x-x

Written as part of an Enterprise fication on LJ, for settai. Her request was: Reed/Tucker (friendship, though slashy subtext is fine), a cultural misunderstanding, an amused audience.

Note that therefore, if you chose to view it as such, this could be seen to have slashy subtext. I leave that to your interpretation.

x-x

Holding his breath against the dust, Malcolm reached up with one hand and pulled the errant sheet back into place over the window. Another strong gust of wind caused it to flap away, and he winced as the sharp sting of grit hit his hands and face. Lids at half-mast in an attempt to shield his eyes, he grabbed blindly for the sheet again, this time with both hands, trying not to drop either the hammer or the tack he held in his left. Standing on his toes, he reached with the hammer and gave the nail an almighty whack, and then another with a second tack, and a third. Once the wet fabric was finally back in place, he pressed his arms against the wall and let his head rest on them, coughing despite his best efforts not to, the powdery dirt irritating his throat. He let his shoulders slump and stood there, still, eyes closed as he listened to dust that sounded like rain as it hit the building.

A questioning voice came from somewhere behind him. "Malcolm?"

"This dust was once the man," he murmured as he raised one hand in acknowledgement.

He felt someone come up beside him. "You shouldn't be up," the voice said, patience and exasperation mixing in the tone.

Malcolm felt a tug at his shoulder and he let himself be turned. The world swam around him, then slammed back into place as his head started pounding. "The window..." was all he managed to get out before his legs gave way and his vision blurred.

"I've got the damn window," the person muttered as Malcolm felt a supporting arm go around his waist. "You're supposed to be in bed."

Malcolm tried to nod, but his head was too heavy. He let it sink as he felt himself being settled onto a hard surface. A soft blanket was pulled hastily up over him.

A dark shadow crossed his vision, and he blinked rapidly, but it came no clearer. He felt someone sit beside him. The back of a hand touched his forehead, staying there for a moment before it moved away. He coughed again, the force of it making his chest and throat burn, and he felt something being tucked under his head and shoulders, elevating them. There was something cold at his mouth - ice - and he took it in gratefully, hoping it would soothe his aching throat. "Thank you," he said, keeping his voice low despite the noise of the storm.

"It's all right." He felt a firm hand touch his shoulder, then away. "You should try to get some sleep."

As the person shifted to stand, he reached out a quick hand and snared their shirt. "What if the wind...?" He knew that the wet sheet was helping to keep the dust from the storm out, and if the sheet fell, the dust would be everywhere. It already was everywhere, in his hair, his eyes, his mouth. He could even feel it between his teeth as he spoke.

The person settled beside him again. "Don't worry about that. I'll get it if it does."

He nodded and, tiredness finally overcoming him, he let his eyes fall closed. "Who are you again?" he murmured, feeling as if he'd asked that question before.

The man hesitated a moment. When he finally spoke, his voice shook slightly. "I'm Trip."

Malcolm let a small smile flicker across his face. It was an odd name. He slid into sleep.

x-x

Cartozeh made a quick note in his journal before he pushed himself back from the table with a satisfied sigh. All was going to plan, at least so far. He ran a pale green hand through his dark hair, careful to avoid the row of tiny new scars he'd had added to the collection on his forehead. He'd spent enough on the adornments; he certainly didn't want to disturb them before they'd set.

A swift look at one of the monitors confirmed the scene was as he'd hoped - one of the male subjects, the dark-haired one he'd altered, was sleeping restlessly on the sole bed in the tiny room. The other, sandy-haired man sat beside him, one hand resting on the other's shoulder. After a moment, he stood and, with a concerned glance back to the other man, settled on the floor beside the bed, obviously trying to get some rest.

Cartozeh checked the chronometer running above the monitors. Enough time had passed. It was time for the next adjustment. He double checked the protocol from his notes, then closed his eyes, focusing his mind and effort on the scene in the room.

x-x

When Malcolm next woke, the storm was still pounding against the walls, but the pounding in his head had subsided, and his breathing had eased. Letting his eyes open slowly, he rolled over onto his side. His vision had cleared somewhat, and he was able to make out the lamp they'd placed on the table by the wall, its light the sole source of illumination in the small room. The room itself was dim - the dark wooden walls and floor seemed to absorb most of the flickering light.

He suddenly realised that he had no idea of what time it was. Since the dust storm had struck, the skies had been so dark that they'd kept the lamp on, even in the day. He pushed himself up to sitting, then winced when that reignited his headache.

Trip must have heard the noise, because his head suddenly appeared over the edge of the raised bed. Malcolm frowned. For some reason, Trip was sleeping on the floor while Malcolm himself had been given the room's only bed. He had a hazy memory of watching Trip push the furniture to the walls, trying to clear enough space to sleep.

Trip was saying something. He looked worried. His mouth moved again, and then he looked seriously concerned.

Abruptly, Malcolm realised that he could feel the wind beating the wall behind him, but the room itself had gone near-silent. If he focused, it was as if he could still hear the pulse of the storm, the power, but he wasn't sure if he was actually hearing it or feeling it. He leaned back against the wall, pulling his legs up and wrapping arms around them. He could feel the wall trembling against his back. "I'm sorry," he said into the muffled quiet, his voice vibrating in his throat. He lifted a shaking hand and rubbed his ear hard.

As Trip knelt in front of him and said something else that he couldn't make out, he knew he should be worried, but the relative silence was a nice change from the screech and howl of the wind and the incessant hiss of the dust against the walls. The lack of sound actually made his head feel a bit better, so he let his eyes drift shut again, hoping for a bit of rest. He was bloody well knackered.

A hand on his arm made him open his eyes. Trip had pulled over one of the chairs from their table and was sitting directly in front of him. "What's wrong?" he said, the puzzlement on his face helping Malcolm figure out the question he'd asked.

Malcolm blinked and rubbed a rough hand across weary eyes, trying to drive back the exhaustion. "I'm tired," he said in response, not sure if that was the answer Trip was looking for.

Trip's eyes widened as he said something else, and Malcolm simply shook his head. "Sorry," he said again.

Trip stood and went to the corner where they'd put their bags. Back to the room, he rummaged about for a moment before returning with his padd in hand. Head down, he typed something into the small device, then held it out to Malcolm.

Malcolm leaned forward a bit, trying to make out the words on the screen. Frowning, he took it in hand and pulled it close to his face, hoping that would help. Finally, he shook his head and looked back to his friend. "I don't know what this says."

"That's okay," Trip said, and Malcolm was able to understand that much. That, and that Trip in no way thought it actually was okay - the look in his eyes put tell to that.

Trip raised a hand to his mouth as if he were eating, raising his eyebrows in a question. He mimed drinking something, then pointed to Malcolm.

Malcolm stared at him. He remembered a night, back on Enterprise, back when Trip had made those first overtures of friendship. They'd shared a meal together, and he and Trip had somehow ended up discussing the differences between British and American Sign Languages. He'd learnt that Trip was near-fluent in ASL, a cousin having been Deaf, while he himself had enough of a knowledge of BSL to realise that the two languages were almost completely different. He smiled despite his own lack of cheer. Too bad they couldn't sign, because it seemed that his hearing had taken leave.

A hand waved in front of his face and he snapped back to the present. Trip made the same signs again, and Malcolm shook his head. The last thing he wanted was food or drink. Trip moved to their kitchen area anyway.

He watched Trip work for a moment, but a rush of pressure in his head caused him to lower his gaze. His ears started ringing, and his headache blazed once again, so he shut his eyes against it and raised his hands and pressed them to his ears, hoping that would help. It didn't. If anything, the ringing worsened. He let his head fall back against the wall. It hit with a mild thump. Oddly, that seemed to lessen the headache, so he tried it again. Thump. Third time's the charm, he thought, letting his head fall back again. It was strangely peaceful - the steady rhythm of his head against the wall meshed with the ringing in his ears to match the steady thrum of the storm at his back, and he let his thoughts drift, the pain and the ringing slowly dissipating.

He remembered now: there had been a party. Honorable guests, they'd been called. Their scanners hadn't picked up anything odd about the drink, and he'd taken a small mouthful, seemingly with no ill effects. The stuff wasn't even supposed to be alcoholic - just a local drink that people would share on ceremonial occasions. The taste had been pleasant, somewhat herbal, and he'd liked it enough to take a second sip, and then a third, before the captain, Trip or Travis had even tried their own.

It hadn't taken long for the drink to affect him... No, that wasn't it. He wasn't sure it had been the drink at all. There had been a doctor... hadn't there? He couldn't remember. He shook his head, then groaned against the effects of that movement. Maybe it hadn't been the drink at all. He'd been the only one affected, so it couldn't have been, could it? He thought the doctor had said... No, he couldn't recall.

He did remember that the party had literally swirled around him before he'd even known what was happening. He'd ended up on his back, the world seeming to spin in circles overhead as the sound of the sea filled his ears, blocking out everything else. Of course, the fact that there was no water for miles... Malcolm smiled, remembering the sensation. By then, he hadn't cared. He'd gone on a bit of a trip. Eyes still closed, he stifled a laugh at the bad pun, only to clasp a hand over his mouth. "Sorry," he said from under his fingers.

Ah, the joys of space travel. The ability to be misunderstood and mistranslated badly enough to become unintentionally plastered. Lovely. And poor Trip had been so thrilled about this mission: a first contact, a new species, a new culture and new technologies to explore. He supposed his collapsing onto the floor in an incoherent heap had put paid to the poor bloke's excitement.

Trip was fine - at least, he seemed to be fine - there was no way for him to really tell. He thought Trip had taken several sips, but his memory of events was fuzzy, as he'd been arse over tit ever since, himself, and in fact, it wasn't as if he didn't know that he was... he searched for the right word, and came up with "altered". He liked that. It fit. He'd gone on a bit of a trip, he thought, intentionally repeating himself. And now he was along for the ride.

Still, at least he had enough cop on now to realise he was better off than he'd been earlier. He could remember staring at Trip and having no bleeding idea who the man was. And that bit with his eyesight - that hadn't been fun, although it seemed to be somewhat improved now. Or this now, with his hearing. But through all of it, there had been moments of lucidity, times when he hoped it was over, that the drink, or the illness, or whatever this was, was done with him. This, apparently, was not one of those moments.

His eyes flashed open at the touch of a hand to his arm, and he found himself looking into Trip's concerned face. "Don't", Trip said, touching his head and stilling its movement. Only then did he realise that he'd still been pounding his head against the wall. Stopping took some effort, but once he finally did, Trip released him.

Sitting beside him on the bed, Trip lifted a glass of water and a small roll from the floor, holding them out to him.

Malcolm's eyes moved from Trip's face to the glass. Trip had still looked worried. Maybe he was right to be concerned. Maybe he himself should be concerned. He felt a smile flicker across his face. He was always so concerned about everything - his job, his role on the ship, his relationships with others. Maybe it was time for him to be a little less concerned.

He felt something cool and smooth being placed against the back of his hand, and the scene spiraled into focus: Trip had touched the water glass there, trying to get his attention. He moved his hand away. He didn't want to drink anything. After all, it was a drink that had got him into this situation. Hadn't it? He blinked in confusion, feeling as if his mind was going in circles.

x-x

Cartozeh leaned both elbows on the table, watching the scene play out before him on the display. He couldn't believe his luck. His university had sent him here so he could research the local population, and he'd been hoping that he'd be able to find something new, something that no other observer had seen in the past, something that he could use for his graduate thesis. He'd never expected to have such good fortune.

A soft voice came from behind him. "Hey, Cartozeh."

He turned to her with a smile. "Jarusha, you're early."

Jarusha leaned across the table beside him, eyes only for the monitors. Her long, brown hair fell forward across her pale green face, obscuring her dark eyes and the raised, ornamental scars along her jawline. "Yeah, I couldn't sleep. Figured I'd come here, see what was on." She nodded to the display. "How's it coming?" she asked, sliding into the chair beside his.

"Not bad," he replied, waving toward his journal. "I've just made the next adjustment."

"What's that, step three?" she asked, turning to face him. "Already?"

He nodded. "We're still working to schedule, but things were going well enough that I felt we could move to the next level a bit early and perhaps spend more time there."

"How are the subjects reacting?" she asked, glancing toward the monitors before she hunched forward over his journal, pouring through his notes with an eagerness that he shared.

"It's fascinating, really," he replied, leaning toward her in his excitement. He pointed to a particular section of the journal. "The unaltered one had left the room to void, and when he came back, the altered one had actually come out of bed and..."

As he described the events Jarusha had missed, his enthusiasm only grew. This was the chance of a lifetime. This could set him up for the rest of his current programme, but more importantly, it could very well lead to a work placement at a top university, likely even a professorship. And Jarusha knew that - he could see his enthusiasm mirrored in her eyes.

His programme had been placing observers at this outpost for some time, so he'd known, going in, that he'd have his work cut out for him if he were to come back with unique results. They'd been monitoring these people for long enough that it took a creative mind to develop new hypotheses and test methods. But he had a creative mind, so he'd gone in confident in his abilities and those of his project-partner, Jarusha.

The programme he was involved in did nothing too overt - after all, they didn't want to reveal themselves to the local populace. They might worsen or change the course of a storm, or cause someone to fall ill, things like that. Subtle changes, which their subjects would never suspect were not natural. Then they would observe, and later analyze the results, see how the people coped, see if the reactions of the current crop of subjects differed from past generations. It was fascinating research, actually, and he'd been thrilled to be admitted to the programme, although he knew the challenges of coming up with original results would be difficult.

Still, he and Jarusha were taking a different approach from their predecessors, so he'd gone in with high hopes. But he'd never expected, never dared hope that he'd be presented with such unusual subjects. Humans. He'd never even heard of this species. This'd be quite the coup, once they got their data back to their professors.

Jarusha glanced to the chronometer, then nodded toward his journal. It was time.

Cartozeh thrummed long, tapered fingers on the tabletop in anticipation. Closing his eyes for a brief moment, he tweeked the chemical mix just slightly and smiled.

x-x

Malcolm felt a touch to his cheek and lifted his head. Trip pulled his hand away, glass held up in front of him, brow creased in a frown. "Drink this," he said, the words clear despite... Hold on, Malcolm thought. Something had changed.

"Could you repeat that?" he asked aloud.

"Drink this," Trip repeated.

Malcolm cocked his head, staring at his friend. The words weren't clear, but he had definitely been able to hear something. That, plus the context, had clued him in to what Trip had said. He closed his eyes so he could focus on the sounds without the other distractions. "Say something else," he said out loud.

Yes, he'd been right. He could definitely hear Trip's voice now. It was garbled, completely unintelligible, but it was definitely there, and definitely Trip. The storm was there again, too - there was a steady pulse as the wind beat against the walls. Maybe this too would pass, and his hearing would come back completely. Maybe that bloody drink was finally wearing off. Maybe...

He felt a tap on his knee, and he opened his eyes to see Trip staring at him expectantly. Trip raised the glass and one eyebrow at the same time.

Malcolm huffed and accepted the offering. He took a slow sip, peering at Trip across the rim as he did so.

"Can you hear me?" Trip asked. He pointed to Malcolm, himself, and his ear in turn.

"Somewhat," Malcolm replied, lowering the glass. He held it between both hands and stared down into the clear liquid. It was really rather pretty. The lamplight was reflected in its surface, and it glowed liquid warmth as he swirled it.

Another tap to his knee brought him back to the present. Trip said something that he didn't catch at all, so he shrugged and let his eyes drift to the window over Trip's shoulder. The corner of the cloth had come loose again, and it flapped madly in the breeze. He nodded toward it and blinked languidly. With the second blink, his eyes stayed shut. He felt the glass being lifted from his hands, then movement as Trip stood. A few moments later, there was a rhythmic pounding - likely Trip nailing the curtain back into place. He exhaled slowly and let himself drift.

x-x

Cartozeh washed his hands at the sink in their lavatory, drying them quickly on a nearby towel. This was actually the first job he'd ever held, the first project he'd worked on, where he'd been eager to come back from a break and get to work. He smiled at himself in the mirror, revealing pointed, dark teeth.

Other people - those from outside their field - might find such work boring. He could understand that. After all, it did involve long hours of observation, then long hours of data analysis, including seemingly eternal review of tapes and notes. But to him, it was captivating. And he hoped the new approach they'd developed would make the results exciting even to those outside their field.

Past researchers had usually tampered with their subject's outside environment - changing the course of storms, or introducing viruses, things of that nature. His difference - the plan that he and Jarusha had developed - involved messing with the chemical mix in the subject himself, then observing to see what would happen: not just any physical or mental changes that would occur within the body, but how the subject would react to the environment, and how others would react to him. They'd be observing how their changes affected the whole system.

It had taken some time and experimentation to get the process right. A full year of working through process, doing tests and trying to ensure reproducible results before they could even think of doing it in the real world. But now, here they were. And with the addition of these Humans to the mix, that could bring this project to an entirely new level.

Stepping from the lav, he noted the time, then nodded to Jarusha. She made the next change.

x-x

Next time Malcolm woke it was to the sound of voices. He knew he should have been surprised - not that people were in the room, but that he could hear them, and understand part of what was being said. But he was drowsy, the blanket someone had put over him was warm, and he really couldn't be arsed. He kept his eyes closed and lay still. He could just make out some of the words.

"Told me...didn't realise..." A woman's voice. Malcolm cracked his eyes open slightly and saw the doctor who'd been to see him earlier, back when he'd first fallen ill. She was wrapped, head to foot, in deep blue robes, although she'd pushed back her face shield to reveal dark and sorrowful eyes. She and Trip were standing by the closed door, discussing something - most likely him. He let his eyes shut both so he could better focus and because, lately, that seemed to be their natural state.

"...Not poisoning..." the doctor said, the rest lost in the swirl of the wind and his damaged hearing. "I would think...illness, but no one else is sick."

The darkness almost took him again, but he was startled to near-wakefulness by a prick at the crook of his arm. He levered his lids open, only to let them slide closed again when he caught sight of the doctor, now at his bedside, dark face intent as she stood holding a small device before her. Trip, seeming worried, looked over her shoulder at its screen. Some kind of test.

Someone pulled at his arm. This time, when he tried to open his eyes, he found that he couldn't. That was all right. There was a hiss and click as something was injected into his arm. That was all right, as well.

He gradually became aware of his heart in his chest. He could actually feel it beating, its pulse a mad flutter, flowing from his chest, to his neck, to his arms. He could feel his breath quicken, and he gasped.

Malcolm felt a hand on his forehead, and he blinked weary eyes open to see Trip kneeling beside his bed. The doctor was gone, the dust of her parting still floating in the lamplight. He actually felt a bit more awake than he had in the last while, and he pushed himself to sitting, Trip helping him with a hand at his back. Swaying a bit as he came forward, he decided instead to let himself fall back against the wall. The blanket pooled at his lap, and his trembling hands tangled in its folds as he took a slow breath, trying to calm his breathing. "What did she say?"

Between his somewhat restored hearing and careful observation of Trip's face, he was able to figure out the gist of what Trip said next. Something about this perhaps being an illness, but what, they didn't know. Some sort of chemical imbalance in his body, and the doctor giving him something to make him more alert.

Malcolm watched his friend as he settled onto the bed beside him. Trip looked haggard, as if he hadn't slept in days. It can't have been easy, trying to take care of a drugged up... No. Wait. It hadn't been the drink, had it? Trip had just said it was an illness. Malcolm's eyes dropped closed, and he fought to keep them open. If this was as alert as the medication could make him... he yawned hugely, and Trip turned to him with what was almost a smile.

"Sorry," Malcolm said, feeling as if he'd been saying that a lot lately. Maybe if they could get back to Enterprise, Phlox could do something to fix this, and poor Trip could get some rest.

That did seem odd. Why weren't they back on Enterprise? He felt like he knew this; he was fairly certain he'd asked the question before.

He must have said that last bit out loud, because Trip turned to him. His expression was one of patience - he definitely had answered this question before.

"We were separated by the storm," Trip said.

Malcolm noticed that Trip's eyes were bloodshot, the lines on his face darkened by the dust that had come from the doctor's visit. They stood out. He looked older.

"After you got sick," Trip went on, "the captain and Travis went on ahead to get the shuttle, come back to pick us up. Before they could get back, the dust storm hit."

Malcolm hadn't understood every word, but he'd got the overall meaning of what Trip had said. "So, we're here for the duration, are we?" Malcolm said in answer. He clenched his hands together under the blanket, trying to control their shaking. Whatever the doctor had given him was definitely making him feel more alert, but it was... it was as if he were electric, filled with a brittle, shaky power that was pushing him a little too fast, a little too -

"Yeah," Trip replied. He turned forward to face the lamp on the table. Its light cast the lines on his face into sharp relief.

Malcolm watched his friend's profile. He was supposed to be the one who'd fallen ill, and yet Trip was the one who seemed to be doing poorly. "How long is the storm supposed to last?"

Trip shrugged and said something which, because he was facing away, Malcolm didn't quite catch. Trip wasn't sure of the answer, anyway - his body language had given that away.

"Better or worse?"

"Excuse me?" Trip asked, facing him again.

"Am I getting better or worse?"

"You kind of seem okay right now," Trip said, obviously avoiding the question.

"Well, I assume that's to the good doctor's drugs."

Trip nodded, falling silent.

"Can she not just..." Malcolm pinched the bridge of his nose between two fingers, frowning. His headache was already returning. He hadn't even realised it had gone.

"No," Trip said, voice too low for Malcolm to hear his tone. "She can only give you so much of that stuff. It's not good for you."

Malcolm dropped his hand and raised one brow wryly. He placed a gentle tap to his ear, hand shaking as he did so. "The effects of the illness are better?" He let his hand fall into his lap.

It was Trip's turn to frown. "It's better than being on these meds long-term, Malcolm." He reached out a hand and grasped Malcolm's own, stilling its quiver. "Come on," he said, tugging the hand gently. "There's a bathroom." He nodded back over his shoulder.

Malcolm stood shakily and let Trip guide him. He was upright and moving, but that's all that could be said, and he needed Trip's help to get to the loo, and then back.

Settling back onto the bed, Malcolm said, "I can't imagine they'll last long."

Trip nodded, seeming to understand the apparent non-sequitor. "She gave you enough to keep you alert so we can get some food and drink into you. She said you're getting dehydrated. There's no way to transport you to a hospital if that happened." Trip glanced at the door. "Not in this storm."

"Fabulous," Malcolm said, not meaning it at all. "So, lunch?" he asked cheekily.

At that, Trip nodded. "Don't worry," he said, a smile in his eyes. "I'll get it." He stood and made for their kitchenette, but turned back at the last minute. "Glad to have you back, Malcolm."

"For however long it lasts," Malcolm added, nodding and returning Trip's smile. It felt false.
x-x

"How do you think the doctor's treatment will impact our alterations?" Jarusha asked, eyes on the monitors.

"I'm not sure," Cartozeh said. "It'll certainly add an interesting variable. We'll make note of it."

He didn't mind taking things as they came. He was used to being flexible. After all, he hadn't expected that this planet would receive this first contact on their watch, and that they'd be able to observe a new species of aliens, but they'd adapted quickly to the new situation.

When the Humans had shown up, he and Jarusha had thrown their existing experiments to the wind, instead focusing on altering at least one of the new subjects. They then needed to find a way to prevent them from leaving. When the dust storm had started, it had been a simple thing to use it, to intensify it, and to cut these two males off from the others, and from their ship.

He had Jarusha to thank for that one, he thought, smiling over at her as she made a note in her journal. She was smart as a whip, and a wonder at adjusting storms. She had an amazing future ahead of her.

He turned his eyes to the monitors, watching the two Humans eagerly. Things were humming along nicely. Perhaps that amazing future would be open to both of them.

Checking his notes, he saw that it was time for another alteration. This one was actually quite small, a tiny adjustment to one chemical, but it was often the small changes that were the most telling. His smile broadened. This should be interesting.

x-x

Malcolm had known that his respite from the madness was temporary; what he hadn't realised was how short a time he had. Trip hadn't even made it to the cooker before Malcolm had known something was wrong. Suddenly confused, he managed to call out Trip's name before he fell into himself, his vision flickering in and out, sound distorted. His body went numb, and then he felt nothing.

He came to stiff, muscles tight and aching, and his head an absolute murder. Trip's alarmed face loomed overhead. "Malcolm?" his friend said. The faint words came to him as if from afar. "You had a seizure. Are you okay?"

Malcolm hadn't time to answer. His last thought as he faded into an exhausted sleep was, seemed Trip had been right about those meds.

x-x

Cartozeh turned his surprised gaze to Jarusha. That hadn't been expected. Then again, so much about these Humans was new to them. The original test subjects were supposed to be locals, with whom they had at least a decade of experience. These humans must be different.

Jarusha dialed it back a bit. They didn't want to kill them.

He watched her eyes widen. He turned to the screen just as the subject seized again.

x-x

Malcolm felt himself drifting somewhere between semi-lucid and not-quite, buoyed by waves that he couldn't see. Sometimes he heard Trip's voice. The doctor came once, he was fairly certain of that, but his mind and body had been caught between seizures and sleep, and he was having a hard time tracking. His body had little time to recover from each attack, and his mind - between the natural aftereffects of the seizures and his related, rising temperature, he was sinking into a haze of confusion.

He was tugged under again. And again. And...

It was as if he was standing at a distance from himself, able to see both his own deterioration and the escalating fear in Trip's eyes. There were times when he was coherent enough to be scared. He'd come up from the depths to see Trip's panicked expression, only to be pulled under once again. He couldn't fight it - there was nothing to fight. He was lost.

x-x

"Maybe we should let them go," Jarusha said, eyes glued to the scene on the monitor. The subject seized again, and she winced slightly.

"What do you mean?" Cartozeh asked, not sure where she was going with this.

She turned to him. "We've both tried to fix it, but we can't. Something's gone wrong."

He nodded. "It may have been the introduction of the doctor's drug..."

"Or the fact that we don't have much experience with Humans," Jarusha said with a shrug. "We'd do best sending him back to his people. They may be able to repair him."

He leaned both elbows on the table as he stared at the screen before him. The unadjusted subject had moved the other onto the floor, probably to prevent him from falling from the bed. He'd pulled the table and chairs away, shoving them against the cooker in an attempt to make some space. Now he was sitting near the other's head, staring down at him, hands hanging limp at his sides. He seemed at a loss.

"You're right," he replied, leaning away from the monitor. They'd already adjusted the subject's chemical levels back to the way they'd been at the start of their experiments, but to no avail. It was as if the subject's brain was in a storm, and once triggered, it was unable to be stopped.

Cartozeh pushed away from the table. It had never been his intention to kill the subjects, although such a result wouldn't be unprecedented. Still, if they could prevent that, they could and would do so.

"End the dust storm," he said.

Jarusha nodded sharply and dialed the storm down a notch, then pushed it to end naturally.

He returned his eyes to the screen.
x-x

Malcolm felt himself being pulled up, and suddenly he felt as if he could barely breathe. Something was over his mouth and nose. Desperately, he tried to push away whatever was covering his face and body, but he was too weak. Then the waves took him, wind crashing against his back as he moved. He felt himself being lifted, and he was jarred, the pounding causing his head, his muscles to cry out in protest, but it wouldn't stop. He struggled, but at the end, the water rolled in, dense and solid over his head, and he couldn't find his way out. And he was so tired. Finally, he stopped trying.

x-x

Cartozeh watched the Humans as they left the small building, the one subject struggling to carry the other as they headed across the dusty lot toward another facility, which he knew from past experience held vehicles. The adjusted subject was hanging limply off the other's shoulder, his head bouncing as they moved.

The wind was still fairly strong, and the air was a brownish haze around them, but the dust was already starting to settle. The sky, formerly invisible, was now peeking through as a slight blue, which almost matched the robes they wore as protection against the dust.

The unadjusted subject let the other drop gently to the earth. He reached out a hand and pulled the door open, then, back to the opening, dragged the other inside with him. The door closed behind them, cutting them off from view.

Cartozeh switched to a different monitoring device, and the interior of the building snapped into view on the screen. The sandy-haired man pulled the other into one of the local vehicles. It wouldn't be long before they reached their ship, and then were off planet.

He and Jarusha would be able to observe the subjects for a while yet, at least until the Human's home ship got out of range. They had enough data, anyway. There was definitely enough here to blow the socks off his professors back at university. He smiled and looked at Jarusha, who couldn't help but return his grin. She knew, like he did, that they'd just made their careers. She'd be able to write her own ticket, and he'd get this written up, and likely get himself any professorship on his planet. Just wait until they got this home.

x-x

It was black. Black. He couldn't open his eyes. He couldn't. It was black, and he was trapped, and the dust was everywhere. The dust - He was -

Malcolm's eyes shot open and he gasped. Breath hitching, heart in his throat, he stared upwards at the bright ceiling above him. The ceiling of sickbay. He was in sickbay. He took a shaky breath, splaying his fingers across the mattress below, the sensation of dark panic fading as his fingers gripped its soft covering.

"Malcolm?"

He turned weary eyes to where the voice was coming from. There was a figure beside his bed. He blinked, and then squinted. Trip.

"You okay?"

"Yes," he gasped, realising as said it that he was likely right. He tried to calm his breathing as the last remnants of his dream left him. "What's...?" he broke off and started coughing, his throat raw and dry.

Trip stood and moved to a nearby table, pouring water from a small pitcher into a cup. He touched the straw to Malcolm's lip, and Malcolm took a slow, careful sip.

"You about scared me half to death," Trip said, voice low, eyes on the cup. He looked up and caught Malcolm's gaze from beneath his lashes.

Frozen there a moment, Malcolm saw the weight, pressure, and fear that Trip was experiencing. Malcolm could feel it in his stomach, in an intensity of feeling he wasn't expecting, and his breath caught.

Then he heard movement nearby.

Trip's eyes changed in a flash and he looked up, smiling at the doctor who stood there. "He's awake."

"So I see," said Phlox, overly perceptive gaze moving from Trip to Malcolm and back again. There was a brief flash of amusement, gone as he peered into Malcolm's eyes, frankly evaluating. "Lieutenant," he said in greeting, face serious as he scanned the monitors. "It's good to have you back with us." He adjusted the flow on the IV line running into Malcolm's arm, raised the head of his bed so he was nearly sitting, then stepped back. "What's your name?"

"Sorry?" Malcolm said in surprise.

Trip gave him a soft smile. "He's testing your cognitive abilities. Go with it."

"Oh," Malcolm said. He turned back to the doctor. "Malcolm Reed."

"And who is this?" Phlox asked, waving a hand in Trip's direction.

"Commander Tucker," Malcolm replied, noting Trip's raised eyebrow at the formality of his response.

"What year is it?"

"Twenty One Fifty Two," Malcolm said hastily, eager to have this over with.

"Can you tell me where you are?"

"I'm in sickbay." He cast an exasperated look to Trip. "Why am I here?

Trip's smile dropped away. "What do you remember?"

At that, Malcolm blinked, hard. He frowned. Breaking eye contact with Phlox, his gaze skittered past Trip and took in the room around him. His fingers clenched the blanket. "I don't know," he finally admitted. "We..." He cocked his head, confused. He remembered being... he'd been ill. Trip had been there. He rubbed the side of his nose, a headache starting to build.

"That's to be expected," Phlox said. Malcolm's eyes met his. "You've been sick, and you've had a series of seizures."

"Seizures?" Malcolm said, not quite as surprised as he thought he should be.

"We have them under control." Phlox said. "Your memories should return in time, and any residual confusion should dissipate." The doctor turned to Trip. "Only a few minutes more now."

As Phlox went off, Trip dragged a chair in close and, spinning it around, sat backwards in it. Arms across its back, he rested his chin on his hands.

It was only then that Malcolm noticed how tired Trip seemed, his eyes red and weary. "Are you all right?" Malcolm asked.

Trip's lips quirked in a smile. "Think I should be the one asking you that."

"What happened?"

Trip's grin fell away. "We were on a mission." He sat up straight. "You got sick, a storm hit, and we got separated from the rest of our party." His words started coming fast as he said, "We were alone, trapped, and God, Malcolm, you just kept getting worse. And then when the seizures started..." He shook his head and ran a harsh palm across his face. He looked down at his hands. "I felt so damn helpless."

He stood slowly and stood beside Malcolm's bed, gaze lowered as he plucked at the sheet. Then he looked up, eyes blazing. "I thought you were going to die. That I... that we would lose you, and..." Trip leaned forward, hands flat on the mattress, fingers almost touching Malcolm's arm. "As soon as the storm started dying down, I wrapped you up in a robe, picked you up and ran for it. The storm settled enough for me to be able to use one of their vehicles to get us to the shuttle." He dropped his voice to an intimate softness. "I had to get you out of there. If I had to walk to the damn shuttle, I..." He cut himself off, shaking his head as he pushed away from the bed. Settling in the chair again, he gave Malcolm a smile that didn't reach his eyes. "You should have seen the look on the captain's face when we showed up at the shuttle, dust swirling around us, the two of us coated in it, wrapped in deep blue robes, you over my shoulder. Must have been like something out of a movie."

"I can imagine," Malcolm said, a lightness in his tone that his heart didn't feel. He could imagine the scene, and he did: he in Trip's arms, torn by convulsions, or lying there far too still, lost to the world. Archer's face when they arrived, after having been away for who knew how long, returning battered and broken.

"We got you back here," Trip said solemnly, his smile gone. "You were still seizing, and it was like, with each one, you got weaker..." Trip shook his head and gave another false grin. "But we got you back here." Eying the IV line, he raised an eyebrow. "By the way, Phlox's got you loaded up on meds. You should be feeling no pain." His eyes, dead serious, caught Malcolm's. "He said the anti-convulsants will make you drowsy."

Malcolm nodded. He did feel drowsy, but it was a different sort of drowsy than what he'd experienced back on that planet. This drowsy, he didn't mind as much.

He gasped. He remembered. Not all of it, but -

Trip sat forward, clearly alarmed. "You okay?"

"Sorry, yes," Malcolm said, wincing slightly. "I remembered part of what happened down there." Cautiously, he raised the arm with the IV and rubbed at his eyes. "It's like watching an old, broken home film with sections missing, others damaged by time, but bits and pieces just there," he said, reaching out the hand as if grasping.

"It'll come," Trip said, voice quiet. He looked up as Phlox passed nearby, giving him a pointed glance.

"What made me ill?" Malcolm asked quickly, afraid that Trip would get up and leave.

Phlox, who was still nearby, caught that and responded. "I haven't yet been able to determine that. Your body chemistry seems to be in balance. There are no viruses, bacteria or fungi that are in any way unusual." He paused, staring up at the monitors. "And that's a long enough visit, Commander," he said, turning to Trip. "My patient needs his rest." Trip was about to say something, but Phlox cut him off with a soft smile. "As do you. Go back to your quarters and get some sleep. You can see him again tomorrow."

Trip smiled at Malcolm, this one lighting his eyes. "I'm glad you're back."

Malcolm returned that smile.

As his friend left, Malcolm knew that he hadn't been given the entire story, but that was fine. His own memories would return in time, and right now, to be honest, he was too tired to ask. It was simply enough that Trip was there, and would be tomorrow. He let his eyes slide shut. Trip was always there.

Malcolm found himself absurdly and oddly grateful for that.

x-x

"They're about to go out of range," Jarusha said, glancing at him from her seat in front of the monitor.

"Yeah," Cartozeh replied, looking at her happily. Reaching forward from his chair, he tapped one finger against his journal. "That went very well, don't you think?"

Jarusha nodded. "I do think." She started gathering up their journals. "And we get to go home early."

Cartozeh opened his eyes wide. "We may actually be on time for the harvest festival."

"Oh, that'd be great," Jarusha said, almost bouncing in her chair. "I didn't mind being here, of course, but I was kind of sad about missing..."

And with that, their inner connection to their subjects broke off, and the monitor went fuzzy.

They smiled at each other, delighted.

x-x

"This Dust Was Once the Man" is from a Walt Whitman poem.

x-x

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