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Trip entered the cavern to see Malcolm with his back to the crowd. He was poised on the edge of the pit and looking down into the darkness.

Trip tried to go to him, but felt himself grabbed and held in place. As he watched, his heart racing, a single peal rang out from a gong behind him, the sound echoing through the dim chamber. Flames from the torches on the walls illuminated Malcolm at the edge of the deep crater.

The echoes stopped, and there was silence.

Trip, no longer struggling, softly said one word. "Malcolm."

Malcolm looked back over his shoulder. His eyes softened, and he smiled. Then, still looking at Trip, he fell forward.

Trip watched in numb shock as Malcolm disappeared.

x-x

"Something wrong, Malcolm?" Trip asked as the lieutenant muttered something under his breath and impatiently brushed a branch away from his face. The bushes along the edge of their path were in full bloom, and Trip ran his fingers along one tendril full of flowers, enjoying the softness of the petals against his skin. Plithia flowers, he thought their guide had called them, although he had to admit it had been kind of hard to understand the man.

As they continued walking, Malcolm turned to him and quietly said, "You know I've never been one for this sort of 'forced fun', Commander."

"Forced fun?" Trip asked. "What? This?" He looked at the woods around them, the sky above them a sparkling blue. "I know that we were - well, encouraged to take this tour between appointments. But it could be worse - we could be sitting in some room in some stuffy office building while we wait to meet with their leader. And it's a lovely day, beautiful scenery." He smiled at Malcolm. "It's almost like a forest on Earth, if you forgive the purple leaves on the trees." At Malcolm's look of doubt, Trip shrugged. "They did say that this wood was important to them."

Malcolm nodded, but didn't look convinced.

"I mean, there are worse things we could be doing than taking a guided tour of some woods while we wait," Trip added.

"Such as?" Malcolm asked.

Trip thought quickly. "Cleaning intake manifolds."

Malcolm glanced at him, then brushed aside another branch. "Realigning the targeting scanners," he finally added, deadpan.

"Scraping gum off the bottoms of tables."

"When did you do that?"

Trip winced. "In school, worked in a bar. My job was to go in at 5:30 a.m. to get rid of the gum from the night before."

"Lovely," Malcolm said.

"So things could be worse," Trip said.

"And we are so rarely off-ship," Malcolm said with a ghost of a smile.

"Yup," Trip responded. Raising one hand, he indicated the others with the guide, who had come to a stop just up the path from them. "And the Captain and Hoshi seem to be having a good time."

"They have been chatting away, haven't they?" Malcolm said with a genuine smile now. "I knew that Hoshi enjoyed horticulture, but the Captain?"

Trip dropped his voice to a near-whisper. "I think he's just trying to be diplomatic."

As they caught up to the group, the guide asked them a question. "Ah, Mr. Commandertriptucker, Mr. lieutenantMalcolmreed, lovely lovely to be enjoying all leaves, flowers, yes, woods?"

"Erm, yes," Malcolm responded. Trip simply smiled. They'd been having trouble with the translations of the language used by these people since they'd met them, although things had gotten significantly better over the course of the day. Hoshi, frowning, made yet another adjustment to the translation device in her hand.

The guide smiled, the blueness of his sharp, pointed teeth a shock against the orange-tone of his skin. "And I noticed you, Commander, seemed to enjoy the Plithia flowers, yes?"

Trip raised both eyebrows, surprised at the sudden clearness of the translation. "Yes, they were lovely," he said, casting a glance in Hoshi's direction.

Hoshi looked up from the device, beaming at the improvement.

Archer smiled and patted her on the shoulder. "This entire walk has been absolutely beautiful, and a welcome break for us."

The guide nodded. "Sorrily I must bring ending..."

Hoshi frowned and made a quick adjustment to the translator.

"...to our walk," the guide said. "As you know, our forests, and this one in particular, have special significance to my people." He waved them forward, and they began walking again. "There was a time when we Osoba were enmeshed in darkness. We'd been through several wars, and in the end, our entire culture was focused on destruction and death." He shook his head. "It wasn't until a group of us worked to restore the ecology of our world, starting with this small forest, that we began to see the light again. Even now, not everyone -"

Trip heard a "snick", then felt a soft whoosh. Malcolm pushed him to the ground and he fell as the world went black around him.

x-x

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