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Malcolm came around with an audible intake of breath. He blinked a couple of times and reached out blindly for support, even if he was lying on the ground with no chance of falling. Archer instinctively grabbed him and Reed startled, turning unrecognising eyes to him. He stared at Archer for a moment; then slowly turned to study his unfamiliar surroundings.
"Easy, Malcolm," Archer said softly, not daring to let go of him.
Reed turned to him again. "…Captain?" he croaked out in surprise.
Archer kept his voice low and calm. "Yes. Everything is all right, Lieutenant," he said.
Except for the beams of their flashlights, darkness surrounded them now. The beings had gone.
"Sir," Reed asked hesitantly after a long moment. "…Where are we?"
"On the planet."
Reed's brow furrowed. "When… how… why are we…" He shook his head and winced.
"It's a long story," Archer replied with a sigh. "Are you all right?" he asked.
As a reply Reed pushed to a sitting position and a groan escaped him; he grabbed his left shoulder, closing his eyes tightly. Archer grimaced under Hoshi's sympathetic gaze.
"What happened?" Reed choked out, moving his shoulder in an effort to ease the pain out of it. "Was I shot?"
"Ah…" Archer trailed and Reed stopped and turned to look up at him, frowning. "I had to stun you, Lieutenant," the Captain finally admitted with a self-conscious smirk.
Reed stared at him, obviously puzzled, slowly shaking his head again.
"I'll tell you everything while we walk to the shuttlepod," Archer said. "Come on, let's get back to Enterprise."
He helped Reed to his feet; then silently put the right arm of his for-once-compliant Armoury Officer across his shoulders and they started back to the pod.
Archer exchanged a glance with Hoshi and turned from his pilot seat to look at the back of the pod, where Reed was sitting with his head in his hands.
"Soon we'll be home, Malcolm," he said soothingly.
Reed gave him a weary smile. "Home, sweet home," he murmured.
"Would you like some water, Lieutenant?" Hoshi asked, handing him a canteen, which Reed gratefully accepted.
"How are you feeling?" Archer enquired, casting a glance over his shoulder.
"I suppose it could be worse, Sir," Malcolm replied. He unscrewed the canteen's cap and took a long gulp of water. "I just hope you have nothing else in store for me today," he added jokingly. "Being knocked out and stunned in the space of a few hours is bad enough for my self-esteem."
Archer chuckled. "I guess I'll refrain from throwing you in the brig for stealing a shuttlepod, then," he replied. The relief of having his Armoury Officer back safe had restored his good mood. And after all this first contact technically couldn't be called hostile – although Malcolm might think otherwise.
He opened a comm. link to Enterprise. "Mind opening the door, Subcommander? There's someone here who's eager to get at least twelve hours of uninterrupted sleep," he said with an amused glance at Reed.
"Opening launch bay doors and extending docking arm, Captain," T'Pol's replied.
"Welcome home," Trip's cheerful voice sounded in the background.
A few moments later the away party emerged from the pod, and were met by T'Pol, Trip and Doctor Phlox.
"You were right, Subcommander," Archer said with a full smile. "There was a sentient species on the planet. Those energy bursts were incorporeal beings."
"Well, what did they want?" Trip asked. "Why did they… kidnap Malcolm?"
"They didn't mean to," Archer explained. "Seeing our people on the planet, one of them got curious. Disobeying their species' directives, it decided to see what life inside a body would be like. Unfortunately it chose Malcolm as a host just as he was being transported back to Enterprise. It could be said that… the kidnapper got kidnapped," Archer said with a chuckle.
"Just my luck," Reed commented bleakly under his breath. "I go down to the planet for one hour and look what happens."
Trip eyed him. "So, the contaminant in the readings… and Malcolm's confusion, his lack of concentration…" he trailed.
"It was the presence of his 'guest' that caused all that," Archer said. "Is that right, Doctor?" he asked Phlox, who was passing a tricorder over Malcolm.
"A very sound theory, Captain," Phlox confirmed.
"What about my anxiety?" Malcolm asked, moving his sore shoulder and grimacing. "At times it was quite overwhelming."
"I believe that was your unconscious reaction to being… invaded by another being. Your mind sensed there was a threat, even if it could not consciously perceive it," Phlox expounded.
"The perfect Security Officer," Trip chuckled, echoed by the others.
Malcolm shot the engineer a look.
"It was probably a little like an allergic reaction," Phlox explained. "The longer the being was inside Mr. Reed's body, the worse his symptoms got."
"Hoshi and I were told your guest wasn't doing that great either, Malcolm," Archer said. "Apparently it was affected by your anxiety."
"Well, who wasn't," Trip blurted out, earning himself another furious glare.
"After a while the being also became quite worried that it wouldn't be able to return to its planet," Archer continued. "It decided its only chance was to take over its host altogether. This, however, ended up triggering a more serious reaction on Malcolm's part. He unconsciously fought the presence of the being in his mind, effectively weakening the life form and preventing it from leaving."
Phlox frowned, lowering his tricorder. "Lieutenant, you seem to be fine except… did someone stun you?" he asked.
Reed exchanged a glance with Archer.
"The unconscious fight with that being was taking its toll on Malcolm," the Captain explained. "His life signs were becoming erratic, but I didn't seem to be able to make him snap out of his trance. So I stunned him, hoping this would allow Malcolm's guest to leave. Fortunately it worked."
"I'm sorry I didn't manage to detect your guest, Lieutenant," Phlox told Reed regretfully. "My scans didn't show anything wrong, except for that chemical imbalance. But it wasn't enough to arouse my suspicions."
"No need to apologise, Doctor," Malcolm replied sincerely.
"The beings were very sorry about their rebel's little stunt. They apologised profusely," Archer said. "I don't think they need to worry that it may try again," he added with a soft laugh.
"Captain," T'Pol's aristocratic voice said. "How did you communicate with them?"
"Hoshi did," Archer replied with a wink to his Comm. Officer. "Using Morse code."
"That seems… odd," T'Pol offered, her poised voice in stark contrast to the bewildered look on Trip's face.
"The beings realised the fastest way to communicate with us would be using information Malcolm's guest could get from his memory," Archer explained.
"How lovely, to have someone rummage through your memories," Malcolm ranted under his breath.
"Good thing Hoshi remembered Morse code," the Captain added wryly.
"Into the decon chamber, you three," Phlox prompted, with a shooing gesture to the returned party. "Lieutenant Reed needs to get some rest, and the sooner he goes through decon, the sooner he'll be able to do so."
"Take the whole day off, Malcolm," Archer ordered his exhausted-looking Armoury Officer as they moved off.
"Thank you, Sir," Reed replied gratefully. "I could really use it," he admitted.
"Well, it's the least I can do; I need to be forgiven after all I did to you lately," Archer chuckled, squeezing his arm.
Reed smiled. As they were walking the Lieutenant suddenly stopped in his tracks, struck by a sudden thought. "Captain," he asked hesitantly. "How exactly did I… manage to get hold of the shuttlepod?"
"Uhm, by… giving Ensign O'Rourke a nasty headache," Archer replied with a grimace.
Reed closed his eyes for a brief moment. "Well, then I suppose I too need to be forgiven. I will have to be extra kind to the man for a while," he murmured grimly.
"Daydreamin'?" Trip asked, as he approached Reed, who was leaning against the bulkhead near the porthole in the observation lounge, looking down at the planet they were still orbiting.
Reed turned to his friend. "Thinking," he replied. "It's great to be able to do so again without losing the thread every moment," he added, meaning every word.
Trip dropped to sit in a chair. "You look rested. Feelin' better?"
Malcolm sighed in relief. "Definitely." He joined his friend at the table. "I slept like a log," he said with a happy smirk. "How is O'Rourke?" he asked after a moment of silence.
"He's ok, don't worry. His head is way too hard to run any serious risk of bein' cracked," Trip joked. "You gave him a real good scare, though. Even more than you usually do, I mean," he added with a mischievous grin.
Malcolm disregarded the gibe and averted his gaze. "I keep thinking that he could have been killed," he murmured. "If I hadn't dragged him out of the launch bay…"
"But you did," Trip said firmly. "I guess you were still in there, somewhere."
Malcolm turned to him and looked pointedly into Trips' eyes. "O'Rourke is not the only person I gave a good scare to," he said, raising his eyebrows.
Trip shook his head. "Hope you're not plannin' to do that to me very often," he said. "Anyway, I'm glad it wasn't the transport which caused you all those problems."
"I never honestly believed that it was the transport which was responsible for what was happening to me," Malcolm said. "Although, if truth be told, the thought did cross my befuddled mind for a brief moment," he admitted.
"Oh, well, thanks for the vote of confidence," Trip exclaimed in mock outrage.
Reed chuckled. "You're welcome, Commander."
"Do you remember anything from when you were on the planet?" Trip asked after a moment, with open curiosity.
Malcolm winced. "Nothing too clearly. It's as if I woke up after running a high fever: I only have lingering sensations but no specific memories," he answered. "All I know is that they are not pleasant."
"Well, this whole business did have its redeeming aspects," Trip suggested after another moment of silence.
Malcolm squirmed. "And what, pray, would they be?"
"Well, for one I was able to leave your precious Armoury virtually juiceless for the good part of a day without having to duel with you to the death …"
"You were lucky we didn't need to use my precious weapons during that time," Reed answered peevishly.
"But best of all…" Trip trailed and chuckled.
Malcolm huffed. "I know what you're going to say, so just say it and let's move on."
"Uh-oh, it's not what you're thinkin', Malcolm," Trip replied, shaking his head.
"I know you too well, Trip. You're dying to pull my leg for..."
"You've got to admit," Trip interrupted him. "The look in the Capt'n's eyes when he floored you really was a knockout," he said, snorting loudly.
Malcolm froze for a brief moment. Then he groaned. "That was the worst joke I've heard in a long time, Commander," he said.
"What, you think it didn't have enough punch, Lieutenant?" Trip continued, mimicking a blow at Malcolm's jaw.
Malcolm's mouth twitched. Trip's mood was, as always, quite infectious, and the Lieutenant couldn't but burst into a liberating laughter.