Warnings: Swears.

Disclaimer: Yeah, yeah, yeah, etc. All in fun, no profit.

x-x

I walk by myself—I stand and look at the stars, which I think now I never realized before.
Now I absorb immortality and peace,
I admire death, and test propositions.

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass: Night on the Prairie

x-x

Trip lifted the large, hammer-like tool, swinging it up over his shoulder, and he then used the momentum and its weight to slam it down, driving a fastener into the track that threaded along the ground in front of him. Malcolm knelt next to him, readying another tie.

Trip paused for a moment, leaning on his hammer as he wiped the sweat away from his forehead with the back of one hand. He let his eyes fall on Malcolm and stared as the other man struggled with his work.

Trip felt useless, unable to help him. He was barely able to help himself.

He glanced up at the sky. It was odd. It looked a lot like an earth sky; about the same shade of blue, and with similar clouds trailing across it, the bright sunlight making their edges glow. You'd think you were at home in the States if you didn't know better, he thought, the corner of his mouth twitching with a smile. Maybe a plains state, like Nebraska. Someplace with big sky.

A guard passed nearby, and Trip started working again, matching his pace to that of the others around him. Only two days, he thought, swinging the hammer up over his shoulder again with a grunt. Un-fucking-believable.

Just two days ago he'd been sitting on Enterprise, obsessing over taking some stupid, ridiculous exam. He slammed the hammer down again, driving the fastener in deeper. Un-fucking-believable.

x-x

Before

Trip fidgeted on the bench, nervously waiting outside the closed door. He glanced at Hoshi next to him, but she was focused on her padd. He looked up towards Malcolm on the opposite bench, but he was leaning back against the wall, his eyes closed.

Both were obviously passing the time in their own ways, trying to relax.

Trip spoke anyway, shifting nervously in his seat. "I used to have this dream…"

Malcolm squinted his eyes open. "Where you were writing an exam…"

Hoshi interrupted, "But you'd forgotten to study, right?"

Trip simply nodded.

Malcolm opened his eyes fully and leaned a bit forward. "I actually had that happen to me once," he said, frowning slightly. "I walked into the hall for class and noticed, first, the silence; next, that people were oddly focused on their notes; and last, that the teacher had a pile of papers on her desk. I felt my stomach drop, and I managed to ask the person next to me if there was an exam scheduled. There was." He grimaced. "I hated writing exams enough, but to take one without having revised…"

"When was that?" Trip asked.

"Year Ten."

"How'd you do?"

Malcolm shrugged. "Not bad, surprisingly. It helped, I think, that I was current on the reading."

Trip nodded. "Happened to me once in eleventh grade. Math." He shook, as if chilled. "I wouldn't want to relive that moment."

Hoshi placed her padd on her lap: "I've always hated taking tests."

Trip looked at her, surprised. "I'd have figured that you'd like them, being a professor and all."

Hoshi shook her head. "All that means is that I've had a lot of experience with them."

"But you do well, right?"

"Yup, thank goodness," Hoshi replied, smiling. "And as a teacher, I find them necessary in certain circumstances, but..." She grimaced. "Too much pressure."

"I've always sucked at tests." Trip said miserably. "I mean, just gimme the damn engine, and I'll tell you all about it. Hell, I'll teach you how to assemble the damn thing. But writing it down on paper?" He shook his head in disgust. "Ugh."

"Yeah, some of my students are like that," Hoshi replied as the door opened up, revealing a drained, yet relieved, Travis Mayweather.

Hoshi smiled broadly. "How'd it go, Travis?"

"Fine. No problems, I think," he said, with a huge, thankful smile.

Trip peered up at him from the bench. "You seem awful happy for having just taken a test."

"I don't mind exams. I'm pretty good at them."

The crewman who'd volunteered to be proctor poked her head out of the door. "Lieutenant Reed?"

Malcolm stood and nodded at the proctor, who smiled slightly and went back into room. As Malcolm strode toward the door, Trip whispered, "Dead man walking." He leaned back and smiled broadly as Hoshi and Travis laughed.

"Break a leg, Malcolm," Hoshi said cheerily.

"That might actually be preferable," Malcolm said softly as he turned and entered the room.

x-x

Now

The guards called out, and Trip let his hammer fall from his grasp, finally done for the day. He rubbed his hands gently against each other, careful of the blisters and cuts while trying to brush away at least some of the dirt.

He squatted down next to Malcolm, who was sitting nearby, exhaustion plain on his too-pale face, his movements slow and stiff as he placed the leftover ties back into their container. Trip started to help his friend put away the fasteners, whispering, "You okay?"

Malcolm simply nodded, his eyes still on the fasteners.

Trip continued working, watching him out of the corner of his vision, knowing he couldn't really do much to help.

x-x

Before

Captain Archer addressed his staff, reading from the padd in his hand. "The Starfleet Testing Service appreciates your willingness to take this exam."

Malcolm muttered, "Not that refusing was truly an option."

Trip laughed, putting his head down to cover it.

Jon looked from one man to the other and then, pointedly choosing to ignore their comments, continued reading from his padd. "Your answers will be used to improve the promotions exams for everyone."

Trip looked at him expectantly. "But how'd we do, captain?"

Jon glanced at him as he passed the tests back, moving from one person to the next. "Just remember, these don't go into your files or anything. It was just a way of, well, testing the tests."

As Jon handed them out, Malcolm accepted his results with resignation, Trip with a jerk at the padd, Travis with enthusiasm, and Hoshi with a small, worried smile. Each looked at their exam.

Trip groaned. "A C? Jesus, captain." He slapped the padd down onto his lap.

Archer held up his hands, mollifying. "I know, I know, but remember, it's just a test…"

Trip muttered, "I hate these fu…" The rest of his comment was lost as his head went down to his exam and he started looking through his results to see what he got wrong. After a moment, he looked up, catching a glimpse of Malcolm with his results upside down, not visible.

Expressionless, Malcolm asked, "Dismissed, sir?"

Jon nodded, and Trip watched Malcolm leave without a backward glance, his posture stiff.

Trip turned to Travis, his eyebrows raised. "So how'd you guys do?"

Travis held up his paper. "A," he said simply.

Hoshi held hers up. "Likewise."

Trip rolled his eyes. "God damn it," he said in frustration, shaking his head. "Fine." He looked at the captain expectantly.

Jon smiled slightly. "Dismissed."

x-x

Now

Trip lay on his back, staring at the stars above him as they glittered in the clear night sky. It was cold, and he could hear the sound of the wind whistling around the sod walls he had built their first night here, after noticing others in the camp had done the same. He hadn't built a ceiling yet, but the walls were enough for now, sheltering them from the brunt of the often-bitter night wind.

He stared at one of the walls for a while, counting the "bricks" of interlaced turf, trying to rest his mind, hoping for sleep. He glanced over at Malcolm. The other man was sleeping fitfully, sweating despite the cool temperatures. Not good. He was probably feverish, and Trip was pretty sure that the wound on his back was already infected.

Trip looked away quickly. There was nothing he could do for him here. They just had to stay alive until Enterprise…He shook his head, trying to stop his mind's spinning, trying to relax.

He stared up at the stars again, waiting for rescue: Enterprise, or sleep; whichever came first.