By Thalia Drogna
AN: This is the last chapter. I'm planning to go back and correct errors in previous chapters so I'll be re-posting some of the earlier chapters. Thanks to everyone who stuck with this, hope you like the ending.
"Goddamned piece of technological junk," said Trip, with feeling and then he swore with some stronger language at the box of electronics that he was holding just for good measure. The heat and his injuries were making it hard for him to concentrate but he was sure that the problem was staring him in the face. He powered down the equipment again, not wanting to waste the power that they had. At best he had minutes to fix the problem, whatever it might be.
T'Pol had her scanner out and was furiously checking connections. The scanner was barely working, so Trip knew the chances that it would find the problem in time were slim to nil.
"Trip?" asked Archer.
"I don't know what's wrong," snapped Trip, before Archer could ask the obvious question. "I'm guessing that one of the blasts knocked something loose, but I'm damned if I know what."
"Work quickly, Commander, we've got company," said Archer.
Trip took a second to glance up and notice the black shapes climbing over the nearby rocks before he went back to his work. He was performing a visual check of all their connections, hoping that he could pick something up that the scanner had missed. There were hundreds of connections in their equipment and that didn't include the Hunter's own internal workings which they didn't have direct access to. Suddenly he had an idea where the problem might be, the most vulnerable connection that had been made and the only untested part of their set up.
"T'Pol, I think I've got it," said Trip. He had the back off the head of their captured Hunter. The joint where their equipment joined the circuitry of the Hunter had come slightly detached. Trip quickly made good the connection. "Let's try it again."
He took out the activation switch and once more pressed the button that should signal the end of the Hunters. A couple of seconds passed and nothing happened, making Trip think that their set up still wasn't working. Then the black clad Hunters stopped walking forward.
Trip couldn't believe what he was seeing. First the Hunters stopped and then they seemed to develop muscles spasms across their whole bodies, shivering like they were extremely cold. Their central processors were locked in a loop of contradictory instructions that the machines were unable to bypass. Then they fell backwards, inert forms tumbling down the cliff that they had just climbed. The ships overhead died more spectacularly as their engines cut and they ploughed their way into the desert before exploding in impressive plumes of fire. Trip noted that Ensign Lauritsen had done her job supremely well.
The MACOs broke out into cheers of triumph and relief, something that Trip had never seen Special Projects do in all his years with them. He stood up and surveyed the scene, unable to find words for what he was feeling. Then a shuttlepod was landing in the clear area between the tents, and Fenner had joined the celebrating MACOs.
The heat was suddenly unbearable and the sound of blood pumping was much louder in his ears than it should have been. His limbs felt like rubber and his head was pounding. Unconsciousness still came as a surprise to him, as did the hands that grabbed him and lowered him to the ground before he could fall.
Trip never did find out how they'd got everyone back to Enterprise, it never seemed important enough to ask about. He just woke up in sickbay lying in a bed next to Hathaway on one side and Rush on the other. Kanatova and Phlox were across sick bay discussing something. He raised his head to try and see what they were doing but that turned out to be a very bad idea. Pain shot across his skull and he had no choice but to close his eyes and lie back down. The biobed made a loud beeping noise that hurt his ears and he tried to put his hands over them, only to find that one was still bound in the shoulder immobiliser. He groaned involuntarily hoping that the noise would stop soon.
He heard the footfalls of someone move quickly across sickbay and then the beeping sound stopped.
"Sorry about that, Commander," said the voice of Doctor Phlox.
Trip risked opening his eyes again and the pain didn't return. Kanatova also came into his field of view.
"Is everyone okay?" asked Trip, weakly. Kanatova could have guessed that would be Trip's first question.
"Hathaway broke her shoulder blade in the explosion and she has some minor internal injuries," said Kanatova. At Trip's worried look towards the Major she added, "she'll be fine. Rush's burns had become infected but we've started him on antibiotics and given a little rest he'll be okay too."
"You had some intracranial bleeding that I was able to stop successfully," said Phlox, checking Trip's vital readings as he talked. Trip reached up and felt the stitches in the side of his head and the shaved area of bare skull.
"You gave us all a scare when you passed out," said Kanatova.
"If you could avoid hitting your head so much then that would help your recovery," said Phlox. "I also set your rib again. I don't appreciate having to repeat my work, Commander."
"That's okay Doctor, he won't be going anywhere for a while," said Kanatova. "I'm convinced that the two of us together can make sure of that."
"Don't really feel like going anywhere," said Trip, his voice dry and brittle. He moved his head slightly and noticed the drip tube that snaked its way into a vein in his arm.
"I'm certain that you don't feel like going anywhere. I would imagine that you have a rather impressive headache at the moment. The IV is providing you with pain medication but I would advise against movement for now, at least until you've had a chance to recover from the surgery."
"The best thing you can do for the moment, Trip, is sleep," said Kanatova.
"How long have I been out for?" asked Trip quietly, anything loud really hurt his sensitive hearing at the moment.
"About twenty four hours," said Kanatova.
"We were expecting you to be unconscious for longer," said Phlox.
Trip's eyes sagged and he knew he wouldn't be able to stay awake much longer. "Nice to get a lie in," was all he could manage to get out sleepily before he couldn't keep his eyes open any longer.
"I'll disable the alarms that alert me to a patient regaining consciousness," said Phlox to Kanatova.
"At least he didn't notice the guards," said Kanatova.
"Yes, the situation is regrettable," said Phlox.
"I wish I knew what we should have done differently," said Kanatova.
"That is not for me to say," said Phlox. "I wouldn't presume to understand the situation that you found yourselves in."
"Still find ourselves in. There will always be more Hunters."
"But if you're not carrying the information, then you will not longer be a target for the Hunters," said Phlox.
"If we're not a target then someone else will be," said Kanatova.
"Let's deal with the task at hand before we worry about that," said Phlox, moving back to the bench that he had been working at before. "I think the line of research we were pursuing before the Commander awoke looked very promising."
"Of course, you're right Doctor. The mental imaging may well be the key to the technique."
Kanatova returned to examining the brain scans of her fellow Special Projects members, while trying to ignore the two Starfleet officers that stood guarding the door.
Archer entered the brig. Fenner, Carter and Darwin sat in the cells.
"You have no right to hold us here," said Darwin.
"I have every right," said Archer.
"At least let my men out of here. Lieutenant Carter and Mister Fenner haven't done anything wrong. Neither has Major Hathaway, Captain Kanatova, Sergeant Rush or Commander Tucker. I'm their Commanding Officer this is all my responsibility."
"They're old enough to make their own decisions and you haven't been their CO for over ten years," said Archer.
"You've got this all wrong, Archer. At least let Fenner go."
"Colonel…" began Fenner about to protest that he'd stand with them, but Darwin held out an arm to stop him saying anything.
"He's a civilian, not part of the military chain of command," said Darwin.
"You're telling me that he wasn't part of your take over of Engineering?"
"If that's what you need to hear," said Darwin.
"I have evidence to the contrary," said Archer. "My men saw Mister Fenner enter Engineering with the rest of you."
"He was our prisoner."
"I gave you the benefit of the doubt with Ensign Lauritsen. You can't save them all," said Archer.
"I can try," said Darwin. "If you were in my place what would you do?"
Archer looked at the MACO colonel. "I would have kept them out of this in the first place."
"With all due respect, Captain," said Carter, "that wasn't down to the Colonel. As soon as Arroya was killed we were all involved."
"If the Colonel hadn't set up Water's Edge then we'd all be dead," added Fenner.
"I'm aware of the facts," snapped Archer. "You endangered this ship and the lives of this crew, that is unforgivable." Suddenly he realised that he was saying this to the wrong person. The person he really wanted to rant and shout at and accuse of betrayal was lying unconscious in sickbay. He wasn't just angry because Trip had disobeyed his orders, there were other layers to what he was feeling. Some of it was jealousy that Trip had chosen Darwin over him, some of it was a feeling of deep betrayal, and some of it was concern for Trip. Buried deep under all of it was a small voice that told him he was going to have to court-martial his best friend of ten years and he couldn't see a way around it.
There was silence for a moment.
"I'd like to visit my wounded men," said Darwin.
"You're not getting out of this brig until we reach Earth, I'm not giving you any chances to escape. Besides, Trip's not up to visitors yet," said Archer.
"And Ellen and Mike?" asked Darwin.
"Phlox tells me that they're doing fine," said Archer. If he had been in Darwin's place then he would have wanted information on the team members in sick bay too.
"Have Kanatova and Phlox found a way to get this information out of our heads yet?"
"Phlox thinks they're close. I'll let you know once they have something," said Archer, turning to go.
"If you need a test subject, then you know where I am," said Darwin. "I want to be the first one to try it."
Archer just gave Darwin a nod and exited the brig.
Enterprise left Algol II behind it and retraced its steps to locate the NX-Theta. The Starfleet ship hung in space exactly where the MACOs had left it to board Enterprise. Everything seemed to be working, so they attached the grapple cable to the NX-Theta, Travis took a small crew on board and they towed the ship behind Enterprise. They reclaimed their modified shuttle from its docking bay. The words "Shuttle Pod One" had been crossed out roughly in drippy black paint and "Bluebird II" scrawled underneath.
Once the shuttle was safely back in the shuttle bay of Enterprise, Archer had gone down to see Trip's modifications and been very impressed. Hess and T'Pol were going over it with a scanner taking down every detail before the shuttle was returned to its former state. Archer however had more pressing concerns than the modified shuttle, they were coming into range for subspace communication with Starfleet HQ after their detour to Algol II. Archer had a lot to discuss with the Admiral and it was time he bit the bullet and put into motion court-martial proceedings.
He made his way across the bridge, asking Hoshi to contact the Admiral for him, before he wearily opened the door to his Ready Room to prepare to take the call.
"Sir, I have Admiral Forrest on the channel for you," said Hoshi.
"Put him through," said Archer.
"Hello Jon, you've been out of touch for a while and I'm guessing from the look on your face that you've had a difficult week," said Forrest.
"We've had a wild ride, Admiral," said Archer. "I'll start with the good news, we've located the NX-Theta and we're bringing her back home."
"That's great news, I'll inform the museum that they will be getting their star exhibit back. How did you come across it?"
"Colonel Darwin crossed our path again," said Archer and gave the Admiral the full story from Trip's departure to their destruction of the Hunters. "Admiral I am requesting that courts martial are convened for Colonel Robert Darwin, Major Ellen Hathaway, Captain Anna Kanatova, Lieutenant Dominic Carter, Corporal Michael Rush, James Fenner and Commander Charles Tucker III, according to Article 23 of the Starfleet statutes."
The Admiral looked very serious. "General Whittaker isn't going to like this."
"I don't care what General Whittaker likes," said Archer. "They took control of my ship and put everyone on Enterprise in danger."
"You have my support, Jon, but are you sure you want to include Commander Tucker in the court martial?"
"I don't have any choice, Admiral. What he did wasn't just a minor infraction, I can't just give him a slap on the wrist this time. He made his choice, Admiral, and he knew what he was doing."
"I'll start the paper work," said Forrest.
"Sir, we need to warn our allies about the Hunters," said Archer.
"Agreed, I'll get in touch with the Vulcans. Is there any possibility that we could open diplomatic channels with these Quantum aliens?"
"It has to be worth a try, but I don't even know how we'd reach them."
"Maybe Research and Development can come up with something," said Forrest.
"I hope so because the Hunters they sent after the Special Projects team were damn near unstoppable."
Reed had made a point of coming to sick bay to check on his Security detail everyday since they had returned from Algol II. To most people it just looked as if he was taking a personal interest in this particular guard detail, but actually he had an ulterior motive. He knew that no one had been to see Trip apart from Phlox since he'd been brought up from the planet, but as Head of Security visiting Trip could be seen as a conflict of interest. For the past few days he had sneaked over to Trip's biobed to check on his friend and today for the first time he found Trip awake.
"How are you feeling?" asked Reed.
"Like my brains were scooped out with a spoon," said Trip, who was lying flat on his back, trying his best not to move his head too quickly.
"That's a fairly graphic description," said Reed.
"The only good thing is that Phlox is pretty free with the anti-pain medication. The stronger stuff knocks me out like a light, but then I seem to be spending most of my time sleeping anyway."
"I'd noticed. You're not supposed to have visitors so this will have to be quick."
"Yeah, Phlox said I'm not up to it yet. I'd noticed the guard detail. Have Starfleet filed charges yet?"
"Not yet. Look, I have a good friend at Starfleet JAG, I can give you her details. I know she'll do the best she can for you," said Reed.
"Thanks Malcolm, but I'm going to plead guilty to all the charges. I won't be needing a lawyer."
"Trip, this is your career. You have to fight for it."
"No, I don't. I made my choices. I thought I'd left behind my past in Special Projects and I was wrong. I'm never going to be able to leave it behind and if I can't leave it behind, I can't serve in Starfleet."
"If you don't defend yourself you could end up going to jail. You could make a deal, get off with a demotion or something."
"I'm not defending myself, Malcolm. End of discussion," replied Trip.
Reed shook his head but didn't press the matter. "Did Phlox give you an idea of how long you're going to be in sick bay?"
"He said at least two weeks, depending on how well everything heals. I tore something new in my shoulder, plus I got a few more bruises. Breaking the rib again means that it's going more slowly than it would have if I'd just stayed here," said Trip. He blinked his eyes heavily and yawned.
"You need to sleep. I'll try and come by again tomorrow," said Reed.
"Thanks, it's nice to see someone other than Phlox or my fellow prisoners," said Trip with a smile, already heading towards sleep again. Reed watched Trip fall asleep and then turned to leave, just as Phlox emerged from his office.
"You don't need to be so secretive about your visits, Lieutenant," said Phlox.
"It's against regulations for prisoners to receive visits of a social nature from their jailor," said Reed. "As Head of Security I should be setting an example, not bending the rules. Then of course there are your instructions that Trip isn't up to having visitors yet."
Phlox went to check on his patients. Rush and Hathaway were both sleeping soundly, as was Trip now. "Commander Tucker is in a very stressful situation at the moment, one which is not beneficial to his recovery. Your visit has at least shown him that he does have friends on this ship. My instruction of no visitors was at least partially to prevent further stressful situations. As your visit did not have that effect then I see no reason to prevent you from seeing him again, provided you don't stay too long. I think bending the rules in this case is completely justifiable and necessary for the Commander's mental health."
Reed smiled. "Thank you, Doctor."
Kanatova entered the main area of sick bay at that moment. "Doctor Phlox, I think I have the answer that we've been looking for. I can delete the Quantum Computer knowledge from our brains."
Archer received the call to sick bay and rapidly made his way there, knowing that Phlox had either made a break through with regard to the Quantum Computer knowledge or one of his patients had taken a turn for the worse. He was pleased to find out that the former was the reason why Phlox wanted to see him. Just because Trip had disobeyed his orders didn't mean that he wasn't worried about him.
Kanatova, Phlox and Reed were all assembled by one of the lab benches. Reed was looking baffled, while Kanatova and Phlox were talking animatedly. Archer took in the three curtained off biobeds where the three prisoners lay and the guards on the door as he had ordered, although he doubted any of the patients were capable of walking out of sick bay under their own power at the moment.
"So what have you found?" asked Archer.
"I believe that I can erase the data in our brains safely," said Kanatova. "Doctor Phlox and I have developed a brain imaging technique which when combined with a targeted electrical impulse, should have the desired effect."
"I have now been able to examine all of the brain scans," said Phlox. "It seems that the information was broken into five blocks and each member of the Special Projects Unit was given three of the five blocks of data. So all of them would have held a duplicate of at least one block of data that another MACO was carrying. All of which means that even though three MACOs were killed we can still reassemble the data. In fact six of the nine members of the unit would have had to have been killed for the Hunters to have made it impossible to complete the data."
"Thank you, Doctor, but we don't want to reassemble the data, we just want to delete it," said Archer.
"I'm happy to be the first to try the procedure," said Kanatova.
"Doctor, you're the one who developed the procedure, if anything goes wrong we may need your expertise," said Reed.
"I agree," said Phlox. "I would be happier if you were available to assist with the procedure."
"Colonel Darwin volunteered to be the first," said Archer.
"I know he considers it his duty as the ranking officer," said Kanatova, "ever since Trip told us what had happened on Karavia he has felt responsible for the current situation."
"He should feel responsible," said Archer.
Suddenly there was the sound of a curtain being drawn aside swiftly and Major Hathaway stood leaning against her biobed. Her left arm was in a sling and she was obviously having trouble remaining standing. On her face was a look of anger.
"You can't judge the Colonel, you weren't there. He did what he thought was right, what was necessary," said Hathaway. "We all did. Don't condemn what you can't understand. You don't like us because you don't like what Special Projects stood for. Well I have news for you, Captain, Special Projects was a necessary evil. If it wasn't for us then you wouldn't be able to step out into the universe with your high ideals."
"That doesn't change what you did on this ship," said Archer.
"You've fought for the survival of Earth, done questionable things yourself in the name of saving lives, and you still don't see it. You're not as white as you pretend to be, and you're telling me that the Colonel is in the wrong. He's only human, we all are. You try to put things behind you, but it's impossible with something like Special Projects. It changes you and you're never the same again. It's been a long journey to get to where we are now and we're all tired, Captain. We just want an end to running."
"Next you'll be telling me that Trip didn't disobey a direct order," said Archer.
"When I called Red Rain Alpha that command superseded all other commands, technically he was correct to follow my order. There were some codes that were still valid even after Special Projects disbanded. Trip made some bad calls in how he handled the situation, he should have trusted you more, but his overriding concern was for the safety of everyone on this ship. It's easy to fall back into old habits and Special Projects taught him to react in a certain way and that was what he did. We taught him to trust no one, so when he found himself in this situation, he fell back on his training. I'm not saying that what he did was right, but you can't judge him when you don't know what he's been through."
"I'm beginning to get a much better idea," said Archer. "You can argue all you like Major, but the court martial still stands. Regulations were broken."
"Now that depends on how you look at things," said Hathaway. "Trip obviously didn't tell you what I'm doing now."
"No, he didn't mention it. Just that you were in command of your own unit," replied Archer.
"When I left Special Projects I decided to retrain. Law looked as if it might be interesting. I'm now with the Starfleet Judge Advocate General's office, with particular responsibility for the MACOs."
Archer just stared at Hathaway for a moment, unable to find a coherent remark to reply with. This was most definitely bad news when it came to trying the MACOs.
"Maybe we should draw straws to see who undergoes the procedure first," said Kanatova, deliberately changing the subject.
"So long as you don't rig it, like last time," said Hathaway in reply, while Phlox helped her back up onto her biobed and she lay back.
"Yes, it was rather unfair on Trip, even if he was the best man for the job."
"Well you certainly stirred up a hornet's nest this time, Jon," said Admiral Forrest over subspace. "I've had the top brass from JAG, Starfleet and the MACOs calling me night and day. None of them want this case to be tried. JAG are claiming that the charges aren't substantial enough, given that apparently Special Projects authority is still good. Starfleet would love to see Darwin hung out to dry given his previous dealings with Enterprise but at the same time they're worried about how this will look to the Vulcans when all the details come out. General Whittaker is screaming about clearance levels and how this is all still classified. He's not happy that we've even raised it."
"I knew it wasn't going to be easy, Admiral, but I'm not backing down on this."
"I don't think we're being given a choice, Jon. Maybe we've lost perspective here," said Forrest. "If we reveal what this was all about to the general public then we'll have some huge problems. People could panic at the idea of Hunters attacking Earth, and the Vulcans will want to know what we were doing on Karavia in the first place. It could seriously damage our alliance with them. Maybe this is one that you should let lie, Jon."
"We could have a closed trial. Admiral, one hundred and twenty people died in that Mars to Earth Shuttle explosion," said Archer. "People are going to want to know how and why it happened."
"That was not caused by any direct action that the MACOs took," said Forrest. "Captain Dempsey had no way of knowing his presence on the shuttle would mean the deaths of all those people. The Hunters did a good job of making it look like an accident and I think we should let people believe that's what it was."
"They took over my ship, Admiral, and placed my entire crew in danger," said Archer.
"Commandeered is the word that General Whittaker is using. In fact he's even suggested that you were in the wrong for trying to stop them," said Forrest.
"I don't believe it. They want to court martial me for trying to take back command of my own ship?"
"Well he didn't go that far. You will be pleased to hear that there have been some noises made about the way that Colonel Darwin ran the mission though. The General was less than pleased to find out the majority of what had been going on via Starfleet channels."
"I suppose that's something. What about the charge of theft? They also stole the NX-Theta," said Archer.
"Only three of them. They're claiming that the MACOs were given permission, the Museum just lost the paperwork."
Archer laughed a bitter laugh. "That doesn't actually surprise me. There has to be something that we can do."
"They know that you don't want to let this go, won't let this go, and they have a deal for you."
Archer listened to what the Admiral had to say and then nodded his head. "It isn't what I wanted, but I suppose it's the best I'm going to get."
The MACOs assembled in sick bay, escorted by Lieutenant Reed and two of his men. Captain Archer stood watching from near the door. Kanatova had the computer randomly select a name and Fenner was chosen as the test subject, against Darwin's protests. Trip was excluded from the pool due to his head injury. Rush and Hathaway were both up and sitting on one of the biobeds, while Trip still slept, oblivious to what was going on around him.
Kanatova sat Fenner down in the chair that she had prepared for him.
"Just relax, James. I'd be sat there if they'd let me," said Kanatova, as she positioned a headset and attached monitors.
"That's easy for you to say," said Fenner.
There was a groan and then the sound of pained coughing from the middle biobed. "Excuse me a minute," said Phlox. He drew back the curtains around Trip's biobed to find his patient trying to get into the most comfortable position to cough but not succeeding. Trip attempted to push himself up a little and Phlox helped. Captain Archer was across sick bay in a few steps and supporting Trip on the other side.
"I wasn't expecting an audience," said Trip when he was finally able to catch his breath. His chest was on fire and the movement had jarred all his injuries, not to mention the fact that his head was still killing him. Every breath just caused him more pain and he tried to make them as shallow as possible while pulling in enough air.
Archer and Phlox laid Trip back down on the biobed again, carefully so as not to cause him further pain. Archer saw Phlox glance at the readings above the biobed before he adjusted something on the liquid that was being dripped into his patient via the IV line. Archer assumed it was to add more painkiller to the solution. Phlox adjusted the bed a little so that Trip was in more of a sitting position, knowing he'd want to be able to see what was going on.
Archer hadn't really seen Trip since he had been rushed into surgery upon their return from Algol II. He took in the pale colour of Trip's skin, the bruises and shaved area of skull. He hadn't realised quite how ill Trip actually was until this moment.
"Doctor Kanatova has found a way to erase the quantum computer knowledge," said Phlox. "We were just about to get started."
"Who's going first?" asked Trip, his voice weak and breathless still.
"Fenner," said Archer.
"Kanatova decided to play fair this time then?" said Trip.
"You knew?" asked Kanatova from the other side of sickbay.
Trip smiled. "You can't get much past me, Anna. When's my turn?"
"You're going last. Phlox wants to do a few more tests before you get your go," said Kanatova.
"You're no fun anymore," said Trip.
"With your head injury, I'm not taking any risks, Commander," said Phlox.
"Told you before, Doc, it's Trip. Don't think I'm going to be a Commander for much longer."
"I'm sorry, Commander, but you don't get out of this that easily. I expect to see you back in uniform once the doctor lets you out of here," said Archer.
Trip just looked at his Captain. "I don't understand, what happened to the court martial?"
"It seems that Special Projects still has some powerful friends back on Earth," said Archer. "Consider the charges dropped. That doesn't mean that there aren't consequences and I'll be discussing those with Colonel Darwin after we've finished here. We're leaving the rest up to your individual commanding officers."
Fenner had a grin plastered across his face, mainly because he knew that meant he was off the hook completely. The other MACOs looked relieved but definitely not happy. Darwin caught Archer's eye and gave him a slight nod of acknowledgement, he had a good idea of what the consequences that Archer had mentioned would be.
One by one the former members of the Special Projects unit underwent the procedure to remove the information that they were carrying. Kanatova went last before Trip. Phlox supervised and then went to his lab bench to analyse all the data that he had collected from the six times the procedure had been performed. Trip had once again fallen asleep as people bustled around him. No one wanted to leave until they knew that Trip's information could also be erased safely. The idea that one of them would continue to be a target for the Hunters, even if only temporarily, didn't sit well.
"What is the verdict?" asked Kanatova, her accent sounding even more Russian due to being clouded by worry.
"I can't see any way in which the procedure could cause complications with the head wound," said Phlox.
They woke Trip to put the headset on, but he fell asleep again during the procedure. They finished without incident. Archer had remained by Trip's side, but if anyone had asked, he wouldn't have been able to give a rational answer as to why he felt he needed to stay there. He did however feel relieved when everything was over.
"Colonel, I need to speak with you," said Archer. "The rest of you are free to go. I have arranged for quarters to be assigned to you and Lieutenant Reed's staff will escort you to them. I expect you all to observe the areas of this ship which are off limits to visitors. Am I clear?"
"Yes, sir," said Fenner, Kanatova, Rush, Hathaway and Carter. Rush and Hathaway would be staying in sick bay a little longer in any case.
"We understand," said Darwin.
"Good. Colonel, I'll see you in my ready room in five minutes," said Archer and strode out of sick bay.
It was 0200 ship's time. The lights across the ship had been dimmed and everyone apart from the night shift were asleep in their bunks at this hour. In sick bay, Hathaway found herself wide awake. She shifted on the biobed, hoping to go back to sleep, but suddenly she found images worming their way into her brain. Images of black streets, that she ran through while being chased by men in black, Trip running beside her and black ships flying over head in arrow head formation.
She reached over to the table beside her and grasped hold of the glass of water there, raising it to her lips to take a gulp. She looked over to the biobed beside hers and saw movement that was followed by coughing. She threw her legs over the side of bed and went over to Trip who was doing his best to curl in on himself.
"Come on, Commander, sit up and you'll feel a hell of a lot better," said Hathaway. Rush was helping her a second later and the two of them together were able to move Trip into a sitting position.
Hathaway found Trip's glass of water and lifted it for him to sip. Trip met Hathaway's eyes. "I remember," he said simply.
"Me too," said Hathaway.
"Being chased down dark streets by Hunters?" asked Rush.
"Yeah," replied Trip. His memories were no longer the fuzzy recollections that he'd collected out of his hypnosis, these images were as clear as day. Crystal sharp and as painful as glass cuts.
The door to sick bay opened and Kanatova walked in, followed by Fenner and Carter. The three new arrivals stood looking at the others.
"You too?" asked Hathaway.
"Karavia?" asked Kanatova.
"Dark streets and being chased," added Rush.
"Watching the city burn," supplied Carter.
Darwin was the last to arrive. He opened the sick bay door and lent against the frame, looking much older than he had earlier. "For some reason I knew you were all here," said Darwin. "I'm guessing that we all had the same experience tonight."
"We removed the information and removed the block," said Kanatova.
"Makes sense," said Trip.
"I doubt any of us are going to get any more sleep tonight," said Darwin.
"It's like it happened yesterday," said Rush.
"All those people who died," said Kanatova.
"I've spent all these years trying to forget what happened back then," said Trip.
Hathaway helped Trip to lie back again and then took a seat on her own biobed. Kanatova joined her there. The other MACOs pulled up chairs and stools from around sick bay.
"I just don't understand why any intelligent being would do what they did," said Kanatova.
"We did worse," said Carter.
"We never destroyed a city for no other reason than the technology they had," said Hathaway.
"Faranor," said Trip.
"Not comparable," said Darwin, "and not our fault."
"We killed a lot of people to get what we wanted," said Rush.
"But not innocent civilians," said Kanatova.
"Starfleet will work out a way to contact them," said Trip. "Stop this from happening again."
"I hope you're right, Trip, but I'm not so certain," said Darwin.
"What did Captain Archer want to talk to you about?" asked Hathaway. She hadn't seen her former CO since he and Archer had departed sick bay earlier that afternoon.
"They have asked me to resign my commission," said Darwin. "Take early retirement."
"What?" asked Hathaway, in shock. "They can't do that."
"They can and have," said Darwin.
"This was what the Captain meant by consequences," said Trip. "They can't court martial us so they've demanded the Colonel's resignation."
Darwin gave Trip a look, which he quickly hid.
"Except that's not it, is it?" asked Trip, he'd known the Colonel too long not to know when he hadn't given them the whole story. "He demanded your resignation in exchange for dropping the charges, and since he'd already told us that the charges have been dropped, you had no choice but to accept his terms."
Darwin didn't confirm anything but from the look on his face, Trip knew that he had it right.
"Sir, if you want to fight this then I can put together a case," said Hathaway.
"No, I can't take this to court," said Darwin. "If any of what we've just discussed came out then it would be incredibly damaging. They can't touch you, but I can't touch them. It's a fair exchange, boys and girls. This way you all get to keep your careers but they get their scapegoat."
"It's not fair, sir," said Carter.
"No, it isn't, but whoever said that life was fair?"
"Being a MACO is your life, sir," said Trip.
"Was my life. I'll do what any good MACO does when faced with a tough situation, I'll adapt. Just like I taught all of you to do. Anyway, I need coffee, or at least what passes for coffee around here. I'm going to the mess hall."
The other MACOs watched Darwin leave and for a long moment no one spoke.
"What do you think he'll do?" asked Trip.
"He'll work something out," said Hathaway. "He always does."
The gathering in sick bay broke up about half an hour later and the MACOs either followed their former CO to the mess hall or back to their beds to attempt to get some sleep before the morning. Trip found it hard to get back to sleep, there were so many things running around his head. He still couldn't believe that Darwin was prepared to resign without even a fight, but then he himself hadn't wanted to contest any of the charges against him. Perhaps that was why Darwin was giving up so easily, but then they were all tired of fighting. There had to be an end somewhere.
Enterprise continued on its way back to Earth, a journey which would take them a month. After two weeks in sick bay, Trip was climbing the walls and ready to leave.
Phlox had allowed him visitors a few days after the successful deletion procedure. After that he'd had a nearly constant stream of people coming to see him. Rush and Hathaway had been released from sick bay after only a week but had to return for regular check ups, so would stop off to see Trip then. The others dropped into sick bay whenever they could to make sure that Trip wasn't too bored once he'd recovered enough to stay awake for a reasonable amount of time. Reed, Hoshi, T'Pol and Mayweather had all made time to see Trip as well, in fact the only person who hadn't been to see him since the successful memory wipe was the one person he really needed to talk to, the Captain. It was another reason why Trip was desperate to get out of sick bay. If he could corner the Captain in his cabin then he wouldn't be able to avoid Trip any longer. If Trip was going to remain as Chief Engineer aboard Enterprise then they were going to have to talk.
His head was no longer constantly painful, but it would be another two weeks before his rib and the bones in his hand would finish knitting properly. Phlox had also insisted that his shoulder remain strapped up for another week, after which they would begin physical therapy. Two weeks of enforced rest had at least meant that he now had the energy to deal with his current situation. Not having the threat of court martial hanging over his head had gone a long way to improving his mood, even if Phlox wouldn't let him return to duty until his broken bones had healed.
All the MACOs found themselves in the unusual position of having no duties to perform. None of them were used to it, especially after the previous weeks of activity. Kanatova spent her time either talking to Phlox or playing and beating most of the Enterprise crew at chess. The exception to Kanatova's near total walk over was Lieutenant Reed who she played six times to get a total of two wins, three losses and a draw. Hathaway contented herself with catching up on case files sent from her office back in San Francisco and sparing with the other MACOs when the opportunity presented itself. Fenner, Carter and Rush had a series of complicated ball games going in the gym, which a number of Enterprise crew members had been drawn into. A petition had been sent to the Captain to turn it into an official tournament, and Archer thought it might be healthy to let the crew have a new recreational activity to participate in.
Darwin did a bit of everything, taking part in the tournament games, playing chess with Kanatova, sparing with Hathaway, visiting Trip and catching up on paperwork. He knew that if he allowed himself too much time to think he might have to consider what his future held and that was something that he wasn't ready for yet. It wasn't that he had no ideas what he would do when he left the MACOs, a quiet retirement sounded nice in a lot of ways, although he knew he wasn't really that enthusiastic about it. He had enough favours owed him that he was sure that he wouldn't be unemployed for long. It wasn't that he worried about the future, it was just that he'd always been a MACO. He'd joined up straight out of high school and had never wanted do anything else. It wasn't a problem, it was just that a period of adjustment would be required.
When he finally did let it be known that he was looking for alternative employment, he was surprised by the interest that he received. In particular there was one opportunity that looked very promising and would mean that he'd still be involved in the military, even if it wouldn't be Earth's military. It intrigued him so he opened discussions and eventually, after some soul searching, he accepted the position.
Trip heard the door bell but he knew he didn't want to talk to whoever was at the door. He ignored it as best he could, staring at the photo in his hand. Whoever it was wasn't taking no for an answer and pressed the door bell again. When Trip still didn't answer, the door slid back.
"You can get into trouble doing that," said Trip. "Lieutenant Reed doesn't like people abusing their security privileges."
"I doubt the Lieutenant will have a problem with my actions," said T'Pol.
"You're probably right," said Trip. He put the photograph to one side. "So what can I do for you?"
"I need your help. Ensign Lauritsen and I have been attempting to analyse the memories of the Hunter that you disabled."
"I'm on sick leave," said Trip.
"I spoke to Doctor Phlox and he has given his permission for you to help us," replied T'Pol.
Trip nodded. "Well I've got nothing better to do." Trip paused for a moment. "We never did talk about me shooting you. I'm real sorry about that, T'Pol."
"I have been stunned before," said T'Pol.
"But not by someone that you've…" said Trip. T'Pol raised an eyebrow and Trip felt red rising on his cheeks. "Never mind. You must be mad at me or something."
"I am Vulcan," replied T'Pol.
"T'Pol, that's your race, not an answer," said Trip.
"I understand your reasons for stunning me. At the time it was your sole course of action. I posed a threat and you reacted to it."
"You're really okay about it?" asked Trip.
"I have had some time to put the incident into perspective," said T'Pol. "You did not handle the situation as I would have done, however your solution did achieve the required result." T'Pol paused for a moment. "I am gratified that you will be remaining as a member of this crew."
Trip was taken aback by the last comment. He'd expected T'Pol to be cross with him, or at least as cross as a Vulcan ever got. He'd thought that at the very least she'd tell him off for all the mistakes he'd made in handling this affair.
"That last part isn't confirmed, I still need to talk to the Captain. After everything that's been going on, I'm not sure that he'll still want me around."
"If you will not be staying on Enterprise, what are your plans?"
"I don't know. I hadn't really thought that far ahead," said Trip. "I guess I'll go somewhere I can't cause anymore trouble. Somewhere I can forget all about Special Projects."
"I am not sure that will be possible. It is a part of who you are," said T'Pol.
"I never thought I'd be getting counselling from a Vulcan, but maybe you're right. Maybe I should stop trying to deny it and just acknowledge that it's part of who I am."
"That would seem to be a logical course of action. You cannot deny that you were part of Special Projects or the pain that it caused you. All you can do is learn to deal with it."
"You sure you haven't been talking to Kanatova," said Trip.
"Not since you were discharged from sick bay," said T'Pol. "We should go to the Command Centre if we are to get started on the memory download."
"Yeah, right," said Trip. He got up and followed T'Pol out of his cabin. He glanced back at the picture that he'd left lying on the bed. It was a picture that was based on a lie, but nonetheless it was one of his favourites. It showed two Starfleet officers, obviously drunk or at least on their way to drunk since they both held bottles of beer in their hands. Their arms were wrapped around each other's shoulders and they were both smiling. One of the officers held a single silver pip up to the camera. It had been his celebration of his promotion to Commander and the other officer had been the newly promoted Captain Archer.
Neither of them knew what lay ahead for them at that point. It was a picture of innocence and open friendship. He missed that in his relationship with the Captain and it wasn't just the revelation about Special Projects that had come between them. There was so much more that Trip wished had never happened, not least the death of his sister and their crusade against the Xindi. It had taken any remaining innocence about space exploration that any of them had ever had. Of course, Trip's innocence had been lost over ten years ago when Faranor was destroyed, but that didn't stop him wishing he could go back to that night at the 602 club when all he had to worry about was getting both of them home before Jon drank him under the table.
Trip was glad that T'Pol had found some work for him to do. It wasn't anything strenuous. There was no need to climb around Jeffries tubes, it was purely problem solving. Keisha had done a good job with mapping out the neurology of the Hunter, if it could be called neurology when dealing with a central processor. T'Pol was still working on a way to link the Hunter's systems to Enterprise's computers. All Trip had to do was help T'Pol with downloading the Hunter's memories.
It took them nearly two days but eventually they had a working system that downloaded trinary memories, converted them into binary and deposited them, after a thorough virus check, into Enterprise's computer. Working one handed was still really annoying him but he was consoling himself with the fact that Phlox had said he'd be able to take the shoulder out of its sling at the end of the week assuming all was still going well.
"I am going to review the files that we have downloaded so far," said T'Pol. "You should get some food and then rest."
"You know, you're beginning to sound like Phlox," said Trip.
"The doctor was not pleased that he had to remind you to come for you check up this morning," said T'Pol.
"Phlox worries too much," said Trip.
Archer stepped through the hatch and caught Trip's last comment. "Phlox knows what you're like," said Archer.
Trip stiffened slightly at the sound of Archer's voice. He'd managed to avoid a confrontation with the Captain for nearly three weeks now. As he wasn't back on duty that had mostly been down to hiding in his quarters and only coming out for meals. "Hi Captain," was all he could manage in reply.
"You and I need to talk," said Archer to his Chief Engineer.
"Yeah, I guess we do," said Trip.
"I will be in my quarters reviewing this data," said T'Pol, making a strategic exit to leave Archer alone with Trip.
"If you're going to bawl me out then I'd rather we took this to your Ready Room," said Trip.
"I think we're past that," said Archer.
"I'll leave if you want me to," said Trip, he saw no reason to prolong the agony. "I know you'd have been happier if I'd been court-martialled."
"Not happy, no that would have been the wrong word for what I would have felt," said Archer.
"I screwed up. I deserved the court martial. I did disobey orders, took control of the ship and I shot T'Pol. She seems okay with that and I'm damned if I know why."
"That might have something to do with the security footage of you kissing her on the forehead after you moved her out of the shuttle bay," said Archer.
Trip just gaped at Archer for a second. "Security footage?"
"Yeah, there's a camera on the door to the shuttle bay. I thought you knew where all the cameras were."
"Guess I forgot about that one. The point is, I thought I was doing it for the right reasons, and now I'm back I'm not so sure. Funny how a near death experience can do that to you."
"I've re-examined everything about this mission," said Archer. "I made some mistakes too. I expected you to trust me, but I didn't trust you. I immediately assumed that you leaving Enterprise was the wrong thing for you to do, when I should have realised that when you said you had a plan, you did have a plan. I shouldn't have placed you in a position where you had to choose between keeping Enterprise safe and leaving. I spoke to Malcolm, you were right about one thing, if we'd met that fleet of Hunters without any back up from Water's Edge then Enterprise probably wouldn't have made it. He didn't rate our chances against them alone as very high."
"The road to hell is paved with good intentions," said Trip.
"But they were good intention, you didn't do any of this to hurt us. I also finally got around to reading the Special Projects mission reports," said Archer. "It opened my eyes to some realities that I had previously been unaware of."
"Just how many people we killed?" asked Trip.
"No, how many people you saved. I had no idea that Special Projects brought back so much medical information or that our hull plating design was based on that of the Thak Tikh."
"Officially it wasn't," said Trip. "I just happened to scribble some ideas on a paper napkin one night in the 602 club for the lead engineer on the project. All he needed was a push in the right direction."
"Of course, you're in trouble with your own staff for modifying that shuttlepod. It took Hess days to take out all the things that you put in shuttlepod one."
"Take out!" said Trip. "It took me months to get everything together. I wasn't expecting to use it to escape in the middle of the night, but I thought it might come in useful at some point."
"Those modifications aren't standard so they have to come out," said Archer. "You know the rules as well as I do."
"Yeah, I know," said Trip. "Still it was nice to prove it could be done."
"I'm finding it hard to forgive you for locking me out of my own Engineering department," said Archer. "But I'm willing to blame everything after you left Enterprise on Colonel Darwin's bad influence."
"That's rather unfair on the Colonel," said Trip. "I do have a brain of my own, I just don't always consult it before I open my big mouth."
"I'd noticed," said Archer. "I thought about a punishment for you, but I can't think of anything worse than what you've already been through. I'm guessing four weeks with your fingers in splints, three weeks with your arm in a sling, a severe concussion and a broken rib are enough to remind you why going it alone isn't something that you want to repeat. Formally there will be a reprimand on your record for the unauthorised modification of a shuttlepod."
"Yes, sir," said Trip.
"I'm prepared to call this strike two, Commander. Another one and I won't be so forgiving."
"Understood, sir," said Trip.
Archer turned to go, but then stopped. "I almost forgot, there is one other part to your punishment. My quarters, 1900 hours, you get to bring the beer."
"Water polo?" asked Trip.
"I just got six matches in a batch from Admiral Forrest and you're going to keep me company while we watch all of them. Consider it payback, Commander, for the lousy few days of worry that you just put me through."
Trip couldn't help but grin. If his friend was forcing him to watch water polo then everything was back to normal. Unfortunately T'Pol chose that moment to return to the Command centre which spoilt the atmosphere slightly.
"Captain, I was hoping that you would still be here," said T'Pol. "I have uncovered something interesting about the Quantum aliens that the Hunters claim to serve."
"What is it, T'Pol?" asked Archer.
"According to this data the Hunters have been sending back regular reports to their masters on their progress. These Hunters have been in existence for over a hundred years. Approximately twenty years ago they ceased to receive acknowledgements to their reports. Upon investigating this they were unable to locate any of the quantum aliens."
"What does that mean?" asked Archer.
"It means that the Hunters have been following out-of-date orders for the past twenty years," said Trip.
"Most likely, the quantum aliens have ceased to exist," said T'Pol.
"And there's no reason for the Hunters to be doing what they're doing," said Trip. "All those people died on Karavia for no reason. Arroya, Didier and Dempsey all died for nothing. We've been chasing ghosts."
It was a solemn group that gathered around Arroya's grave when Enterprise finally reached Earth. The MACO Lieutenant had been buried with full honours in the military cemetery with other fallen MACOs. It seemed a fitting place for her to rest. That morning they had visited the memorial for everyone who had died in the Mars shuttle incident and proudly found Captain Ian Dempsey's name. Hathaway and Rush would be going to Austria to visit Didier's final resting place on behalf of them all, the rest of the unit would be shipping out shortly and unfortunately wouldn't have time.
"She was a fine officer," said Darwin, looking at the headstone. It wasn't enough to represent Arroya's life but it was all they had.
"And a good friend," added Hathaway.
"No one will ever know what she did for this planet," said Trip. "Doesn't seem fair."
"We'll know," said Kanatova.
The seven remaining members of Special Projects stood ready to go their separate ways. Kanatova would be catching a transport back to Vulcan to resume her position in the hospital there. Hathaway would be returning toSan Franciscoto go back to Starfleet JAG. Fenner had claimed the insurance money from Bluebird but it hadn't felt right to buy another ship with it, so he'd signed on with a Boomer crew. Carter had been offered the position of Armoury Officer on the NX-02 Columbia and would be taking that up in a week. Rush was returning to Mars, no doubt to continue blowing things up to make way for more habitation modules. That left Trip on Enterprise, and Colonel Darwin, who so far hadn't told anyone what his plans were.
Trip had taken pictures of the assembled group in the shuttle bay before they left, and then got the Captain to take more pictures of him with the rest of the team. He had given out copies to each of them. This time they weren't going to ignore their past, they were going to remember why they had done what they had done and the team members who weren't in the photo.
"So, are you going to tell us where you're going Colonel?" asked Trip, as they made their way back to Starfleet HQ.
"I'm catching a transport to Andoria," said Darwin. "They've offered me a position as a military advisor. It should be interesting."
"Did you tell Captain Archer that?" asked Trip. He knew how Archer was going to react to being told that someone he considered to be a danger to everyone around him would be advising the Andorians.
"No, I thought I'd let you do that," replied Darwin.