Thank you to everyone who has posted a note or comment. This is the final chapter. I hope you like it!
They found the building on the outskirts of a city in a country that, as recently as a few months ago, was being ripped apart by war. Now there was a tentative peace and Trip could see the beginnings of recovery - new structures going up, roads being repaired. Still, it had meant that most of the infrastructure was iffy at best, and they'd been unable to contact the local government - in fact, they'd been unable to reach anyone in the region except by walking right in there.
They'd come with a minimal team - just Trip, Malcolm, and two MACOs, deciding that it would be too much of a risk to bring others with them. They'd landed on the far edges of the city and since then had been walking along dusty roads, passing war-damaged structures and tired, dusty green Cekatians who barely paid them any heed.
Wherever they were going in this city, Malcolm was leading them right to it. He'd been walking just in front of Trip this entire time - walking with surety and grace, knowing exactly where he was headed. It was more than eerie.
An hour or so into their hike, Malcolm stopped in front of a long, low building and simply stood there.
"Is this it?" Trip asked.
Malcolm nodded. "They're really..." He lifted a hand to his ear. "It's loudest here." He took a step forward, then stopped again. "Here."
Trip moved past him and pushed open the door. "Hello?" he spoke into the darkness. His voice echoed back to him, and he could feel a MACO at his back.
A voice answered, "Yes?" and a man stepped into the shaft of sunlight being cast through the door.
Trip introduced himself, handing the man the letter of introduction that he'd received from Jsem. He quickly explained the situation, and the man, Voleb, stepped out into the sunlight. "Yes, during the war there had been one faction, based here, actually, who was trying to 'recruit'..." He pursed his lips, emphasizing that last word. "...People off-world, mostly those with skills in tech and armaments." He glanced at Malcolm, who was sitting on the stoop, his back to them both. "Although I have to admit, I don't recognise your species."
Trip nodded, unwilling to volunteer anything that he didn't have to.
Voleb continued. "If they had to leave someone behind, they used a device designed to note that person's brainwave patterns. Later, they'd be able to use a signal to hone in, so they'd know where their recruitee was, and they could come back and get them."
"That process has made my friend ill," Trip said.
"Yes, it was designed for use on my people, not yours."
"Is there a way to stop it?"
Voleb smiled, revealing a series of pointed blue teeth. "Yes. Well, theoretically." He grimaced. "It works on Cekatians, anyway."
Trip nodded and stepped away for a moment, sitting at Malcolm's side on the stone step. "How you doing?"
"Brilliant, thanks for asking," Malcolm replied with a grin that stretched, wide and fake, across his face. He dropped the smile abruptly.
"Did you hear all that?"
"All - which thing? It's awfully loud here. There's a lot of..." Malcolm lifted both hands and waved them around his head.
"What Voleb was saying. That he thinks he can stop this."
"Yeah," Malcolm replied, looking out over the dusty road.
"It doesn't sound like -"
"I want to," Malcolm said quickly. "I have to."
Trip sat there a moment, staring at his friend's profile. Finally, in a soft voice, he said, "All right."
Voleb lead them through the dark building, each room lit only by the light streaming through the small windows, dust motes floating as they passed through the dim spaces. Finally, they reached a room flooded with light. Trip could hear the pound and hum of a generator, and smell the fuel used to operate it.
"He should sit there," Voleb said, waving one green arm towards a chair in the small room.
Voleb threaded his way through stacks of equipment, then began setting up some sort of apparatus on a table next to the chair. As the MACOs took up positions around the room, Malcolm sat. Trip squatted beside him, one eye on the busy Voleb. "Are you sure about this?" Trip asked Malcolm.
"Yes." Malcolm nodded. "No choice."
Voleb said, "If you could step back," so Trip gave Malcolm's arm a pet, then moved away. The next thing he knew, there was a flash and a huge "whoosh", and by the time he could see again, Malcolm was lying unconscious on the floor. Trip dropped to his knees and felt for a pulse. He only realised that he'd been holding his breath once he found one.
In time with the beat under his fingers, he murmured a soft prayer: "Thank God. Thank God. Thank God."
Beep...Beep...Beep. The sound kept repeating, tugging him up to the surface with each pulse, letting him sink again between beats. Beep...Beep...There was a swirl of soft voices around him, too low to understand. Beep...He didn't care anyway and, too tired to focus, he let himself drift.
Beep...Beep...Beep. The sound dragged him towards wakefulness again. Then he heard an irritated voice, and his eyes snapped open.
"Bloody hell. How can a bloke get any sleep around here? Too damn loud."
Trip felt a slow smile creep over his face and he straightened in his chair, trying to see past the crowd surrounding a nearby biobed. Sure enough, Malcolm was lying on his back, his bed surrounded by sickbay staff. His eyes were open and he was...Trip shifted to see around one particularly large nurse - Malcolm looked tired, yes, but otherwise...good.
Trip kept watching as a tech turned off one of the monitors, cutting off the "beeping," and others took readings and made notes. Phlox stepped forward and began speaking to Malcolm. "Good to have you back with us, Lieutenant. How are you feeling?"
Malcolm's soft reply was lost in the sounds of sickbay, although things quieted just enough for Trip to hear the end of Phlox's next question, "...voices?"
Malcolm looked directly at Trip as he answered the doctor's question in a firm, clear tone. "Gone." He smiled. "They're gone."
Trip looked back at him, knowing that his own smile was probably a match of his friend's. As their gazes held and the moment extended, Trip knew that he should probably say something deep and significant. Something meaningful that could sum up what they'd both been through. Something suitably profound.
And then he found it, and so he leaned forward, grinning, and said that one, perfect word.
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