CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE
The mood on Enterprise was subdued, to say the least. Everyone knew, within five minutes, what Trip Tucker had done.
There were tears, cheers, solemn prayers, and pride, all warring with each other among the crew. Their visitors were not so conflicted. They were silent, withdrawn, and angry.
So very angry.
Temporarily housed in Cargo Two, the crewmen reflected on the loss of their ship, and their Captain. None were surprised at his actions, but it was a hard blow, none-the-less.
The Klingon, Denobulan, and Human foot soldiers were gathered together in one group, while the ship's crew were in another. Each group knew a different side of the man they had called Captain. Each remembered him in their own way.
Neera had been taken to guest quarters to recover, Delana going with her. It was obvious that the beautiful Betazed woman had been crying. Neera was still unconscious, but Julio had advised Delana that the sedative would last only a few more minutes before her own symbiot scrubbed the chemicals from her system.
"What do I tell her?" Delana asked, still in shock.
"I don't know," Julio admitted. "I don't what to tell myself, yet."
Delana had nodded silently, then followed the troopers carrying Neera.
She didn't know either.
"Keras, please tell me there's nothing else," Jon almost pleaded.
"Nothing," the Primate counselor nodded. "I am told that the Destroyer himself is responsible for the destruction of the weapon."
"Yes," Jon nodded. "He is."
"I am sorry I could not have known him under different circumstances," Keras' voice carried a note of sadness. "We are. . .we will find a way to make this right, Archer of Earth. I do not, as yet, know how, but we will."
"I hope you can," Archer nodded. "We no longer have room for your delegation, Keras. You'll need to provide your own transport."
"We will do so. . . ." he broke off, looking to the side. Behind him, the lights went red again.
"Reptilian and Insectoid ships approaching!" Reed called out as Archer walked onto the bridge. "I count seventeen total vessels."
"Put Keras on here," Jon pointed to the main screen.
"We are about to be under attack," the Primate said without preamble. "These ships were undoubtably meant as an escort for the weapon."
"What shape are your ships in?" Jon asked.
"We have eleven vessels that are combat capable," Keras replied. "They are currently forming to meet the attack."
"We'll help all we can," Jon promised.
"It is for us to do," Keras sighed.
"Friends help each other, where they can," Jon shrugged. "If we're to be friends, Keras, we may as well start here." The Primate studied him for a moment, the nodded.
"As you say, Archer of Earth."
"Sir, we're being hailed," Hoshi interjected. "I think it's Andorian."
"What?" Jon looked shocked. "Put it up." The view screen split, and Archer found himself looking at. . . .
"Hello, Pinkskin!" Shran smiled from his command chair. "You seem to be in a fix."
"You could say that," Jon nodded. "What brings you to the neighborhood?"
"The Imperial Guard decided we should get a look at what was going on here," Shran admitted. "If they can attack you, they can attack Andoria as well."
"Not anymore," Jon said grimly. "Thanks to. . . ."
"We saw," Shran held up a hand. "I've never seen anything like it."
"I hope we never do again," Jon nodded.
"There are three of us," Shran informed him. "All Kumari class. We'll form on your left, and attack on your orders."
"I. . .I don't know what to say, Shran," Jon admitted.
"You can start with thank you, should we survive," the Andorian laughed. "Over a bottle of Andorian Ale."
"Works for me," Jon managed to smile.
"Now, I have something to do. We'll be in position shortly. Let us know what you want us to do." With that Shran cut the signal.
"Travis, move us to the Xindi left."
Enterprise began to head for battle.
Trip slowly became aware of his surroundings. Klaxons were blaring in the background, and he frowned.
That can't be right, he thought to himself. I should be dead.
We are not dead, the symbiot informed him. We appear to be upon another vessel. This method of transport, beaming, is very unsettling to me. I do not care for it.
Never been wild about it myself, Trip agreed. He looked around, eyes landing on an Andorian medic.
"Where am I?" he asked, rising.
"Please, Captain, lie still," the medic requested.
"I'm fine," Trip assured him, now sitting on the bed. "Where am I?" he repeated.
"You're on my ship, Pinkskin!" Shran's voice boomed across the bay. Trip winced, looking in that direction.
"Shran? I'll be damned," he chuckled.
"Not just yet," Shran shook his head. "Well, probably not yet," he amended. "We're going to aid the Enterprise and the Xindi against some other Xindi."
"Did it work?" Trip jerked upright. "The weapon, did I. . . ."
"Completely gone," Shran assured him. "I'm sorry about your ship, Pinkskin Tucker," he added.
"Me too," Trip nodded. "What attack?" he asked.
"Several Reptilian and Inectoid ships have arrived, and are moving into attack range. The remaining Xindi forces here, along with Enterprise, Kumari, Andela, and Thyrok, my ships, are moving to meet them. Promises to be quite the battle," he smiled.
"Great, just great," Trip muttered.
"You did well, Tucker," Shran said seriously. "Without that weapon, their forces are vulnerable, I believe. We'll soon test that, to see if I'm right."
"Everyone thinks I'm dead," Trip snorted.
"Would you like to inform them otherwise?" Shran asked.
"No," Trip decided. "Not now. You need your coms, if battle is coming. I would like to watch what happens."
"Join me on the bridge then," Shran invited. "We'll have a good seat."
"Enemy ships are slowing," T'Pol announced. "Still in attack formation."
"They found something they weren't expecting," Reed nodded. "They may have expected to see the weapon in orbit, waiting for them."
"Enemy ships have slowed to approximately one-quarter impulse," T'Pol added.
"Traffic from the enemy ships to the planet, sir," Hoshi informed Archer. "Sounds as if Keras is informing the Reptilians they are too late," she added, trying to translate on the go.
The crew waited. All they could do, under the circumstances. After five minutes, the enemy Xindi began to move again. Turning.
"They are turning away," T'Pol reported. "Moving out of. . . ." she stopped.
"What?" Archer looked over at her.
"They are gone," she looked up, eyebrow raised. "I can only surmise this is an example of the vortex generator that Keras spoke of."
"They opened a wormhole?" Jon looked shocked.
"It appears so," T'Pol nodded. "I did not think such a thing was possible."
"Bloody hell," Reed swore. "If they have that kind of technology, this thing may not be over," he warned.
"Explain," T'Pol ordered.
"They can open that vortex anywhere," he pointed out. "They could jump us anywhere between here and Earth."
Silence met his words, since no one else had thought of that.
"Well, I guess there will be no battle," Shran said quietly. "Pity."
"Don't knock it," Trip snorted. "Most of the folks here could use a day to rest and refit."
"You included?" Shran asked.
"Got nothin' to refit, anymore," Trip shrugged.
"What do you want to do now?" Shran asked. Before Trip could answer, the Andorian com officer interrupted.
"Enterprise calling." Trip stepped away from Shran, shaking his head. For some reason, he wanted to stay 'dead' for now.
"Hello Pinkskin," Shran said when Archer's face appeared.
"Looks like no fight, this time," Archer shrugged. "Thanks, Shran. You being here might be what stopped them."
"I suppose," Shran shrugged. "We're an unknown to them."
"What are you going to do now?"
"Well, since there's no more weapon, I suppose we'll head home," Shran replied. "I hadn't thought that far ahead, to be honest."
"I don't suppose you'd care to tag along with us?" Archer asked.
"Whatever for?" Shran laughed.
"Just for the company," Archer shrugged.
"I'll think about it," Shran nodded. "What's in it for me?"
"The company," Archer smiled slightly. "And a chance to make new friends."
"Interesting," Shran leaned back. "As I said, I'll think about it. When are you leaving?"
"Waiting on the Xindi delegation," Archer replied without thinking.
"Delegation, is it?" Shran asked. "Sounds like you've made peace with them, Archer."
"Of a sort," Archer nodded, repressing a wince. "Some of them."
"Sounds like a story. Get back to me before you leave. We'll stay here another hour or so, anyway." He made a cutting motion, and the screen went blank. Shran looked at Trip.
"What are you going to do?"
"Ain't quite worked that out, yet," Trip admitted. "If you head home, to Andoria, reckon you can drop me somewhere on the way?"
"I'm sure that can be arranged," Shran nodded.
"Reckon that's what I might do, then," Trip mused. "We'll see." Trip had some thinking to do.
He'd lost his ship, but also, perhaps, his way. Until he found it again, maybe it was better he stayed 'dead'.
"They can what?"
"The Aquatic cruiser we indicated can take your ship into it's cargo bay, and use the vortex generator to transport your ship home in far less time than it would take you normally," Keras explained. "We will be following aboard two of our own ships. It will be much safer, as well," he added.
Jon considered that. It would be so nice to go home. Added to that was the strain of the Acheron's crew on the Enterprise's systems, including life support. Less travel time would mean less time being crowded, uncomfortable, and short on water and rations.
"Sounds like a great idea," he decided. "We'll do that, then."
"Very well. Stand by. The cruiser will contact you shortly." The screen went blank.
"Looks like we'll be home sooner than we thought."
Neera woke suddenly, sitting straight up in the bed.
"Julio!" she yelled.
"Easy there," Delana called from across the room. "No one here but us."
"I'll kill him!" Neera said furiously, getting to her feet.
"Who?" Delana asked.
"Both of them!"
"Job's half done already, then," Delana said softly. Neera looked at her.
"Trip. . .he didn't make it," Delana said gently. "He flew the Acheron into the weapon's platform. Destroyed it." There wasn't any easy way to say it.
Neera tried to speak, but words wouldn't come. She decided to sit back down, instead.
"Are they sure?" she finally managed.
"No way anyone could have survived," Delana nodded. "He rammed the platform, and then set off the nukes he meant to use on the planet. He's gone, Neera." Delana's voice was cracking. The loss of Trip had hit her hard.
"It's my fault," Neera murmured. "I convinced him not to attack the weapon while it was on planet. If I had let him. . . ."
"Then he might have been worse off," Delana cut in gently. "He might have lost himself completely. I don't know." A tear escaped her.
"You managed to help him," Neera replied.
"He hadn't killed an entire civilization, either," Delana pointed out, standing. "I'm going to rest, since you're awake, and uninjured. I. . .I'm tired. So very tired. We're sharing these quarters, I'm afraid," she added. "Enterprise is pretty crowded."
"The crew?" Neera asked.
"All present and accounted for," Delana nodded. "They're spread across the ship, in some cases, but mostly bunked in a cargo bay. Be a very intimate ride home, I guess." Delana stretched out on the large bed.
"Try and rest," Neera soothed. "I'll go and see what I can find out."
"I'm sorry, Neera," Delana was crying now.
"Me, too." She leaned down and kissed Delana's forehead softly. "Sleep."
"So you're gonna ride home in that thing?" Shran asked.
"Looks that way. Their ship is faster than ours," Archer shrugged.
"Safe travel, then, friend Pinkskin," Shran nodded. "Next time we meet, we'll hoist a glass of Andoria's finest, and remember lost friends and ship mates."
"I could use something like that," Archer admitted, his guilt over Trip resurfacing. "Thanks again, Shran."
"Any time, Archer," Shran smiled. "I like you owing me one," he laughed, and cut the feed. Standing, he looked at his helmsman and coms officer.
"Advise the others. Set course for home. Warp 4."
Soon the Andorian cruisers were on their way back to their own space. Heavy one human.
"Before you kill me. . . ." Julio started.
"Shut up," Neera growled, and drew the man into an embrace. "It's all right," she whispered.
"I'm so sorry, sister," he whispered back. "So very sorry."
"So am I," she replied, releasing him. "Do we know anything yet?"
"The Xindi are giving us a ride back home," Julio said. "Those giant Manatee cruisers can take Enterprise aboard, and then use some kind of wormhole manipulator to travel way faster than normal. Shouldn't be long before we're home."
"I'll contact Janos, and ask that he have a ship ready for us," Neera nodded. "We can all get back to the station, and then. . .well, I don't know. We'll see, I guess."
The trip from Earth to the Expanse had taken Enterprise six weeks.
The trip from Azati Prime to Earth had taken eight days.
"I would love to have this technology," Archer shook his head in disbelief.
"Perhaps we will share it," Keras shrugged.
"Save it for the negotiations," Archer advised. "I'll tell Starfleet you have the tech, and you can offer it as some kind of concession, somewhere along the way. Might go a long way toward establishing the trust you need."
"Why would you help us in this manner?" Keras asked.
"It's what human's do, Keras," Jon shrugged. "We're just built that way, I guess." He stood.
"I need to get to Enterprise, and launch. If we don't, then you may be attacked."
Archer had been in a funk the entire trip home. He was constantly aware of the hostility of the Acheron crewmembers, but he didn't, couldn't, blame them. He was at least partly to blame for the loss of their ship, and their Captain.
Neera, who was decidedly less hostile that the others, had ruled the crew with an iron first during the voyage home, and there had been no trouble of any kind, either for him personally, or for the Enterprise crew.
Of course, some of his own crew were just as pissed at him as the Acheron crew were. Again, he didn't blame them.
Mostly, he blamed himself. He'd lost his best friend. Trip had sacrificed himself to correct a mistake that Archer had made. Jon was seriously considering resigning when he reached home, and had secured an agreement between Earth and the Xindi. He hadn't managed the situation well at all.
The only consolation he had was that so few had died. And weighed against how poorly he'd managed the situation, that wasn't much.
"Welcome home, Enterprise," Forrest smiled.
"There are three other ships behind us, Admiral," Jon said at one. "Each bears a representative of the Xindi. Three of their five races would like to discuss a peace treaty, and perhaps an alliance between themselves and Earth."
"What?" Forrest lost his smile.
"The Xindi had another, more powerful weapon, that has been destroyed," Jon went on. "The Xindi are comprised of five individual races, three of which want peace. The other two, not so much. The ships behind me represent those who want peace."
"Jon, that's. . .that's incredible," Forrest was stunned.
"It wasn't cheap," Jon shrugged. "We'll report when we're closer, but for now I wanted you to know these three ships are friendlies."
"I'll advise the patrols at once."
"Thank you, Admiral. We'll see you soon."
"I need access to your communications, Captain," Neera spoke softly, but urgently.
"Acheron's sister ship may be on station nearby," Neera informed him. "If so, I need to let them know these ship's aren't a threat."
"We're being hailed," Hoshi said urgently. "Origin unknown."
"Put it up," Archer ordered. The screen filled with a very dignified looking man dressed in black armor.
"My name is Primeter Vitorian, Captain of the warship Styx. Are the sh. . .Neera?" he cut himself off.
"Hello, Prim," Neera managed a weak smiled. "I thought someone might be lurking nearby."
"Lurking is hardly dignified," the man sniffed. "You are well?"
"We are, and the three alien ships are friendly," she replied.
Neera shook her head slowly, tears trickling.
"I am sorry," the man bowed. "Very well. Neera, transport is available. You know where. We will return to station. Styx, clear." With that, the screen went blank.
"Who was that?" Archer demanded.
"I told you, Captain," Neera looked at him. "Earth will not again fall victim to another attack like the Xindi. They are here to ensure Earth's survival. A final legacy of Trip Tucker."
"And that is all you need to know." With that the Amazon turned and left the bridge, her bearing as regal as any Queen in Earth's history.
Archer let her go, shaking his head.
Starfleet security made noises about detaining Acheron's crew, so the Athena made contact in space, far outside Earth's orbit, and the two ship's docked long enough for the Acheron's crew to disembark. Starfleet grumbled, but with another ship like Acheron in the vicinity, there wasn't much they could do about it.
Archer didn't want them to have to face Starfleet, anyway. They had been through enough.
Neera was the last to leave.
"Good-bye, Captain," she had said simply. "We will not likely meet again."
"I'm sorry, Neera," he said softly. "If it hadn't been for me, then Trip. . . ."
"No," Neera shook her head. "He stopped because of me, Captain. I have this from his own mouth. You have no blame in this." She faced him.
"You and your crew did well, Captain. Good luck." She went through the lock without another word.
Two minutes later Athena, clear of the other ships, went to warp, destination unknown.
"Jon, you should have brought them here for debriefing," Forrest said. "You had no right to simply release them."
"They weren't prisoners, Max," Archer said calmly. Twenty-four hours after Neera and the other had departed, Archer was sitting in Forrest's office. A shower, shave, and twelve hours of uninterrupted sleep had gone a long way toward helping him regain his equilibrium. He had needed it.
"They had information we needed!" Forrest declared. "According to your reports, that ship is, was, the most advanced ship in the Alpha quadrant. We can't have people running around with that kind of firepower who aren't accountable!"
"Bull shit," Archer shot back. "If it weren't for them, Enterprise wouldn't have returned. The Xindi would have launched a much more powerful weapon that would have killed all life on this planet. And," he added, smirking, "another ship, just like it, is sitting out there somewhere, just out of sensor range, protecting this planet right now."
"And you can imagine how they might have reacted to having their people taken into custody, after all they've sacrificed. Not to mention how it would read in the newsies."
"Who are they working for?" Forrest demanded.
"No idea," Archer replied honestly. "Other than Earth. One of their ships will likely be here, in the vicinity, from now on. It seems their only real concern is preventing another attack on Earth." He leaned forward.
"This is one gift horse you'd better not try checking the teeth of," he warned. "You might get bit."
"Why aren't you dead?"
"I love you too," Trip snorted, looking at the screen where Janos was glaring at him. It was three fifteen in the morning, Earth time.
"Even returning from the dead, you disturb my sleep," the older man growled. "And you destroyed a ship that cost me more than some planets!"
"I'm fine," Trip nodded. "Little sore, but other'n that, I'm okay." Janos' look softened a millimeter. Maybe two.
"I knew you would survive, somehow," he smiled faintly.
"Thanks to an Andorian Commander," Trip explained quickly. "And I'm sorry 'bout the ship, I am," he added contritely. "There just wasn't another way, sir."
"So I have been told," Janos nodded. "It is of no consequence. There are other ships. You saved your crew, you survived, and the weapon is destroyed. There is talk of a peace treaty, even, between some of the Xindi and Earth."
"Heard that myself. Know the other two are still out there, though, and they know how the weapon was built. If they can get the resources, they'll probably try to do it again, one day."
"Then we'll have to make sure that doesn't happen," Janos said simply. "What are you going to do now, Charles?"
"Well, I guess, if you wanna give me another ship, I'll kill me some slavers. Maybe some pirates. Odd Romulan or two, chance comes up. I'm pretty flexible, these days."
"You've changed, son," Janos' look grew concerned. "I regret that. . . ."
"Don't," Trip raised a hand to forestall the statement. "I asked for it. No one to blame for whatever I am now but me. Can't really even blame the Xindi. I didn't have to do it."
"That does not ease my conscience." Janos was being as open and honest as Trip had ever seen him be.
"I can't undo it," Trip shrugged. "No point in worryin' 'bout it now. What you want me to do?"
"There's a new ship, just completed," Janos sighed. "I'm sure you know that, since you're calling me from the station."
"I seen it," Trip nodded.
"It's your's, if you want it. Amazing how hard it is to crew these things," Janos snorted. "We may have to start a training academy of our own."
"Not a bad idea," Trip nodded. "I'm gonna beef up security here, too. I figure the weapons we're puttin' on the ships can be used to keep the station secure."
"Whatever you feel necessary," Janos nodded. "Space is your domain, Charles, not mine. I understand that your symbiot is. . .special," he added.
"So I understand," Trip smiled thinly. "Still workin' that out."
"I would be very interested in anything he can tell you about his. . .kind, I suppose. We know so very little. . . ."
"If he tells me, I'll tell you," Trip promised. "All I can promise. He ain't always forthcomin'. Talks a lot like you do, sometimes," he added, grinning.
"I'll take that as a compliment," Janos snorted.
"Janos, we've spent a lot of money," Trip mentioned. "I need to know where the bottom is. We built Acheron, and the others, without a budget. We can't keep doing that, I reckon."
"When you get near the bottom, I'll let you know," was all Janos would say. "I've had nearly three thousand years to accumulate wealth of all kinds. My shipping business does pretty well, even now, and Kov has. . .well, I'll let him show you. Anyway, for now, money is not the problem. People are."
"Well, we'll work on it," Trip sighed. "Meanwhile, I guess I better get to work."
"Get some sleep first, you look like hell," Janos snorted. "And one other thing," he added, frowning.
"Put a damn clock on that station set to Earth time!" he yelled back.
"I'll see to it," Trip laughed as Janos scowled once more, and cut the signal.
There were parties, celebrations, congratulations, promotions, exaltations. The Acheron's crew did not partake. Three more weeks in cramped quarters saw them arrive back at the station they called home. Most had decided whether they would stay or not, by then. For some, there was no better alternative. For others, no other alternative was desired.
Tala Thy'lek was morose as she watched the station grow in the view port. She was convinced that another ship would be unlikely to attract her as Acheron had. And without Trip Tucker, she wasn't really interested, anyway.
Neera watched with apprehension, and relief. Once on the station, her duties to the crew would be ended. She would then be able to focus on herself, for a change. She didn't look forward to it, but knew it was needed.
Delana Grix was unsure of what to do next. She was sure that the newest ship, visible in the docks, would need a doctor. If they didn't already have one, perhaps she'd offer her own services. She wasn't sure. She wasn't sure of anything at the moment, except the hole in her heart. She doubted it would ever be filled.
Dru'hak brooded, Kron by his side doing the same. Neither had made any kind of decision about what they would do now.
"Your brother did well," the elder stated.
"He is adequate," Kron nodded, almost against his will.
"He is more than that," Dru'hak chuckled. "He has much yet to learn, but he performed his duties well."
"I suppose," Kron nodded again.
"What will you do?"
"I do not know," Kron admitted. "I can not imagine, as yet, following another."
"I have lost leaders," Dru'hak nodded. "It is a hard thing, Kron, to have served a great man, and then have him lost."
"So I am learning."
"I'm very proud of you," his elder said suddenly. "You were, and remain, a worthy retainer of a great house. It has been an honor to serve that House alongside you." Kron looked up slowly.
"I thank you," he said gently. "And he was not the first great man I have followed," he added, looking into his former teacher's eyes. A slap on his shoulder was the only reply as Dru'hak rose to gather his men. Their job was at an end.
Athena docked with the station, and the crew stood ready to disembark. No one spoke, each lost in their own thoughts. The air lock cycled, and the ship's com announced that the seal was good. The doors opened, revealing a lone figure standing on the other side, waiting.
"Took you long enough," Trip groused good naturedly.
Pandemonium reigned for quite some time.
"All right, all right, settle down. Settle down!" Trip yelled, and quiet fell across the assembled crew.
"You did good, all o' you," Trip told them. "I figure some o' ya are done with this kinda work. If you are, then you got pay comin', and a ride to wherever you need to be."
"But. . .if ya wanna go back out, I got a place for all o' ya on mah new ship," he grinned. "This time, we're goin' huntin' Orions. We're gonna put an end to the slave trade. Period. Once we're done, won't be no slavers in the Alpha Quadrant. After that, well, there's the Naussican's, and somewhere on the horizon might be the Romulan Empire." He paused.
"Some of you, you ain't warriors, and don' wanna be. I understand that. But if you're up for a fight, then come with me," he smiled. "It'll be fun."
No one wanted to be left behind.
"What will you call her?" Kov asked, standing beside Trip as the man known as Grim looked out at his new ship, a near carbon copy of Acheron.
"Reaper," Trip smiled. "Can't figure a better name, considerin'."
"I like it," the emotional Vulcan nodded.
"What're you gonna do?" Trip asked.
"Well, after you left, I started designing a new type of cargo ship," Kov shrugged. "I sold the idea to the Boss, and we've already laid the hulls for six of them. I'll be busy for a while, I guess."
"He told me something about it. No space for you, then?" Trip asked.
"One day," Kov nodded. "Right now, I need to see this done. Since it was my idea, I want it to be right. You understand."
"I do indeed," Trip nodded. Behind Kov he saw Neera approaching, something he'd put off far too long. "I gotta go, Kov," he said simply. "Somethin' to take care of."
"I'll see you later. Are you free for dinner tomorrow night?"
"For you I will be," Trip nodded. "Com me what time. I'd like to see the plans for the new ship line." Kov nodded, and set off in the opposite direction of Neera. Trip waited, letting her come to him.
Patience is a virtue, Charles, the symbiot almost whispered. You have time aplenty, child.
Are you gonna be in my head all the time, teachin' me now? Trip smiled mentally.
That is what I do, Charles, the symbiot's mirth was equally recognized. Then, it was gone.
"Trip," Neera started, then stopped. The two of them had had no time to speak since the Athena's return until now. She was disappointed, but not surprised, that he had not sought her out.
"I hear you did good, lookin' after the crew," Trip said formally. "Well done."
"Thank you," Neera managed to nod. She didn't want to talk about the crew.
"You planning on goin' with me?" he asked. No sense in this being drug out.
"Do you want me to?" she asked, dreading the answer.
"Up to you," he shrugged, looking back at the newly named Reaper. "I don't know what you got in mind. S'why I asked."
"We need to talk," Neera said softly.
"We are talkin'," Trip told, turning back to face her. "You ain't gotta come along, you don't wanna. I think I can manage. You're welcome to, though. That's up to you." He turned back to the ship.
"But not as my XO," he went on. "Second Officer, maybe, or security officer, if you'd rather."
Neera felt her heart breaking. She had lost his trust.
"If you want me to, I'll be glad to take either," she replied.
"Like I said, it's your choice," Trip shrugged again. "But understand somethin' right now. I got things I aim to do. Based on what happened at Azati Prime, you likely won't care for how I do'em. That's fine, so long as you follow orders. You can't step up, then don't sign up, Neera," he finished softly.
"Trip, I'm sorry," Neera tried to explain.
"I know," he replied gently. "But that won't cut it anymore, Neera. I got lucky, this time. We didn't lose anyone, and I even got pulled out in the last second. But things might have gone a lot different. And we lost our ship. Somethin' that shouldn't o' been needed. Wasn't needed." He turned away again.
"I won't let it happen again."
"I understand," Neera nodded, fighting back her tears. "It was a mistake."
"Made a lot o' mistakes," Trip nodded, thinking about himself. "I let too many people get across the line on me. Got in the way o' my decision makin'. I could have lost my entire crew, people who trusted me to get them home safe. To make the best decisions I could make for them."
"You don't want me on the crew, do you?" Neera almost whispered.
"I really don't know," Trip was honest. "I thought about it a lot on the way home. Almost didn't come home," he admitted. "Thought about just. . .meanderin'. But, I made a promise. I aim to keep my promises."
"Janos has put a lotta trust in me. Lot of faith that I'd get the job done. We could have lost Earth, if things hadn't worked out." His eyes were hard as he looked into her's.
"Time's are changin'. Ain't no room for things like mercy for some o' the enemies we have, or might have in the future. I sacrificed a normal life to end the threat of the Xindi. And I failed," he added.
"No you didn't!" Neera exclaimed. "The weapon. . . ."
"The Reptilians, and the Insectoids are still out there, and know how to build another one," Trip cut her off. "I'm sure ole Jon is tickled pink with his treaty. Probably get a promotion, 'fore it's all over with. Make the talk show circuit. Lord knows, he's got the charisma for it," he chuckled darkly.
"But the fact that three of the five want peace don't erase the threat o' the other two. That's just a plain fact. Now, we'll always be lookin' over our shoulder, waitin' for them to hit us. And that's my fault," he added. "I'm the one who let'em live. When I had the chance to end it all, I didn't take it. And now, a lotta other folks may pay for it one day."
"So before you decide to come along, you be sure that you're willin' to do whatever it takes ta get the job done. I won't accept anything else. Not from you, not from anyone. Understand?"
Neera nodded, and finally lost the battle with her tears.
"We're through, aren't we, Trip?" she asked, managing not to sob.
"Dunno," Trip shrugged. "Time passes different now. But. . .for now, I reckon it's better. I can't allow personal feelin's to keep interferin'. You, Jon, whoever. I know what needs to be done, and I aim to do it. Things are outta hand, and I'm tired o' Earth and it's people bein' the punchin' bags for every body else. That ends. Soon."
"I understand," she said, her voice clouded with emotion. "I am so sorry."
With that, he turned and walked away, leaving her to think about things on her own.
Have you made the best decision, Charles? the symbiot asked.
Time'll tell, I guess, Trip anwered the only way he knew how.
You are hard, Charles, and grow harder each day, the symbiot noted. Do not allow that to cost you.
It already cost me, Trip shrugged mentally. It was a mistake to get involved with her. I see that now, where I couldn't before. I still love her, I think, but even that's cloudy, now. I'm confused, I'm hurt, and not a little mad. This ain't the right time to deal with what lies between us. You said yourself, patience is a virtue. Someday, I might be the man she needs me to be. Right now, I don't think I am, or can be.
This is better for her, he concluded.
You are a better man than you give yourself credit for, Charles. And you have spoken well. Now, shall we 'kill us some slavers'?
"Yeah," Trip nodded, speaking aloud. "Let's us do that."
And so this tale ends. If I'm able, there will be more of this one. As I said before, I think there'll be three of these telling the entire story, but I'm never quite sure. I hope you enjoyed a trip into Neverland, where things that shouldn't be, are.