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"Okay, let's start off simply." Malcolm Reed, chief armory officer of the starship Enterprise, ran a hand through his dark hair and repressed a sigh. He rather doubted they were going to progress beyond simple this go-round, but he couldn't exactly say that to his captain. He conjured up what he hoped was an encouraging smile and knew he'd pulled it off when he received a small nod from the sparring room's third occupant. Commander Tucker was on hand for purposes of damage control, mostly, just in case the captain's evaluation went as badly as Reed expected it to. After all, Archer had been proving over and over again in hand-to-hand combat situations that fighting was something he couldn't quite pull off successfully on a regular basis, and that was completely unacceptable for the captain of Starfleet's flagship. Malcolm let that thought fortify him for what was to come. "I want you to come at me, attack me," he told the waiting man. "Your goal is to knock me off my feet."

Archer hesitated. Like Reed and Tucker, he was barefoot and dressed only in sweatpants and a t-shirt. "Just...come at you?" he asked.

"Yes, just..." Reed was suddenly busy fending off a very fast and not at all unskilled attack. He evaded it in spite of his surprise, his fighting instincts kicking in automatically, and put the older man flat on his back on the mat before stepping back. "Good," he approved. "That's a good start."

"Fell a bit harder than I intended to," Archer said, rolling to his feet and shrugging. "I apologize, Lieutenant, I underestimated you."

Likewise, Reed thought. Then again, it could have been luck. Only one way to find out. "All right then, try it again now that you think you've got my measure."

This time the attack was more deliberate, better planned...and surprisingly successful. Reed found himself looking up at his captain and an openmouthed chief engineer from the position Archer had so recently been occupying on the mat. "That was... a move I've never seen before," he admitted slowly, climbing back to his feet and feeling a twinge in his hip from the unexpected fall. What had surprised him most was that it was a move he'd never seen Jonathan Archer use before, and yet the man had just pulled it off in the flawless, near-instinctive manner of long practice. "Try it again, if you would; I'd like to see if I can counter it."

Archer complied. This time Reed was half-expecting the fall and controlled it better, but he still went down. The captain was looking more than a little smug. "Are you all right, Lieutenant?"

"Oh, quite," the armory officer answered, peeling himself off the mat again. He saw Tucker try to hide what he was sure was a giggle and his gray eyes narrowed ever so slightly. "Perhaps I need to observe the move from a different angle. Commander, would you take my place for a moment, please?"

Tucker made a face at him. "Oh sure, pick on the audience," he grumbled, but he stepped up in front of Archer when Reed stepped back and assumed a ready stance. "All right, Cap'n, ready when you..."

Reed found it very difficult to restrain a very unprofessional giggle of his own when the engineer hit the mat with a loud thud. "Oh yes, I think I see how it works now. But perhaps once more? And this time you could try to block it, Commander?"

The look he got in return carried a blatant promise of retribution, but Reed just smiled innocently at the other man and Tucker got back up grumbling. Archer was smiling too. "When is Trip's next evaluation due, just out of curiosity?"

The armory officer's smile widened, and he set his curiosity over the captain's sudden improvement aside for later; he would ask Tucker about it once they were done here, perhaps the engineer would have some reason for the inconsistency. "I'll be sure to let you know, sir. Now why don't we move along to the next part of your evaluation..."

 

The captain's evaluation had been completed far more quickly than expected, freeing Lieutenant Reed up to complete the work that he'd set aside to fill the rest of his day and thereby leaving him with unexpected free time that afternoon. Any plans he might have been tempted to make, however, had been interrupted by a summons from the ship's chief engineer, which he was currently on his way to answer with a little curiosity and a healthy amount of suspicion; after all, he had seen to rather thoroughly embarrassing the man in front of the captain and he knew Tucker well enough to be expecting eventual retribution. If he admitted it to himself, he was even looking forward to it as an exercise in matching wits. He hit the buzzer at the door to Tucker's quarters and announced, "I'm here as requested, Commander."

The door opened. "C'mon in," Tucker told him, not getting up from his seat. His terminal was on but he wasn't looking at it, he was just staring up at the curve of the ceiling. "We've got a problem."

"Well, that is a mostly accurate assessment," Reed agreed. "You have the problem of being below standard in hand-to-hand combat and I have the problem of having to teach you better." The engineer snorted softly at the ceiling but didn't otherwise respond and Reed tried again. "Did you just send for me so you wouldn't have to sulk alone, then?"

Blue eyes swung down to look at him, no trace of humor evident in their tired depths. Tucker sighed and waved the armory officer to take a seat. "What you asked me after the captain's evaluation, I found what we were lookin' for. Or lookin' at, anyway. Earlier."

Reed didn't understand the reference but he stopped teasing his friend and settled onto the only other chair in the room, looking curiously at the image frozen on the small screen. "I take it I'm not going to like this discovery?"

"I sure as hell didn't." The engineer's normally fluid drawl had a raw, strained edge to it that Reed had never heard from him before. "You remember this mornin' when we were sparrin' with the captain, that really fast takedown move he has?"

"A highly effective fighting tactic," the other man answered affirmatively. "I was rather surprised..."

"And you're about to be all over again," Tucker said. He pushed a button and the frozen image jerked back into motion. It was footage of Archer facing off against several aliens whom Reed remembered from an incident about a month previous, yet another embarrassingly ineffective confrontation. He was just opening his mouth to ask what it was he was supposed to be seeing...when he saw it, and his mouth dropped open in shock. Tucker froze the footage again, nodding tiredly. "Yep."

"He didn't...he didn't follow through." Reed was all but stammering. "It was like he forgot what he was supposed to be doing halfway through the move!"

"Which is impossible," Tucker said flatly. He rewound the record and played the sequence again. "That move is ingrained in his fighting style, it's not somethin' he thinks about using. But you can see right there," he pointed, "he started to make his move and then froze like someone had flipped a switch. It was only for a second..."

"But in battle a second is all it takes." The security officer's sharp eyes hadn't left the screen. "Could you back this up frame by frame? I thought I saw something." Tucker poked at another button and the action began to jerk backwards in miniscule increments. "There! Right there, look at his face." The engineer squinted, and then his wide blue eyes jerked up to meet Reed's narrowing gray ones. The security chief's expression was grim. "Flipped a switch, you said?"

 

"Hypnotic conditioning," was Dr. Phlox' matching conclusion not half an hour later. He looked almost as grim as Tucker and Reed, not a normal expression on his perpetually cheerful face. "I can't be certain without testing him, of course, but from the looks of that reaction an implanted command kicked in just at that instant."

"So now we just have to figure out who implanted it and why." Tucker was caught somewhere between being furious and being sickened, and Reed looked about the same. "Had to've been someone tryin' to get him killed, tyin' his hands like that."

Reed nodded slowly. "Precisely what I was thinking. And it cannot have been any of the alien races we've encountered so far on this mission, because Captain Archer has been...ineffectual in hand to hand combat the entire time. Which means whatever has been done to him took place before he took command of the Enterprise. Commander, I know you and he have been friends for some time..."

"Last time I saw him get into a dust-up before we got here the man kicked ass and took names," Tucker said, waving his hand dismissively. "And he didn't have no problem sparrin' with you and I this mornin' either."

"No, he showed no hesitation at all, did he?" The security chief looked thoughtful. "And it can't be a fear reaction to the aliens, if he were xenophobic he wouldn't be out here."

"No, we screen rather thoroughly for that," Phlox agreed. "If anything, the captain errs rather too much in the opposite direction, I would say. And there is nothing in his medical records which would indicate this sort of psychological tampering, nor does he possess any suicidal tendencies which might account for his behavior."

"Jon's not the suicidal type," Tucker agreed. "So what we're lookin' at is someone who...I don't know, who's out to get him and usin' him as a weapon against himself?"

"Or against the exploration program." Reed's suspicious mind had found another, more disturbing answer. "This is the flagship for Earth, the first of its kind. And if we prove we can do this, claim our place among the stars...there are those who will be none too pleased."

Phlox frowned. "Conspiracy theories, Lieutenant?"

Reed ignored him. He locked eyes with Tucker. "Where was Captain Archer directly before he came aboard?"

The answer was immediate. "Starfleet Command, for two weeks. I was s'posed to go with him but they ordered me off to check on somethin' at the last minute." The engineer swallowed. "Had to have happened then; he was fine before, just fine."

"Can you break hypnotic conditioning, Doctor?" Reed demanded of the still-frowning Denobulan. "If your tests show that commands have been implanted in the captain's mind, can you fix it?"

"If such a thing has happened," Phlox spoke carefully, cautiously, "it is possible that I could do something about it, yes. But that would depend on what was done and how..."

"Or if it was done at all?" The doctor made a face and Reed arched an eyebrow at him. "I know this sounds improbable, Doctor, but as chief of security aboard this ship I cannot afford to ignore the possibility. You can agree, I'm sure, that the possibility someone has tampered with the captain's mind represents a grave risk to the entire crew?" Phlox nodded slowly. "Who has done this is not your concern, it's mine. You repair the damage, I will see to the task of identifying whoever caused it—and as our suspicions are very broad at this point, I'm afraid I must insist that no one else be appraised of what is transpiring lest the investigation be compromised."

"In other words," Phlox clarified with a slight grimace, "you do not wish me to speak of this to Sub-Commander T'Pol."

"Prob'ly wouldn't be a good idea," Tucker said seriously. "Look at it this way, Doc; if we bring her in on this she's gonna have to report it and then what'll happen? The only evidence we've got right now looks a whole lot like incompetence or somethin' worse on the part of our captain, and that ain't gonna go over real well back home—matter of fact, I'd say that within an hour of them findin' out we'll be recalled to Earth and this mission will be scratched, maybe for good. And I for one am not ready to just stand back and let that happen, because that could very well be the reason this was done to Jon in the first place." He took a deep breath. "I'm third in command of Enterprise, and I'll take full responsibility for keepin' this thing a secret. You don't worry about that end of things either, Doc, you just take care of the captain."

Phlox nodded again, but his ever-present smile had returned. "Very well, Commander," he agreed. "You are correct; ship's security and command issues are not my area of expertise, so I will leave that in your and Lieutenant Reed's capable hands." He made eye contact with both men, seeing their worry and knowing the burden the situation was already putting on them—a burden that was only going to increase. He knew how to ease some slight part of that, however. "I trust you both," he said deliberately. "Now, have you any suggestions for getting the captain in for an examination without causing suspicion? He is not due for any routine attention from me at present."

Tucker and Reed looked at each other, and the armory officer shrugged. "Perhaps we could say he may have picked up some virus or other on the last away mission?"

"Yeah, but he wasn't the only one that went down there. If he's sick then I should be too," the engineer protested. Reed raised an eyebrow and an expression of denial flitted across Tucker's face, which then crumpled into resigned acceptance. "And I suppose that me bein' on the sick list will give us a real good chance to do some off-duty snoopin' around, right?" The other man just grinned, and Tucker sighed and shook his head. "You damn well better visit me every day - and not just so we can share information."

"Twice a day, perhaps even more," Reed assured him, patting his slumped shoulder. He winked at Phlox. "Now Doctor, I believe the Commander here is in danger of eminent collapse - that was why the two of us came to see you, after all. Do you have any idea what horrendous ailment he is being stricken with?"

"I may at that, Lieutenant," the doctor told him. A twinkle had appeared in his eye. "If you would assist Commander Tucker over to one of the biobeds, I believe I can give you the diagnosis you require."

"Now why don't I find that the least bit reassurin'?" Tucker groused, but he allowed himself to be dragged across the room. "I just know I'm gonna regret this..."

 

Archer was in his ready room working on a mission report when T'Pol came in. He sighed but didn't stop what he was doing; he'd left orders that he didn't want to be disturbed, so whatever it was must be important enough to have brought her in to disturb him. "Something I can help you with, Sub-Commander?"

"Dr. Phlox requests your presence in Sickbay at once," she told him, the barest touch of concern in her level voice; she knew the information she had to impart would be upsetting to the captain. "Commander Tucker has apparently fallen ill, and the doctor suspects that you may be similarly afflicted."

"Trip is sick?" Archer was already out of his chair. "Did Phlox say how..."

"He seems to think the disease is treatable," she answered. "Apparently Lieutenant Reed was with the commander when he began to feel ill and took him to Sickbay just in time. The doctor suspects it may have been a virus picked up on the last planet we visited."

"Just in time? I don't like the sound of that," was Archer's reply. "All right, I don't feel sick but I'll go down there and let him poke and prod me just to make sure. You have the con."

He said the last as he was crossing the bridge, heading for the lift, and he saw several worried faces turn in his direction as the doors closed on him. Archer's own worry was writhing inside him like a live thing. He and Tucker had been friends for years, the best of friends. What nightmare was waiting for him in Sickbay? Just in time?

He hurried into Sickbay and stopped dead in his tracks when he saw Tucker stretched out on one of the biobeds. Then engineer had been stripped down to his regulation blues and his exposed skin was flushed and spotted with irregular livid reddish-purple patches. A mask covered his nose and mouth, the plastic fogging with each short, panted breath. Reed was standing beside the bed, and when the armory officer looked up from the unconscious man Archer saw that his face was lined with worry. "How bad?" he demanded.

Phlox bustled around the corner at that moment, minus his smile, and spoke before Reed could answer. "Everything is under control, Captain," he said briskly. "Commander Tucker will recover and should have no lasting effects, but right now we need to make sure you do the same. Now come with me..."

The doctor hustled Archer away, the captain looking back over his shoulder worriedly at his unconscious friend as they left the room, and Reed breathed a silent sigh of relief. He patted Tucker's head gently, the short dark blond hair softly damp under his hand. If he himself didn't know that the engineer wasn't really sick, he'd think the man was at death's door. Reed smiled to himself. Phlox had really handled the whole thing very neatly, even to the point of knocking Tucker out with a discretely applied hypo before beginning the preparations for their little deception; the doctor had said it would be easier that way as well as sparing the commander embarrassment, and so it had on both counts. Reed had no doubt that Tucker wouldn't have taken their 'preparations' gracefully - he knew for damn sure he himself wouldn't have. Especially not the bit with the slugs.

The armory officer kept one ear trained behind him, listening to the doctor fill Archer's ears with doubletalk and admiring the apparent ease with which he did it. The story they'd concocted was that the supposed virus first attacked the victim's brain, causing increasing discoordination and confusion which would then be followed by physical collapse and the onset of the symptoms Tucker was displaying so beautifully for Archer's benefit. The doctor had been confident that he could find and hopefully deactivate the implanted commands in the captain's mind under the guise of treating the effects of the nonexistent virus, and Reed hoped for all their sakes he was right or the three of them were going to be sharing a detention cell all the way back to Earth.

He leaned in close to Tucker, close enough to feel the warmth rising off of the other man's skin. "I'll be back, just like I promised," he whispered. One blue eye cracked open, conveyed acceptance of that and then closed again as the engineer gave him a minuscule nod. "We'll catch the bastards, Trip, I swear it." A final pat to his friend's blond hair and Reed forced himself to exit the room...although he couldn't stop himself from turning back for one last look. If he didn't know it wasn't real...

 

Reed was busy the rest of that evening, relaying messages from Phlox, enforcing a temporary quarantine of Sickbay and doing his best to deflect Sub-Commander T'Pol's questions about the 'virus' that had infected the captain and chief engineer. He then spent a large part of the night checking records under the guise of looking for other instances of the same illness, compiling a list of incidents that might have bearing on his investigation. So far, the majority of the crew was clear; no one except Archer had been at Starfleet Command for an extended time just prior to Enterprise's initial launch, and he found no inconsistent behavior patterns recorded that matched the ones the captain had been displaying.

Well, at least no obviously inconsistent patterns - there were still a few crew members that would require him to dig a little deeper, Sub-Commander T'Pol among them. He was just crossing his fingers that Phlox was all right, not knowing enough about Denobulans to tell for sure. But if he was wrong about Phlox...

Reed hurried through breakfast, telling himself the whole while that he was just being paranoid and that everything was fine. Phlox was fine, Tucker was fine, the captain would be fine. He almost managed to convince himself of it, too. But if anyone had asked him what he'd had for breakfast or if he'd finished it, he wouldn't have been able to tell them.

He forced himself to walk at a normal pace all the way down to Sickbay, he even managed to respond appropriately to the crewmen he passed in the corridors, but he was nonetheless relieved when he reached his destination and keyed in his security clearance to open the quarantine lock. Phlox wasn't in the front, but his voice called out a greeting to which the armory officer responded with relief, following it back to the patient area of Sickbay. Reed froze when he saw that Tucker was strapped down to the biobed and all but writhing against the restraints, but Phlox had a vaguely pleased expression on his face so the armory officer had to assume this was all part of the game. "And how is the captain this morning?" he asked the doctor.

"Oh fine, fine; the growth of the virus has been halted and he'll recover nicely once the treatment has been completed," Phlox answered. "Commander Tucker proved a bit more problematic, but once I managed to stop him from scratching it was all right. Of course, the captain will be in approximately the same state by tomorrow, but since we caught him before the full onset of the virus I have hopes that his reaction will be minimal."

"Glad to hear it," Reed said, managing to sound sincere in spite of the fact he'd already known Archer's symptoms wouldn't be mirroring Tucker's exactly. He stepped up beside the engineer's bed. "Well, Commander, I hear you're a troublesome patient today. Had to be contained, did you?"

"Itches..." Tucker opened his eyes and gave Reed a look that was a desperate plea for help. "Oh god, make it stop, I can't stand it!"

Reed's amused smile fell off and horror took its place. "This isn't..." Suddenly the restraints, the writhing, took on a whole new and terrible meaning. And Tucker's blue eyes actually had tears in them. "Dr. Phlox!"

The doctor wandered over, seemingly not alarmed. "I assure you, Lieutenant, he is getting better. I only restrained him to keep him from scratching."

"Exactly!" the armory officer hissed. "Doctor, have you given him anything to ease the itch, anything at all?" Phlox' 'why would I do that' look was answer enough and fury flooded through Reed. "Sir, perhaps you were not privy to this little physiological tidbit, but intense itching can drive a human completely mad—it's a technique some torturers have been known to use, more effective than pain by half. Now go get something to fix this!"

"Oh dear, I didn't know." Phlox was genuinely upset. "One moment, I'll be back with some topical analgesic ointment, that should do the trick."

Reed jerked his head in acknowledgment and turned back to his friend, his stomach twisting with roiling emotions. How long had Tucker been suffering, an hour, three, half the night? Sometimes he cursed Starfleet for not sending them along a human doctor - and were he ever to get the opportunity, he just might do that cursing in person. Very gently, he wiped the tears from the corners of Tucker's eyes with his fingertips and then cradled the engineer's face in his hands. He spoke soothingly. "It's all right, Trip, it's going to be all right. Phlox is getting something to stop the itch, he'll be right back."

The anguished blue eyes blinked back open. "Mal? Itch..."

"I know, we'll get it taken care of." He began stroking Tucker's hair again. "Now do your best to relax, it will all be over momentarily." He kept up the soothing litany and remained where he was even after Phlox came back and began to apply the ointment to the scaly red patches of rash the slugs had left, and soon the taut tension in the engineer's body began to melt into relieved trembling. Malcolm knew the captain was listening from the next bed so he couldn't apologize properly - or force Phlox to - but he kept his gray eyes locked on the bloodshot, watery blue ones below him and did his best to convey his feelings without words.

Doctor Phlox finished with the ointment and set it aside with a sigh. "I am so sorry, Commander," he told the engineer quietly. "That was absolutely inexcusable of me, to allow you to suffer like that. I assure you it won't be allowed to happen again while you're here." He pressed a hypospray against the side of Tucker's neck and the engineer went completely limp with a sigh of pure relief. "Mr. Reed, just help me remove these restraints if you would. Oh, you will be happy to know that the virus did not come from the planet, it was apparently a dormant organism which the atmosphere of the planet activated."

It was their agreed-upon cover story and Reed nodded. He still wasn't happy, but he forced his feelings out of the way for the time being; they had a job to do, and if he botched it everything they were putting Tucker through was going to be wasted. "That is good to know, Doctor. Now that the commander is taken care of," he couldn't quite keep the accusatory edge out of his voice on that statement, "how goes your treatment of Captain Archer?"

"That's a question I'd like answered too," Archer said tiredly from where he was sitting up in his own bed. Both men turned to look at him, and he scowled. "Come on now, Doc, I don't like to be kept in the dark."

"Oh, I am well aware of that, Captain," Phlox said with a smile. He filed away for future reference the way Reed hesitated over relinquishing physical contact with Tucker as the two of them moved to stand beside Archer. "I have just about completed my study of your neural scans, and what I have found so far are several small areas in your brain tissue where the virus has set up housekeeping. We can begin repairing those immediately, but I will warn you that once they are eradicated you will unfortunately develop physical symptoms similar to Commander Tucker's." He grimaced and shot a quick look at Reed, whose gray eyes had narrowed again. "This time, however, I will be more thorough in my treatment of the symptoms. Lieutenant, if you would stay here momentarily while I go fetch what I'll need, I'd like to begin the captain's treatment right now."

"Certainly, Doctor," Reed agreed distractedly. The implications of Phlox' carefully worded explanation had shaken him: several areas had been affected, i.e. more than one command had been implanted in Archer's mind. Could that be the reason the captain often ignored basic security protocols and his chief security officer's recommendations, because he'd been 'ordered' not to take proper precautions? And what could the other areas possibly be? He could think of a few things that might make sense in that light, like Archer's apparent fascination with T'Pol, but it shook him to think that others might be little time bombs which had not yet been triggered...or that could be set off by tampering. He returned the frown Archer was giving him but shook his head. "Just thinking, Captain," he explained. "Wondering if this search and destroy mission the doctor is about to embark on could be analogous to navigating a minefield."

Archer didn't look like he appreciated that analogy. "You would think of that, wouldn't you?" he observed, not quite accusingly.

Reed shrugged. "You are the captain of this ship, sir, and anything that could affect your command is necessarily a security issue. Attempting to insure your personal safety is part of my job." He just barely smiled. "Usually a damned difficult part, but I haven't given up yet. And as the doctor has already overlooked the obvious once today I feel it necessary to keep an eye on this situation."

Archer sighed and closed his eyes, rubbing the bridge of his nose. "He didn't know, Lieutenant," he said. "How was he supposed to? Trip has a tendency to overreact to things; Phlox just thought he was being a baby about it."

Had the captain's eyes been open he would have seen his chief armory officer's mouth drop open in shock, although Reed just as quickly contained the reaction. Internally, however, he was beyond horrified; he'd heard the click of another switch in the casually made statement - as a matter of fact, it was because it had been made so casually that he'd heard it at all. No, Phlox hadn't known about the itching...but Archer had been right here, wide awake, the entire time. And he hadn't said a word.

The captain's insistence on taking Tucker with him to a bakingly hot desert planet suddenly made sickening sense, as did the man's apparent loss of common sense during the events that had transpired there. Somewhere in Archer's mind a command had activated that day, an order mandating the death of one Commander Charles Tucker III, chief engineer of Enterprise...and one of the captain's oldest friends.

Malcolm forced his mind back on track. "Well, it's all taken care of now," he responded to Archer's statement with forced detachment. He was saved from having to continue by the doctor's return, and he at once put forth his concern. "Doctor, I was thinking...have you checked the affected areas of the captain's brain to see if they are at all connected?"

"Connected?" Phlox looked startled by the idea, and then thoughtful. "I didn't see any signs of that, but then I wasn't specifically looking for it either. You're theorizing that they could be interconnected and that attacking one might result in a reaction by one or more of the others, is that it?"

"Like a string of explosive charges," Reed said, nodding. "Tampering with the wrong one or in the wrong order could set off the others."

The doctor thought for a minute and then tapped on the padd he had with him. "It is possible," he replied. "And I believe your analogy might hold the solution, Lieutenant. Were we dealing with explosives, how would you expect to find a 'trigger' charge set?"

"Last," the armory officer answered immediately and with certainty; since they were in a manner of speaking dealing with bombs set by humans and not a mindless virus, he was confident he was right. "It's always the last charge, it has to be or you couldn't set up the others safely. Is there any way to tell..."

"Yes, I can assess with some degree of certainty what order the particular areas were affected in," Phlox said carefully. The minefield analogy had shaken him a bit; he had temporarily forgotten that they were dealing with strategy and not biology. "And any steps we can take to prevent possible brain damage are certainly worth investigating."

"You could find out of the lieutenant's theory is correct by checking Trip first," Archer suggested. "It might be worthwhile to know if he's got brain damage before you start poking around in my head, don't you think?"

It was all Reed could do not to wince, but Phlox appeared not to notice the callous edge to the captain's sarcasm. "I will need to do a more thorough scan on him, certainly," the doctor said. Like Reed, he was being very careful to maintain the cover story they'd concocted - and he'd already explained his need to hold off on 'curing' Archer by citing that the need for expediency in Tucker's case had forced him to act blindly against the virus without having time to study it properly. "But I don't see any need to delay your treatment, Captain - after all, the longer we let it go, the worse your symptoms will be when your body begins to rid itself of the dead virus." He helped Archer to get off the biobed and then led him into the main part of Sickbay where the more sophisticated diagnostic scanners were located. Reed lent a hand getting his captain into position, eyeing the restraining straps on the sides of the bed and wondering if they were going to need them. They didn't; Archer had just barely gotten situated when Phlox hit him with a loaded hypo and put him down for the count. "There," he said, sounding tired. "I certainly hope you didn't want to ask him anything else, Lieutenant."

"No, I'd heard quite enough," Reed assured him, grimacing. "Should we strap him in just to be on the safe side?"

"Yes," Phlox said immediately, surprising him. "I have no way of knowing what is going to happen once I begin eradicating the commands, and to use your minefield analogy any of them could 'go off' at any time. And having the captain regain consciousness and attempt to escape during the procedure would not be a good idea for a multitude of reasons." He picked up the straps on his side of the bed and passed them to the armory officer to be secured. "I have him very heavily sedated, but it's better to be on the safe side just in case. Were you planning to stay and watch, Lieutenant?"

"Yes, just tell me where to stand so I'll be out of your way - but I need to be able to see everything you're doing," Reed told him. "And having an audio record might not be a bad idea either."

The doctor raised an eyebrow. "Concerned about repercussions, are we? Bit late for that, don't you think?"

"For me yes, but not for you," Reed informed him. "Someone needs to be able to back you up when you tell what happened, especially if something goes wrong."

"I appreciate the thought, but let's hope nothing does," Phlox replied with a grimace of his own. "All right then, move up just a step to the left and you'll be able to watch me and the monitors at the same time. And I'll dictate every step of the procedure as I go, but feel free to add your own comments to the record as well." He began to bustle around with his equipment, attaching things and making adjustments, and after about five minutes all was ready.

All in all, the whole procedure took about half an hour, and then Phlox performed a thorough scan of the still-sleeping engineer and Malcolm himself just to be sure neither of them had been tampered with the way the captain had. "A very professional job," Phlox told Reed once he was finished, frowning over the data while noting out of the corner of his eye that the armory officer had managed to get back in physical contact with Tucker again, this time with a hand resting lightly on his arm. "Interconnected, just like you theorized, Lieutenant, and done with enough subtlety to prevent the tampering from showing up on a normal evaluation. I shudder to think what might have happened if yourself and Commander Tucker hadn't noticed the discrepancy and reported it to me."

"What already has happened is quite bad enough," Reed rebutted quietly. He was thinking about the desert planet again, about the harsh, panting rasp of Tucker's labored breathing in the close confines of the shuttle as they escaped the planet's grasp, about how his own heart had almost stopped when the noise had abruptly ceased - it was because T'Pol had fitted an oxygen mask on the stricken man, but Malcolm hadn't known that until later. He still didn't know how Tucker was going to take the realization that his 'best friend' had tried to kill him - if he hadn't figured it out already. Malcolm hoped he hadn't. "Have you checked yourself?" he asked the doctor. "Or can Denobulans..."

"No, not like that," Phlox reassured him, not taking offense. "My brain operates on a different frequency than yours, the procedure that was used on the captain would have no effect on me at all." He cocked an eyebrow. "Shouldn't you have asked me that question yesterday, before you left the captain and Mr. Tucker in my care?"

Reed shrugged. "There really wasn't anything else I could do, Doctor - and since we weren't sure of the exact nature of the problem yesterday, I didn't really have a question I could ask you." He cocked an eyebrow of his own. "Not to mention that if you had been affected, the fact that we'd told you would have already put the commander and I in jeopardy anyway. And I did take precautions." He hadn't, of course, because there hadn't been any he could take, but Phlox didn't need to know that. "When would you say Commander Tucker will be ready to leave Sickbay, then? He and I need to go over some things before you spring the captain, I'm going to have to find a reason to go over the logs again and I'd like him to help me."

Phlox smiled. "I believe I can concoct an appropriate reason for you - for the benefit of the captain's ears, of course, and perhaps the sub-commander's as well?"

"Perhaps." The armory officer shrugged again. "But it's best to have an official reason for poking around. My excuse yesterday was looking for more incidences of the 'virus' by checking crew records and evaluations for documented erratic behavior, so we can't use that one again."

"No, but I believe I have a solution that will suit yours and Mr. Tucker's needs." The doctor's smile widened, not only from the idea he'd concocted but also because he'd seen Reed's hand tighten on the sleeping engineer's arm in what was almost an affectionate - or perhaps possessive? - squeeze. Human mating behavior, fascinating stuff. Phlox didn't think the lieutenant was aware of what he was doing, however, so he kept his observation to himself. "You can come back to fetch him in approximately four hours, he should be more than ready to leave by then. I will apprise him of the role he needs to play to provide your excuse, so all you'll have to do is just play along for the captain. Who will also most likely be recovered enough to return to his quarters at that time."

Reed shook his head. "About that, Doctor..."

 

The next four hours dragged by like each one was coated in syrup, and it was all Reed could do not to bound up out of his seat on the bridge at the end of his shift - actually, it had been all he could do during his shift not to stare at Sub-Commander T'Pol in hopes that she'd do something odd to confirm his suspicions about her. But if his suspicions were right and he stared...well, honestly he wasn't sure what would happen then and at the time he hadn't much wanted to find out. He'd have no proof to clear himself with if she made accusations, for one thing. And for another...he was supposed to retrieve Tucker from Sickbay, and he couldn't do that if he were confined to his quarters or locked up someplace under guard. And Tucker probably wasn't going to be up to defending himself immediately, nor would Archer know the truth and be able to help them.

Of course, there was always the possibility that Archer wouldn't be willing to help them even after he did know the truth, but the armory officer was trying not to think about that one at the moment. There'd be time for borrowing trouble later; finding the trouble they already had was the priority now. That, and making sure Tucker was all right.

Reed felt a little stirring of apprehension deep in his gut as he approached Sickbay, remembering what he had walked into the last time, but he was both surprised and relieved when he entered to find Tucker sitting up on the side of his bed and tugging a t-shirt over his rumpled blond head. "Hey Mal," he greeted the armory officer, sounding a little tired but otherwise normal. "Are you here to spring me?"

"You look like you're capable of springing yourself," Reed observed with a smile.

"That's what I told him, but he won't listen to me," Tucker snorted. "Ain't that right, Cap'n?"

Archer chuckled from his own bed, trying not to scratch at a scaly patch. "At least he's letting you leave; I have to stay another twelve hours."

"I'm sure that's just a precaution, Captain," Reed told him. He sounded sympathetic, but he wasn't. As chief of security he really didn't feel it was a good idea to give the captain free run of the ship until they were sure all the damage had been undone, or at least identified. Archer's extra half day of observation had been the answer to that; Malcolm had wanted a full 24 hours but the doctor had thought that would be too long, so they'd compromised. "But as for you," he addressed Tucker again. "I have better things to do with my time than escort your sorry arse to your room - I've spent enough time lugging you around lately, don't you think?"

The engineer made a face at him. "Hey, it wasn't my idea - complain to the mother-henning Denobulan."

He hopped lightly off the bed...and would have hit the floor when his knees buckled if Reed hadn't been quick to catch him. "And that's what you get for questioning your doctor's orders, Mr. Tucker," Phlox said pleasantly from the doorway. The doctor nodded at Reed and smiled reassuringly. "He's fine, Lieutenant, just a bit unsteady. One of the after-effects of the virus, but it will pass."

Reed pushed Tucker back onto the edge of the biobed and held him there with one hand wrapped firmly around his bicep. Now that he was close he could see that the engineer's blue eyes were dilated slightly and knew that the doctor must have given him something to make it look good for Archer. "And what of the others?"

Phlox frowned, but Tucker answered before he could. "Aw don't listen to him, he seems to think the virus messed up my mind somehow. I'm fine..."

Reed pushed him back down when he tried to stand up again. "Oh yes, I know your 'fine'," he scolded. "You were 'fine' after the Canamar incident as well until you damn near collapsed in the captain's ready room, as I recall."

"Hey, I ain't the only one who don't..." Tucker began, and then trailed off, looking puzzled. "Canamar?"

The armory officer's eyes widened; he knew this had to be a setup, but damned if he could see anything other than blank confusion in the engineer's face. He shot a look back at Phlox, who was shaking his head. "Brain damage?"

"Some memory loss, but it doesn't appear to be too severe," the doctor temporized, with a pointed look at Archer, who was watching worriedly. "More than the captain will experience due to the extra precautions we took, but nothing that should affect his ability to do his job. He can most likely fill in the gaps on his own in time."

Reed nodded slowly. "I see." And he did - he could see the opening the doctor was giving him very plainly now. "Have you determined how much memory loss there is, or over what time period?"

Phlox shrugged. "It appears to be only his more recent memories that have been affected."

"Hmm." The armory officer pretended to think about it; internally, however, he was crowing triumphantly. "I could go through the ships logs with him, see what's missing," he suggested. "I'm afraid I don't agree with you about his ability as a senior officer being affected, Doctor; we've encountered some real nasties since we've been out here and it could pose a grave security risk to the ship if we came up against some of the same again and the commander didn't know what was going on."

"That sounds like a good idea," the doctor agreed. "And perhaps when I deem the captain fit, you could do the same for him as well?"

"Oh most definitely." There was no doubt in Reed's mind that a thorough debriefing of his captain was going to be necessary at the end of all this, none at all. He just hoped it wasn't going to end badly.


Tucker wanted to go back to his own quarters - to his own bed, he insisted - so that was where they went. Once inside the engineer flopped down on his bunk and shut his eyes, groaning. "I don't know what that was that he slipped me, but it's got the room spinnin' like a damned merry go round."

Now that they were behind closed doors, Reed was full of sympathy. "Starfleet owes you a commendation for this, Trip."

"Hell, there's a good chance Starfleet would have me court-martialed if they knew what's been goin' on," was the engineer's tired reply. He opened up one eye, the other being covered by his upflung arm. "An' they might still, if this diggin' goes where we think it will."

"I haven't yet found evidence to suggest it might do otherwise," Reed told him quietly. He dropped down on the side of the bunk and rubbed at his face with his hands. "I suppose I'd better bring you up to speed before we start digging through the logs. Phlox found seven implanted commands, all interconnected to prevent tampering. We have a suspicion that setting them off might have driven the captain mad, possibly even to suicide - we already know that at least one of them incited him to attempt murder."

The blue eye closed again, and Tucker sighed. "Zobral's planet."

"Yes." Malcolm lifted his head and stared at nothing. "I'm sorry, Trip."

"I...knew somethin' was wrong," Tucker said after a long pause. "You don't think he'll...remember, do you?"

The softly drawled question was almost plaintive, and Reed sighed himself. "I don't know, I certainly hope not. But the rest...we're going to have to tell him the rest and he might figure it out anyway."

"Yeah." More silence, each man wading through his own feelings of despair at the situation they were facing, and then Tucker sat up with another groan and opened his eyes. "We need to get to work."

Reed turned slightly, looking him in the eye. "You should..."

"Rest? Couldn't if I wanted to, which I don't," Tucker told him dismissively. "I want to figure out what's goin' on here and what we need to do to fix it."

"If it can be fixed." But the armory officer was already getting up, moving over to Tucker's desk. "No, you stay put," he ordered when the engineer made to get off the bed. "You said yourself Phlox gave you something, so you might as well stay put and be comfortable until it wears off. I'll access the logs and play them on audio - you can discuss them with me just as easily lying down as sitting up."

The other man sank back down again, but this time he pushed up the pillow behind his head so he could see, tucking the arm that had previously been over his eyes behind his head as well. "You realize we're gonna have to start at the very beginning, right?"

"We don't have to go through all of them," Reed reassured him. "It's incidents we're looking for, if anyone had been acting strange when things were quiet we'd have noticed already. What we're really looking for is a pattern of behavior similar to the captain's, a culmination of odd reactions or bad judgments that dovetail with his. And I've already ruled out most of the crew on that, there were only about half a dozen who I thought deserved a closer look."

"Was Crewman O'Malley one of the ones that tripped your radar?" Tucker wanted to know. When Reed raised an eyebrow the engineer smiled slightly and shook his head. "He's actin' weird, yeah, but he has a reason; his wife waited until after we'd shipped out to tell him she was pregnant and he don't think it's his. So you can cross him off your list."

"Yes, I suppose so - that would be enough to throw anyone off." The armory officer scrolled through another screen, frowning. "We know someone has to be watching the captain, though; in spite of what Phlox thinks of it, the planning that had to be involved to pull this off smacks of a conspiracy. And a conspiracy is not going to rest their entire program on a single man, no matter who he is or what he's programmed to do. I'm just hoping we'll be able to find a clear enough sign in the logs to tell us who..."

Trip sat up abruptly, and the movement had Reed's attention in a heartbeat. "What is it?"

"I know who's watchin' him," Tucker breathed. He looked absolutely sickened. "It was somethin' I didn't think much about at the time except to be ticked off about it. You remember when the Suliban got the run of the ship that time?"

Reed winced. "I don't think I could forget a beating like that," he said. "I don't think there was any part of me anywhere that didn't hurt."

"Yeah, I know." And it looked like it bothered him, too, although he shook it off. "But do you remember when I came down to Sickbay, how shocked I was at how bad they'd messed you up? And how the cap'n never did come down to see you?" When Reed nodded, mystified, Tucker's blue eyes locked with his. "Well that's because T'Pol reported that you just had 'minor injuries', Mal. She had the doc's report, she'd been down to Sickbay...an' she lied to him about what went on. And with the Xyrillians, she was the one that blamed me right off the bat for what happened, for not controllin' myself; she had Jon lookin' at it like it was my fault. You see a pattern here?"

"I believe I do, yes," the armory officer agreed unhappily. "And at the same time she has been insinuating herself into his confidence - among other things. I've been privy to a comment or two she's made to the captain that struck me as rather...intimate coming from a Vulcan. She's been trying to distance him from us as well as to command some part of his affections." His gray eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "Of course, there is also the possibility that she is just as much a pawn as he is. I wonder if hypnotic suggestion works on Vulcans?"

"Might if a Vulcan had a hand in doin' it." Tucker sank back down, covering his eyes again. "He was at Starfleet Command two weeks before he came on board, Mal. How long do you think it takes to turn someone into a tickin' time bomb?"

"Phlox says around forty-eight hours, for a human." Reed slumped back in the chair. "Or at least four days, if some form of torture isn't involved."

The engineer twitched. "Wish I'd tried to contact him after they sent me up here, then we'd know."

"I'm not sure knowing would help - and either way, he won't consciously remember that part of it."

"Hope you're right." Another twitch. "Hopin' he won't remember a bunch of things."

Reed made an affirmative noise, but secretly he was hoping just the opposite. Not just because they needed Archer to remember in order to keep himself, Tucker and Phlox from being court martialed...but because the one who'd suffered most from this was the captain's best friend, and that man deserved an apology.

 

They'd compiled a neat list summarizing T'Pol's suspicious behavior over the past two years, backing it up with excerpts from the ship's logs and official reports whenever possible, and Malcolm was taking yet another run at eliminating more names from his own list of suspects when he realized that Trip had fallen asleep. The armory officer abandoned his project for a moment and went to make sure sleep was all it was, sitting gingerly on the side of the bed and brushing a careful hand across his friend's forehead. He was overreacting, he knew, but the itching incident had shaken him; having a ship's physician who wasn't bound by the Hippocratic Oath might be useful at times, but the implications of it were frightening as well, moreso than he'd previously considered. If he hadn't gone down to Sickbay this morning, if Phlox had refused to listen to him...

He suddenly became aware that Trip's eyes were open and staring at him, studying him, and Malcolm realized that he'd gone off woolgathering at a very inopportune time - and that his hand had somehow gotten tangled in the engineer's short blond hair. He extracted it slowly, unable to look away from his friend's increasingly questioning gaze. "I was...checking to make sure you're all right."

"I'm all right." Trip matched his slow movements, pushing himself up to a sitting position, his blue eyes never leaving Malcolm's gray ones. He caught the armory officer's hand before it could be withdrawn completely out of his reach and gently held it captive. His thumb, callus-roughened, stroked thoughtfully across Malcolm's palm. "Tell me."

Malcolm blinked. "Phlox," he said. "He isn't part of what's going on, but in a way he's worse. What if he'd been part of this? We'd never have known, we'd just chalk the incidents up to his not fully understanding humans. We have to rely on him, trust him...and he hurt you, Trip."

Trip smiled crookedly. "Yeah, but he did it because we asked him to, right? And when you came chargin' in to the rescue, he fixed things." He raised a very tentative hand to lightly touch Malcolm's cheek. "My hero."

The moment seemed to stretch on for an eternity, but before anything more could happen the silence - and with it the moment - was broken by a chirp from Trip's terminal. Malcolm made a face. "My search is done, apparently."

"Apparently." Trip dared one more caress before letting his hand drop. "Guess we'd better get back to it, huh?"

"Yes." It was Malcolm's turn to smile, wryly, as he pulled away and stood up. "But perhaps later...?"

Trip's own smile became a grin, and he scooted back so he could lean against the head of the bed. "There'll be a better time, I'm sure. An' this way we'll have somethin' to look forward to, no matter what else happens."

 

Phlox released Archer the next morning and cleared him for light duties - meaning paperwork - for the day, and he was in his ready room grudgingly doing just that when Reed commed him about their promised meeting. The captain was surprised, however, when Tucker came in with Reed. "I thought you were off duty today?"

"I am." The engineer didn't look happy. "But I...needed to be here."

"This does involve him too, Captain," Reed added, not quite apologetically. "We have to debrief you."

"Debrief?" Archer frowned; something was up, and he didn't like not knowing what it was. "I thought we were just going to go over some things, make sure I hadn't forgotten anything important." He raised an eyebrow. "Mind letting me in on the secret, gentlemen?"

Tucker swallowed. "That's why we're here."

"I've brought all our research, sir, and our unofficial report." Reed held out a padd. "I couldn't make an official report on the situation, for reasons that will become obvious to you shortly."

"They'd better." Archer took the padd, but he'd barely glanced at it before he noticed something else that narrowed his eyes. "Lieutenant, why are you wearing a phase pistol?"

Reed met his gaze unflinchingly. "Security reasons, Captain," he answered. "You will understand once we begin, I assure you."

"It's necessary, Cap'n," Trip added, looking unhappier than ever. "Trust us, please."

Archer threw himself backward in his chair, clearly frustrated. "All right then, get on with it," he ordered. "But I'm about two more cryptic excuses from tossing you both in the brig."

"Understood, sir," Reed said. He took a deep breath. "This all began the day I had you come down to the gym for your unarmed combat assessment. I noticed some...inconsistencies in your fighting style, as did Commander Tucker, and he took it upon himself to look more deeply into the matter. What he discovered and then brought to my attention was that you appeared to be somewhat inhibited in actual combat."

"I can show you the tapes," Tucker added, seeing the suspicious disbelief on the captain's face. "It's there, plain as day, like somebody was flippin' a switch and turnin' you off during a fight. So Mal and I took it to Phlox, and he confirmed that it looked like a hypnotically implanted command was kickin' in." It was the engineer's turn to take a deep breath; this was the part that could land them in real trouble. "Problem was, all we had was guesses and what we needed was evidence. And we needed to figure a way to get you into Sickbay so Phlox could try to fix things, but without tippin' you off. So...I arranged to get sick."

The captain sat bolt upright in his chair. "That was faked?! But you were...I saw..."

"Phlox and I did that part," Reed told him, resisting the urge to shift nervously as he, too, felt how shaky the ground under their feet was at this point. "We had to convince you to submit yourself for treatment without letting on the actual reason for it; it was highly probable that more than one command had been implanted and we couldn't risk setting one off. Especially considering that the purpose of the one we were already aware of seemed to be to cause your death."

Archer just looked at him. "We couldn't take the risk, Cap'n," Tucker said. "No tellin' what could have happened if you'd known that we knew."

"So you initiated this...conspiracy out of supposed concern for my safety and that of the rest of the crew, is that your explanation?" Archer ground out. It was obvious that he was working hard to control his fury. "You actually thought I was a danger to someone on this ship? That I would hurt a member of my own crew?" Tucker looked away, unable to meet his eyes, and the older man's mouth dropped open. "My god, you did, didn't you? With no evidence, nothing but some groundless suspicions, you turned your back on everything you know about me..."

"He didn't." Reed was not about to let that go any farther; Tucker was already looking positively ill. "We couldn't predict exactly what you might have been programmed for, so we were taking no chances. And if you'll remember, the doctor found seven interconnected areas of tampering in your brain - and only a few of them had been activated, the others were little time bombs waiting for the right trigger to set them off." He patted his sidearm meaningfully. "Nor could we be entirely positive he'd found them all."

Archer snorted. "So what you're saying is that even after all that you still don't trust me, may never trust me again." He settled back in his chair and glared—mostly at Tucker, the armory officer noticed. "Well, gentlemen, the feeling is mutual."

The engineer paled. "Cap'n, are you sayin'..."

"Exactly what it sounded like I said, Commander." The captain didn't soften at all. "It's not like I'll ever be able to trust you again after this."

Tucker staggered like he'd been struck and went from pale to dead white; he looked like he was about to faint. Reed was in front of him in a heartbeat, bracing him with a firm grip on his upper arms and capturing wide blue eyes with his own serious gray ones. "Commander, I believe we should not be keeping you from your rest," he said firmly. "Go to your quarters, I'll come check on you when I'm done here."

To Archer's surprise, Tucker accepted the order with hardly a blink - and it had been an order, no question about that. Reed didn't speak again until he'd left the room, and even then it was through clenched teeth. "You'll pardon me saying this, Captain, but that was low of you." He crossed to the com panel and punched the button. "Reed to Phlox."

"Phlox here," came the doctor's voice, and the captain was certain he detected more than a hint of unease in the Denobulan's normally pleasantly even tone. "Is there a problem, Lieutenant?"

"It's Commander Tucker," Reed replied. "I've sent him to his quarters but I believe he's somewhat in shock and I can't get away myself just now to see to him."

"You're with the captain, I take it?" Phlox asked, and then sighed when the answer was affirmative. "I understand, Lieutenant. I will go do what I can to ease the commander's...difficulties. Phlox out."

The armory officer seemed to gather himself, and then he straightened and faced Archer again. "Now I believe we were discussing trust, were we not? Or were those comments merely for the purpose of hurting Commander Tucker?"

Archer grimaced, still clearly holding on to his grudge. "What the two of you did was conspiracy to commit mutiny," he snapped.

"And what you did was attempted murder," Reed returned coolly, although there was an edge to his voice. "And you just accused your intended victim of betraying you in spite of the fact that he's been trying to save you through this whole bloody mess."

"What do you mean my 'intended victim'?!" Archer demanded. "I've never tried to kill anyone on this ship, and especially not someone who I thought was my best friend!"

"Intended victim," Reed repeated evenly, jaw clenching again and his hands curling into fists at his sides. "You have attempted to kill him at least once since this mission began, sir. Think back a bit. You knew very well before you insisted that the commander go with you down to Zobral's planet that he is prone to heatstroke. And yet you dragged him all over the desert, sick and injured as he was, and didn't do half for him that you knew to do. If we hadn't shown up when we did, your programmer would have accomplished one of his objectives then and there."

Archer opened his mouth to say something...but nothing came out. He looked absolutely staggered, completely horrified, and the armory officer deduced in a second that the man had just bridged one of the gaps in his memory to put two and two together. Reed relaxed his stance slightly. "It wasn't your doing, sir. Trip knows that, he holds nothing against you."

"He...oh god." Archer slumped against the wall, staring at nothing. "I almost killed him."

"Almost, but not quite," Reed emphasized. This part was going to be even trickier, because they couldn't afford to have Archer paralyzed with guilt over what had happened and now the armory officer was going to have to carefully push him past that point. "You couldn't kill him, I think - had you been able to, it would have been easy enough in that particular situation. And the convenient bombs dropping all 'round you both would have been more than sufficient to dispose of the commander's body and therefore conceal the exact cause of his death. Instead, though, you fought the command and managed to keep him alive until rescue arrived."

"Barely alive," the captain snorted softly. "You said it, I didn't do everything I should have, or even could have. Phlox said another hour or two and we would have lost him."

"But we didn't." The armory officer's voice was as strong, even commanding. "Dwelling on should-haves and could-haves is a fool's game, sir, and therefore one no officer worth his salt participates in willingly for more than one go-round."

Archer raised an eyebrow at the obvious quote. "Who said that?"

"My father, actually." Just mentioning the retired naval officer who was his father made Reed stiffen. "It's part of the code he lives by, and something they drum into young naval officers. One round of self-pity and second-guessing is all a man is entitled to, if even that." He fixed his captain with a very firm look. "And if proof of Commander Tucker's feelings toward you is what you're thinking you require, sir, just remember that he let Dr. Phlox and I make him sick as a dog to get you into Sickbay. Do you think a man who resented you would have lain there strapped to a bed and driven half mad by unrelieved itching just so you could safely get medical treatment?"

The captain blanched, another realization hitting home. All those comments he'd made yesterday... "I know how sensitive his skin it, but I told you and Phlox both that he was just being a baby about it." He rubbed a hand over his face, as though trying to wipe the disbelief off his features. "I...I laughed at him, Malcolm. And he never said a word."

"Would you have?" the armory officer asked pointedly. Sympathy wasn't what was required here. "Were the situation, God forbid, to be reversed, would you have jeopardized Trip's well-being in the interest of your own comfort?"

"No." Hazel-green eyes lifted, and Reed saw acceptance of the situation reluctantly setting in. "But I would have before, wouldn't I?"

"Yes sir, without question," he answered. "But that decision would also not have been yours; it would have been the decision of those who programmed you." He straightened back to near-attention. "They apparently made quite a lot of decisions regarding this mission, Captain. If you don't wish to go into the rest of it right now I will understand, but even though they are outlined in our report," he gestured to the padd on Archer's desk, "we do need talk about them sooner and not later. Perhaps this evening when Commander Tucker is...feeling better?"

Archer got an unusual expression on his face. "Will he be, Malcolm?"

The armory officer nodded. "Yes sir, I guarantee it. He knows how important this is."

"Obviously - but he's important too." Archer straightened himself, not quite mirroring Reed's posture but almost. "Thank you, Lieutenant. Tell Commander Tucker that I'll meet with the two of you in my quarters at 1600 hours, dismissed."

"Yes sir, thank you sir." Reed turned at once and left the room, and Archer sealed the door behind him. He went back to his desk and dropped into his chair, saving the report he'd been working on and calling up Enterprise's mission logs and his own personal logs as well before activating the padd his officers had given him. He had a lot to go over before 1600 hours rolled around.

 

The door to Archer's quarters buzzed at precisely 1600 hours - the sort of punctuality he'd grown to expect from Reed - and the captain squashed one last flare of nerves to answer it. He waved the two younger men in with a frown deepened by new worry; his engineer's blue eyes were dilated and slightly glassy, and Reed was all but hovering over him. "Trip?"

Tucker blinked at him - or rather, past him; their eyes didn't quite meet. "Cap'n?"

"Sit down before you fall down," Archer told him, careful not to let it sound like an order. Reed steered the taller man to the nearest chair and pushed him down into it, then stationed himself stiffly in front of the chair next to it. "You too, Malcolm."

Reed hesitated until Archer moved to his own seat and then did as he was told. Trip had slumped almost bonelessly into his and was staring at the ceiling. "Captain..."

"I can guess," Archer interrupted him. "Phlox...must have gotten a little carried away with the sedatives." It was all he could do not to cringe when Reed's shuttered expression clearly told him Phlox hadn't gotten carried away at all. "Trip, if you'd rather we did this some other time..."

"No time like the present," Tucker drawled. "Have to get this debriefin' over, Jon. It can't wait."

"He's right, it can't," Reed agreed unhappily. "Have you read our report, sir?"

"Yes, I have. And it was good work, both of you." Jonathan Archer, in spite of what some might have thought due to recent events, was a formidable force once his mind was made up about something. After reading the report and going over the evidence he'd gone through every log, picked apart his own memories and dug into the senior staff reports that went with every incident. And he'd found the pattern that had eluded Reed and Tucker. "Whoever they are, they don't just want us to go home with our tails between our legs; they want to make sure Earth's reputation is sullied enough that we won't venture out of our own system again for generations."

Reed caught on quickly. "Not just backing up the Vulcan agenda for keeping humans Earthbound, then, but making sure the rest of the galaxy has no reason to respect us. But don't they realize that makes Earth a target?"

"Doubt they've thought that far ahead, Mal," Tucker said softly. The engineer was still staring tiredly at the ceiling. "If they're isolationists, then all they can see is Earth. The big picture for them ends at the stratosphere, or maybe Pluto if we're lucky."

Archer decided that was as good an opening as he was going to get to bring up the unspeakable. "And that would give them a damned good reason to kill the man who knows more about the Warp 5 engine than anyone else, wouldn't it?"

The blue gaze drifted down to meet his, flat and carefully blank. "Little details, Cap'n. Not really important to the big picture. You shouldn't be worryin' about stuff like that."

It was an offer of blameless absolution if he wanted it. He didn't. "They made me try to kill you, Trip."

"I think the operative word there is 'try'," Tucker told him. His eyes swung upward again. "You could have, more'n once, and you didn't. End of story. I think what we're goin' to do next is the important thing right now. We should really figure out a way for Phlox to test the whole command staff, make sure no one else is programmed."

"He already tested Trip and I both, and we're clear," Reed told the captain, cutting in before Archer could pursue the previous topic of discussion; the engineer clearly wasn't ready to talk about it, might never be ready to discuss it with Archer, and Malcolm wasn't going to let the man be pushed. "I went over the records of other key crew members and didn't find any overt behavioral discrepancies that couldn't be explained...except for one."

"You don't have to tell me," Archer said, giving in to the forced subject change - for the time being, anyway. "Sub Commander T'Pol, right? Once I thought about it I noticed it too. What do you have other than her flirting with me?"

"She's been trying to come between you and the rest of your senior staff," Reed answered. "There have been several incidents which can have no other explanation." At Archer's questioning look he shrugged. "Some of them aren't the sort of things that would appear in a log. The specific details aren't really..."

"Okay, that's it!" Archer slapped his hand down on the desk and stood up, glowering down at his two officers. He was pleased to see that he'd gotten Tucker's wandering attention, although the apprehension that briefly flickered in the blue eyes worried him. "This isn't the time for talking out the personal details of what went on, I know that," he stated firmly. "But let's clear one thing up right now: what I did, even though it wasn't my choice to do it, is not unimportant. So quit pretending that it is! There have been enough lies and enough deceptions going on over the past two years without us adding to them. It happened and eventually we're going to have to deal with it - eventually we will deal with it, because I'm not going to let it go." He fixed his openmouthed armory officer with a hard look. "Now tell me what else T'Pol has done, Lieutenant."

"She falsified verbal reports to you," Tucker answered before Reed could. There was no way he was going to make Malcolm tell the captain that particular story. "More than once. When you came back from wherever Daniels had taken you, after we'd got rid of the Suliban, she told you that Mal only had minor injuries when they'd actually beat him half to death right here on the bridge. And without him doin' what he did to distract them, we never could have retaken the ship."

Reed stiffened. "I was just following orders."

"Yeah, mine," Tucker shot back. "Don't think I don't wake up in the middle of the night thinkin' about that one, Mal. And what you did should have got you a commendation or maybe even a promotion, instead you got one lousy day off to recuperate and I know damn good and well I'm the only one on board who thanked you!"

"I was doing my duty," Reed reiterated harshly. "And at least they didn't rape me, now did they? What about the black mark on your service record that you 'earned' by being sent alone into an unpredictable situation with aliens who violated your body and your mind, hmm? What sort of consideration did you earn for that lovely experience except censure and ridicule, Trip?" Tucker actually flinched, and the armory officer tossed himself back in his seat with a snort that wasn't entirely unsympathetic. "Don't talk to me about guilt, Commander; I stood by and let that happen to you, and don't think I don't bloody well kick myself every time some idiot of a crew member makes a joke about the incident and I see that look in your eyes."

Archer gaped at them both, very slowly sinking back down into his seat. The situation was much, much worse than he'd thought. A captain does more than lead his crew, he guides them too; he's a teacher, a mentor, even a father figure if necessary. But his officers had been denied that, left to struggle through one impossible situation after another with only their own incomplete resources to rely on. They'd done well, no question about that, but they'd had to do it alone and now he was seeing part of what it had cost them. And now it was his job to pay some of that back, if he could. "You're both right," he said slowly. "Trip, you were in command and you made a command decision; you don't have to feel good about the personal cost to Malcolm, but you did the right thing with the welfare of the whole ship in mind and he was doing his duty by following your orders." He grimaced. "I'm sorry I wasn't...aware of the situation, or I would have helped you come to terms with it sooner. And as for the other..." Archer sighed. "Malcolm, if you'll recall you did everything in your power to convince me that Trip shouldn't go over to the Xyrillian ship by himself, and the reasons you cited unfortunately turned out to be exactly what happened. That was my fault, not yours, even if programming was involved - and if you'll think about it logically, that was most likely when the command to kill him first activated because I know better than to send one of the most indispensable crewmembers on the ship into a situation like that without any backup. And yes," he continued ruthlessly, "I went along with T'Pol's assessment of the situation and I shouldn't have, and Trip is still paying the price. That black mark on his record is a mark I put there myself." His gaze swung back to his best friend - and it humbled him to realize that the man still was his best friend, even after all this. "Trip, did Phlox ever get you any kind of rape counseling over the Xyrillian incident?" Tucker wouldn't meet his eyes, and Archer felt a weight settle in his stomach. "Did he...agree with T'Pol and I?"

Trip shrugged. "I had to go in for mandatory birth-control counseling, and he put me through some real embarrassin' tests to see if I had a problem with promiscuity or xenophilia that could impact my performance as a Starfleet officer, that was all." Blue eyes flicked up when Malcolm gasped, then quickly looked away again. "Was T'Pol who insisted on the tests, Mal, not Phlox. He was just doin' his job."

Malcolm's jaw set. "Perhaps," he ground out in a tight, controlled voice. "But it seems a shame that he always seems to fall a little short of the mark 'doing his job' when it comes to you."

The engineer sighed. "He didn't know about the itchin', Mal."

"I am aware of that, but it doesn't make me any happier about it," Malcolm returned just as quietly. "I knew there was no way I could verify that Phlox wasn't in on it. I should have checked on things sooner, not waited for the next morning after breakfast."

"And I shouldn't have lied to Phlox," Archer put in before Trip could respond. "But it happened and we can't change it, so let's move on for the moment, shall we?" He shook his head. "This is a mess, isn't it? If the Vulcans could see us now..."

Malcolm became all business again. "I'm not sure they can't, sir." He took Archer's raised eyebrow as permission to continue. "Honestly, I'm not convinced that humans could implant such controls into a Vulcan - and neither is Dr. Phlox. And the sub-commander couldn't have gone four days out of touch with her people without it being noticed; that's how long the doctor believes it would have taken to do what they did to you, using the methods he's familiar with and eliminating torture as a possibility." He correctly read Archer's expression again. "With torture, as little as 48 hours, Captain. But they had you two weeks, so it seems unlikely they'd employ a method that could leave evidence that would expose their actions."

"We don't know all the Vulcans are capable of, though." Trip didn't look happy to be suggesting it. "They've got more technology than we do, and now we know some of them are telepathic too. Maybe we need to see if Phlox knows how long it would take to implant those commands that way."

"I doubt he does; they're as secretive with the Denobulans as they are with everyone else." Archer shrugged and managed a half-grin. "Even though the Denobulans are a lot nosier than we are."

That got a chuckle out of Trip, but Malcolm just shook his head. "It really isn't important now anyway, begging your pardon, sir," the armory officer said. "What's done is done, and what we really need to focus on now is dealing with the problem on board Enterprise while we've still got the upper hand."

"You're right." Archer pretended not to notice how surprised the younger man was to get his agreement, filing it away as yet another thing he was going to have to deal with after this was all over. "So did Phlox have any ideas about how to get T'Pol into Sickbay?"

"None that are...safe, Captain." Malcolm shrugged. He, Trip and Phlox had talked about this and hadn't been able to come up with anything satisfactory. "Our biggest problem right now is that we don't know what in your behavior the sub-commander might be responding to, so therefore we don't know what might trigger her or to what action."

"In other words, some little thing you don't do might trigger her to send an urgent message to the High Command, or to Starfleet." Trip grimaced. "Or she might suddenly feel the need to kill you."

"Or to destroy the ship entirely." Malcolm made a face. "All of which means that we must act quickly, whatever we decide to do, as any appreciable delay might very well prove fatal to us all."

Archer had to agree with that too, much as he didn't want to. If T'Pol had been programmed she was just as much a victim as he'd been, and hadn't Malcolm said before that one of his own implanted commands might have been suicidal in nature, or even driven him insane? But he also had his ship and crew to think of, not to mention the fate of the entire exploration program that was riding on this one extended mission. "We won't delay, then," he said decisively, and almost winced when he saw another flash of surprised relief in his armory officer's face - he didn't want to interpret what he was seeing in Trip's. "What if I contact her, ask her to meet me down at the shuttlebay. I'll tell her Phlox is concerned about this 'dormant organism' thing with the shuttlepods and that you two are working on a possible solution - I'll play into the programming by implying that I want her to oversee what you're doing, like I don't quite trust the two of you."

That time it was Trip who winced, but all he said was, "That'll work." He dredged up a smile and started pushing himself up out of his chair. "I guess we should be gettin' down to the shuttlebay, make sure nobody's around. Sooner we get this over with, the sooner we can start figurin' out how much damage has already been done and what we're gonna have to do to fix it."

"If we can fix it - we'll have to go carefully on that score, if we don't want to tip whoever's behind this off and risk having them retaliate in a way we can't counter." Malcolm stood up and hauled Trip the rest of the way up with him. "Dr. Phlox says he can legitimately order every crewman in for a check-over if someone other than yourself and the commander comes down with the 'virus,' and that way we'll know for certain if anyone else has been tampered with. And I can 'accidentally' disable communications during that time so that no one can report back about what's going on."

"He means he's gonna pretend he was sneakin' around on some project in the armory and messed things up," Trip explained. "I already told him that wasn't necessary, since I can do the same thing and not get into trouble for it."

"He's got a point, Lieutenant," Archer agreed, but he said it with a smile. "I appreciate your willingness to make a sacrifice on your record for the good of the ship, but let's not do it unless it's necessary, all right?"

Malcolm dipped his head. "As you wish, sir," he replied. "We'll see you down in the shuttlebay. And I'll make sure there's a weapon to hand in the shuttle, just in case - I'll put it under the pilot's seat, we don't want the Sub-Commander to lay hands on it before one of us can."

"No, we certainly don't. Now you two get out of here, I'll bring T'Pol down in half an hour." Archer watched the two men leave with mixed feelings. He was amazingly proud of them, humbled to think that after all this they were still loyal, and a little unsure about asking any more from Tucker, especially right now when the man wasn't exactly at his best. Phlox wasn't prone to overdoing things when he was administering drugs...the captain stood up abruptly, a determined look on his face. He could just as well summon T'Pol from Sickbay, it might even look better that way, and she could meet him in the corridor outside the shuttlebay. He needed to talk to Phlox.

 

Twenty-five minutes later Archer was waiting in his appointed place with a grim expression on his face that wasn't even partially faked. His short talk with Phlox had cleared some things up, and although what he'd found out hadn't made him happy at least now he had a somewhat better idea of what was going on with his chief engineer. How they were going to fix what was going on was something else entirely, but that would have to wait. He could hear measured footsteps on the deck plating; T'Pol was coming. Hopefully she'd mistake the look on his face for something else.

She did. "Captain," she greeted him, inclining her head slightly. "It appears we have a very serious situation with regards to sterilization and quarantine procedures. I am concerned that it has escaped Commander Tucker's notice for so long."

Archer wanted to wince and didn't, knowing that a week ago he would have bought right into that. "I'm not sure there was anything for him to notice," he temporized with a shrug. "That's what Phlox says, anyway. But I'm sure that if Trip doesn't find the problem Lieutenant Reed will."

"I am not certain of that," was T'Pol's disapproving reply. "The lieutenant may be very detail-oriented, but he has been guilty of overlooking very serious mechanical problems in the past - especially, if you will recall, where the shuttlecraft are concerned."

Archer knew which incident she was referring to - and knew that by no stretch of the imagination had it been Reed's fault - but he nodded anyway, feeling sickened by even that small sign of agreement. He pushed the button to open the shuttlebay doors and ushered her inside, making sure the doors closed behind them. "We'll get to the bottom of this," he promised.

Looking back later, neither he nor Tucker or Reed could ever pinpoint exactly what it had been that tipped T'Pol off, but they knew it was something so minor as to have been unnoticeable, some miniscule reaction that she'd been expecting from the captain and hadn't gotten. They'd just barely begun their false discussion of the imaginary shuttlepod decontamination problem when she'd glanced over at Archer and then all hell had broken loose. In T'Pol's case all their speculation about what sort of command might be set off if the person being influenced became aware that someone had figured out they were programmed fell far short of what Tucker and Reed might have expected from Archer. The normally placid Vulcan went from civilized to feral in the space of a breath.

And a feral Vulcan was...well, beyond anything the three of them might have imagined. She leapt for Archer with a roar and would have probably had him by the throat if Reed hadn't knocked her aside. She slid on the smooth deck plates but didn't entirely lose her balance, and when she growled at them from her defensive crouch Archer actually felt himself pale. She was between them and the shuttle - between them and the gun. "There's a weapons locker just opposite the stairs," the armory officer said in a low voice, his grey eyes never leaving T'Pol even as he addressed his captain. "I'll distract her, you circle around and get a phase pistol. We'll never take her down without one."

Archer didn't think they could either, but he wasn't sure he liked the idea of leaving Reed and Tucker to face T'Pol. Especially since he wasn't sure Tucker was capable of backing Reed up effectively at the moment. "Trip, you go..."

"No." Reed was implacable. "Sir, the commander is right behind me, if he tries to move away she's going to attack him. But you're not close to us, if you move very slowly while we're the focus of her attention you'll be able to make it. And I've got the best chance of holding her off until you can take her down." T'Pol was tensing visibly, as though the talking was agitating her; if she'd had a tail Archer was sure it would have been lashing back and forth, like a cat getting ready to pounce. "Go, sir!" Reed hissed.

Archer went. He slid one foot back slowly, then the other, and kept sliding until the bulk of the second shuttle blocked T'Pol's view of him. Even then he didn't dare turn and run, not wanting the sound of his boots on the deckplates to draw her after him, but when an animal scream rang out he knew she'd pounced and he left off stealth to make a dash for the far wall. The locker proved surprisingly resistant to open, and it took him a very long moment to realize the control mechanism had been jammed. A chill went down his spine; she'd suspected something, or someone had. Frantically he looked around for a tool that could break the locker open, and not finding one was forced to try for the gun in the shuttle instead.

Luckily T'Pol had moved away from the shuttle, but what he could see of the fight going on froze Archer in his tracks and wasted precious seconds. Reed was holding her off, all right, and he'd probably lasted longer than anyone else on board would have, but while the captain was watching T'Pol got through the armory officer's guard with a blow that impacted the center of his chest and sent him crashing backwards into the nearest bulkhead where he slid down into a motionless heap on the deck. Tucker, who had been half-crumpled against a worktable, threw himself protectively in front of the downed man to keep T'Pol from attacking him again, and Archer likewise threw himself into the shuttle to find the gun. Reed might be able to hold T'Pol off, but there was no way Trip could.

He jumped out of the shuttle just in time to see that T'Pol had caught Tucker's right arm and was viciously using the advantage to rain crushing blows down on him. Archer raised the pistol and aimed just as she gave a harsh twist to the arm she was holding, and the crack of snapping bones punctuated the engineer's strangled scream just before he joined the man he'd been trying to shield in merciful oblivion. Archer fired just as it looked like she might be trying to twist off the now-limp arm she was still holding.

To his shock, she didn't go down. T'Pol turned and looked at him - or growled at him, rather - but she did drop the man she was holding and began to stalk this new threat instead. There was no trace of sentience left in her face or posture, and Archer realized he was facing a killing machine. Was this what Vulcans were without their control, or had the programming created this animal? He didn't have time to think about it before she pounced again and his second shot caught her in mid-leap. T'Pol went down hard and didn't get back up, but she was still twitching and Archer kept the pistol trained on her just in case while he raced to comm Sickbay. "Dr. Phlox, medical emergency in the shuttlebay!"

 

Archer had his hands full after that. He'd wanted to follow the doctor and his two badly injured men down to Sickbay, but there were explanations to make and a communications system to disable and quite a bit of damage control to put into place. He felt for the first time just how much strain Reed and Tucker had been under since they'd discovered the tampering, knowing there was literally no one on board - no one conscious, anyway - who he could trust completely at the moment. But finally it was all done, and he'd ordered Travis to hold their position exactly where they were. Hoshi had wanted to know why they wouldn't be broadcasting a quarantine warning in case any other ships showed up, but Archer had dealt with that by asking her scathingly if she thought being blown out of the sky as a possible source of contagion was a good idea and she'd subsided.

He definitely owed Hoshi an apology after this was over, definitely.

Phlox called for Archer to come observe T'Pol's treatment two hours later. The captain left Travis nominally in command, warning the young man that if anyone were to start showing signs of instability he was to report it without delay, and then he nervously left the bridge. Phlox hadn't mentioned Reed and Tucker and the omission sat someplace around the captain's stomach like a ball of lead...but when he entered Sickbay the first thing he saw were the two breathing but still bodies stretched out on biobeds right beside each other. Each of the blanket-covered men sported one of the doctor's mechanical 'spiders' strapped across his bare chest, and Archer almost cringed to see how damaged they both looked. Was that a handprint on Reed's chest? He couldn't see it clearly because of the device, but it certainly looked like a handprint. "I have them both heavily sedated," Phlox said from just over his shoulder, startling him. "Lieutenant Reed was suffering from a fractured sternum, seven broken ribs and a punctured lung; he's lucky the blow didn't crush his chest completely, which it may have if the sub commander had hit him with a closed fist instead of an open hand." Okay, that explained the handprint, then. "And Commander Tucker has a broken collarbone, three ribs and a punctured lung of his own, his right arm is badly fractured, his shoulder was dislocated, and he suffered significant muscle damage as well."

"She was...I think she was trying to twist his arm off." Archer cringed again, remembering the way Tucker had screamed. "Are they going to be okay?"

"They would both be in an immense amount of pain were I to allow them to awaken at this point," was Phlox' reply. "Hence the sedation and the special monitoring," he waved at the spiderish devices, "instead of my usual methods."

"How long will they be out of commission?"

"Lieutenant Reed should be able to leave Sickbay within two days and may return to light duties within a week," the doctor told him. "But I will have to keep Commander Tucker on the sick list a bit longer than that. His breaks were more severe, and it will take some time for them to heal sufficiently for him to be able to move without significant discomfort. He is also going to require physiotherapy, and due to the physical and emotional stresses he's already had prior to this I want to make sure he is completely recovered before he returns to full duty." Phlox gave Archer a speculative look. "And what of you, Captain? You have also experienced significant trauma over the course of the past week."

"I'm fine." Archer waved his hand dismissively at the doctor's frown. "I mean that in a relative way - I'm fine compared to most of my command staff right now."

"Very true," Phlox agreed, nodding. "If you'd follow me then, we'll take care of Sub Commander T'Pol's programming with you standing as witness to the procedure, just in case anything goes wrong, you understand." He correctly interpreted Archer's expression and smiled slightly. "Lieutenant Reed stood witness to yours, Captain - insisted on it, as a matter of fact."

Archer looked back over his shoulder at Reed and smiled slightly himself. "I guess I should have expected that," he observed softly, and then followed Phlox out of the room.


Trip woke up and blinked at the ceiling; he was reasonably certain that moving any more than that would be a mistake. His memories seemed a little disjointed, but he remembered that they'd set T'Pol off in the shuttlebay and she'd attacked them. And he definitely remembered her breaking his arm. That made him shudder, and the resultant pain drew him to a new level of awareness of his surroundings.

T'Pol. She was standing right there...

Standing over Malcolm.

Trip surged up in the biobed and the entire right side of his body exploded with pain; he winced when an annoying noise went off above his head but didn't allow it to distract him. "Get away from him!"

The Vulcan spun around, looking surprised, but Trip was prevented from clambering off the bed by strong, cool hands that appeared out of nowhere and tried to push him back down. He fought them, ignoring the soothing voice at his ear. "No, let me go, she'll kill him!"

Something bit him and he flinched away from it, and then Jon appeared in front of him; Trip struggled even harder with his view of Malcolm blocked, but the captain added his hands to the doctor's and gently held him in place. "Trip, listen to me!" Archer ordered. "It's all right, Phlox took care of it. T'Pol isn't a threat any more."

Trip didn't believe him, but a warm lassitude had begun to spread through his body and suddenly he was flat on his back again and helpless to do anything about it. Defeated, he flung out his left hand in a despairing, futile reach for the armory officer's bed. A tear rolled down his cheek. "Malcolm..."

Archer caught the reaching hand and pinned it back against the engineer's heaving chest. "Trip, listen to me," he enunciated carefully. "Dr. Phlox deactivated the implanted commands yesterday, do you understand? T'Pol isn't going to hurt Malcolm, she isn't going to hurt anybody."

By this time the commotion had awakened Reed, who also tried to sit up but with much less success than Tucker. "Trip!"

Phlox got an odd expression on his face. "Captain, let go of the commander's hand, if you would," he requested, moving between the beds to stand beside Reed. He then extended the armory officer's arm in Tucker's direction. "Now help him make contact, support his arm so he doesn't strain and hurt himself, that's right."

Archer followed his instructions, mystified. Tucker's fingers met Reed's, twining with them until their hands were clasped tightly...and then both men stopped struggling and relaxed. Tucker blinked up at his captain drowsily. "Had to be sure he was okay, Cap'n."

"Is Trip all right?" Malcolm queried weakly from his own bed. "Trip?"

"I'm okay, Mal - thought T'Pol was goin' after you again, that's all." Tucker's eyes slid shut. "Sorry I woke you up."

"Not a problem, appreciate the warning." Malcolm squeezed the hand he was holding and then released it, allowing Phlox to put his arm back on the bed and watching as Archer did the same for Trip. "Doctor, is he all right?"

"He is mending," Phlox said soothingly, patting his hand. "And so are you. Now why don't you go back to sleep, Lieutenant, and when you wake up again perhaps you'll be hungry, yes?"

"Perhaps." Reed sounded argumentative, but his eyes closed and he was asleep again between one breath and the next.

Archer was just staring between his two officers, eyes wide. "Doctor..."

"I believe the...situation has caused Misters Reed and Tucker to bond," Phlox informed him placidly. "A fairly normal occurrence under such circumstances, although from the depth of their mutual reaction I would have to assume that an emotional connection of some sort was already forming between them prior to this."

"They were friends," Archer said, a little defensively. He looked for a way out of continuing the conversation and spotted T'Pol standing back from the little tableau with a slightly shocked look on her face. "T'Pol, are you all right?"

"Fine, Captain," she answered at once, and only someone who knew her well could have heard the faint tremor in her voice. "I...did not mean to cause the commander distress."

"Of course you didn't," Phlox assured her. He frowned. "But I believe I told you to remain in bed, did I not? This might have been avoided had you followed my instructions."

"My apologies, Doctor." Her eyes were still on Tucker, though. "Why...why did he think I would hurt Lieutenant Reed?"

Archer looked at Phlox, who shrugged. "Well," the captain began carefully. "You did attack him in the cargo bay, you tried to go after him after you'd already knocked him down and Trip jumped in to stop you."

Her eyes swung up to him, an unreadable expression in them. "I broke his arm."

"Yes, you did." Archer decided that matter-of-fact was the best approach. "I'm not sure how much you remember, but once you figured out that we knew an implanted command kicked in and you were basically insane from that point forward. Trip kept you from killing Malcolm, he held you off until I could stun you."

"I have some vague recollection of those events," she said flatly. "I felt a driving need to destroy, to kill. It is...disquieting to recall."

"I know." And he did. Archer took T'Pol's arm and guided her back to her own bed. "But they know that wasn't us."

"Intellectually they both know," Phlox corrected. He was frowning again. "Emotionally may be another story. Captain, Sub-Commander...this is not going to 'blow over', as humans put it, all by itself. And as I cannot appeal to Starfleet Command for the assistance of a psychological expert, I'm afraid we will have to muddle through on our own and hope for the best."

Archer cocked an eyebrow. "Just what are you saying, Doctor?"

Phlox straightened. "I'm saying that the four of you are going to need assistance in dealing with the aftermath of all this, and that I will have to provide it in lieu of a more qualified psychiatric professional. And it can't wait, because the longer it does the more difficult it will be to fix."

It was T'Pol's turn to arch an eyebrow. "What do you recommend?"

The Denobulan smiled at her. "We'll start the day after tomorrow."

 

In spite of his reservations - and the gaps in his knowledge of humans - Dr. Phlox proved to be more than adequate at counseling. The first session had limped along uncomfortably at first. Phlox had placed chairs around Trip's bed in Sickbay and had propped the engineer up so that he could see everyone easily. Malcolm was already out of bed and able to take a chair next to Archer, moving very carefully in deference to his still-healing ribs...or at least he was until T'Pol, obeying an earlier instruction from the doctor, had reached out and grasped Trip's arm. It hadn't been his injured arm, but the engineer had still sucked in a sharp breath and turned dead white, and an alarm connected to the sensor array above his bed had begun to beep warningly. T'Pol had turned almost as pale herself and yanked her hand away, and if Archer hadn't caught Malcolm the armory officer would have attacked her, injury or no injury. Not that Archer hadn't felt a twinge of his own, especially since Trip was still pretty much helpless to defend himself. But frightening as it had been, it had broken the ice.

It also brought home to Archer what Phlox had been trying to tell him two days ago. Trip and Malcolm were still afraid of T'Pol...and Malcolm still didn't entirely trust Archer. The armory officer had been forced to finish out their first session back in his own biobed, asleep under the influence of a strong dose of painkiller. Trip had fallen back to sleep too, his spider device having sedated him again when his stress levels had gone too high, and so T'Pol, Archer and Phlox had finished up by themselves.

When Archer brought up the trust issue, however, Phlox shook his head. "No, Captain," the doctor corrected. "I believe you misread Mr. Reed's action - a sign of your own doubts regarding your past influenced behavior. It isn't that he doesn't trust you, it's simply that he has been conditioned by past occurrences not to wait for you to react."

"Great, just great." Archer threw himself back in his chair with a snort. "So how do we retrain him?"

Phlox gave him a long look, and didn't speak until Archer shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "You make it sound as though the lieutenant were doing something wrong."

"Such an attitude is inherently insubordinate," T'Pol put in, but immediately followed up with, "But under the circumstances, it is unarguably logical. There is no fault to be found with Lieutenant Reed's actions."

Archer sighed. "No, I suppose there isn't - and I guess I can't expect everyone just to suddenly start reacting like I was in my right mind, since most of them have never known me when I was. But it isn't going to be easy."

"No, it isn't." Phlox smiled at him. "But most of the crew will come around fairly quickly. They are all very intelligent, resourceful men and women, hand-picked for this mission."

"It's who may have hand-picked some of them that worries me." Archer snorted again. "This conspiracy was powerful enough to suborn me and T'Pol without anyone noticing, who knows how many ticking time bombs are on board right now?"

"So far in my testing I've found no one else who has been tampered with," was the doctor's reply. "And I've cleared two-thirds of the crew. There are two crewmen from Mr. Reed's list of suspects who I still have to examine, but so far there have been no reports of suspicious activity and no incidents which might indicate a triggered individual."

"Don't get me wrong, I'm hoping you don't find anything," the captain told him. "I just don't like not knowing for sure whether someone in my crew thinks blowing up the ship would be a good idea."

"Were such a command to have been placed with someone, in order for it to have been effective the conditioned individual would had to have been Commander Tucker," T'Pol said. "And he has already been cleared." She looked down at her hands where they were clasped in her lap. "I admit to being...disturbed by the fear the commander displayed when I touched him."

"I would be concerned if you weren't," Phlox answered. "His reaction was disturbing, as was Mr. Reed's." The doctor frowned slightly and glanced over at the far biobed with its sleeping occupant. "I had not anticipated the violence of Mr. Reed's reaction, at that. I expected him to attempt to interfere, but I did not expect him to re-injure himself in doing so. An oversight on my part, I won't make such a mistake with him again."

"I think we all have a lot of mistakes to make up for," Archer told him. He was looking at Tucker, though, not Reed. "A lot of mistakes."

 

The next day they had another session - Phlox had insisted on having one every day until he was satisfied with everyone's progress - and the group dynamics were definitely different than the first time. Trip was watching T'Pol warily, and when Malcolm had come in he'd disdained the provided chair and planted himself on the end of Trip's bed with a look on his face that dared anyone to make him move. He obviously felt as though he needed to protect the engineer, and once he'd gingerly settled himself into place Trip's decreasing stress levels had reflected that he felt more secure with the armory officer there. Archer had only been able to refrain from commenting on that for half the session; he'd had the feeling that Phlox was timing him to see how long he'd last, and so he'd held out as long as he could. "Feeling a little protective are we, Mr. Reed?"

Malcolm stiffened all over. "Begging your pardon, sir," he replied with a cold little nod, "but I don't think the commander relishes the idea of being used as an object lesson again."

"You got that right." Archer was startled by the harsh edge to his friend's voice. "I didn't appreciate you doin' that, Doc, not one little bit."

"I don't imagine you did, Mr. Tucker." Phlox shrugged, sympathetic but not apologetic. "It was necessary, though, to show the captain and the sub-commander what the true nature of the problem was. We can't have the ship's command staff unable to work together comfortably."

"I can work with T'Pol just fine," Trip snapped back at him. "She doesn't usually sneak up on me at work, and she for damn sure doesn't reach out and grab me like that."

"She usually doesn't come down our way at all, unless there's something to find fault with or orders to be passed along," Malcolm added, very matter-of-factly. "And when we're any of us on the bridge together it shouldn't be an issue either. I don't think either the commander or myself have ever given you cause to doubt our professionalism, Captain."

Okay, now Archer got it - and Phlox was all but grinning, damn him. "No, you haven't," he replied immediately. "But T'Pol and I have given the two of you plenty of reason to doubt ours."

Malcolm looked uncomfortable, and Trip tried to wave it off with his good hand. "That wasn't your fault, we know that..."

"You also know that I seriously injured you just five days ago," T'Pol interrupted placidly, making a gesture of her own toward the heavy sling and strap arrangement that was immobilizing multiple mending bones. "And that I have done my best during the time I have served here to discredit both yourself and Lieutenant Reed."

"And I backed her up, every time." Archer could be ruthless when he wanted to, even if he was directing it at himself. "I gave her your job, Trip, remember? Starfleet was ready to pull her out after that first mission, but I told them I wanted her to stay on as my first officer. And how many times did I try to get you killed in the past two years?"

Trip's bed beeped, and Malcolm reached back to find and pat the engineer's hand while glaring at the captain. "Sir..."

"We have also damaged your career, Mr. Reed," T'Pol cut him off. "And put you in harm's way on more than one occasion, not to mention undermining your authority on board the ship by repeatedly and publicly disregarding your recommendations."

"We screwed you both over, royally," Archer said bluntly, before either of the shocked younger men could find a response. "And there's not a damned thing we can do to fix it, for either of you. And you know it."

Reed swallowed. "If you attempt to apprise Starfleet of the situation, they'll recall us immediately."

"And we'll all lose our commissions," Trip added. "Don't know what the Vulcans would do to you, T'Pol."

She dipped her head. "As it is entirely possible that at least some high-ranking Vulcans on Earth are part of the conspiracy, my account of what has transpired would most likely be rejected. I would be stripped of my rank and privileges and sent back to Vulcan in disgrace."

"See? You said it, Captain, there ain't nothin' we can do about any of it." Trip shrugged one-sidedly and just managed not to wince. "So I don't understand why we're beatin' this dead horse."

"It's over," Malcolm agreed. "We need to find out who was behind this if we can, but as we can't risk tipping them off it's going to be a slow process. And even once we know, we'll likely only be able to use the information to safeguard ourselves."

He was right, even though Archer didn't like it. "I wish I could disagree with you, Mr. Reed," he said, nodding. "But you're right, as usual." Reed winced, and the captain smiled slightly. "You are usually right, Malcolm. And you know it."

"Yes sir, but it isn't politic to say so to a superior officer."

Reed said it with a perfectly straight face, and it took Archer a moment - and took seeing Trip trying not to laugh - to make the captain realize he was being teased. He grinned; he'd heard Reed had a wicked sense of humor, but he'd never really gotten to see it firsthand. "Probably not," he agreed. "But just this once I'll allow it."

The younger man smiled, and so did Trip, and after that things eased up. They talked about what they'd have to do, where they should investigate first, where they shouldn't poke in at all...and somewhere along the way a certain tension smoothed itself out. When Phlox finally called a halt, Archer had been shocked to realize they'd all been talking, working together, for nearly two hours. He'd been pretty happy about that, but the doctor had warned him about being overly optimistic behind closed doors in his office afterwards. "The four of you have worked together for two years, Captain," Phlox told him firmly. "Yes, it is a good sign that you were briefly able to regain that professional rapport, but that does not mean everything is fine now or that your problems are mostly solved." He'd seen that Archer wasn't quite buying it and folded his arms across his chest. "All right then, tell me what you think would have happened had the sub-commander made a sudden movement toward Mr. Tucker during your nice, normal discussion?"

Archer hadn't had to answer him; they both knew. He'd sighed and slumped in his chair. "This is going to be a long haul, isn't it?"

Phlox had just nodded. They both knew the answer to that, too.

 

Archer hadn't been sure what to expect on the third day. When he and T'Pol arrived in Sickbay Malcolm was already there, perched on the side of Trip's bed, and the first thing the captain noticed was that his friend was looking pale and tired, much more so than he had the day before. The second thing he noticed was that the two men were holding hands. He decided to ignore the second and focus on the first. "Trip, you don't look so good."

"He started his physical therapy today," Reed answered before the other man could - not that Trip had looked like he was going to try. "It absolutely wiped him out."

"You c'n say that again." Trip blinked red-rimmed eyes at Archer as he drew closer. "It'll be easier tomorrah, Doc promised."

Archer saw Malcolm squeeze the hand he was holding reassuringly and understood. "You were here, Malcolm?"

"I didn't want him to be alone," the armory officer answered simply. "I haven't forgotten my own last go at one of the doctor's torture sessions."

Trip squeezed back and smiled. "It helped, havin' you here. Even if I was a big baby about it."

"On the contrary, you did very well." Phlox was there bustling around with chairs. "And I didn't lie, it will be easier tomorrow. Now are your painkillers kicking in, Mr. Tucker?"

"Yeah, finally." This time the smile was wider. "We'd better get this show on the road before they knock me out, though."

"My thoughts exactly." The doctor was smiling too. "All right, everyone, you heard him; let's 'get this show on the road'."

 

It was a short session. Trip was falling asleep, Malcolm was distracted...hell, Archer was distracted too. Phlox worked around it all, getting T'Pol to talk about how disturbed she was by what she remembered of the incident in the shuttlebay and of other incidents in the past in which she could now recall acting illogically. Archer was amazed to find out that she could remember the 'switch' being flipped prior to each incident and had even tried to correct the problem with meditation. "It was not effective," she told him when he asked if it had helped. "I only knew that I felt something was wrong, but it was a very generalized impression and I had no clear memories with which to direct my efforts."

"At least you noticed something was wrong," Archer snorted. "I didn't even know that much, as far as I was concerned everything was rosy."

She inclined her head to him. "You are only human, Captain."

It wasn't an insult, just a plain statement of fact, and that got Malcolm's attention. "And you don't hold that against us, Sub Commander?" he wanted to know.

"To do so would be illogical," was her unruffled reply. "Although I am aware that I have given that impression in the past, it was not my choice to act in such a manner." She cut a glance at Archer and suddenly looked uncomfortable. "Much of my behavior since I have come to serve on board Enterprise has been...uncharacteristic, both for a Vulcan and for myself personally."

"You aren't alone there," Archer told her, coloring slightly. He had some embarrassing memories of his own. "But at least your uncharacteristic behavior isn't logged into all the reports."

She nodded assent, but Trip started to giggle and Archer lifted an eyebrow at him. "Problem, Commander?"

"N-no sir." It was obvious he couldn't stop laughing, even though it appeared to be hurting him. "But I'd...kind of forgot about that p-part of it."

Archer wanted to look stern, he really did...but he couldn't, it was too soon. It was going to be a while before he could even pretend to be angry at Trip. Which was another problem he was going to have to deal with, later. Much later. For right now he just made a face at his friend and watched Malcolm try not to dissolve into laughter right along with him.

They were still holding hands.

He didn't think it was a good time to mention it during the session, but as soon as Phlox called a halt for the day and T'Pol left Archer pulled the doctor aside and waved a hand at Malcolm still sitting on Trip's bed. "I can understand why you aren't bringing that up with everyone, Doctor, but what I want to know is how long you're going to let them go on that way before you do something about it." Phlox just looked at him. "You know what I'm talking about," Archer hissed. "They've been traumatized, they've only had each other to rely on - I've been getting my own taste of that and it's rough, I can understand why they're overreacting. But aren't you supposed to be helping them get over it?"

Phlox turned and looked back at the two men...and he smiled. "They are helping each other, I believe," he said. Then he took Archer's arm and led him out of the room, out of earshot. "You have not been in a position to observe the two of them closely, Captain - I have. And I can assure you that what you see developing between Misters Tucker and Reed is not unhealthy in the least. Quite the opposite, in fact." He arched an eyebrow at the captain. "I do not believe Starfleet regulations prohibit duty officers from becoming romantically involved."

"They don't." Starfleet had understood that prohibiting fraternization on a long mission was not only bad for morale but also for ship's security. It was practically impossible, too, and so the regulations were deliberately vague in that area and authority to decide what did or did not constitute acceptable conduct mainly rested with the captain. And Archer was that captain. "But I'm not sure about this...situation I see developing between two of my officers," he continued. "So explain to me why you're right and I'm wrong, Doctor, because I'm just not seeing it."

Another long look, and then to Archer's surprise the doctor turned him back around so that he could see into the room they'd just left. "Watch and listen," was all he said.

 

Malcolm had been worried about much the same thing Archer had, and knowing that his captain was disapproving of a relationship between himself and Tucker was bothering him. Archer hadn't exactly been too quiet to be heard before Phlox had extracted him from the room. "Trip, are you sure?" he asked quietly.

Trip had been just on the edge of letting the painkillers pull him under, but the quiet, serious question had him not only alert but trying to sit up so he could reach the other man. "Mal, no..."

"I'm just asking, because the captain did. I want to be sure, I want us both to be sure. Do you think this is just a reaction to trauma?" Malcolm wanted to know. He held the worried blue eyes with his own sharp gray ones, searching for the least little flicker of uncertainty. "Do you think we're just overreacting to the closeness inflicted upon us by the situation?"

Trip didn't look away; his eyes were clear and honest. "I don't think so, Mal."

Malcolm smiled. "I don't think so either." And then he leaned forward and essayed a kiss. It was a gentle, chaste kiss that lingered between them briefly and then ended gracefully as Trip sank back into his pillows. Malcolm ran a hand through his hair and the engineer's eyes flickered back open as he licked his lips, tasting the kiss again. "Liked that, did you?"

"Yep, I sure did." Trip blinked at him. "Don't suppose you want to do it again?"

"Repeatedly," the armory officer assured him, suiting his actions to the word, his fingers still tangled in the dark blond hair on the back of Trip's head. This time he flicked at the pliant lips with the tip of his tongue and was granted entrance, deepening the kiss, delicately exploring the new territory and losing himself in it completely. And this time Malcolm was the one who pulled back. "We've plenty of time, but I don't want to waste any more of it than we can help."

"I'll be outta here in two or three more days," Trip told him, lifting his right shoulder slightly and then dropping it with a wince. He licked his lips again. "That promise you made to come visit me still hold?"

"Always. Every chance I get. I'll make a bloody nuisance of myself," Malcolm assured him, punctuating each sentiment with another kiss. "Phlox will get so sick of seeing me he'll be forced to let you go ahead of schedule."

"Now there's a theory I'll look forward to testin'," the engineer chuckled, wincing again as even that slight movement pulled at half-healed muscles. "Kind of afraid I won't be up for testin' too much else for a while, though."

"We've all the time in the world for that - it's just being together that I want right now." Malcolm had gone back to stroking his fingers through the engineer's hair, and Tucker's eyes slid closed again as a contented sigh escaped his slightly parted lips. The armory officer kissed those lips again, sharing a breath between them. "Sleep, luv. Like I said, we've all the time in the world."

 

Archer might have stood there staring until Malcolm turned around and caught him at it if Phlox hadn't pulled him back around the corner. "I guess...I guess you were right," he stammered. "I just didn't realize that Trip...I didn't know he swung both ways. And I knew they were friends, but the way they bicker all the time..."

"I believe even in your culture that is considered a trait common to close couples." Phlox raised an eyebrow. "Do you have a problem with it, Captain?"

"No," was Archer's immediate reply. He shook his head as though he were trying to resettle the contents. Which he was. "I'm just...surprised, although I guess I shouldn't be after what happened before. You tried to tell me, I just...I just couldn't see it. But now I can't see how I missed it."

The doctor nodded. "You aren't going to interfere with this budding relationship, then?"

"No." The captain grimaced. He couldn't give Trip his career back, but there were other kinds of future a man could build for himself. And if turning a blind eye now and again would help facilitate that...well, it was the least he owed his friend, the very least. It was the least he could do for Reed too, for the same reason. "I won't do anything," he stated, looking the Denobulan in the eye. "It's their business, not Starfleet's or the Vulcans' or anyone else's. And anyway, I think there's been enough interference around here to last us all for a while."