His mother's voice drifted over his shoulder, causing him to jump slightly in surprise. Wearing a robe, she glided into the kitchen and immediately began programming the coffee maker. Trip winced at the time: zero four forty.
“Yeah,” he replied sourly. She gave him an amused sidelong look, but said nothing. Despite his mood, Trip found himself smiling. It was altogether too much like high school; instead of pressuring him to admit what was bothering him, she would outwait him. “Had an argument with T'Pol,” he admitted, giving a glance in the direction of the guest room. The door had yet to open and he wondered if T'Pol was meditating.
“Again?” Elaine placed a steaming cup in front of him, and he inhaled the wonderful smell of coffee. “What was it about this time?” Frowning, he gave her a slightly irked look at the poorly concealed amusement in her voice.
“Terra Prime,” he muttered, deciding against offering specifics. She didn't need to know about the second message that T'Pol had received last night informing her that the terrorist cell had been neutralized; or the fact that neither he nor T'Pol had any real idea who had sent that message in the first place. Unexpectedly, his mother tensed slightly for the briefest of seconds before taking a seat at the small table across from, and Trip narrowed his eyes at her curious behavior; for a woman who insisted on making eye contact with everyone, she was going out of her way to avoid doing so now. His eyes widened with realization.
“You knew about it,” Trip said, the words tumbling out before he was even aware that he speaking. Anger resurfaced, hot and fast, and he tightened his grip on the coffee cup. “You knew and didn't say anything!” He rose to his feet quickly and turned to leave.
“Sit down,” his mother ordered, her voice even and calm. At his dark look, she gave him a fierce stare of her own that he remembered from his youth. Somehow, it had broken him, even when he played cornerback and outweighed her by thirty kilograms or more. “Sit down now.”
“I found out about them yesterday,” Elaine explained as she sipped her coffee. “Only a few hours before T'Pol told you.” As Trip crossed his arms and glowered at the table, his mother gave him a tight smile. “Stop sulking. It makes you look silly.”
“She should have told me,” he complained again as he looked at the closed door of the guest room once more.
“Why?” At his surprised look, his mother continued. “You were worried about your father, Trip. She probably thought you had enough on your mind.” She sipped from the coffee. “And she was right, wasn't she?”
“That's not the point!” Trip glared at the cup before him. Just like high school, he could feel himself losing the argument. Why couldn't he win an argument with this woman? It was almost as bad as arguing with T'Pol. “I was the target, dammit. She should have told me!”
“Is there something wrong with your coffee?” Elaine asked out of nowhere, and Trip frowned at the non sequitur. She nodded to the cup in front of him. “You haven't touched it.”
“Oh. I promised T'Pol that I'd lay off the caffeine,” he admitted with a rueful half-frown. His mother smirked, making him wonder what was so funny.
“Go talk to her, Trip.” Elaine stood, picking up the coffee cup and pouring it out into the sink with a practiced flick of her wrist. “The two of you have enough problems ahead of you to waste on nonsense like this.”
Glumly, Trip grudgingly admitted that she was right. Like usual, he reflected as he gave her a sullen look. He would need to admit to T'Pol that he had overreacted again. Grimacing, he rubbed his temples as he stood. He wasn't looking forward to this.
As much as he usually enjoyed their arguments, he hated having to apologize to T'Pol. Even if she was mortally insulted by something, her Vulcan upbringing inevitably caused her to quote Surak and claim that she couldn't be insulted. Taking offense, after all, would be admitting to emotions that Vulcans weren't supposed to experience. Trip sighed heavily. Sometimes, Vulcans made less sense than Andorians.
“Is that thing set up for chamomile?” he asked, nodding toward her coffee maker. Bringing T'Pol her morning tea would be a clear sign to her that he wanted to apologize. He tried not to think about how much practice he had at making this gesture.
A few minutes later, he opened the door to the guest room, a steaming mug in one hand. Unsurprisingly, T'Pol was once again sitting against the wall, eyes closed in meditation as a candle burned in front of her. She had donned a robe before doing so, which, Trip reflected, was probably wise given the general lack of privacy in the Tucker household. Pushing the door shut, he smiled in recollection of how mortified T'Pol had been during their first joint visit here; one of Billy's boys had accidentally walked in on her while she was using the bathroom, and it had taken nearly all day before she would even go near the boy in question.
Placing the mug alongside the candle holder, Trip sat down across from her. Folding his legs into the awkward meditative pose, he focused on his breathing while staring at the flickering candlelight. Meditation wasn't something that came to him easily; at times, it seemed more difficult to him than trying to catch smoke with his hands. Having touched T'Pol's mind and seen firsthand how powerful Vulcan emotions were, though, he understood why her species needed to maintain their strict control. Knowing that, unfortunately, didn't make achieving the proper state of mind any easier.
“You are not breathing correctly,” T'Pol declared, her eyes still closed. “Inhale through your nose, exhale through your mouth.” Her nostrils flared and she opened her eyes. Glancing down at the mug, she quirked an eyebrow. “No apology is necessary, Trip,” she said, causing him to smile. “I should have informed you earlier than I did.”
“You were right though,” he responded before he inhaled through his nose. “I was already so worked up over Dad that I didn't need something else to worry about.” Once more, he breathed in the proper way, all the while wondering why meditation had to be so boring. “Can we agree that we both screwed up?”
“If it makes you feel better,” came her seemingly indifferent reply. Trip grinned at the warmth that pulsed through the bond and breathed. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Repeat. Focus on the flame. God, this is boring, he complained silently.
“You aren't concentrating,” T'Pol pointed out.
“Because I'm bored,” Trip muttered, earning himself the Raised Eyebrow of Doom. She opened her mouth to respond when a pair of beeps began sounding from their respective overnight bags. Trip shot to his feet and extracted the PADD he kept within his bag. Behind him, T'Pol rose smoothly to her feet.
“Immediate recall,” he read off of the PADD. “Briefing at Starfleet Command for command-level officers at ten hundred hours.” His stomach twisted as he realized what that meant. He exchanged a long look with T'Pol.
They were going back to war.