This story was inspired by something Malcolm says in another story of mine, Out Of Alignment, where he hints to an incident in the past when he took a wrong tactical decision. In her review KadziaKathryn mentioned she would have liked to know more about it… so here you go!
Grateful thanks to my beta readers, Gabi2305 and Roaring Mice.
§ 1 §
Trip leaned with one elbow on the bar counter and brought the alien drink to his lips, taking a cautious sip. It was nothing like good Earth liquor but, given its exotic colour and disturbing muddiness, he'd actually expected it to be a lot worse than it was. It tasted a bit like a sweet wine, though it was thicker, and he hoped his scanner's readings, which had pronounced it harmless for consumption, were actually to be trusted.
Glancing at Malcolm, who stood rigidly a few feet away, he couldn't help but frown. "You're off duty, Malcolm" he said deadpan.
"Really?" Malcolm muttered absently, looking as if he hadn't heard a word. His eyes busily scanned the large, covered plaza, which was swarming with people of many different species.
"I swear – the only times I've seen ya relaxed was when ya were out cold," Trip drawled, shaking his head and breaking into a grin that was lost on his distracted friend.
Malcolm didn't respond; his eyes had found what they were looking for and were riveted to that one spot.
The small planet they were on, Vegor 2, was nothing more than an inhospitable rock in a small, uninhabited system - nobody's land. It stood, however, more or less at the centre of a very busy region of space, which was why a few clever individuals of a species Trip could not recall ever having heard of had set up a profitable business on it, building and running a large trading compound that seemed to attract more ships than Rigel 10. Enterprise had wandered nearby, and the Captain had decided to check the place out. Archer had brought along his senior staff, to give them a break from routine.
The compound was, like any market place, a seemingly disorganised mess of bustling activity, and from the moment they had set foot in it Malcolm had looked as if they had stepped into a combat zone. Having recognised the well-known signs of tension in his friend, Trip had offered to buy him a drink and had dragged him to an upper-floor platform, which was lined with bars and fast food places. The platform ran along the perimeter of the central quadrilateral plaza and opened like a balcony onto it, so from their vantage point Trip and Malcolm could see what was going on below.
Trip tracked the spot that had got Malcolm's attention and sighed inwardly. The man was incredible: despite the crowd, Malcolm had managed to find Archer and T'Pol and was keeping a watchful eye on them. The Captain and Subcommander had remained on the bottom floor, with its vast shopping area and interesting variety of merchandise. So had Hoshi and Travis, who had declined Trip's invitation to join Malcolm and him on the grounds that their time was better-spent doing something less 'passive' than drinking. He, of course, had disagreed. He'd argued that experiencing a culture's drinking establishments had just as much sociological validity as 'hanging out in their shopping malls', but that had only gotten him a raised eyebrow from Hoshi. So now he was stuck up here with Malcolm.
Trip studied his friend and rolled his eyes. Even Porthos would be better company. Come to think of it, Malcolm had probably agreed to follow him only because from the elevated floor he could keep the situation under better control.
Time to use subtler tactics, Trip decided. "So what do you think of this?" he asked nonchalantly, trying to swirl the almost phosphorescent thick yellow liquid in the tall glass and taking another sip. He saw Malcolm cast a glance at him then finally avert his eyes from their crewmates in the distance.
Malcolm looked at his own glass as if he'd suddenly remembered that he was holding one. He brought it up to his nose and sniffed its contents suspiciously. "Are you certain this is safe to drink?"
Malcolm tilted his head and narrowed his eyes in challenge.
"Ok. If not me, trust my scanner," Trip said levelly.
"Well, it certainly doesn't look like something a sensible person would choose to ingest," Malcolm commented wryly. He was peering into the drink as if he expected any moment to see something jump out of it, and Trip shook his head. "Come on, Malcolm," he said with a chuckle. "Ya know the adage: we're explorers… let yourself go a little."
Malcolm sighed, raising his gaze from the glass without moving his head. "Need I remind you of what happened the last time I let myself go in an alien bar, in your company?"
Trip snorted. "I'm not gonna ask ya to follow any gorgeous females into any cellar, I promise."
Malcolm smirked and took a small sip, immediately pulling a disgusted face. "Good Lord, how can you expect me to like something that is this sweet?" he asked in dismay, lowering the glass.
"What's wrong with sweet?" A glint of amusement entered Trip's eyes. "Alright. When we get back to Enterprise I'll dig somethin' out from my secret stash - to rinse our mouths with. How 'bout that?"
"That, Mr. Tucker, is a helluva good idea."
Trip burst into laughter. "Ya'll never get that Southern drawl right, Loo-tenant," he teased him, thickening his accent on purpose; and he was pleased to see Malcolm's grin blossom into a full smile. Well, at least he had obtained what he wanted: his friend was beginning to relax.
A moment later Malcolm's face had suddenly fallen and he had swivelled abruptly, muttering something under his breath. Trip looked at him in surprise, but then became aware of a clamour rising among the background noise of jumbled voices.
He cast a glance to the lower floor: something was happening in a corner of the plaza. He saw people scuttling away from the spot, and watched Malcolm set his glass down on the counter without averting his eyes from the scene.
"What's goin' on?" Trip asked, taking a step forward towards the balustrade. He felt Malcolm come up beside him and tense. "Can you see anythin'?"
The muttered curse made Trip shift his gaze to his friend. Before he knew it Malcolm had got out his phase pistol in a swift, fluent movement, and Trip's stomach clenched.
Trip turned again and scanned the place frantically, trying to find what had provoked Malcolm's reaction. And then he saw it: on the far side a man had T'Pol in a tight grip and was threatening her with a gun. Archer was a step away, hands held out in a calming gesture.
Trip's heart jumped into his throat. "What the hell…" he breathed out tautly. He watched in shock as people cleared away from the spot and returned to mind their own business, unmindful of T'Pol and the Captain's plight.
The attacker had his back almost completely turned to them, and with his peripheral vision Trip saw the Armoury Officer's arm come up to take aim. Trip tore his eyes away from their threatened crewmates: weapon in a secure grip, Reed had the man in his direct line of fire and was stock still, a block of granite. Around them, people seemed to watch the scene with nothing more than curiosity.
"Stun him," Trip urged.
Malcolm's face was an impenetrable mask but for his grey eyes, which showed more than Trip would have liked to read at the moment.
"Malcolm! What the hell are you waitin' for?"
Trip was puzzled by Malcolm's hesitation. He had no doubt the Armoury Officer could hit the target that man was offering almost with his eyes closed.
Malcolm swallowed; then, to Trip's bewilderment, lowered his weapon, shaking his head once, hard. "It's not safe," he said in a deep voice, releasing the breath he'd been holding.
Trip grabbed him by the arm, a little more roughly than he had intended. "What do you mean it's not safe? A still target from this distance? You can hit one half the size of that man," he snapped back.
Malcolm pursed his lips. "You don't understand…" he began, his eyes darting between Trip and T'Pol.
"There is nothin' to understand, just do it," Trip repeated in frustration.
Malcolm flashed him a stormy look. "It might not be the right thing to do," he said, and his voice was uneasy. As if he, of all men, lacked confidence.
Trip couldn't understand what was going on with his friend, but he knew that things might get out of hand any moment down there. They had to take their advantage before it slipped away, and if Malcolm was hesitant, he would decide for him. He clenched his jaw.
"Shoot, Lieutenant, that's an order."
Malcolm cast him a longer, almost pained glance, but responded to Trip's authoritative tone. Taking a deep breath, he held it in and raised the pistol, tensing up into a shooting stance again. But still he wouldn't pull the trigger.
"Dammit, Malcolm, do it or hand me the pistol!" Trip growled. "Even I can hit a…"
Too late. The assailant had turned, and now T'Pol was facing them.
Trip cursed in frustration. Leaning with both hands on the balustrade, he watched helplessly as the man dragged T'Pol away from the main plaza, followed obediently by Archer, all of them disappearing into a passageway which led to other sections of the compound.
Trip swivelled to face Reed but Malcolm gave him no time to open his mouth. "Let's go," the Lieutenant said in low but resolute tones this time. He took off towards the nearest staircase and Trip was left no other option than to do the same.
As he jogged after him, Trip reached for his communicator. "Tucker to Mayweather."
"Commander, how are the local beverages?" Travis answered cheerfully.
"Travis, someone just dragged T'Pol away at gunpoint. The Capt'n went with them too," Trip said in one breath. "Where are you?"
"Hoshi and I are on the underground level." All happiness had gone from Travis's voice.
They were running down the staircase two steps at a time now, Malcolm nimbly dodging people, Trip bumping into them and having a hard time keeping up with the lighter and more agile man.
"Tell him to get to the landing platforms, keep an eye on any vessels leaving," Malcolm shouted over his shoulder, and Trip wondered how the man could look so focused ahead and still be well aware of what was going on around him.
"Check all departin' vessels," Trip immediately relayed.
They finally reached the ground floor, and wound their way through the crowd to the place where they had last seen T'Pol and Archer. Scanners in hand, they began to check for human or Vulcan biosigns, but with so many different races on the planet it was a long shot.
"Where the hell are they?" Trip growled in frustration.
"Let's separate," Malcolm instructed. "You take left, I take right. But – Commander." He uncharacteristically grabbed Trip by the arm and looked straight into his eyes. "No rushed decisions. Contact me if you find them."
Trip nodded, feeling his friend's tension through the grip he had on him, and they parted.
Trip made slow progress among the people that swarmed the plaza. They all seemed to have returned to their activities as if nothing had happened. There were many species Trip had never seen before and he looked warily around as he moved on. It was difficult to concentrate in that confusion of sounds, colours and movement, and Trip kept glancing at his scanner, hoping the instrument would show familiar biosigns.
A burly alien jostled him as he passed by, making Trip stumble and crash against a stall laden with artefacts; a squeal erupted from behind it, and a scaly hand shoved him roughly away, its owner sending a string of angry words after him. He muttered 'sorry' and carried on, cursing his own streak under his breath and scanning the place with his eyes.
Was that the blue of a Starfleet uniform? Trip quickened his pace, pushing his way through people without worrying now if he was being less than polite. But when he got closer he realised that what he had seen was the jacket of some kind of personnel that seemed to be stationed at key spots in the compound. Could it be security?
He was about to approach the man, when his scanner beeped. Vulcan biosigns. Trip's heart began to race, and he reached for his communicator.
"Tucker to Reed."
"I've got Vulcan biosigns," Trip said in earnest. "This floor, somewhere in the eastern section. Not too far from where I am."
"What about human biosigns?" Malcolm asked after a brief moment.
Trip checked his instrument. "I don't see any," he said. "But perhaps as I get closer the scanner will pick them up. Or they got separated."
There was another small pause, then Malcolm's voice came through again, and Trip could hear the urgency in it again. "Send me the co-ordinates and go there, but don't do anything. Wait for me," Malcolm said in the inflexible tone of command.
"Understood." Trip did as instructed and flipped his communicator closed, smirking. Malcolm was the Chief of Security, he mulled as he headed for the eastern section; which meant he would be in charge of this contingency. Still, the Lieutenant had given him a rather harsh order, and there had been a dark ring to his voice that left him wondering. His behaviour so far had been more than a little offbeat.
Trip took position behind a column a few meters away from one room. His scanner told him T'Pol was being held behind that closed door. He didn't have long to wait. Soon he spotted Malcolm jogging his way.
As he came to a halt near him their eyes met, and Trip read the silent question in the other man's. "Meeting rooms," Trip informed him, jerking his chin towards a series of doors opening onto a large corridor. T'Pol seems to be inside that one," he added, pointing to the second door on the right. "No signs of the Capt'n."
Malcolm leaned against the column. "How many biosigns in there?" He was breathing a little faster from the running, and his eyes were fixed on the closed door as if by staring hard enough he might be able to see through it.
"Two, one unknown," Trip replied. He showed him the readings on his scanner.
Malcolm glanced at the instrument. A rivulet of sweat trickled from his temple down the side of his face, and Trip watched it leave a shiny path on Malcolm's cheek. Indeed the air in the compound was warm and stuffy, and Trip's own forehead was beaded with perspiration.
"Have you tried hailing the Captain?" Malcolm asked as he wiped an arm across his brow.
"Yeah. No reply."
Crossing his arms in front of his chest, Malcolm pursed his lips, deep in thought. "I don't like this," he murmured tensely. "Assuming that is T'Pol, if we manage to free her it might endanger the Captain."
Trip felt like reminding the Lieutenant that they wouldn't be in this situation had Malcolm followed his order to shoot the man when he'd had a chance, but he knew this was not the moment to say that, and bit his tongue. Frustration and concern were pulling at his gut, though, and he couldn't stop himself from barking out, "Well, here we are now: what are we gonna do, Lieutenant? We can't exactly sit on our hands."
Malcolm glanced at him briefly, but long enough for Trip to see his gaze turn to ice; when he spoke, his voice was deep and all spikes. "A hostage situation is a tricky thing to handle, Commander," he said dourly. "A damn nightmare." He clenched his jaw. "We must find out where the Captain is."
Trip was about to ask him how he proposed to do that, when his communicator chirped. He flipped it open and Travis's anxious voice floated out.
"Commander, I'm reading human and Vulcan biosigns aboard a vessel that is about to leave the planet's atmosphere."
Trip exchanged a wide-eyed look with Malcolm. "Tell Enterprise to keep track of it. Tucker out," he shouted back as he followed Reed, who had taken off towards the door, phase pistol at the ready.
A well-known determination was now on Malcolm's face. "Open the door, on the count of three," the Lieutenant whispered tautly, checking the setting on his pistol.
Cursing the fact he was unarmed and unable to help if things got ugly, Trip prepared to do his part. Malcolm mouthed the countdown, and when Trip flung the door open hurled himself inside, phase pistol aimed in front.
Two people jumped up in alarm, knocking their chairs down.
"Ambassador?" Trip and Malcolm exclaimed in unison.