"Out of the Loop"
by Braycat

Rated PG-13

Trip Tucker, Jonathan Archer, and the crew of the Enterprise are owned by Paramount and Starfleet, but they can't possibly appreciate them the way we do.

"What the hell is taking so long?" Archer muttered under his breath. It was a rhetorical question of course, but the captain couldn't help but keep asking it of himself over and over. Like a record trapped in a groove, Archer was stuck.

A few minutes ago the fact that the captain was a few parsecs away from his beloved Enterprise hadn't even been an issue. John had been thoroughly enjoying himself, investigating a derelict ship that the human vessel had run across the day before.

The craft was an intriguing puzzle. There was no sign of the crew, no lifeboats resting in their berths, but lots of strange technology still remained to be explored and Archer was crawling through the bowels of the exotic ship when word came from Enterprise that there'd been an accident in engineering. Commander Tucker had been hurt.

John's heart caught in his throat. Hoshi didn't list the extent of Tucker's injuries, but the captain could tell from the tone in her voice that the news wasn't good. "How much longer, Travis?" He asked the young helmsman who was at the controls of the shuttlepod.

"Just a few minutes, sir." Travis Mayweather said, trying to do whatever he could to reassure his captain. He knew full well that Archer was extremely close to Trip, and Tucker was a good friend to Mayweather too. The thought that the likeable engineer could be hurt or even dying was almost too much to bear. Travis pushed the speed of the pod up a notch. It was the waiting, the not knowing, that was the hardest part of dealing with something like this, so for right now the best thing that Travis could do was to shorten the interval of torment as much as he could.

It was still too long. They weren't due to dock for another three minutes and Archer was fidgeting. The captain wished he could get on the Comm and demand an update on Trip's condition, but he didn't dare risk it. For every inquiry Archer made, he could distract the doctor from his work, and that could be disastrous if Tucker's life was on the line.

So John made patience his watchword and after what seemed like an eternity the captain's long wait was finally over. With a quick thanks to Mayweather for a smooth docking, Archer was able to forget about keeping himself under control and gave free reign to his anxiety in the form of running full tilt toward sickbay.

But the captain brought his run to an abrupt halt the second he reached the door to the infirmary. For one brief moment John hesitated, afraid of what he'd find inside, but the captain only let his fear control him for a few seconds, then he summoned up his courage and entered the room.

At first glance it didn't look too bad. Trip Tucker lay on a biobed several feet from him but Archer could clearly see that the engineer was awake and appeared alert. His vital signs were strong by the indicators over his head, but when Dr. Phlox saw the captain, the look he gave Archer conveyed anything but good news.

The relief John had felt when he first entered was totally dissipated at Phlox's glance and the captain braced himself for the worst. Stealing himself to deliver the same, the Denobulan smiled at Tucker, patting him on the shoulder before leaving the engineer's side in order to brief the captain.

"Doctor?" Archer whispered. He didn't want Trip to overhear them discuss his condition.

"There's no need to keep your voice down, Captain. Commander Tucker can't understand anything you say and that is exactly the problem."

"What?" Archer didn't know what he had been expecting, but this sure wasn't it. How the hell could Trip not understand them?

"Apparently Commander Tucker was investigating one of those artifacts that you brought over from that derelict ship when he inadvertently activated the instrument."

"That's not possible, Doctor." Archer didn't want to argue with Phlox but he had made damn sure that all of the alien objects were inert before he allowed them to be brought on board. "None of those devices were attached to any power source so how could one possibly start working on its own?"

"I don't know, Captain. I'm not an engineer, but somehow the device did activate and it sent a probe into Commander Tucker's brain which somehow altered his cerebral cortex."

Archer's heart sank. He never liked the thought that any of his crew could be injured, perhaps permanently, but the fact that the victim this time was his best friend, well made the pain that much harder to take. "Altered how?"

Phlox thought for a moment. Sometimes explaining a complex medical condition to a friend or relative was the hardest part of his job, but the doctor fought to persevere. "The probe has changed the speed at which Commander Tucker can process information. He's fine with visual images or gestures, however speech or written text is almost impossible for him now. He still can comprehend what someone is saying but the interval required for his mind to transform the sounds into words is much longer than before."

This was just getting worse and worse. "How much longer?"

"When I asked him how he was feeling it took the commander almost a half an hour to process that one sentence. A conventional discussion like you and I are having is out of the question. Our normal rate of speech is far too fast for him to follow and everything we say must sound like total gibberish."

Archer was devastated by this news. While he was glad that his friend would live, not being able to communicate would effectively end his career, not to mention cut him off from everyone around him. The captain tried to grab a hold of any shred of hope he could. "Isn't there any way to get through to Trip at all?"

"If you're willing to sit for several hours while he strings together a sentence, yes, but that's the best he can do."

Damn. Archer was trying to find something positive about the current situation, but the doctor's manner wasn't helping any. "I'm guessing that there isn't much that you can do."

Phlox sighed. "I've never seen anything like this before, Captain. I don't know if the damage is permanent or temporary, or even what caused the damage in the first place. I'm studying the situation, but without more information my hands are tied."

Archer's frustration threatened to get the better of him so the captain started pacing in order to relieve the stress. "What about the device that caused this? Can't you study that?"

"Under controlled conditions, yes. Enterprise's engineer's have placed all of the items from the ship in quarantine until I can look at them through the use of robotic or remote manipulators." Phlox looked carefully at the captain. "I am assuming that you don't want to risk anymore human contact with these objects."

Archer shuddered. "You assume correctly." John glanced at his friend, lying on that sickbay bed. Trip looked so scared at that moment. So scared, so lost and so alone. "Does he understand what's happened to him?"

"I'm sure he does. Commander Tucker's reasoning processes seem to be unaffected by the probe. He is still as intelligent as before, he merely can't communicate his thoughts and feelings as well as he used to. I'm sure the commander has put all of the pieces together by now."

"Still, he's got to be terrified. To be suddenly cut off from everyone like this must make him feel terribly alone."

"Well then, Captain, it's up to us to make sure that Commander Tucker remains involved with this crew and this ship, at least until I can find a cure." Phlox smiled when Archer's face silently asked a question. "There's more than one way to communicate, Captain, in fact, we're doing it right now."

Archer thought about it for a moment, then realized that Phlox was right. He nodded his understanding, then took a deep breath and moved over to Trip's bedside.

The engineer forced a smile when he saw Archer. Trip had been well aware that the captain was in the room, of course, but what he and the doctor had been saying was utterly beyond him and that frightened Tucker more than anything else in his life ever had.

Archer could see that it did. Another example of non-verbal communication. Then the captain came up with a third. He scooped Trip up in his arms and hugged him tight. Telling the engineer through his slow rocking that he wasn't alone, that everything was going to be all right.

Tucker knew what the captain was saying with this gesture and took strength from the fact that he could still communicate, although it was only in this very simple, basic way. This was all Trip had at the moment, and he was gong to hang onto it with all his might.