This wasn't the best development the tactical officer could have hoped for. He shrank into his corner and appeared determined to concentrate on the wiring he was supposedly investigating.
'Supposedly' was the word. Actually, there wasn't a damn thing wrong with any of it. He'd hoped, vainly as it turned out, that having something to do with his hands would have allowed his mind some respite from the question that had been hammering through it ever since he'd turned away, stunned and sick at heart, from the empty transporter pad on Degra’s ship the day before.
"Commander?" He responded politely, because that's what you do when addressed by your senior officer.
What you don't do is go on working, forcing fingers that feel numb and unreal to carry out routine tasks. You don't try to make your mind concentrate on actions you could perform in your sleep, leaving only the smallest necessary percentage available for the demands of conversation in the desperate hope that whoever it is will get the bloody message and shove off.
Most of the people on board Enterprise would have got the message and buggered off smartish, sensing their danger. Unfortunately, Commander Tucker was clearly not one of those sensible souls who prefer their heads left attached to the rest of them.
"Loo-tenant Reed, report!"
That got through. His body responded without thought, pulling him to his feet, from which vantage point he selected a torpedo casing directly opposite him and became fixedly interested in it.
With his peripheral vision he was aware of his senior officer's searing stare. It might, in some other life, have bothered him.
Although they had become closer friends than he'd ever imagined possible, he still fully accepted the other man's right to discipline him to whatever extent appropriate when they were on duty. He even conceded that his small lack of the proper respect on this occasion deserved it. But right now he struggled to find it in him to even be interested.
"Your shift finished more'n two hours ago, Loo-tenant."
"Sir," he muttered. Had it? He didn't know, and, worse, he didn't care.
"So quit messin' with that wirin' and go get somethin' to eat."
"I'm not hungry, sir."
"I don't recall askin' you if you were. I said get somethin' to eat, an' that's an order."
"An' don't even think I won't check up on you."
"Sir." He turned around to replace the panel – after he'd made sure the wiring was properly secured, of course – when the at-that-moment-hated voice behind him snapped, "De la Haye, take over from the Loo-tenant. Run any checks you have to an' make sure that panel's fitted back."
With a distant corner of his mind, Malcolm had been aware of Ensign de la Haye's anxious glances, amongst others. Now he stood silent and powerless as she slipped past him with an apologetic look and settled down where he'd been working so diligently and so pointlessly, hand scanner at the ready.
There was nothing wrong with the wiring. She and all the others probably knew that already. They were his team, and he ran a tight ship in the Armoury. In another life he'd probably have cringed at the thought of what would be thought, what would be said; the pitying glances. Or worse still, the wondering, disdainful glances, aimed at the explosives expert whose captain had died setting charges on the Xindi weapon.
In the Armed Forces, discipline was everything. Even in the Reed household, Nelson's maxim was the overriding law: 'Firstly, you must always implicitly obey orders, without attempting to form any opinion of your own respecting their propriety…’
He'd learned that the hard way, experienced it to its fullest, bitterest extent the day he'd been made into an accessory to piracy and, quite possibly if indirectly, to murder. But the devil in Hell must have been laughing that night as he'd finally fallen asleep thinking wretchedly that life had no greater shame to offer him.
Tucker was pointing him to the door, sending a whipped puppy to its kennel.
With a brief, tight nod that would have to do duty for another 'Sir' that he couldn't bring himself to utter, Malcolm turned obediently. Nelson would have been proud: 'Firstly, you must always implicitly obey orders...'
Compared to the brightness of the Armoury, the corridor outside was relatively dim. For just a moment, the Englishman hesitated, as his exhausted mind refused to furbish him with the right directions.
"The turbo-lift's thataway."
He swallowed. A small seismic tremor went through the volcanic pain and resentment that were building inside him, but he fought it into obedience. 'Firstly, you must always implicitly obey orders...'
At least he wasn't followed into the lift. As the door closed behind him, he released a tiny sigh of relief; finally, if only for a few seconds, he was unobserved.
But now he had to enter the Mess Hall. Had to be pilloried there. The announcement had already been made. The ship was hushed, grieving for its captain.
And the news would already have gone around. That the ship's Armoury Officer had gone onto the Weapon and come back without a scratch on him, leaving his captain to set the explosives and die in the resulting blast.
They could only speculate what had happened in those last few moments. What had caused that fatal delay?
He'd made his report to the ship's new Acting CO. He'd even been grateful for her impassivity, allowing him to speak coolly and objectively, describing the scene as he'd left it. But ever since, he'd been tormented by questions that were never going to be answered.
There were still live, extremely dangerous Xindi on the loose when he'd been transported back to Enterprise. Dolim, for one, and they'd all seen the evidence of what he'd done to the captain when he was first taken prisoner. There was no doubt whatsoever that the Reptilian would take his first opportunity to kill the puny Human who'd come to thwart the Sphere-Builders' plans for the extinction of Earth.
Malcolm was in charge of the senior officers' self-defence training, and had been since they first set out aboard Enterprise (including, at least technically, the sessions instigated by Major Hayes). He had a realistic assessment of each officer's abilities, and although Captain Archer applied himself diligently during sparring bouts and had improved lately – probably channelling his frustration and anger through the violent physical exercise – his essential good nature had always meant that he had difficulty regarding his partner as 'the enemy'. Doubtless if he had encountered Dolim he'd have had no difficulty at all, but would that have been enough?
Had it been enough?
Or not enough?
Had that been the fatal difference?
Archer was already physically battered, his body barely starting to repair itself after the beating he'd been given. He was in no condition to start a fight for his life, even if he'd been more than adequate in self-defence skills.
So what did that say for his trust in his own explosives officer? His own self-defence expert?
And if he couldn't find it in him to hand over the task of setting explosives to the man most suited to carry it out, what did his lack of preparedness for physical battle say about his teacher, the man who'd sent him out to face mortal danger inadequately taught?
Theoretically speaking, a mere lieutenant couldn't 'force' his commanding officer to attend more sparring sessions, however much he might need additional training. Having on several occasions received the backlash of Archer's fraying temper during the long, weary search, Malcolm had been very leery of risking more doses of it. Now, however, that caution felt like cowardice, self-preservation before everything. If only he'd been braver, if only he'd insisted; if only he'd used his rank privilege of forcing the less-able (including the captain) to have extra training ... as the officially designated Head of his Department he had that power, if he chose to exercise it.
But he hadn't. When Hayes – wiser than he – had pushed the issue of extra training, he’d taken instant offence and pushed back. The MACO had wanted the officers to do three additional sessions a week, but he’d used his seniority on board ship to force it down to two.
And now the captain was dead.
With a dull sense of surprise, Malcolm found that he was seated in the Mess Hall. In front of him there was a plate of food.
Recycled meatloaf, boiled potatoes and parsnips.
He hated parsnips.
He hated parsnips with an absolute, fucking passion.
He slowly forked a couple of pieces of potato into his mouth, swallowing them half-chewed so that they went down his gullet in a series of painful spasms. Patiently he waited till the engineer who'd followed him in after a discreet interval had taken himself out again, presumably to report to Kommandant Tucker that the prisoner was eating his food as ordered. Then, knowing that if he touched his plate just one more time he'd send it sailing through the air, splattering the nearest wall and anyone unlucky enough to be in the way with meatloaf, parsnips and the odd remaining lump of boiled potato, he pushed back his chair and rose.
When he’d walked in, he'd made a conscious decision to ignore the long training to assess every room he entered. Apart from observing the arrival and departure of the young engineer who'd been detailed to report on him, he couldn't have said who else had been in the Mess. So as he walked up the corridor, rather desperately trying to decide which of the maintenance and repair teams he could safely join without being grassed up to his senior officer, he didn't at first realise that someone was calling him from behind.
'Fuck. Maybe they're calling some other lieutenant.' Though he was the only one on the Bridge, there were a couple of others around the ship. Maybe Hess was late arriving for dinner too; even though Enterprise was currently being transported in an Aquatic ship ('in the belly of the Beast' as Em had quaintly put it), Engineering was still pulling extra shifts in the effort to repair some of the damage inflicted at Azati Prime. They needed all the help they could get.
But as it penetrated the fog in his mind that the caller was Travis, it became depressingly clear that it was unlikely the helmsman was urgently attempting to attract the attention of Trip's rather formidable SiC.
"Hey, Malcolm! Wait up!"
The call elicited two powerful and conflicting urges. One was to spin in his tracks and rip a strip off a junior officer for shouting after a senior in the corridor (even if, since they were both off duty, Travis was within his rights to use his first name rather than his rank); the second was to take to his heels, regardless of rank or even dignity, and hope that hint would be strong enough.
With an effort that felt as if it produced an actual physical shudder throughout his body, Malcolm simply came to a halt. He told himself that it was beneath the dignity of a British officer to run away, but wasn't sure if he believed it.
Travis caught up with him within a few strides. Sardonically Malcolm noted that having gained his attention, the ensign now didn't have the faintest idea what to do with it.
"Ensign?" He used the rank deliberately, in his remotest voice.
Mayweather flushed slightly, clearly recognising that he was being warned off.
"Er, sir ... I was just wondering if Captain – if Captain T'Pol intends to hold a senior officers' briefing before we get back to Earth?"
Once again Reed recognised and controlled the impulse to lash out. "I haven't been informed of any such plan. Not yet, at least," he responded with cool politeness. "Did you have any issues you'd like me to raise if one's convened?"
"Uh... no sir, not really," mumbled Travis. "I guess she already knows people are wondering if there's going to be a... a..."
"A memorial service for Captain Archer?" The Section's training stood him in good stead. He knew that nothing would be visible on his face, for all he felt as though someone had just thrown a bucket of salt across his back laid open by a flogging.
The flogging, of course, was all his own work. But that didn't make the lashes any easier to bear; it just meant that there was no hope of respite, no plea to be made for pity. Besides, what pity did he deserve? His task was to defend his ship and its crew, and he had failed in it. Because of insufficient faith in his tactical officer's competence, the captain had not trusted him to do his job. Because of his cowardice, unprofessionalism and negligence, the captain had been insufficiently prepared for the fighting to come.
And the captain was dead.
"I'm sure Captain T'Pol will be aware of the crew's concern." His voice sounded stiff and stilted in his own ears. "She may possibly feel it more appropriate to wait until we return to Earth, when I'm sure Starfleet will wish to hold one as part of the thanksgiving celebrations."
As he uttered the word 'celebrations' he feared for a moment he was going to be physically sick. Enterprise would be returning in triumph, to a heroes' welcome for the survivors.
...At least until the aftermath began, the slow, careful, clinical dissection of what had been said and done at every step. And then...
'The truth will out'.
He knew, of course, that in the real world that wasn't always the case. He was in the best position of all to know that it wasn't. He'd worked long enough and deep enough to know that even Starfleet had its dirty secrets, very deeply buried away from the light of exposure; his own past history was one of them. But this time – with their shining hero Jonathan Archer cruelly snatched out of life in the very moment of his success – there would be an official enquiry. People would demand to know why Archer had died, and who was to blame.
It was possible, of course, that Starfleet would cover up his responsibility. They wouldn't want the lustre of the successful mission tarnished by the fact that the captain had died because of his own officer's incompetence. But that wouldn't mean that retribution would not come.
Not that he wanted to avoid it. Far from it; he would welcome any punishment for his failings, however inadequate it might be – keel-hauling was probably not a recognised option in Starfleet, for all its naval origins. What he really did want to avoid was being included in the 'welcome for heroes', being lionised right up till the point that the facts emerged – the facts that were utterly inescapable.
Archer's death was his fault.
Travis stared into his senior officer’s face, and felt his determination to help melt helplessly away like an ice cube before an inferno.
Hoshi had told him that Malcolm had left the captain on the Xindi weapon, bringing her and Corporal Morgan back to safety. That Malcolm had done so because he was directly ordered to, even though he’d tried to claim the job of planting the explosives should be his as the ship’s Chief Tactical Officer. The captain had overruled him.
And the captain was dead.
The ship without Captain Archer was something the helmsman could hardly bring himself to contemplate. He’d admired the guy since meeting him, even before that; even Boomers heard the talk about the development projects, about Henry Archer’s dream of an engine that could drive ships at the magical Warp 5. Nothing could have been more natural than that Henry’s son Jonathan should be the one to take command of the ship that saw his father’s dream become reality.
His own achievement of being accepted to take the helm during the Alpha Shift was a source of immense pride. For all that it had cost some friction with his family, it had been a dream come true; and despite rumors that some Starfleet officers looked down on those who’d learned their job on the trade routes, Jonathan Archer had never given any indication of finding his new helmsman anything other than worthy of the chance he’d been given. His life aboard Enterprise had been an experience he wouldn’t have missed for anything.
And now Archer was dead.
The fact was as unimaginable as it was devastating. For all that the destruction of the Xindi Weapon had become the core and focus of the captain’s entire existence since the ship was sent out in pursuit of it, somehow it seemed utterly wrong that he should have died in the moment of its achievement.
There hadn’t been much by way of facts given out in the official announcement. What Travis knew about what had happened was largely due to his friendship with Hoshi, whom he’d visited in Sickbay as soon as Phlox declared her fit to receive visitors, and who had told him about what had happened in those last few desperate minutes in the core of the Weapon.
Hoshi had been about at the end of her strength. Without help, she would never have been able to make it back to a point where she could be transported back to Degra’s ship. She was still under Phlox’s care, though she’d been allowed to take up light duties and would most likely be back on the Bridge by the time the ship reached Earth; he’d been horrified as much by her pallor as by the horrible marks on her forehead where the Reptilians had tortured her to make her give them the launch codes. So Travis was deeply, indescribably grateful that she had been brought back alive, and despite his own grief over the captain’s death he’d been trying ever since to find some opportunity of thanking the guy he held largely responsible for Hoshi’s survival.
The day before, the lieutenant had disappeared as soon as he’d put in his official report. Hardly surprising; given what had happened, it would be no more than humane to allow him time to recover and begin to process events. If he’d attempted to report for duty, it was odds-on that he’d have been sent smartly back to his quarters. But this morning he’d turned up as usual, precisely on time, with a face that looked as if it had been chiseled out of granite.
There wasn’t much to do, in view of the fact that they were being transported back to Earth. But Malcolm Reed was never deterred from finding something that needed checking about the weapons systems, and he’d sat there for the whole of his duty spell, silently doing ‘stuff’. At shift changeover, Travis had been hopeful; but even before he’d finished handing over the helm to Emma Deloughry, the tactical officer had vanished into the turbo-lift and was next heard of in the Armory, finding non-jobs to be busy with there.
Deeply troubled, Travis had gone to Engineering. Trip was still there, putting in overtime on his own account, and probably hadn’t been best pleased to be interrupted. Of course, as well as bearing the responsibility for putting right the damage to the ship, the commander was also grieving for his friend as well as commanding officer, on top of the loss of his sister; he too had looked gaunt and worn. In hindsight, maybe it hadn’t been the best idea to lay another burden on his shoulders, that of the welfare of the suffering head of Tactical. But that was the protocol in the situation, and Travis had had little option but to follow it, even if he’d thought better of it at the time.
His ploy had succeeded, superficially at least. Malcolm had been routed out of the Armory and sent to get something to eat – he’d not left the Bridge at lunchtime, contenting himself with the occasional sip from a bottle of water. But clearly his compliance was now at an end.
Now, Travis stared into his stony face and hadn’t a clue what to say. ‘Thank you for rescuing Hoshi’ was obviously in order, but in the circumstances he doubted whether it would be well received. That the Englishman would have given his own life to save her, as he would for any of the crew, there was no doubt. It was beginning to dawn on Travis that for Malcolm, to have saved his own life but not the captain’s was a burden the man would find almost impossible to bear.
“Is there anything else, Ensign?” asked the cold English voice.
For fuck’s sake, Malcolm, let yourself grieve like the rest of us, but stop blaming yourself. But he couldn’t say that, because the other man couldn’t accept it.
“No, sir,” he said sadly, and watched his friend nod silently, turn and walk away up the corridor.
Still, he would not, he could not, just leave this to fester. Though he’d undoubtedly rather be dragged by wild horses than admit it, Malcolm needed help.
Trip? Had already intervened, and most likely didn’t need the extra burden. The … the captain? Probably not the best person to approach about an issue of raging Human emotions, and besides, Travis suspected that she was nowhere near as unmoved by Captain Archer’s loss as she might have been trying to project.
For all their initial hostility at the start of the voyage – sometimes painfully and rather unprofessionally obvious to their juniors – the captain and his XO had slowly developed a real respect and even affection for one another. For all that Vulcans famously eschewed emotion, there was little doubt in Travis’s mind that even T'Pol would grieve for his loss. Maybe that might help her to understand the grief of another of his officers, but it was unlikely she would be able to understand the guilt; after all, Malcolm had been obeying a direct order from his commanding officer when he left the Weapon, and so – logically speaking – he bore no responsibility whatsoever for what had happened thereafter.
Not for the first time, Travis found himself thinking regretfully of Major Hayes. For all that he and Lieutenant Reed had had what could euphemistically have been described as a rather difficult working relationship, Travis wasn’t the only one who thought that Malcolm’s deep sense of insecurity had prevented him from seeing that the MACO was a great guy and a thorough professional just like himself. In other circumstances they might well have become good friends, and towards the end he thought that Malcolm was finally starting to realize Hayes’ quality. Even if that hadn’t happened, if the major had still been alive Travis thought he’d have been the guy to go to for help in this situation. But unfortunately a blast from a Reptilian pulse rifle had taken Hayes in the chest as he was beamed out from the mission to rescue Hoshi, and now nobody would ever know what he’d have counseled with regard to dealing with an uptight Brit whom the captain’s loss had emotionally disemboweled.
Frowning, the helmsman turned away. He was running out of options. Em, Malcolm’s SiC, was on duty, or she would have been his automatic choice as a confidant. He’d already seen her scowl of worry as she settled to her place on the Bridge. No doubt as soon as she was relieved of duty she’d go searching, but there were hours still to go before that could happen; and foreboding sat in his belly like a stone that for all Reed’s rigid code of duty – the guy would undoubtedly feel that ‘doing something stupid’ would be Conduct Unbecoming an Officer – the lieutenant needed help right now.
The two of them were friends. He certainly thought so, and though Malcolm’s prickly English reserve forbade any overt displays of friendliness, he was confident that the feeling was mutual. In addition to their ongoing Chess war (he hadn’t gotten anywhere near winning yet, but he was working on it), they both enjoyed exercise in the gym, and sometimes had sparring sessions just for the fun of it. Maybe they weren’t the most obviously likely guys to enjoy each other’s company, but he liked to think he’d helped Commander Tucker along in lightening up the Brit’s rather somber outlook on life. As a friend, then, surely he ought to be able to come up with some way to break through the barriers that were so clearly there, with Malcolm buried behind them like an animal wanting to hide away and lick its wounds in the dark; that was friends did, wasn’t it?
Well. Seemed like this time it wasn’t. Sometimes – his Mom had told him this – there are just times when however much you want to help, you just can’t.
He was halfway towards his cabin when the idea hit him.
He was looking at this completely the wrong way around.
“You what?” Hoshi peered at Travis blankly.
“Please.” He glanced up and down the corridor, but there was no-one likely to be around at this hour. “Can you spare me just a minute?”
“This better be important.” She stepped back and let him into her quarters.
It wasn’t the first time he’d been in there, but she hadn’t been expecting a visitor tonight. She’d just come out the shower, but was perfectly decent; she was wearing a toweling gown and had her hair swept up in a turban. In her hand she was holding a cup of ginger tea, which she’d only just made.
She pointed him at the chair, and he sat down, while she planted herself on the edge of the bunk and sat sipping her tea and staring at him curiously.
“Spill the beans, Travis,” she said. “Or is this just a social visit?”
“Well, it’s – how are you feeling?” he asked anxiously. They’d talked again at lunchtime, when he’d called in to Sickbay to see how she was getting on, but Phlox had told her it was going to take a while before she was anything like over the experience she’d had; and going by the lingering headache even after a dose of the usually extremely effective painkilling hypospray, the doctor had been right.
She set down the mug of tea, pulled off the towel from her head and started rubbing her hair with it, very cautiously around her temples where the marks from the Reptilians’ torture were still sensitive. “I’m okay, sort of, but I told you that at lunchtime.” She flashed a crooked grin at him. “You look like crap. What’s the problem?”
He looked embarrassed. “It’s Malcolm,” he confessed.
Hoshi stopped rubbing abruptly. “What’s wrong with him?”
“He – I’m worried about him. Because of the captain.”
“Travis. I told you. He tried to volunteer. He said it was his job as Chief Tactical Officer, but Captain Archer sent him away with me and Morgan. I told Trip and T'Pol that too. It wasn’t his fault.”
“I know that. But I’m still worried.”
After a few more, desultory rubs, she lowered the towel. “Yeah. He’ll believe it is his fault,” she said slowly. “He’ll convince himself it is.”
The young helmsman nodded vigorously. “That’s what I think.”
“Look. This has – this has been hard on all of us. He’s tough, he’s a professional. He’ll get over it.”
Travis’s face was usually cheerful, though smiles had been in short supply since the captain’s loss, but there was no trace of a smile on it now. “You think so?”
She took refuge in another swallow of tea. What the hell could they do about it if he wasn’t? It wasn’t like he was easy to approach, or an inveterate talker. She’d seen medieval fortresses back on Earth that must have had less formidable defenses than Malcolm Reed when he’d decided to retreat into his shell.
“Well, maybe not, but–.”
“Hoshi. There’s no ‘maybe’ about it. I swear, the guy needs help.”
“Help! What the hell? Do you want your head shot off?”
“It doesn’t have to be.” He leaned forward eagerly. “If you can just play along…”
If Phlox could see me now, he’d sedate me for a month.
Hoshi slipped out of the shuttle bay and headed for the turbo-lift. She was lucky not to have been seen, but she’d timed her visit carefully; there weren’t likely to be many people about.
Still, what she was doing was pretty serious. Some of her wondered what the heck she’d been thinking of, letting Travis talk her into it. Most of the rest of her wondered if she’d get away without a reprimand on her file. What remained was doggedly determined that sometimes you just had to take a risk, especially when the guy you were taking it for was the guy who’d trade his own safety for yours without a moment’s hesitation.
She wondered darkly for a moment whether Travis was quite as disingenuous as he’d appeared to be. Because Malcolm wasn’t the only person with … well… issues to deal with from the last few days.
Still – the lieutenant was nobody’s fool. Just let him get one sniff of the idea that he’d been set up, and he’d probably never forgive either of them.
She stepped back into her room and drew a deep breath. Then she changed into her pajamas and got into bed.
And then she picked up the phase pistol she’d ‘borrowed’ from Shuttlepod Two, and fired.
Unauthorised weapons fire on the ship!
He might be officially off duty, but in effect, Malcolm Reed was as perpetually on call as the captain. The alarm shrilled out of his computer, and he leaped out of the bunk where he’d been lying sleepless, glanced at the screen, grabbed the phase pistol from the drawer of his desk and darted out into the corridor.
The blinking image of the alert had showed him that the weapon discharge had taken place in Ensign Sato’s cabin. Fear and anger dispelling the miasma of the previous hours like a hurricane wind, he sped along the corridor and rather than waste time waiting for the turbo-lift – the Security response team would probably use that – swarmed up the access ladder and raced around the remaining curvature of the corridor on ‘E’ Deck. He arrived outside Sato’s quarters panting for breath, but the first on the scene.
“Ensign!” he shouted, his fingers on the door control panel, ready to key in his emergency override.
There was no response, but he thought he heard crying.
Without hesitation, he slammed in the code. As the door hissed back, he darted inside, covering the room with the pistol – but there was no intruder in sight.
Ensign Sato was in bed. Her blankets were in utter disorder, and she was huddled back in one corner, wild-eyed. And clutched in one hand she had a phase pistol – fortunately not aimed at him, at least for the present.
“Ensign.” His heart thudding, he tried to speak calmly. “Are you all right?”
Her eyes were brimming with tears. “I had a nightmare.”
“A... a nightmare?” He bit his lip. If anyone was entitled to nightmares, it was Hoshi Sato, but being in possession of a weapon as dangerous as this... how the hell had she got hold of it?
She still looked as though she wasn’t sure where she was. Awkwardly, to make himself appear less threatening to her, he squatted down. “You’re quite safe now,” he said gently. Questions could wait till later. “You’re back on Enterprise. We won’t let anyone hurt you again.”
“I was scared,” she wept. For a moment he hadn’t been quite sure she was genuine, but real tears were coursing down her face now. “I was so scared!”
“Of course you were. I would have been scared.” And that was no lie; when he’d finally come face to face with the hulking brutes that were Xindi reptilians, he’d understood far better why the captain had returned from imprisonment looking as though he’d gone twelve rounds in a boxing ring with a heavyweight champion. How it must have been for a slip of a lass like Hoshi, alone in their power…
“Please. Just hold me,” she entreated, to his horrified dismay.
At that moment the clatter of boots in the corridor outside announced the arrival of the security detail. Anxious to preserve his junior officer’s dignity, he activated the comm. and said that the situation was under control and he’d file a report on the incident in due course. Nobody needed to know that he was in a state of advanced undress either – fortunately not a complete one – though he hurriedly filched a towel that was lying over a chair and wrapped it around his lower half, contributing rather more to the propriety of dress that was appropriate for the occasion.
It was against regulations for him to be alone in a cabin with a partly-dressed junior officer. It was entirely improper. Generations of Reeds span in their graves as Malcolm moved forward and sat gingerly on the edge of the bunk, taking his opportunity to gently detach the illicit pistol from its occupant’s fingers and lay it aside on the floor beside his own.
He was far too uncomfortable and embarrassed to make the first move, apart from awkwardly taking her hand. Fortunately for him, Hoshi helped herself, hitching over to wrap her arms around him. Hot tears ran down his collarbone as she buried her face in the angle of his neck.
However proper, it would have been utterly inhumane to have sat unresponsive in the face of such obvious need. Slowly his arms closed around her, and he patted her gently between the shoulder blades. “You’re safe now,” he said again, inadequately.
“I ought to have done more,” she wept. “I tried. I really tried. But I couldn’t stop them. I should have been able to.”
Her guilt struck like an axe blade into his own, and suddenly he too was on the verge of tears. “I know you did your best,” he said, his voice rather choked. “But sometimes however hard you try, it’s … it’s just not meant to be.”
“I tried to kill myself. I haven’t told anybody that. But they caught me. The bastards. They made me tell them.”
The thought of her in such fear and despair that she would attempt suicide made him tighten his arms around her, and for a moment they clung to each other, united in the experience of that depth of agony. “You tried your hardest,” he muttered against her hair, feeling helpless. “You did your best. That’s all anyone can ask of any of us. And if – if you hadn’t been there, we’d never have known how to beat the Weapon’s internal safeguards.”
For a long moment he hesitated behind his walls; but why should she have to believe herself the only one of the crew who had something to reproach themselves with?
“I should have done better too,” he mumbled. “I’ve ... I’ve wondered ever since, if ... if the captain wasn’t prepared enough... if I should have insisted he did more training...”
She gave a watery chuckle. “‘Insisted’?”
“I could have done.”
“You could have tried.” She raised her head to show him drowned eyes that he suddenly realised with a shock were profoundly beautiful. “You think it would have helped Enterprise to have Hayes promoted over your head because the captain wanted a yes-man who wouldn’t rock the boat?”
“He was more than that.”
“He was. But I’m asking you to answer me honestly, Malcolm. If I looked through your assessments of the self-defence capabilities of this crew, would I find one entry against Captain Archer that said ‘Needs more training’?”
“Maybe it might have saved him if there had been,” he said bitterly.
“And maybe he slipped on a patch of oil and fell, and nothing any of us could have done would have saved him. Malcolm, we’ll never know.” She patted his face gently, consolingly. The small, soft friendliness reached into the freezing wasteland inside him, a thawing wind from the South.
“We both did our best. In the end, we helped the captain do what had to be done. That’s all he wanted. That’s all we were there for. That was our duty. Anything else ... well, he wouldn’t have said there was anything else. Apart from protecting the ship, of course. And we all know whose job that is.”
'Firstly, you must always implicitly obey orders, without attempting to form any opinion of your own respecting their propriety…’
…If Nelson had been able to look centuries into the future, he couldn’t have found more fitting words for it.
“Yes,” said Malcolm, feeling the first faint beginnings of a weary peace steal into his soul. “And I suppose it still is.”
It didn’t mean that he was guiltless, both for sins of omission and commission. But posterity would have to have the last say on that; and at least posterity would still be alive to do so.
The captain would have been proud.
Travis was always an early riser, but next day he was up even earlier than usual.
Which meant that he was dawdling outside Sickbay when Hoshi arrived for her morning check-over by Phlox.
But she wasn’t alone. She was escorted by Lieutenant Reed, who walked beside her with a gravely supportive air until they reached the doors, at which point he nodded to Travis and said he’d see both of them on the Bridge later. Then he walked away, heading no doubt for the Armory, just to make sure it hadn’t disappeared while he wasn’t looking.
“Did it work?” Travis whispered urgently, as soon as the lieutenant had turned the corner.
Hoshi was staring after her companion, an oddly thoughtful look on her face. “I think so.”
“You think so.” He looked at her more closely. “Hoshi, are you okay?”
“Oh yes. I am now. I’m getting there, anyway.”
He’d have liked to question her a bit more, but at that moment Phlox beamed at them both through the glass and beckoned Hoshi in.
“See you in the Mess Hall?” he asked. It hadn’t looked as though Lieutenant Reed was going to put her on report for unauthorized use of a firearm, but he’d had a few pangs of conscience himself on that score late last night; Malcolm was a stickler when it came to weapons…
“Sure.” She smiled warmly at him, and squeezed his hand. “It’s going to be all right, Travis. I’m sure it will, now.”
He smiled back, relief spreading through him.
Breakfast was the next item on the agenda. As he walked back towards the turbo-lift, he thought to himself that it wasn’t going to be easy for a while, not for any of them – but the captain had forged a team capable of surviving anything, even his own demise.
And as long they were all there to support each other, that was all that mattered.