At times like this, laying flat on his aching back on the unforgiving deck, sucking his scorched fingertips and rubbing the elbow he'd whacked on the side of the console, Malcolm Reed found himself wondering whether the navy would have been so bad, after all. On an ocean-going vessel all you had to worry about was poor weather and the occasional pirate. It was a fair bet that none of his seafaring ancestors had ever had to deal with a quantum filament shorting out half the ship's systems and utterly frying the weapons controls.
It had taken days of nonstop work just to get the primary circuits rerouted, but at least they'd be able to defend themselves if need be. Cursing whatever masochistic streak had led him to tackle the secondary systems when he'd already pulled three consecutive shifts – or was it four? – he dropped his head to the deck with a clunk. "Commander!"
"Yeah, what is it?" Tucker sounded almost as tired as the armory officer felt. At least Trip had caught a few hours' rack time. Reed knew he wouldn't have slept a wink knowing the ship's weapons weren't operational. He closed his eyes for a minute, letting his exhaustion roll over him. That's rich. Blame Trip for your inability to delegate.
Reed sighed and took a deep breath, marshalling the fading remnants of his patience. "This console is live."
He heard the chirping of the engineer's scanner. "Are you sure? I'm not reading any current."
"I'm sure," he ground out, rubbing at his face with the back of his hand. Not usually claustrophobic, he was beginning to feel like the dormouse crammed in the teapot. He wondered if that made Trip the Mad Hatter.
Tucker made some unseen adjustments. "That oughta do it. Try it now"
Reed reached for the offending circuit again and howled as it flared white, showering him with sparks. Beating at his smoldering uniform, he bolted up and slammed his head on the underside of the console, finally slithering out of the crawlspace to land in an undignified heap at Trip Tucker's feet. One hand cradled to his chest, the other clapped to his throbbing forehead, he glared up at the engineer, who grimaced and said, "Oops."
Malcolm Reed had a reputation amongst the Enterprise crew. He was widely known to have almost Vulcan discipline and self-control. Even Vulcans, however, needed to sleep occasionally.
"Bugger!" he shouted, jumping to his feet. "Bugger it all!" His booted foot came up and slammed into the console. The satisfaction he felt more than made up for the pain in his toes, so he did it again.
"Whoa whoa whoa!" Tucker yelled, jumping to the defense of his equipment.
Reed felt a hand close around his elbow and whirled around, shouting "Sod off, you –"
Jonathon Archer actually took half a step back. "Problem, Lieutenant?"
Reed felt his heart sink. The one bloody time he lost his temper, of course the captain had to witness it. He noticed that two ensigns working on a nearby plasma conduit were staring at him in open-mouthed astonishment and had a sudden image of how he must look – uniform wrinkled and smudged, face pale, unshaven and dotted with small burns, hair in disarray and eyes undoubtedly shot through with red. Humiliated, in pain and utterly exhausted, Reed feared he might actually cry.
"I apologize for my outburst, sir," he managed, standing as straight as his complaining back would allow. "It won't happen again."
Archer took in his disheveled appearance and frowned. "Malcolm, have you slept at all since we hit the filament?"
"There really hasn't been time," Reed said, trying his best to look dignified.
Archer nodded at the singed hand tucked claw-like against his chest. "That looks painful. Maybe you'd better see Dr. Phlox before you hit the sack."
The captain's voice was gentle, as though he was dealing with a dangerous, cornered animal. It spoke directly to Reed's stubborn streak, and his tone was somewhat less than deferential as a result. "Sir, I'm fine."
"I didn't ask you if you were fine."
"I really would prefer to get the backups on line first."
Archer looked poised to argue, and then his face relaxed into an easy grin. Reed knew it was a trap. "Alright, Malcolm. I'll let you stay on duty. IF you can answer one question."
"Sir?" Reed steeled himself for an academy-level trigonometry quiz, or perhaps a complex quantum physics problem. As tired as he was, those things were second nature to him. With any luck –
"What day is it?'
Reed blinked. "Today?"
"Yes," the captain replied patiently, "today."
He frowned and tried to remember what day they'd hit the filament. Factoring in the number of shift changes he'd seen come and go, he looked his captain in the eye and took a guess. "Tues –" Archer was shaking his head before he even got the word out. "Damn it! Wait –"
Archer never lost his grin. "Bye."
Reed sighed and squared his shoulders, almost keeping the bitterness out of his voice. "Yes, sir. Hitting the sack, sir."
Archer raised an eyebrow but let the uncharacteristic attitude slide. "And Mr. Reed?"
"Make sure you eat something and get at least eight hours of sleep before you report back to duty. And take a shower."
Reed stiffened. "Yes sir." He left engineering to the sound of Tucker's snickering.
Reed leaned heavily against the wall of the turbolift, his entire body feeling limp and heavy. Now that sleep was so close, he was hard-pressed to explain why he'd fought so hard to stay on duty. That hard, narrow bunk in his quarters seemed like a little slice of Nirvana. When the turbolift stopped on B deck he stepped out and stopped, one foot hovering above the floor.
Not twenty feet away stood a figure straight out of mythology.
She was not quite a meter high, wearing a blue dress and a starched white pinafore. Her small hands were clasped behind her back, which had the affect of pushing her skirts in front of her like a bell. Her ensemble was perfect, right down to the stockings and black patent leather shoes. As he watched, she smiled, crinkling her little nose, and winked one blue eye. Then with a giggle and a bounce of golden curls, she turned and disappeared through the bulkhead, leaving Malcolm to stare slack-jawed at the empty corridor.
Eventually, he had the presence of mind to stumble to the communications panel. "Reed to bridge."
"Bridge," came T'pol's response.
"Subcommander, are you getting any anomalous readings from B deck?"
"Of what nature?"
"Life forms." Reed clarified, his eyes still fixed on the spot he'd last seen her.
The Vulcan paused and Reed pictured her checking the monitors at her science station. "I am not detecting any non-humanoid life signs," she responded. "Do you wish to report an intruder?"
Reed opened his mouth, then blinked and closed it. "I'm not sure."
"Lieutenant, are you well?"
"I…I'm sorry, Sub-commander. I'm sure it's nothing. Reed out." He broke the connection and gazed around at the vacant hallway. Surely, he'd imagined it. "Brilliant," he muttered. "I've gone bloody bonkers." Malcolm Reed straightened and rubbed a hand over his face. Bypassing the corridor that led to his quarters, he headed in the direction of sickbay instead.
"How extraordinary!" exclaimed Doctor Phlox as he dabbed salve on Reed's face. "Period costume, you say?"
"More than that. She looked just like the old illustrations, down to the smallest detail."
"I shall have to look into this book – what did you call it?"
"Alice in Wonderland. I'd been thinking about it earlier, in fact. Doctor, are you sure there's nothing to worry about?"
"On the contrary, the fact that you have so little regard for your own well-being is quite worrisome indeed. Frankly, I'm surprised at you. Would you allow one of your subordinates to work himself into such a state? Of course not. You've driven yourself to such an advanced state of exhaustion that you're experiencing visual and auditory hallucinations."
Reed sat patiently through the chastisement, but when the Denobulan paused for breath he interrupted. "Doctor –"
"No, Lieutenant, you have not, as you so colorfully put it, 'gone daft.' You are exhausted, scorched, bruised and rather unpleasant-smelling, but you are not insane." Phlox dropped his scanner and gave Reed's shoulder a pat. "Go to bed, Lieutenant. You'll feel much better by this time tomorrow. But, have a meal first. Your blood glucose is rather low."
He made it to the mess hall without incident, selected a piece of chocolate cake and slumped into the nearest chair. Reed closed his eyes, just for a minute –
He snapped awake and jumped to find Ensign Mayweather's face only inches from his own. "Travis," he croaked, rubbing his eyes.
"You look terrible," the young helmsman said, his face sympathetic.
"Thanks." Reed yawned and stretched so thoroughly he nearly toppled his chair. "I stopped to grab a bite and must have dropped off."
"Better eat quick," Mayweather advised, picking up his sandwich. "You look like you could go out again any second."
Reed nodded and picked up his fork, but froze before the tines pierced the cake. Across the chocolate, inscribed in delicate white-icing letters, were the words "eat me."
The fork clattered to the table as he had a sudden, horrifying image of shrinking to the size of a mite and slipping through the deck plating. "Not bloody likely," he snarled at the cake, pushing the plate away. Travis was so shocked he forgot to chew, staring wide-eyed as the armory officer leapt to his feet.
Reed clenched his hands into fists and forced himself to take deep breaths. "I'm going to bed," he announced, pleased with how calm his voice sounded.
"Yeah," Mayweather agreed. "Maybe you'd better."
This time he heard the giggling as soon as he stepped into the corridor. He spun around, badly startling two passing crewmen, but didn't see the girl. Clenching his jaw, he muttered an apology and stalked toward the lift.
She was waiting for him at the next juncture, skipping merrily ahead of him as he headed toward his quarters.
"Malcolm," she called, her voice plaintive and sweet.
"Go away," he hissed, not slowing his steps. She pouted a bit and fell back, only to run ahead again.
"Malcolm, play with me!"
"I'll do no such thing! You're a figment of my imagination. I'm going to take an aspirin and go to bed, and when I wake up you had better be gone!"
Her blue eyes grew large and watery, her bottom lip more pronounced. "Don't you like me?" she quavered.
"Like you? You're a bloody hallucination! And I can't believe I'm standing here arguing with you!" Like magic, her sulk ended with a giggle.
"I like you," she laughed. "You're funny."
Malcolm reached out a hand to brace himself against the nearest wall and whimpered into his fist. "Please," he moaned, "please leave me alone."
"Oh, no, I'll never leave you. We're going to be best friends forever! We'll have ever so much fun, we'll have tea parties, and a caucus race…" She began to skip around his legs, forcing him to turn in place to keep her in view. "In fact, let's play a game now. TAG, YOU'RE IT!" With that, the cheerful apparition put both hands on his abdomen and shoved – hard. Dizzy and off-balance, Reed stumbled backwards and smacked the back of his head on the bulkhead. He slid down the wall, rubbing his latest bruise and blinking tears of pain out of his eyes. When his vision cleared, he found his new best friend regarding him with a shy smile.
"I have to go now," she said. "Thank you for playing with me." She leaned in and gave him a peck on the cheek, then waved and sank through the deck. He continued to stare well after she'd vanished from sight.
"Lieutenant? Are you all right?"
Malcolm looked up that the crewman whose face, oddly enough, was all blurry. The crewman looked concerned and he wanted to reassure her, but the darkness playing at the edges of his vision chose that moment to overtake him.
An alien face blocked his view of the sickbay ceiling. "Relax, Lieutenant. This is just to boost your glucose level." Pressure and a hissing noise at his neck. Malcolm didn't so much as blink. A second face appeared over his head.
"Are you sure he's okay?" Archer asked. "He looks kinda out of it."
Phlox regarded his patient thoughtfully. "Well, he's taken several blows to the head, though none of them serious. Additionally, he suffered from some rather vivid hallucinations that left him quite disturbed."
"Merely a product of his extreme exhaustion," Phlox assured the captain. "He'll be fine once he's rested."
Archer frowned. "Couldn't he rest in his quarters?"
"He could," the Denobulan agreed. "However, he's refused to leave the sickbay."
"Yes, quite uncharacteristic. Normally it's a struggle to keep him here."
The captain leaned down until he was inches from Reed's face. "Malcolm? Sure you don't want to go to your quarters, sleep in your own bed?"
"No thank you," he said, still focusing on the ceiling beyond Archer's head. "I'm fine right here."
Archer frowned and looked at the doctor. The doctor looked back with an expression that easily translated into any language as 'you tell me.'
"Okay, Mr. Reed," the captain said, patting the prone man's shoulder. "Pleasant dreams."
When they had left him alone, Malcolm Reed smiled. For the first time in his career, he was utterly content to occupy a bed in sickbay. He burrowed under the scratchy Starfleet blanket with a happy sigh and immediately fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.
On the bridge, Communications Officer Hoshi Sato frowned and tapped her console. "There it is again."
Ensign Mayweather looked up from the helm. "What?"
"A very slight sound in the mid-levels. Sensors say there's nothing there."
"Huh. I guess it's just a hiccup."
"Yeah," Hoshi agreed, although privately she thought it had sounded more like a giggle.