He didn't know what to say.
"And that's why I wanted to talk to you, sir," newly promoted Lieutenant Commander Hsiao was speaking, an expression of discomfort on his face. Despite the circumstances, Trip couldn't help but to smile at the familiarity of this situation. He'd struggled over the very same decision nearly two years ago when Starfleet Command offered him a captaincy.
"What I think doesn't matter here, Dan," he replied slowly. "But if you really want my opinion, I think that you've already made your decision." Hsiao gave him a conflicted look, before glancing away, already deep in thought. Trip leaned back in his seat, glancing quickly at the chronometer. He still had twenty minutes before his shuttlepod departed for Earth but the long transit time at impulse made the ferry schedules nearly impossible to alter. They waited for no one.
"I guess I have," Hsiao finally admitted, which brought another smile to Trip's face. Following Hsiao's battlefield performance and coupled with the glowing reports from the officers and crewmembers of Hyperion who credited him with saving their lives, Starfleet had promoted the young helmsman and offered him the job as commanding officer of the Daedalus-class. It was both an indication of his abilities and Starfleet's continuing need for effective combat leaders that they offered the job to Dan in the first place.
Trip also saw it as a warning: it now seemed inevitable that T'Pol, as one of the most experienced officers in the fleet, would be promoted and reassigned.
"You realize," Tucker said with a joking smile as he stood up, "that this leaves me without a helmsman, right?" Hsiao rose as well, an expression of mild surprise on his face.
"Ensign Jefferson," he started, but Trip interrupted.
"Is at Starfleet Medical." The smile faded as Tucker recalled the doctor's prognosis. "Shrapnel punctured his left eye," he revealed grimly. "His piloting days are over."
"My God," Hsiao whispered. "I didn't know..." He suddenly looked uncomfortable, as if he were reconsidering his decision.
"Dan," Trip said calmly as he offered his hand. "Hyperion needs you. We'll get by." As the young lieutenant commander took his hand, Tucker smiled once more. "And once you get her up and running again, I'll expect a tour."
"Any time, Captain." As Hsiao disappeared through the ready room door, Trip collapsed in his chair once more, his mind buzzing. Dan was a popular officer, and his loss would have an effect on the ship's morale, especially in the wake of the disaster at Zeta Reticuli. For a moment, Tucker wondered if Hsiao knew that Lieutenant Devereux was also at Starfleet Medical; the same shrapnel that had ended Jefferson's career as a pilot had also punctured Devereux's left eardrum.
Exactly thirty-six seconds after Hsiao exited, T'Pol entered the ready room, a PADD in her hand. Years earlier while on Enterprise, Trip had timed how long it took her to leave her station and walk to the ready room; it was nice to know that she hadn't changed much since then.
"Here are my suggested revisions," she said without preamble, offering the data device as she spoke. Trip nodded as he accepted the PADD, wondering why she even bothered submitting this sort of thing for his approval. Unless it involved engineering in some capacity, he usually just signed off on it once he saw that she was the author. Most of the time, he didn't even bother to read what she had sent and simply approved it upon receipt.
This time, however, he gave it a quick once-over since he had asked her for input. The battle at Acheron had been a wake up call to him regarding the dangers of keeping the command staff in such an exposed location like the bridge. With this standing order, Trip was making the A Deck bridge off limits to all personnel without his express permission. From now on, auxiliary command was the bridge. Placing his thumb upon the small optical scanner, he made the decision official. Perhaps someday, after this war was over and Starfleet returned to its original job as explorers, the bridge could be used again, but right now, it was just too dangerous.
"Is everything ready?" he asked cryptically, knowing that she would understand. She quirked an eyebrow at his curious choice of words, but did not remark on the illogic of his statement.
"Yes," T'Pol replied. "Have you spoken to him yet?" There was no need to identify whom she was talking about and, once more, sadness competed against anger. Trip handed her the PADD, his face grim.
"Not since we arrived at Earth," he responded. It was frustrating, knowing that one of his best friends was hurting as badly as Jon was, even if one couldn't tell by looking at him. For the entire twenty-three days it took for Endeavour to get back to Earth, Archer had buried himself in work, refusing to even speak about Erika. By the third day, Trip had given up on trying to get his old friend to open up and had simply turned over command to T'Pol while he labored alongside Jon, hoping that his presence would be enough.
A frown crossed Tucker's face when he realized that he vaguely recalled seeing Archer like this once before, when Henry Archer had passed away. That led to a moment of confusion as Trip tried to reconcile his curiously jumbled memories. Though he had never met Henry, he had odd memories of doing that very thing, many years before he even knew Jon. But that didn't make any sense either, what with Henry Archer dying of Clarke's Disease before Jon's thirteenth birthday. Trip shook his head in annoyance, trying to focus his attention back on the present. These sort of conflicting memory flashes had happened sporadically over the years, beginning a couple of weeks after Enterprise's jaunt to the Second World War. T'Pol had admitted to experiencing the same sort of thing on occasion, prompting her to theorize that the temporal manipulation by Daniels' associates was not quite as precise as it could be.
For Trip, that sort of thinking inevitably led to headaches.
He stood, grabbing his personal PADD as he did so.
"You're in command, T'Pol," Tucker said as he turned toward the door. He offered his right hand, two fingers extended, and very nearly grinned at the expression of surprise that flashed across her face. It was gone nearly before it appeared, and she reciprocated, touching her fingers to his. The warmth that always washed through his mind when they exchanged the ozh'esta caused him to smile as he soaked in her affection.
Five hours later, he was finally stepping out of the shuttlepod, grateful that the ridiculously long trip was finally over. Shifting his small duffel back to one shoulder, he gave the pilot an appreciative nod before beginning the short trek from the landing pad to the entrance to Command. A trio of heavily armed and armored guards were standing outside the doorway, and he offered them his identification without being prompted. The duffel went onto a scanner; the young girl operating the device gave Tucker an odd look at the contents, but cleared him without question.
Nearly twenty minutes passed before he reached his destination. He recognized the petty officer outside the office, and gave the young man a questioning look.
"It's after midnight, Tyner," Trip pointed out. "Shouldn't you be in quarters?"
"He needs me here, sir." Tucker frowned at the petty officer's obvious exhaustion and made a decision.
"Go home," he said. "I'll take care of him." He didn't wait for a response or clearance, and pushed the OPN command on the door annunciator.
As he expected, Jonathan Archer was seated at the desk, dozens of clipboards and several PADDs on his desk. The wall monitor was split-screened, with the two most prominent news channels on; both were muted. Evidence of the previous occupant was still present, especially with the thick smell of coffee that seemed to permeate the entire office, but Jon had already made it his own. Curled up on the couch, Archer's new beagle Dumas gave Trip a wary look before resuming his nap.
"I'm busy, Trip," Archer said without even looking up from his computer. His fingers were tapping out a steady rhythm on the keyboard.
"Yes, sir." Tucker made his way to the chair in front of the desk and lowered himself into it. The duffel he carefully placed on the floor. "Congratulations on the promotion, Admiral." Archer grunted slightly before giving the wall monitor a glance. A frown crossed his face instantly, and Trip followed the admiral's line of sight.
Prominently displayed on the less reputable station was a headline that caused Tucker to sigh in disgust. At face value, "Xindi Link to Romulans!" wasn't entirely inaccurate, but the implication that the Xindi attack had been instigated by the Romulans was completely unfounded. Trip's stomach tightened at thought of that attack, and he pushed down the bitter sadness over Lizzie's death that always seemed to resurface at the most inopportune times.
"I need you on your ship, getting her battle ready, Captain," Archer groused. He was going out of his way to avoid making eye contact as he spoke. "If the Romulans press the attack, then you'll be on the front line."
"T'Pol has everything under control." Trip frowned as he glanced at one of the PADDs on Archer's desk; it had some vaguely familiar schematics upon it. "Endeavour is battle ready now, sir. The new hull polarizers worked better than expected." The PADD's screen abruptly blanked out as the power saver mode activated.
"Good." Archer glared at his personal computer but, once again, didn't make eye contact. Trip's concern grew as he recognized his old friend's attempt to avoid uncomfortable subjects by focusing on work. "Command will probably be issuing you new orders in a day or so. The Third has already been deployed to Alpha Centauri, and the Fourth to Tau Ceti." He shuffled through the papers on one of the clipboards. "Until we have a better picture of the strategic situation, Endeavour is probably going to remain in-system though."
"Jon." Use of Archer's given name caused him to finally meet Trip's eyes. For the briefest of seconds, a hint of the pain that the admiral was hiding could be seen before he managed to hide it. "How are you doing?" Trip asked.
"How do you think I'm doing?" Archer snapped. He gestured to the mess on his desk. "Thirteen ships got out of Acheron, Trip. Thirteen out of thirty." Anger was stamped on his face. "And every one of them is in need of repair!" He glared as he continued. "The damned Coalition is falling apart because the Tellarites won't help us, the Vulcans can't help us, and the Andorians are too damned busy shooting at Orions to even listen to us! How the hell do you think I'm doing?"
"That wasn't what I was talking about," Tucker pointed out.
"I know." Jon's anger dwindled, and he offered Tucker an apologetic look. "I can't think about that right now, Trip." Glancing at the computer monitor once more, Archer seemed to shudder slightly. "If I think about her, I'm afraid I'll lose it," he admitted.
"I understand," Trip said, and he did. When Lizzie had died, he had refused to face the loss and had wrapped himself up in anger so he wouldn't have to. He didn't want to see Jon suffer from the same thing.
"I hate them," Archer said abruptly. At Trip's look, he explained, bitterness in his voice. "The Romulans. I hate every single one of them." He glared at his computer and visibly composed himself. "But I can't afford the luxury of hate. Not now. Not while wearing this uniform." The sadness was once more in his eyes, and he blinked away a tear. "Too many people are relying on me to be something I'm not."
"If you need anything, Jon," Tucker offered as he reached into his duffel. Archer interrupted with another sad frown.
"I know, Trip." The admiral was back, replacing the wounded friend if only for a moment. "I appreciate that, but I've got too much work to do."
"Start tomorrow," Trip said. He placed the bottle of bourbon on the desk. Jon looked at it for a long moment, clearly torn between duty and sorrow.