Staring at the image on the viewscreen, Trip frowned at T'Pol's identification of the newly arrived ships. Twice the size of the birds of prey, these new vessels were anything but aesthetically pleasing, bearing the unmistakably aggressive lines of ships meant solely for war. Dotted with disruptor cannon ports and torpedo tubes, they bore the stylized bird of prey along their hull like their smaller sister ships, although subtle differences made the image seem more sinister.
“What the hell is that?” Lieutenant Hsiao asked as he stared at the viewscreen; the helmsman was pressing a sleeve torn from his duty uniform to his forehead to staunch the flow of blood from his scalp wound.
“I believe,” Trip replied calmly, “that you are lookin' at the Romulan version of the NX-class.” It was the only explanation that made sense and, through the bond, Tucker could sense T'Pol's silent agreement. Starfleet had long suspected the existence of a heavier class of Romulan warship than the bird of prey but, until now, no hard evidence had ever been acquired. The fact that these new vessels hadn't been deployed until now made no sense...
“I'm really starting to hate these guys,” Hsiao muttered under his breath, unaware that he spoke Tucker's very thoughts in that moment. Had the situation been any less grim, Trip would have smiled.
“I want a full tactical scan of those things,” Tucker said with as much authority as he could manage, wincing as another stab of pain shot through his leg. He hoped it wasn't broken. “Find me a weakness, T'Pol.” He felt rather than saw her nod of acquiescence even as another wave of concern for his well-being washed over him through their bond.
For a moment, he was strangely reminded of their first meld, conducted in the days after they had buried little Elizabeth. T'Pol's emotional control had been almost nonexistent at the time; not yet fully recovered from the death of her mother, she’d suddenly found herself reeling from the loss of the parent bond that Vulcan mothers experienced with their offspring, a bond that Trip could barely comprehend. At first, he'd been hesitant to meld with her, afraid of what he would discover ... or more accurately, of what he wouldn't discover. The fear that she was with him simply because the bond demanded it had nearly paralyzed him, but the moment their souls – their katras – merged, her agonizing pain and desperate need for his support had swept those fears away and buried them under an avalanche of emotion.
And the emotions that she felt! For the first time, he truly understood why Vulcans had to maintain that rigid self-control at all times. T'Pol's emotions had struck him with hurricane-force strength, shredding the meager barriers that he possessed and forcing him to share. He felt anger that could tear steel, and all of it was focused at the xenophobic monsters who had taken the most precious of experiences – one she had so desperately wanted to share with him firsthand – and twisted it into something horrifying. Her confusion at why the universe had granted them two children, only to steal them both away, became his confusion. The despair that they might never know the joy of being parents made him want to scream until he could not scream any more. Her grief at losing a child that she had barely known yet wanted to cherish for eternity bordered on suicidal and, in that moment, mirrored his own grief.
But the love she felt for him ... it had destroyed him and remade him into something better, rendered him awestruck at its potency, and silenced any doubts that he could possibly conceive about the two of them. He had clung to that emotion, had used it to buttress his waning mental barriers, and together they had clawed their way out of the miasma that had tried to swallow her whole. Things had been different for them after that moment … and at times, Trip found himself grateful to little Elizabeth for the final gift that she had bestowed to them: in death, the child that Terra Prime thought an abomination had brought her genetic parents closer together than anyone had thought possible.
“The Romulans are moving to intercept the remaining ships in the convoy,” T'Pol declared, and Trip felt his stomach clench as their present situation reasserted itself. His face grim, he gave her a look.
“Is there anything we can do?” he asked, already knowing the answer.
“Not at this range,” came the reply. To everyone but him, she appeared uncaring about the Boomers' fate; but Trip could sense her simmering anger at the unnecessary loss of life. The hiss of the turbolift announced the arrival of PO1 Simons; without a word, the Roughneck corpsman moved toward the unconscious COB.
“How many are left?” Trip asked of the Boomers. He really didn't want to know the answer, didn't want to know how many men and women and children were going to die because he had failed them, but he forced himself to ask.
“There are thirty-three ships that have not yet reached the warp threshold,” T'Pol answered and Tucker hid another wince, this one not born of physical pain. His mind blurred with mental calculations: a minimum crew of two per ship with a maximum of twelve resulted in casualties between sixty-six to three hundred and ninety-six. All dead, because he had failed.
“And there's nothin' we can do,” he half-stated, half-asked in a soft voice.
“Not at this range,” his mate repeated. No one else could hear the sadness in her voice. Trip nodded before glancing toward Eisler. The TAC officer seemed to recognize what he wanted, and spoke.
“One torpedo tube functional,” Eisler reported, features grim. “Two phase cannons fully operational. No other offensive capability.” The German tactical officer's face appeared carved from rock as he continued. “Shield generators are inoperative and hull plating emitters are functioning at barely fifteen percent.”
“So, we've got no offense or defense,” Tucker summed up. “Just like last year's Gators,” he muttered, retreating into sarcasm to hide the pain. Eisler gave him a flat look, clearly not recognizing the reference, but Trip decided against explaining. Now wasn't the time. “Marie, status of the impulse drive?” Devereux looked up from her board.
“Commander Drahn reports he'll need fifteen minutes minimum,” she replied. Tucker almost reminded her that they didn't have fifteen minutes but from the expression on her face, she already knew that. “He's still trying to lock down those coolant and radiation leaks,” the COM officer continued.
“The Romulans are engaging,” T'Pol abruptly announced. “I am detecting multiple detonations.” The urge to close his eyes and pray swept over Trip. Doing so, however, was not an option; soon, the Romulans would turn to Endeavour...
“T'Pol,” he asked, “how long will take 'em to reach weapons range once they're done?” She recognized what he was asking at once.
“Approximately three point three six minutes,” she replied, and he fought a heavy sigh.
“How close to the warp threshold are we?”
“Ninety-six thousand, two hundred and sixty-six point four eight kilometers,” T'Pol answered smoothly. She continued, more for the benefit of the bridge crew than for him. “There is a twenty-seven point nine zero percent chance that the nacelles will self-destruct if Endeavour goes to warp from our current location.” Nothing was said of the repercussions that could occur even if the nacelles didn't blow up; she knew that no one was more familiar with the design of the NX-class than Captain Tucker.
“Mister Hsiao,” Trip said calmly, “stand by to go to warp.”
“Romulans have ceased fire,” T'Pol stated moments later. She spent a few seconds consulting her sensor feed. “No other functional human ships remain within the system.”
“How many got out?” Tucker asked. He felt T'Pol's sadness merge with his own; she understood why he needed to know.
“Unknown.” She paused as she ordered her thoughts. “The destruction of Vigrid Station created significant sensor distortions,” T'Pol continued. “I have no way of accurately determining the number of survivors.” Trip nodded again, glancing away; even as he did so, the Vulcan looked up from her board. “The Romulans are altering course toward Endeavour.”
Tucker frowned before pressing the intra-ship comm button on his command chair.
“All hands, this is the captain.” Trip paused, drawing in a steadying breath. He could feel T'Pol's eyes on him, and could sense her concern over his emotional state. “Rig for emergency warp,” he continued, consciously concealing the worry he was experiencing. If this didn't work, they'd all die...
“Lieutenant Hsiao,” he ordered, his eyes on T'Pol. If he was going to die, he wanted her face to be the last thing he saw. “Take us to warp one.” Visibly worried, the young helmsman responded hesitantly, a far cry from his normal ebullient self. A loud whine echoed through Endeavour as the Starfleet ship leaped from a dead stop to warp one; the whine shifted in pitch seconds later, becoming a loud shriek. Alarms screamed, and the engineer in him was already running through the options. Had this been Enterprise, he would be down there where he belonged...
“Massive radiation leak!” Devereux reported, her eyes wide as she studied the damage reports crawling across her screen. “Five sieverts and climbing!”
The ball of ice that had been floating in Trip's stomach turned to lead, and he wanted to curse. It was exactly as he had feared: the sudden leap to warp with no gradual acceleration, combined with the gravitational anomalies, had made things much worse in Engineering. Even now, he could imagine Drahn ordering his team into protective suits, knowing that it was already too late, as lethal doses of radiation spilled out from the unstable warp core. The loss of the impulse drive meant the loss of core containment; powered by the sublight engine, the containment field protected engineering teams from being exposed to levels of radiation that would be nearly instantly lethal. It was a design weakness that hadn't been noticed until well after Enterprise became operational; Michael Rostov had been the first to recognize the problem and had brought it to Anna Hess' attention. Trip had been working on an engine redesign ever since, but he had not yet found a way to get around it.
“Is the leak contained?” he asked more calmly than he actually felt. Once more, he felt T'Pol's emotions skitter across his consciousness. She knew what he had to do, and knew how badly he didn't want to do it, but said nothing, instead offering her silent support. For that, Trip was grateful; he was going to need it. At Devereux's blank look, Trip elaborated. “Check the internal sensors,” he ordered. I must be in control, he told himself as she glanced down at her board. Devereux input additional commands, and froze.
“Radiation is spreading from the Engineering deck,” she announced and frowned again. “Nearing ten sieverts and still climbing, sir!” With panic in her features, she looked up at him. Tucker nodded.
“Do you still have override control?” He asked calmly. Her nod was accompanied by a slowly dawning look of understanding. “Seal off the engineering deck,” he ordered, using his sternest voice.
“Sir!” The horror in Marie’s voice and in her eyes nearly broke him, and he suddenly remembered the rumors about her and Drahn. “The engineering team will die!”
“Yes,” Trip said softly, his voice carrying across the eerily silent bridge, “they will.” He allowed her to see how much this was killing him as he spoke again. “Seal off the engineering deck, Lieutenant.” At odds with the expression on his face, the steel in his voice left her no option but to obey.
In the back of his mind, he could feel T'Pol's presence offering him solace; but he held himself back, sending her a sad look instead. Silently, he began reciting names and attaching faces to those who would soon be dead, men and women whom he had hand-picked and, in many cases, trained. Many of them had survived the Expanse and more than a few had been with him since before Enterprise launched.
Drahn. Burke. Gomez. Montoya. Dillard. Ling. Suborov. Almack. The list went on and Trip committed their faces to memory, swearing that he would never forget them.
Because he had killed them.
She was dead.
Shoulders slumped with exhaustion and eyes devoid of their familiar merriment, Phlox loosed a deep sigh as he pulled the sheet up over the corpse. Almost mechanically, he began to input the appropriate data into the PADD that he carried, recording the time of death of Lieutenant Burke with a heavy heart. He had been so sure that she would pull through.
"Phlox?" Captain Tucker's voice jarred him back to the present and Phlox pulled his attention away from the still and silent form. The captain stood with a grim expression on his usually cheerful face, his leg encased in an auto-splint. Tucker was tired; that much was evident in his stance, but there was a sadness lurking in his eyes that had not been present for a long time. Everything about the captain appeared tense, knotted up in some internal struggle that he seemed to feel he had to deal with entirely by himself. From the rigidity in Tucker's posture, Phlox suspected that the captain wasn't sleeping very well either. The image was altogether too reminiscent of the weeks after Enterprise had entered the Expanse. Idly, the doctor wondered if he could exercise his medical authority and order Tucker to undergo a neuropressure session; he doubted T'Pol would resist the idea as she had the first time Phlox had suggested it.
That thought caused the doctor to smile slightly.
"How can I help you, Captain?" he asked with forced levity.
"Who'd we lose?" Tucker inquired softly, staring at the shrouded corpse. Rubbing the bridge of his nose, Phlox answered.
"Lieutenant Burke," he said flatly, noting the captain's fractional wince. "I really thought she would make it," the doctor admitted sadly. He straightened his shoulders. "Providing the computer cooperates, I will have a revised casualty list to you within the hour."
"You're havin' computer problems?" Captain Tucker asked, narrowing his eyes.
"Sporadic system failures and data corruption. I presumed it was battle damage." Inwardly, Phlox grimaced. The data loss had been particularly bothersome; the trauma records of twelve crewmembers had simply vanished or been so corrupted that they were of no use. Although he was not a computer technician, he was familiar enough with their operation to hypothesize that it was a database error: nothing else explained why only records ranging from Gomez to Konikowski were affected.
"I'll have Riggs take a look at it," the captain said before frowning. "How much of a priority is this? Riggs is pretty swamped right now." That was an understatement if ever there was one; the death or incapacitation of the entire Alpha shift engineering staff left the acting chief engineer critically shorthanded at a time when they could least afford it. Phlox had handed out more stims in the last four days than he had in his entire time with Starfleet.
"It's not an urgent problem, Captain." Phlox drew a steadying breath. "But that's not why you're here, is it?"
"Not really." Tucker rolled his tongue around the inside of his cheek before speaking. "I understand you relieved Lieutenant Devereux," he said after several moments of silence. Phlox nodded.
"She was suffering from extreme emotional distress," the doctor explained. He paused, remembering all too well the image of the lieutenant staring in shocked horror at Lieutenant Commander Drahn's radiation-scarred body. Lieutenant Hsiao had helped her to her quarters, a conflicted expression on his face as she clung to him and sobbed; Phlox had recognized the reason for the conflict that the helmsman was experiencing. Before Endeavour had launched, the doctor had noticed the sexual attraction that Hsiao harbored toward the COM officer, but had said nothing. He had learned his lesson about dabbling with the personal lives of his fellow crewmates. All too well, he recalled offering advice to Captain Archer regarding T'Pol, advice that Archer had not heeded, despite the clear evidence that the Vulcan was attracted to Tucker.
Inwardly, the doctor sighed and wondered if humans would ever make sense.
"You were aware of her ... relationship with Commander Drahn?" he asked a moment later. The captain nodded grimly.
"I'd heard the rumors," Tucker admitted. He was silent for a long moment before adding, "Do what you think best, Doc. I'll sign off on it." The captain shifted his balance, his expression still grim. Finally, he spoke. "Your staff," he said as he crossed his arms over his chest, "is worried about you, Doc." Phlox gave the captain a surprised look. "You've been on duty for over ninety-six hours without stoppin' for food or rest."
"There hasn't been time, Captain," the doctor retorted with a frown.
"Make time," Tucker ordered. "An exhausted doctor is a useless doctor," the captain said, quoting something that Phlox had told both the commanding officer and the chief medical officer of Columbia.
"Captain," the doctor began, intent on arguing the point, but Tucker cut him off with a sharp gesture.
"Lieutenant Cutler!" he barked. From across the Sickbay where she was checking the vitals of a patient, Liz Cutler looked up. "Can you handle things for a while?"
Cutler nodded, casting a defiant look at Phlox and, without asking, the doctor knew who had spoken to the captain. "Good," Tucker continued. He speared Phlox with a look that demanded obedience. "I'm relievin' you of duty, Doc." The harshness faded and he spoke again, this time with a friendlier tone. "So," the captain said, "first you're gonna come with me and eat, then you're gonna go to your quarters to rest for six hours."
"I can give you two," Phlox argued, his thoughts immediately turning to which patients were the most critical. He trusted Liz – he had trained, after all – but she didn't have his experience, and he resisted the thought of abandoning his patients.
"Four and not a minute less," Tucker countered, offering a smile that never reached his eyes. "Haven't we had this conversation before?" he asked. Phlox gave him a blank look for a moment before suddenly remembering; had he been any less emotionally drained in that moment, he would have chuckled at the memory of negotiating with the then-Commander Tucker over how long he would sleep, years ago in the Expanse.
"I believe we have, Captain," he replied with a weary smile of his own.
"Then you know how it ends." The captain uncrossed his arms and gestured toward the exit. With a sigh, the doctor preceded him through the door.
As they entered the mess hall, Phlox realized how long it had been since he had been out of Sickbay. Fewer than ten crewmen were present in the hall and, as he and Tucker walked quietly toward the Executive Mess, the doctor could not help but notice how no one looked up at him. Every single one of those present had at least superficial injuries, and Phlox recognized two that should not have even been out of bed yet. He said nothing to them, however, knowing that actually doing something other than resting was how many were coping with what they had been through.
It was, after all, how he dealt with loss.
The door to the captain's private dining room was locked in the open position, an indication to the crew that the "Old Man" was available. It was an "open door" policy that Captain Tucker had adopted shortly after assuming command of Endeavour, one that had been suggested by Commodore Archer who, in a moment of candor, had admitted that he should have implemented such a policy from day one. Had Archer done so, Phlox mused, the Expanse mission might not have isolated the captain nearly as much as it had.
Commander T'Pol was already inside, seated in her usual place and engrossed in various PADDs scattered before her; the Vulcan first officer sat quietly with her back to the viewport facing the doorway and looked up they entered, her eyes automatically seeking out Tucker. Had he not known her as well as he did, Phlox would have missed the glint of worry in T'Pol's eyes as she studied her mate's profile.
"Have a seat," the captain said as he took his own chair at the head of the table, unaware of or perhaps ignoring T'Pol's silent observation of him. The moment that Phlox sat, a wave of fatigue washed over the doctor and he realized that he couldn't actually remember the last time he had sat down for more than a few minutes; in a moment of dark amusement, he wondered how difficult it would be to stand back up after the meal. Reaching back over his shoulder, Tucker triggered the comm panel. "Killick," he called. The response was instantaneous.
"It will be ready when it's ready, sir," the chef of Endeavour snapped and the captain rolled his eyes as he released the comm button; everyone was accustomed to Chef's sharp tongue and short temper. Only his culinary genius kept him out of trouble.
"How are we lookin'?” Tucker asked, finally looking at his first officer. She inclined an eyebrow.
“There is no indication of pursuit,” she replied crisply. “The Romulans appear satisfied in taking the system.” The captain's expression darkened and he glanced away as she spoke; Phlox could almost see the human's jaw muscles tighten. T'Pol continued, her face devoid of expression but her eyes gleaming with concern. “Endeavour is maintaining warp two without difficulty. We should arrive at Starbase One on schedule.” Tucker nodded, still looking away with a grim expression, and the worry on T'Pol's face grew. She gave Phlox a sideways glance and he offered her a shrug in return; if the woman with the telepathic mating bond couldn't figure out Tucker's moods, how was Phlox supposed to?
Incredibly, she reached out and touched the captain's hand.
Almost at once, Tucker's demeanor changed. He gave her a sad smile that seemed to convey some sort of private communication; their fingers touching in an unmistakably Vulcan caress, the two sat quietly for a long moment. This time, the smile on Phlox's face wasn't forced.
It was moments like this that made the suffering worth it.
It was moments like this that Jonathan Archer hated the most.
The hum of the air recyclers was a comforting sound, a reminder that he was still in space where he belonged, but the absence of the subtle vibration from a functional warp engine bothered Jon more than he wanted to admit. It was surprising – and a little depressing, actually – how much he missed the sounds of a ship.
From where he lay, Dumas yawned widely and Jon gave the puppy a sad look. The young beagle had been a gift from Erika during his recovery, and looked so much like Porthos that Archer occasionally almost forgot that the dog wasn't Porthos. At times, he found himself missing his old pet more than some of the crewmembers also lost at Elysium.
He hated himself in those moments.
"Commodore?" The voice of PO1 Tyner sounded abruptly from the comm panel on his desk and Jon hit the receive button without even looking up from the data he was studying.
"Captain Tucker to see you, sir," the petty officer announced and Archer smiled, glad to hear some good news for a change. Anything Trip had to say was better than sitting here and reading the latest list of casualties, or another diplomatically-worded report concerning a battle lost.
"Send him up, Tyner," he ordered before rising from his desk and glancing toward the stairwell. Trip's head soon appeared and Jon's smile started to fade at the sight of the sheer exhaustion that seemed to weigh on Tucker's shoulders. A haunted look lurked in the younger man's eyes, one that Archer saw every single day when he himself looked into the mirror.
"Commodore," Trip said in greeting, glancing around the office with something close to wonder. "Helluva view," he commented with approval.
Originally intended to be an observation deck, Archer's office was at the very "top" of the Starbase. Ten meters wide, the deck was a circular room with transparisteel viewports that wrapped around it, providing a 360 degree view of space beyond and an even more incredible view of the Starbase itself. The only entrance was the small stairwell in the floor and, aside from the desk and three chairs that sat in the middle of the office, there were no furnishings or facilities.
Which was exactly how Jon wanted it.
"That it is," he replied to Trip's comment. He watched quietly as Tucker limped straight from the stairs to the wraparound viewport; Trip ran his fingers across the port, pausing to tap in several places, and Jon hid a smile when he realized that his old friend was looking at the whole thing from an engineer's perspective instead of admiring the starfield with the awe it deserved. You can take the man out of Engineering, Archer smirked inwardly as he watched Tucker.
"God, that is an ugly ship," Trip said suddenly as one of the two Daedalus-class ships attached to the Starbase lumbered into view, flanked by a pair of Neptune-class cruisers. Fresh out of the shipyards, the Daedalus was slower, less maneuverable, and, in general, all around inferior to an NX-class; but, since they could crank out five Daedalus-class ships to a single NX-class, Starfleet had diverted all resources to their construction. A little larger than the NX, the new ships required only half the crew complement thanks to extensive automation. The extra space allowed the Daedalus to pack heavier armor and larger shield generators. They may not be able to pack as big a punch as an NX-class, but the ugly-as-sin ships were tough.
"Get used to seeing them, Trip," Jon said as he came to stand alongside his old friend. "Starfleet is diverting all resources to cranking them out."
"All resources?" Tucker asked, lips pursed in thought.
"Keeping our NX-classes operational takes priority," Archer quickly stated, recognizing a captain's concern for his ship when he heard it, "but Endeavour is probably the last new one we'll see for a while."
"What about Enterprise?" Trip questioned and Jon couldn't hide the momentary stab of anger that flooded through him.
"Starfleet Command has decided," he all but growled, "that repairing her is not a feasible course of action at this time." Clenching his fists tightly behind him, Archer tried to bring the frustration back under control; that was a battle he'd lost long ago. "Unofficially," he continued, "she's apparently a better recruiting tool as a floating wreck over Earth." He snorted in dark amusement before stating, "Admiral Gardner told me that recruiting drives are particularly effective after they broadcast that damned docudrama about Elysium that's making the rounds on the vids right now."
"I'm sorry, Jon," Tucker said, dropping his hand onto Archer's shoulder for a brief moment. "Doesn't seem right, leavin' her like that." He shook his head before sighing heavily. "Guess that leaves you without a job after all," Trip smirked and Jon returned the smile.
"Officially, I'm still listed as the commanding officer of the NX-01," Archer revealed with a laugh that was equal parts amusement and bitterness. "Starfleet Personnel can't seem to get that straightened out. Knowing how slow they work, it'll be another four or five years before..." He trailed off, suddenly realizing what Trip was doing.
It was something of a skill that Tucker had almost perfected: Completely diverting attention away from any pain he was suffering by focusing on 'being there' for his friends, or hiding it behind a smile and a joke. Jon had seen it before, far too many times; but, just like the other times, he'd very nearly been distracted and drawn into an entirely different conversation than he had intended.
"How are you doing, Trip?" he asked, his eyes locked on the face of his oldest and best friend.
"Leg hurts, but other than that I'm doin' fine, sir," Tucker replied evenly, his eyes never leaving the starfield; but his body language betrayed his tension. For some reason, it reminded Jon of when his friend had requested a transfer to Columbia. It was clear he was hurting inside and refused to let anyone else in to help.
"Trip." His tone told Tucker everything, and Endeavour's captain visibly deflated.
"How do you think I am?" he asked grimly. "I just lost my chief engineer, my damage control officer, and my entire alpha shift engineering staff." Emotion was thick in his voice but, to Jon's surprise, Trip's expression never changed and he spoke in a calm, measured tone. "Three hundred and seven Boomer ships followed me from the station." He closed his eyes, as if to block something from sight. "One hundred and twenty-two survived. One hundred and twenty-two." His eyes popped open and he speared Archer with a hot look. "A hundred and eighty-five didn't make it. God only knows how many died..."
"You did your best," Jon said softly.
"And it wasn't good enough!" Trip snapped. He took a steadying breath and, just like that, the simmering fury seemed to vanish; it was absolutely amazing, Archer thought with a sliver of awe, just how much Trip had changed since Enterprise first launched. As if he had reached a decision, Tucker turned to face Jon, pulling out a PADD from the right cargo pocket of his duty uniform pants. "Sir, I'd like to tender my resignation effective immediately," he said calmly, offering the PADD without a trace of emotion on his face.
"Sir, I'm the wrong guy for this job," Trip declared firmly. "The Boomers trusted me and now ... now, they're dead." He ran his hand through his hair and the haunted look in his eyes redoubled. "We lost a station – and a system! – because I screwed up."
"That's bullshit, Trip," Jon replied angrily. He took the PADD from Tucker and tossed it aside, ignoring the clatter of it hitting the deck. "Thor's Cradle was lost before Endeavour even showed up, and the Admiralty knows it." He grabbed Trip's arms to make his point. "How many would have died if you hadn't been there?" Jon didn't let Trip answer that. "Every damned one of them, that's how many!"
"Sir," Tucker started to say.
"You listen to me, Captain," Archer interrupted, intent on getting through his friend's thick skull. "There was nothing you could do for the people we lost, and the fact that you got out of there at all with the information on these new Romulan ships is amazing!" Trip frowned, glanced away, but Jon kept on talking. "I have dozens of statements on my desk from the survivors and every one of them singles out Endeavour's actions as the only reason they got out of Thor's Cradle alive. I've personally spoken to a half dozen captains today who want to sign on with Starfleet immediately because of what you and people like your Lieutenant Li did." That caused Tucker to look up with surprise on his face, an expression so amusing that Jon very nearly laughed. "Hell, I talked to Paul Mayweather this morning and he asked about signing up!"
Finally, Trip gave a slow nod, his expression twisting into one of grim acceptance. Once more, Archer recognized the expression as one he wore far too often.
"All right," Tucker said sadly, "you've made your point." He took several limping steps away and retrieved the PADD before shooting Jon a frustrated look. "Sorry about that, sir," he muttered as he returned the PADD to his pocket.
"I've felt the same way, Trip." More times than I want to admit. "That chair isn't as comfortable as it looks, is it?" Jon asked with a sad but knowing smile. Tucker shook his head.
"No sir," he replied glumly, "though I think it's the rank more than the chair." A smile appeared, despite the sadness. "Mayweather, huh?"
"Yep," Archer said with a grin. "I'm thinking about suggesting that Starfleet give him one of the Neptunes currently on Homeworld Defense."
"The Horizon?" Trip asked with a weary grin.
"Ironic, huh?" Jon chuckled at Trip's headshake but sobered a moment later. "I think Travis would approve." He gave Tucker an appraising look. "Are you going to be okay?"
"I will be, sir," came the serious response. "Don't worry about me."
"You're my friend, Trip. Worrying comes with the territory." Archer smiled as Tucker rolled his eyes. "Have you gotten any sleep?" he asked, already suspecting the answer.
"No sir. Too much work to do." As Archer watched, Tucker became the battle-weary starship captain once again, and Jon silently lamented the change in his old friend. He missed Trip. "I've got progress reports to review," Tucker said, "not to mention repairs to oversee and letters to write." Archer flinched at the last words; he knew all too well how difficult that task was. "T'Pol's keeping the fort down right now, but she's not at a hundred percent yet."
"Speaking of which, how is she?" Jon asked as he walked back toward his desk. Without asking for permission, Trip dropped into one of the chairs in front of it; he leaned forward to rub his sore leg as he spoke.
"Phlox gave her a clean bill of health,” he replied. “That Vulcan physiology is nothing short of amazin',” Tucker remarked with a tired smile. “Woman's in better shape than I am.”
“That's not what I meant.” Archer took his seat, glad that all but the slightest twinges were gone from his chest injury. “How is she ... emotionally?” It was weird, asking about a Vulcan's emotional well-being, but Jon had come a long way himself in recent years.
“She's okay,” Trip responded. He paused, and then continued, “We did this mind meld thing that helped out a lot.” He gave Archer a sad smirk. “I'll tell her you asked.”
“While you're here,” Jon said, already hating the direction that the conversation was going to take, “you can take a look at these possible replacements for your chief engineer.” Tucker winced almost imperceptibly at the pair of PADDs Archer pushed toward him. As Endeavour's captain exhaled a deep sigh and rubbed his eyes, Jon leaned back in his chair and wondered whom he could recruit to help him convince Trip to get some rest.
It was a short list.
T'Pol stepped out of the turbolift, studying the corridor before her with narrowed eyes. Two Roughnecks stood at the door to the Observation Deck and silently observed her approach. She recognized Lieutenant Reynolds at once from both his stance and his familiar scent; he took a step toward her, pushing the faceplate on his helmet up as he spoke.
"Good evening, Commander," he said in her native tongue; he spoke to her thus quite often, to – as he put it – 'keep in practice' with her language. "The captain gave orders that he wasn't to be disturbed." T'Pol slowed her pace as she approached, inclining an eyebrow at Reynolds' words and wondering briefly if she would have to order him to stand aside. To her surprise, the lieutenant smiled softly and gave a discreet hand signal to the other security officer; without hesitation, the younger man moved out of the way of the door and T'Pol gave Reynolds an amused glance, acknowledging his knowing expression with the slightest of nods. He knew more about the depth of her relationship with Trip than most.
"Thank you, Lieutenant," she said as she neared the door.
"Good luck, ma'am," Reynolds whispered as the other security officer triggered the door release. It hissed open and she entered the darkened Observation Deck.
Trip sat quietly in front of the immense window overlooking the damaged Endeavour, his shoulders hunched as if in defeat, and a tangible sense of sadness seemed to surround him. The moment that she crossed the threshold onto the Observation Deck, he straightened his posture, once more seeming to don the professional officer mask that he had worn for so long. T'Pol frowned, momentarily confused by a curious sense of deja vu that she could not explain. Behind her the door slid shut, and she started forward.
As T’Pol neared him, Trip held up his right hand, offering his index and middle finger without looking back. A flicker of pleasure washed through her as she observed how easily and completely he accepted Vulcan traditions. She touched her fingers to his and, for a heartbeat, allowed herself to luxuriate in the warmth of his katra.
"You haven't eaten today," she said by way of greeting and Trip glanced up at her, smiling softly. Though he concealed it well, she could sense a crushing fatigue bearing down on him.
"Wasn't hungry," he replied and T'Pol frowned again. Through the bond, she could tell that hunger had been gnawing at him for several hours and, without a word, she set the covered dish she carried down before him, pushing the PADDs that were scattered atop the table out of the way. He hesitated, giving the bowl a glance, before finally sighing and reaching for it. "Noodle salad?" he asked with a look of not quite disgust.
"Yes," T'Pol replied simply as she took a seat beside him. "You eat too much meat," she pointed out, and he chuckled. A long moment passed in agreeable silence as he slowly ate and she organized the PADDs into a more efficient stack.
"Spoke to Jon earlier," Trip said in between bites. "Admiral Black is makin' noises again." She nearly frowned; the grim admiral was their most vocal opponent and had staunchly opposed assigning her to Endeavour under Trip's command.
"Did you give the commodore our proposal?" she asked and her mate nodded as he chewed. It had been more Trip's idea than hers, but his logic was sound; she had only offered a few suggestions to refine it. Giving the senior tactical officer authority to initiate a command change if his commanding officer and executive officer proved to be unfit for duty was, at best, a temporary measure to assuage the concerns of the Admiralty about their relationship, but it demonstrated to Starfleet Command that she and Trip were willing to compromise. Such an action to initiate the removal from command process would require considerable evidence but, from her brief interactions with him on Vigrid Station, T'Pol had little doubt that Lieutenant Commander Eisler would be efficient in that regard; the tactical officer had been brutally honest when Trip approached him with the proposal and asked for his opinion.
"Jon said he'd forward it to Starfleet Command," came Trip's distracted reply. "I told him that I'd sic Soval on 'em if they tried to transfer you." T'Pol fought to keep from frowning at that; she strongly disliked using such a strong-arm tactic against Starfleet Command, and she suspected the Admiralty would appreciate it even less. Despite her control, some part of her disapproval must have leaked through the bond as he turned his eyes on her. "You might be able to handle being away from me for long periods of time, sweetheart," he pointed out, "but I sure as hell can't take it." Trip abruptly smirked. "I'm only human, after all," he said with a hint of amusement in his eyes.
Once more, she could not argue with his logic.
"My human," she reminded him affectionately, and he smiled at her. He glanced back at the viewport overlooking Endeavour and his grin faltered. The amusement that had been in his eyes disappeared almost at once. A long moment passed as T'Pol picked her words carefully. "I also spoke to Commodore Archer earlier," she finally said, and he grunted; from his expression, she could tell he knew what was coming. "Why did you offer him your resignation?" she asked softly, and her mate sighed heavily.
"I'm tired of doin' this, T'Pol," he said in response, gesturing toward the PADDs with his fork.
"Doing what, Trip?" A wave of frustrated despair rolled off of him as he stabbed his fork in the last of the salad before grabbing the topmost PADD.
"Dear Mister Li," he read from the data device, "I regret to inform you that your daughter, Allison, was killed in action aboard Vigrid Station on one October, twenty-one fifty-six." He tossed the PADD back on the table with a flick of his wrist and it spun off the side, sliding a half meter toward the observation window as he continued reciting from memory. "Words alone cannot express the depth of my regret for your loss." Trip closed his eyes as he pinched the bridge of his nose. "Her actions saved the lives of dozens, perhaps hundreds of people, and is in the highest traditions of the Service."
"Trip," she started, laying her hand on his arm.
"I'm tired of bein' a soldier, darlin'." Without asking permission, her mate drew her to him in a tight hug; she wondered which of them was deriving more comfort from it. "I'm tired of comin' up with better and faster ways to kill. I'm tired of sendin' these kids off to die," he continued, his voice calm and composed even as waves of emotion bled through the bond. "I'm tired of doing nothing but writin' these goddamned letters!" Easing his hold on her, he continued, his voice sad and soft. "I never signed up with Starfleet to be a soldier," he whispered, “and I don't wanna do this anymore.”
"What do you want to do?" T'Pol questioned as she rested her head on his shoulder. It wasn't proper Vulcan etiquette, she admitted to herself, but she had long ago given up trying to be a proper Vulcan.
"I wanna be just an engineer again," Trip replied, kissing the top of her head and stroking her back with one hand as he spoke. "I wanna marry you in a really big ceremony so everyone in the damned galaxy knows how I feel about ya, and then have lots of babies. That's what I want."
"Which of us will be the mother?" T'Pol asked, the hint of a smile on her face. "You do have more experience with pregnancy than I."
"God," Trip chuckled, "you're never gonna let me live that down, are you?"
"Obviously not," she replied simply and he smiled again. His good humor faded far too quickly as he stared at the damage to Endeavour.
"I feel like a fraud," he finally whispered. "Every time somebody calls me Captain, I wanna look around for Jon, or for you." He sighed again. "I can't help but to think that if you had been in command, or Jon, things wouldn't have turned out like they did."
"I was in command at Azati Prime," T'Pol reminded him, regret tingeing her words, "and Commodore Archer commanded at Elysium. Neither situation turned out as desired." Trip drew breath to argue but she pressed on. "You are afraid of failing." It wasn't a question but he nodded anyway. "Cast out fear, adun," she said pointedly and, through the bond, she felt his sudden surprise at her words, "there is no room for anything else until you cast out fear."
"You're quotin' Surak to get me out of a funk?" he asked incredulously, and she leaned back out of the circle of his arms to give him a measuring look.
"Is it working?" she asked, and he rolled his eyes. T’Pol leaned closer to him again. "Trip, Starfleet Command selected you for this job because you are the most qualified for it." He opened his mouth, no doubt to disagree, but she placed her fingers across his lips and continued. "You have the most deep space experience among the Starfleet corps of senior officers," she pointed out in as rational a voice as possible. "You also have an instinctive understanding of human behavior that I cannot duplicate." He frowned and T'Pol knew he was going to argue that point. "If I had given the order to seal off Engineering," she asked softly before he could comment, "would Lieutenant Devereux have obeyed?"
"Maybe not," her mate muttered, sadness clear in his eyes. He glanced away, once more turning his eyes to the viewport, and T'Pol could sense his thoughts racing. "She would have argued with you," Trip said. A flash of memory that was not hers flickered across her thoughts, a recollection of a human commander furious at the cold Vulcan subcommander so willing to leave their captain behind; she inclined an eyebrow as he gave her a sheepish smile. "Just like I woulda done a couple of years ago," he acknowledged.
"Your decision was the correct one," T'Pol said firmly, "but it had to come from you." It was something she had learned to accept upon entering Starfleet: she could command the humans, but it was a far cry from being in command. Rare was the human officer who didn't immediately think of her as Vulcan first and a Starfleet commander a distant second; Trip had been the first to do so. Finally, he nodded in understanding and she could feel his grudging acceptance.
"When did you get so damned smart?" he asked with a soft smile and mischief welled up within her.
"I have always been this way," she replied quickly, her lips curved ever so slightly in the barest hint of a smile. "It has just taken you this long to notice." He chuckled as she reclined back against him, allowing his arm to drape once more over her, and they sat in silence for long minutes, a growing sense of contentment humming through the bond. The black mood that had enveloped him for so long slowly lifted and he relaxed the mental shields that she had taught him months earlier. Almost at once, a jumble of confusing emotions bombarded her and T'Pol inhaled deeply, illogically finding comfort in them.
"Trip," she started before pausing. She gathered her thoughts, considering her next words. It would be a sensitive subject and she wondered how best to broach it.
"Hmmm?" her mate asked sleepily. The exhaustion that she had sensed was catching up to him.
"I saw something on the station that ... that I did not understand." Unconsciously, she frowned; there were few things that she disliked more than having to admit that she did not comprehend something. "Lieutenant Commander Eisler suggested that I ask you for clarification."
"Okay." From his voice and her sense of him, she could tell Trip was becoming curious. "What was it?" he asked.
"A picture," she replied before pausing again. That definition wasn't entirely correct, and she hated inaccuracy.
"A picture?" he repeated, not even bothering to hide his confusion. "What kind of picture?"
"It was a stylized representation of canines involved in a card game." T'Pol pursed her lips, wondering how such a thing could be possible; canines did not possess the necessary opposable digits, not to mention their lack of cognitive ability. She wondered if it was perhaps a metaphor. "Commander Eisler told me that it was an ... American thing, and that you could explain its meaning." In response, Trip did something completely unexpected.
He began to laugh.
Laughter could be heard through the sealed doorway, and Scott fought the smile that threatened to fracture his poise. No one ever believed him when he told them that a Vulcan could make the captain laugh. It was good to be proven right.
With a sidelong glance at the surprised Crewman Hensen, Reynolds triggered his throat mike.
"Roughneck Six to Commodore Archer," he said softly, abandoning the fight against the smile as the sound of Tucker's amusement echoed from the observation deck. "Mission accomplished, sir," he reported with a grin. His peculiar sense of humor caused him to add, "Peace is restored in the streets of Verona." Archer's answering bark of laughter over the commline was indication enough that he understood the literary reference.
Everything was as it should be.