A/N: Huzzah. It's complete!

He could not remember ever being this nervous.

Standing quietly before the viewport in his private quarters, Thy'lek Hravishran th'Zoarhi stared into the glittering expanse of deep space, wondering silently if Uzaveh the Infinite had a sense of humor. That he, a lowly soldier roundly mocked for his friendship with the pinkskin Archer, could find himself in a place and time such as this seemed too unlikely to be possible. The future unravels according to the Great Tapestry, he reminded himself with words he wouldn't dare to vocalize, so do not seek to understand it before your Time. It was already bad enough that he willingly traveled in the circle of Aenar and humans, he reflected; if his juniors discovered he knew the Invoked Mysteries by heart, he'd never hear the end of it.

Is that how you truly feel? Jhamel's mindvoice caressed his thoughts like the earliest winds of First Thaw, and Shran smiled as she softly padded across the floor to join him by the viewport. He could taste her amusement at the direction of his musings and quickly offered her a sheepish smile.

"You know it isn't," he replied before sighing and returning his eyes to the view before him. Fifteen heavy cruisers were arrayed around his flagship, each the equal of the Kolari and all bearing fleet captains who had answered his discreet call to arms. He knew most of them by reputation alone, though some, like Commander Tholos and his second, Keval, had actually served under him aboard the Kumari. "Am I doing the right thing?" he wondered aloud. Jhamel placed her hand upon his.

"Only you know the answer to that," she said in response. Shran grunted.

"Sixteen ships," he said after a moment. "That is a good sign, I think." Her silent laughter rippled through his mind.

"You are the one who knows the Invoked Mysteries," she pointed out with a smile on her face. Shran grimaced.

"I need you there," he said. He could feel the tingle of her surprise and crossed his arms. "My reasoning is twofold: it will unsettle these warriors who have come to listen to me and remind them that the Aenar are part of us."

"And you wish me to use my mindgifts to seek out deception," Jhamel stated softly. There was no recrimination in her voice or thoughts, but Shran felt a sudden stab of self-loathing. He glanced away and closed his eyes.

"Yes," he replied with disgust. By the Infinite, he hated that he could use her thus, hated that it was necessary in the first place. "The Council fears me," Shran explained carefully. "They know that I am going to move against them and use of assassins is not that uncommon."

"I will not do violence, Shran." Jhamel's voice was firm and hard. "Nor will I allow you to harm a fellow Andorian who thinks you wrong." Shaking his head, he looked into her eyes, though he knew she could not see.

"We are planning for war," Shran said flatly. "In war, sentients die. If I must kill one to save a thousand, I will not hesitate."

"But where does it end?" she asked. "One for a thousand? One for a hundred? For ten?" Jhamel shook her head. "That is not our Way and I will not stand for it." Shran snorted. For as long as they had been together, she had never stopped trying to convert him to the pacifist ethos her people accused her of abandoning. In his darker moments, Shran had often wondered if the Aenar truly understood that they could not follow their Path of Fallen Snow without the more aggressive Andorians there to wage war against those who destroy them. Emulating a snowflake as a model for life – not using force or resisting its fall to the surface – was fine in theory, but in practice? The Klingons would eat them alive, perhaps even literally.

"I promise," Shran finally said after a long moment of contemplation, "that I will not abuse your gift." He placed both of his hands upon her shoulders and was gratified that she instantly reciprocated. "Grant me what insight you think appropriate."

"It shall be," Jhamel intoned softly, quoting from the Invoked Mysteries. Shran smiled.

"It shall be," he repeated. They stood there for a long moment, foreheads almost touching and hands resting comfortably upon the other's shoulders. Shran could have stayed like that for an eternity, but duty summoned, and he straightened. She gave him a slight smirk before doing the same.

No one addressed them as they walked through the corridors to the cargo bay set aside for this … conference but Shran could not help but to notice the sidelong glances Jhamel was receiving from his crew. At first, he felt anger stir at what he perceived to be little more than xenophobic prejudice, but to his surprise, he began to realize that they were not staring at her like she was a Vulcan. Awe and hope were stamped upon the faces of the more junior crewmembers, and cautious optimism radiated from the officers. Jhamel's discomfort grew with each look she received, and Shran gave her a sidelong look.

They look upon me as if I were a holy seer, she related through their mindlink.

"Perhaps you are," Shran replied aloud, smiling at the way her antenna curled in embarrassment.

There were exactly thirty officers within the cargo bay – the captains and their seconds – and Shran exhaled softly in relief at the lucky number once he included himself and his mate in that number. All eyes and antennae turned toward him as he entered, and even without Jhamel's mental gifts, he could feel the wariness that enveloped the empty storage space as she joined him. Shran spent a heartbeat glancing over their faces and judging them by their body language; to his slight astonishment, he realized he could divide them all into one of four groups. The largest of the group was comprised of those who had already decided they would follow him whatever his path; fully half of the captains and their seconds fell into this category. Nearly a third were neutral, willing to hear him out, but not yet ready to make a decision without having all the facts. Of the remaining ten, six were seething with anger, though Shran knew their stories well enough to recognize that their ire was directed almost entirely upon the Council. They were dangerous, rabid ice bores who only wanted to lash out at those they felt wronged them, and Shran suspected they would wage war against the Council no matter what was decided here. That left the quartet who, while not hostile toward him, clearly distrusted him.

Still, Shran had to admit that the sacred number of four turning up was a hopeful sign.

"You called us here," one of those four announced coldly. A male chan, he was studying Shran as if observing bacteria through a microscope. "Speak your words."

"We already know what needs to be done," a hard-faced female zhen growled. "The Council has lost its way!"

"And you would have us revolt?" One of the neutrals, a thaan like Shran himself, queried. He shook his head. "It is not the role of the Guard to make policy."

"Our mandate," Shran said softly, his voice carrying easily across the suddenly still cargo bay, "is to defend Andor against all enemies, both alien and native." The supporters nodded eagerly, while those who remained unsure frowned or shifted in discomfort. "The Council of Eight has become that enemy," Shran continued. "Your oath is to the Imperial Guard and to the people back home, not to any particular government."

"You are boring that ice rather thin, Thy'lek," Tholos remarked. Shran gave him a tight frown – of all the officers in this cargo bay, he would have thought this one would have supported him without question.

"Am I?" he asked. "How much blood must be shed in these senseless engagements with the Oh'reons?" At that, even the four opposed to him looked down. "Why does the Council hold back from aiding our pinkskin allies in their war with these Romulans?"

"Because we must remain wary of the Vulcans," another of the neutral captains replied. She was tall and bore a striking resemblance to Talas.

"The Vulcans?" Shran laughed. "You have read the same reports I have. This … religious upheaval of theirs has gutted their military. They are no threat to us, not now."

"But moving against the Council?" Tholos exclaimed. "That's madness!"

"The universe is already mad," Shran replied. "The Vulcans are paralyzed by this religious awakening of theirs, the humans are losing a war they did not start and what are we doing?" His anger grew with each word until he was nearly shouting. "We are sending ships and brave warriors into a region of space we know nothing about!" Shran's antennae quivered in fury as he gestured wildly and raged on. "We are pursuing pirates into nebulas and stellar anomalies that haven't even been mapped before!" Tholos recoiled from his open anger, but Shran barely noticed. "That is madness! That is why we must act!"

"And who rules once the Council is displaced?" The question came from one of the hostiles, a delicate-looking zhen whose eyes burned with a keen intelligence. "You?"

Shran, Jhamel's voice whispered across his consciousness, be wary. Captain Taras fears retaliation against her bondgroup should she stand with you.

"No," Shran replied instantly. "I am a soldier, not a diplomat." He stalked across the cargo bay to plant himself in front of Taras, frowning darkly at how much taller than he she was. "Once we dissolve this Council," he continued, "the people elect a new one, one that is not mired in selfishness or fear."

"You are an idealist," the zhen scoffed. "There are no such creatures alive. All who exist do so with self-interest at heart." She shook her head. "No," she said, "I think you will lead us to our doom or seize power yourself."

"Then you are a fool," Jhamel abruptly declared. All eyes turned toward her and Shran could see how the officers tried to determine the reason for her presence; he wondered if he should be distressed or happy that so few appeared to have made the most obvious deduction. "I have seen into Shran's living spirit," the Aenar announced, her words causing a stir, "and he has no designs for power."

"Then he will be an even more frightening tyrant than we can possibly imagine," Taras said. "It is the well-intentioned leader, the one who does what he does for the people because he thinks it is best for them that should be feared the most." She shook her head. "No, Shran," she said, "I do not think I can support you in this, not now that I know you do not seek power. Those who not seek it are the quickest seduced by its lure." Her antenna quivered.

"Jhamel is Aenar," Shran said by way of response. The seemingly unrelated comment caused Taras to frown, so Shran continued. "She follows their Path of Fallen Snow," he said calmly. "It is a philosophy of nonviolence that insists upon placid acceptance of what happens in life." He let his eyes rove around the cargo bay so as to include the other captains and their seconds. "She insists that I would be happier if I followed this Path myself," he remarked wryly.

"You would," Jhamel muttered. Her voice was just loud enough that it carried and those who knew Shran well – Tholos and Keval, for example – chuckled at the absurdity of a nonviolent Shran. He gave Jhamel an affectionate smile.

"I am not suited for such a life," he declared, "but I hope one day to have the chance to see as she does." He pinned Taras with a hot gaze. "You fear me ruling as a despot," he said, "but I tell you no such thing can occur." Sensing the direction of his argument, Jhamel stepped closer to him, placing the back wrist of her left hand against the back wrist of his right; it was an unmistakable gesture intended to highlight their level of intimacy and denoted a relationship akin to being part of a bondgroup. Taras' eyes widened slightly. "I will not rule," Shran said flatly, "because I have chosen a mate who will not be accepted by Andorian culture."

As have I, Jhamel added telepathically. Every officer present recoiled, their eyes widening at the display of power that had been, until this moment, only rumor.

"How do we know you aren't using these mindgifts to sway us?" Taras demanded. Jhamel smiled.

"Would you still have your doubts if she were?" Shran replied. He directed his next words to the entire room. "I propose an Assembly," he said. "There are enough of us to fill out the eight positions necessary." He smiled at Taras. "And you," he said, "should be the Voice." Her antennae stiffened in shock and dismay – the Voice of an Assembly was the source of moral authority, the one who determined if a course of action was just and worthy of obedience. Only the Voice could overrule all other representatives, though they had to defend their reasoning with eloquence and a strong arm. "I shall be the Sword, of course," Shran continued, his self-appointment as supreme military commander filled with the appropriate level of bravado necessary for the warrior claiming to be the greatest of those present. Laughter answered his declaration.

"If I become the Voice," Taras said, "I will not be silenced. I will speak my mind and living spirit." Shran nodded. "And when this is done," the zhen female declared, raising her voice as she spoke, "every member of this Assembly will accept Exile." Shran smiled.

"It shall be," he said.

=/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\=

"It can't be."

The president's heartfelt comment came quickly on the heels of t explanation about the cause of his wounds, and Jonathan Archer winced at the sight of the woman known across Earth as the Iron Lady collapsing into her chair, shock painted upon her face. She stared at her desk for an extended moment, before finally looking up.

"Sit down, Jonathan," President Molyneux ordered, and Archer gratefully allowed himself to sink into one of the chairs arrayed in front of her desk. The painkillers he'd been given over an hour earlier were still working, but he could already feel his broken ribs beginning to protest. "You're sure of this?" the president asked.

"I was there, ma'am," Jon replied. "The moment Rajiin died, Admiral Gardner retrieved a sidearm and killed himself."

"How long was he under her control?" a new voice asked. Stepping through a concealed doorway, Eric Harris approached. Jon's eyes narrowed at the man's presence, but, at a discreet hand gesture by the spymaster, managed to restrain himself from demanding how the man had access to the president of United Earth.

"I believe you already know Captain Harris of Special Operations," Molyneux said. "I asked him here for his insight into the situation."

"We've met," Jon replied tightly. "And to answer your question, Captain," he said to Harris, "we don't know yet. Probably before Acheron."

"You're sure?" The president had a haunted look in her eyes, and Archer completely understood. She had signed off on the mission and now it appeared that it had been a trap from day one.

"We don't know, Madam President," Jon said. "My team has already found over twenty surveillance devices in the admiral's home," he continued, noting the sour look on Harris' face. "Most look Xindi, but least three of them are completely foreign to us." He rubbed his face and tried to blink away the crippling exhaustion that threatened to overwhelm him. It had been there since Erika died – he doubted that he'd gotten a single good night's sleep in three months – and with each day that passed, more stress seemed to be piling on. "Hoshi – Lieutenant Commander Sato; she was my communications officer on Enterprise – has been looking at them and thinks they're Romulan."

"She's basing this on what?" Harris demanded. He looked like he was on the verge of being sick or throwing a violent tantrum.

"You'd have to ask her," Archer replied. "I'm a test pilot, not a communications expert." He was about to continue his debriefing before noticing that Molyneux was staring at the framed photos on her desk. "Madam President?" he asked.

"I introduced him to my grandchildren," she said softly. "He was under this … alien's control and I introduced him to my grandchildren. Merde…"

"Are you sure it was Rajiin?" Harris asked. It was obviously an attempt to steer the president back onto subject. "According to your reports from the mission into the Expanse, she didn't display any of these … telekinetic powers."

"We found some sort of biomechanical implants during the autopsy," Jon revealed. "It was mostly tied to her brain and spinal cord," he said, "but there were abnormal growths in her hands that weren't on Phlox's original exam." Harris' eyes narrowed.

"Who did the autopsy?" he demanded.

"My team medic," Archer replied. "Right now," he said, "I'm trying to keep the number of people who know about this situation as small a group as possible." Daniels' warning about a traitor in Starfleet Command quickly came to mind.

"A sensible precaution," the president interjected. "What about the admiral's guards?"

"Every one of them is having memory problems," Jon said with a heavy sigh. "It's like they were … conditioned to simply not see Rajiin." He shook his head, a combination of disgust and dismay warring within him. "Even now," he said, "with her dead, they can't seem to see her. We tested a few of them, but they can't even see the body."

"That's … less than ideal," Harris growled. "How is something like that even possible?"

"I have no idea," Archer said. "My medic thinks Rajiin did something to the way their brains process visual images. Their eyes see her, but their brain just doesn't recognize the signals." Jon shifted in place on the chair and winced at the sharp twinge of pain that accompanied the movement. "Until we know what else she did to them," he said, "I'm not going to put them in the field." He directed his next comments entirely to the president. "I would like permission to approach Ambassador V'Lar for Vulcan assistance." At Molyneux's surprised look, Archer pressed on. "They have an old ritual called the Fullara which allows them to forcibly suppress memories," he explained, hoping neither of them would ask how he knew about it. Somehow, he didn't think T'Pol would be happy to know he had spilled the beans on her checkered past, though knowing Harris, it was entirely possible he already knew. "I'm hoping," he continued, "that they might have a way to reverse the process and can adapt it for humans."

"I'm supposed to meet with the ambassador tomorrow," the president said. "I'll ask her to contact you."

"Thank you, ma'am."

"Madam President," Harris said a moment later, his lips tight and his eyes narrowed, "we can no longer ignore the possibility of a link between the Xindi and the Romulans."

"Agreed." Molyneux turned to Archer and he nodded.

"I'm already looking into that, ma'am," he said in response to her unspoken question. "We know the Vulcans have sent some scout ships into the Expanse since the thermobaric clouds vanished," Jon added, "but they didn't get far before V'Las' government fell." He tried to find a more comfortable spot in the chair but failed. "T'Pau's government has been having too much trouble keeping just their planetary defenses manned, so we can't ask them for much help, and the rest of the Coalition has turned out to be pretty much useless." Jon doubted he was very successful in keeping the bitterness over that fact from his voice.

"My people have heard rumors of a civil war between the Xindi," Harris interjected. Jon gave him a quick glance before deciding against pursuing exactly how Special Operations had heard such rumors.

"Do what you think best, Jonathan," the president ordered. She steepled her fingers and gave him a long, appraising gaze. "Effective immediately," she said, "I'm promoting you to full admiral and naming you as commander in chief of Starfleet." Archer blanched.

"Ma'am," he quickly started, "there are other officers who outrank me, who are next in line-"

"I don't want other officers," Molyneux snapped. "I want the one admiral who has consistently shown aggressive initiative and balls." She gave him a tight smile. "Besides," she added, "since you're in charge, you have the final say on what gets constructed." Jon's eyes widened at that and he glanced away, his mind already buzzing with plans. Yes, the Daedalus-classes were easy to build and took a pounding, but with only two NX-classes still functional – though he had to wonder if it was entirely accurate to call the Endeavour a NX anymore – the fleet was suffering from a serious lack of command ships with real firepower. Construction of the Gagarin and the Shenzhou, originally planned to be the NX-07 and NX-08 respectively, had been put on hold while they focused on the far easier to construct Daedalus. That would change, Archer decided grimly, if he was in charge.

And, of course, there was the Defiant Program that he'd been fighting to gain support for…

More telling, though, was the poorly hidden fear lurking in President Molyneux's eyes as she watched him. She didn't know what to do, Jon realized. Humanity was at war for its very survival and she, an ex-lawyer and grandmother of three, didn't have a clue what course of action to take. And so, like every other politician throughout the millennia who found themselves at a crossroads in history but didn't have the will to make the hard decisions, she did the one thing she could do.

She passed the responsibility on to someone else.

"Yes, Madam President," he said. There really wasn't anything else to say.

"I'll have a statement drafted at once," Molyneux continued. She frowned. "What's the official story we're releasing about Tom's death?"

"He passed in his sleep," Harris replied.

"Would that we could all go that way," the president murmured. "Keep me apprised, gentlemen," she said a moment later, her words a clear dismissal. Jon levered himself to his feet, hoping he hid the grimace as pain lanced through his body.

His two man bodyguard detachment – Scott Reynolds and Derek Kelly – fell into step beside him the moment he exited the president's office. To no one's real surprise, both men were wearing full combat armor, but their ominous appearance and obvious wariness caused every politician or aide in the capitol building to eye them with trepidation. It didn't stop the braver ones from approaching, usually to offer their happiness that Jon had walked away relatively unscathed from his 'shuttlepod accident.' Archer nodded, smiled and thanked them, all the while hating that he had to lie about the origin of his injuries.

To his disgust, Harris somehow beat them to the waiting 'pod and was waiting alongside an uncomfortable-looking Petty Officer Woods who had been left behind to guard the transport. As Jon approached, the spy gave him a smile that didn't come close to touching his eyes.

"Admiral," he said by way of greeting. "A word, if you don't mind."

"And if I do?" Archer demanded as he climbed into the 'pod and made a beeline for the pilot's station. Harris followed and dropped into the navigator's chair.

"You still fly," he remarked.

"Every chance I get," Jon said. He began powering up the vehicle, glancing back to see that the security team had entered and pulled the hatch shut. "What do you want, Harris?"

"I know where Commodore Casey is," the spy said. Archer gave him a look. "In a morgue," Harris continued, "in China. The official cause of death is radiation poisoning."

"Official," Jon repeated. "Did you put him there?"

"Do you really want to know the answer to that?" Harris asked.

"Dammit!" Archer growled. "We're supposed to be better than that!"

"Most of the time," Harris retorted, "we are." He leaned back in his seat. "Do you think I like my job, Admiral?" he asked rhetorically. "Do you think I like being the boogey man who does terrible things in the name of planetary security, that I issue orders that would make most men quail?" He shook his head and sighed, suddenly looking as tired as Jon felt. "The citizens of Earth usually sleep peaceably in their beds," Harris said, "because men like me stand ready to do violence on their behalf." Archer grunted before triggering the comm. system.

"This is Sierra Foxtrot Three Three Six," he said, "requesting departure clearance."

"Uploading flight pattern now, Three Three Six," came the quick response. "Clear skies."

With a muted rumble, the shuttlepod's engines sparked to life, and Jon fed them power. The 'pod lifted off the landing pad with subtle grace as Archer manipulated the controls. A moment later, they were racing into the darkening sky.

"Before the commodore died," Harris said abruptly, his voice pitched only for Jon's ears, "he was rambling about a woman he kept calling 'Mistress.'"

"Rajiin?" Archer asked, equally soft.

"That's a safe bet, I think." The spymaster was silent for another long moment. "We still don't know the extent to which Starfleet Command has been compromised," he added. "Every member of the Admiralty is still under suspicion."

"Including me?" Jon asked wry.

"Especially you," Harris replied. "I've studied some of the recordings of your team's assault," he said calmly, watching Archer without a hint of human emotion in his eyes, "and couldn't help but to notice how you and your Lieutenant Commander Reed alone were able to fight off Rajiin's telepathic assault. That says something to me."

"Leave Hoshi alone," Archer growled. He hoped his expression was blank – more than anything else, he didn't want this bastard to sink his claws into the communications officer, even if she was mildly telepathic as Jon had started to suspect over the years. How else could someone comprehend totally alien languages as quickly as Hoshi did? Even T'Pol had shown hints of respect for Sato's linguistic abilities, and Archer knew just how hard it was to impress a Vulcan from past experience. Hell, he still wasn't sure how Trip had managed to do it on their first damned mission to Rigel; the two had been pretty closemouthed about whatever it was that caused T'Pol to ignore her implicit orders to turn Enterprise around and instead push on to help the stinky, illogical humans.

"Just fair warning, Admiral," the spymaster stated calmly. He tilted his head back, leaned it against the wall, and closed his eyes.

The rest of the flight was silent.

=/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\=

An ominous silence greeted her as she entered Sickbay.

Commander T'Pol paused at the threshold just beyond the door and quickly looked to where Phlox and Lieutenant Reyes stood before the control panel of the imaging chamber. The Denobulan's arms were crossed and a troubled frown was upon his face. By way of contrast, Reyes appeared openly fascinated.

"I've never seen neurological readings like this before, Doctor," Reyes announced.

"I have," Phlox replied grimly. He glanced away, noticing T'Pol's silent approach. "Ah, Commander. Thank you for coming."

"You wished to speak to me?" T'Pol asked. The distinct sound of pained moaning emerged from the imaging chamber and she raised an eyebrow.

"It is Master Chief Mackenzie," Phlox said. "His neural readings are quite troubling." Gesturing with the pointing device he held in his right hand, Phlox directed her attention to the main display panel. "They are showing every indication of systemic damage to the brain consistent with a forced mind meld." T'Pol frowned. "He's reacted negatively to all analgesics I've given him," the doctor continued, watching silently as Reyes pushed the button that would begin extracting the master chief.

"I fail to see how I can be of assistance, Doctor," T'Pol said, lowering her voice as she took several steps away from the bed slowly emerging from the chamber. Phlox gave her a look she could not begin to decipher.

"I was hoping," he said equally softly, "that you might have some advice regarding the treatment of forced melds." At her widening eyes, he rushed to explain. "I know the Kir'Shara speaks about healing melds," Phlox began, "and I was thinking-"

"That would be ill-advised," T'Pol quickly interrupted. "I am, at best, a novice with melding. Any attempt I may make to correct the damage could easily exacerbate it further."

A groan, muffled by the acoustics of the imaging chamber, prevented the doctor from responding and drew both of their attention to the features of Master Chief Petty Officer Mackenzie. T'Pol's breath caught at the agonized expression contorting the man's face, and, for the span of a heartbeat, she found herself overwhelmed as memory of the hours immediately following Tolaris' attack swept away her self-control. Neither Phlox nor Lieutenant Reyes seemed to notice as they were completely focused on MCPO Mackenzie as he whimpered.

"Oh, God," the COB whined, his hands coming up to his temples as he clenched his eyes shut. "It hurts! Can't you give me something, Doc?"

"I've already given you too much," Phlox replied. He exchanged a quick, worried look with Lieutenant Reyes as they examined the data flashing upon the main monitor. Gone was the lieutenant's fascination; in its place was open dread that they were going to lose the chief of the boat to an affliction neither were capable of dealing with. T'Pol drew in a steadying breath and made a decision; she was the first officer and the well-being of the crew was her responsibility no matter her own personal discomfort.

"Master Chief Mackenzie," she called out as she stepped closer to where the man rested. He opened his eyes for a brief second to identify her before closing them again.

"Ma'am," he said through tightly clenched teeth.

"We have no visual record of what took place in the systems monitoring compartment," T'Pol said, "so we need to know what the saboteur did to you." When he did not immediately reply, she continued. "Did she touch your face?" Mazkenzie's eyes shot open and T'Pol barely suppressed a soft gasp at how bloodshot they were.

"I could feel her in my bloody head," he revealed. "She was doing something to me … I couldn't stop her…"

"It is called a mind meld," T'Pol said. "She used it to create a telepathic link between you so she could absorb your memories." Mackenzie gave her a horrified look, though she could tell he wasn't particularly surprised. Obviously, he had figured most of this out already. "The pain you are experiencing is due to-"

"Don't care!" Mackenzie interrupted. He closed his eyes again. "Just want it to stop!" When he opened his eyes again, tears were leaking from them. "Can you do it too? The meld thing?"

"I …"

"Please, Commander!" The tears darkened, and T'Pol swallowed at the sight of blood trickling from his eyes. She nodded.

"I will do what I can," she said. "Lower your hand." As he obeyed, she placed the fingers of her right hand upon his face, wincing at the psychic pain rolling off of him. Even with this slight Touch, she could tell that the damage wrought upon him was far beyond her skills to repair. A true mind-healer would be necessary, not a barely trained neophyte such as herself. Still, she could give him some peace for the moment.

Closing her eyes, T'Pol relaxed her mental shields slightly and pushed toward the master chief. She could feel the change at once – a sensation of movement without motion, of falling toward a flickering presence not her own – but held back from a true connection. "Rest," she whispered, directing the chain of her intent toward his deeper unconscious mind.

Instantly, Mackenzie's tensed muscles relaxed and T'Pol could sense the pain lessening as his body slipped into an almost trance-like state. It was not a true healing meld – she doubted she was capable of putting anyone but herself and Trip into such a state – but still managed to ease him into a somnolent condition where all but his automatic functions were quiescent. His injuries were far from healed, but until they found someone who could repair the damage, it was the best she could manage.

Easing out of the light mental connection with him, T'Pol nearly staggered as her legs wobbled. Phlox was already there, his hands quickly catching her arm before she could completely lose her sense of decorum, and he gave her a broad smile.

"Well done, Commander," he said as she recovered her balance. "He appears to be resting comfortably."

"The damage is not repaired," T'Pol replied. "He will need a trained mind healer as quickly as possible." Phlox's good cheer faltered. "I will contact the Vulcan High Council," she said, "and request an immediate rendezvous."

Just outside Sickbay, T'Pol was forced to react quickly to avoid running into Lieutenant Commander Eisler. For the first time since the saboteur's death six days earlier, he was not in his combat armor, though his expression was still fierce and angry. The moment he recognized her, he assumed a position the humans called parade rest – his feet a shoulder-width apart and his hands clasped at the small of his back. It was the stance he always adopted when he had something he wished to say.

"Report," T'Pol instructed.

"Lieutenant Ricker's team isolated the program the saboteur used to trigger the transporter remotely," he said flatly, "and Commander Hess is certain no one actually used it to beam to another ship." T'Pol raised an eyebrow at the ingenuity of the diversionary tactic; the discovery of a portable holographic projector in the monitoring compartment had suggested that the saboteur's "beam out" had been nothing of the sort and this seemed to confirm that there was not a third threat somewhere in the strike group.

"How certain?" T'Pol asked.

"The transporter logs indicate no biomatter was dematerialized or reintegrated at any time," Eisler replied. "Commander Hess said she was 'damned certain' that it only cycled up." Before she could ask for further information, he was pressing on. "Ricker is running a high end diagnostic that will check every line of code on the ship's computer. If there are other surprises in there, she expects to find them." His expression turned sour. "Unfortunately," he said, "the full diagnostic will take several days and Commander Hess does not want to bring the warp drive back online until it is complete."

"I will pass that on to the Captain," T'Pol stated. "Do we know how they uploaded this program?"

"Not yet, ma'am." From the stiffness of his posture, Eisler was not happy about that. "I will have Lieutenant Ricker forward you her report once it's complete." T'Pol nodded. "I have also completed my analysis of the explosive charge the saboteur was attempting to plant in the plasma accelerator."

"It was undamaged?" T'Pol asked with a hint of surprise. Eisler nodded.

"Yes, ma'am. It was sheathed in a duranium composite that protected it from the plasma flow." The tactical officer shifted slightly in place, his eyes seeming to turn inward. "It was a good plan," he remarked with grudging approval in his voice. "If Master Chief Mackenzie had not acted before she completed arming the charge, it could have crippled or destroyed Endeavour."

"I know," T'Pol said simply. "Your analysis?" Eisler instantly offered a PADD he had concealed behind his back and T'Pol's eyebrow shot up at the mild tremor running through the lieutenant commander's hand. She glanced up to meet his eyes as she accepted the data device.

"I haven't eaten in three days," he said flatly in response to the unspoken question on her face. "All of the materials in the explosive charge appear to be of Vulcan manufacture. I have already forwarded my initial report to Starfleet Security."

"Good." T'Pol glanced over the data on the PADD but did not try to actually read it. "Keep me apprised of their findings." She was about to turn away, thinking his report was complete, when she noticed discomfort lurking in his eyes. "Commander?" she asked. If it was possible, he seemed to get even more uncomfortable.

"The Vulcan male," he said carefully, "exhibited unusual … resilience." T'Pol felt her own muscles tensing reflexively, though she doubted he noticed the difference.

"Doctor Phlox found trace elements of a compound known as trellium in his bloodstream," she said. "Along with certain … medical conditions that had not been … alleviated," T'Pol continued, "this compound accounts for his abnormal aggression."

"Is that why he died when the female did?" Eisler asked. He was watching her intently and T'Pol lowered her voice when she replied.

"Unlikely," she said simply. "In some instances, the traumatic severing of a matebond can kill." The tactical officer glowered but looked away, as if to make sure they could not be overheard.

"So," he rumbled, "if you die accidentally, there is a good chance that the captain would as well?" T'Pol swallowed.

"It is … not out of the realm of possibility," she answered.

The disquieting notion of Trip following her into death pursued her all the way to the technically off-limits A-Deck bridge where T'Pol could sense her mate. It had turned into his favorite spot to brood (although he insisted that he was simply thinking) whenever he wanted to be alone for a while and, as the lift slowed to a stop, her superior hearing allowed her to make out Admiral Archer's voice. Trip barely acknowledged her as she stepped onto the bridge, so intent was he on the larger than life image of the admiral on the main viewscreen.

"Since that time," Trip was saying as T'Pol approached, "there hasn't been any sign of additional sabotage." He ran his hands through his hair and T'Pol felt a wave of fatigue pulse off of him as he waited for the subspace signal to catch up. The time delay lag was a relatively new problem; ever since the war began, the Romulans had targeted the communications buoys that enabled almost realtime contact between deployed ships and Starfleet Command. As soon as a new buoy came online, it became a target, and the farther away from Earth, the longer the delay.

"Keep me updated," Archer instructed several long seconds later. He glanced down at something – a PADD, T'Pol suspected – before continuing. "Any reason you requested a new communications officer?" he asked. Trip sighed.

"Lieutenant Devereux needs to return to Starfleet Medical for additional treatment," he said. "Phlox doesn't have what he needs to do the surgery and we don't want to put her at any more risk." The image of Archer flickered and froze before finally resolving. An eternity – fifteen long seconds – passed before his response came.

"All right," the admiral said. "I'll see what I can do." A distracted look crossed his face and he looked away, frowning at something T'Pol could not see.

"I don't want this to affect her career, Jon," Trip quickly added, personalizing the request to ensure it was heard. "She's too good an officer to let this sort of thing cost her a promotion."

"Noted." Archer frowned. "Anything else?"

"Admiral," T'Pol spoke up, "before she was killed, the saboteur initiated a forced mind meld upon Master Chief Petty Officer Mackenzie." Trip's expression darkened, but T'Pol continued without giving him more than a quick glance to remind him that Tolaris was dead and could not harm her ever again. "He needs to be seen by a Vulcan mind-healer as soon as possible." Fifteen seconds passed before Archer nodded.

"I'll talk to Ambassador V'Lar and arrange it," he said. Another long moment passed as the admiral obviously waited for the signal to catch up with any additional commentary from them. When they said nothing, he spoke. "As soon as I have further instructions, I'll contact you. Until then, stay where you are. Archer out."

"Is Mac okay?" Trip asked as the transmission ended. He sank back into the command chair and began rubbing his temples with the fingers of both hands. T'Pol frowned tightly and stepped closer.

"Lean forward," she instructed. He obeyed and T'Pol quickly began manipulating the neural nodes along the base of his neck. "He is in considerable pain," she said. "At Doctor Phlox's suggestion, I briefly melded with him and placed him into a catatonic state that should enable him to rest until the Vulcan ship arrives." Her mate's concern over the meld washed across her awareness. "It was perfectly safe, Trip," she assured him. "I did not fully meld with him."

"Good." He exhaled softly in relief as his tension headache began to ease. "Spoke with Kov earlier," he said a moment later. "Repairs are mostly done, though they're just stopgap measures for the moment. They'll need some time at a shipyard to be fully functional."

"Which could be difficult to arrange given the problems Vulcan is continuing to experience," T'Pol said. Noting the change in her tone of voice, Trip glanced up. "I completed my examination of the data from Vahklas' sensor logs."

"That doesn't sound encouragin'," her mate stated.

"It isn't." T'Pol ceased the neuropressure, but left her hands upon his shoulders. "Without additional data," she said, "the chances of determining the shuttlepod's point of origin are miniscule."

"Damn it." Trip was silent for a moment before shifting in the command chair and pulling her into a loose embrace. "I feel like we abandoned him, T'Pol," he muttered. "He could still be alive and we left him there."

"The fate of Earth was at stake." Even to her ears, it sounded like an excuse.

"I know," Tucker whispered. "Doesn't seem fair – the universe gave us two children and then took 'em away again." He shook his head. "If it wasn't for this damned war," he growled, "I'd tell Starfleet to go to hell and find him."

"As would I," T'Pol said. She pulled back slightly from his hold and met his eyes. "We should begin making plans for the future," she added, knowing she did not need to suggest such plans would include seeking out the fate of their timelost son. "This war cannot last forever." Trip nodded.

"The minute a peace is signed," he decided, speaking aloud the thought both of them were having, "we're gone." T'Pol closed her eyes and leaned closer to him, allowing Trip to enfold her with his arms and bring a moment of peace to their lives, even if it lasted only seconds.


=/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\=

She wished she hadn't agreed to this.

Her arms crossed, Hoshi Sato-Reed stared at the streaking stars just beyond the viewport of the cramped galley and fought back a sigh. The persistent headache that had become her constant companion since the encounter with Rajiin over nineteen days earlier was worse this morning, pounding so badly that she kept discreetly checking her ears to make sure she wasn't suddenly bleeding. It certainly didn't help that the Vulcans who crewed the Ni'Var kept the light intensity relatively high to human standards.

At the moment, the dining facility was abandoned, with the majority of the crew either asleep, meditating or on duty, which gave Hoshi a moment of peace, away from the sidelong looks of bland Vulcan curiosity or the whispered rumors of the small Starfleet contingent accompanying her. She wasn't particularly surprised – the fact that the Suurok-class cruiser assigned to the Vulcan ambassador to Earth had been delegated to a task amounting to personnel courier was bound to raise some eyebrows, literally in this case. Even more curious was that the ship's captain had been pushing the warp engines hard the entire trip on direct orders from Ambassador V'Lar, despite the fact that Ni'Var was only recently restored to full operational status, following the heavy damage received by the Romulan attack on Earth nearly three months ago.

That Hoshi was here, racing toward Endeavour for an assignment that she didn't want in the first place was something she was still adjusting to. When she'd received her orders, she'd seen the guilt and worry lurking in Admiral Archer's eyes and recognized just how much he hated himself for having to give them to her, no matter the necessity. He was sending her into harm's way, forcing her to leave her child behind and embark on a mission that she might not return from. If it hadn't been so necessary for the survival of Earth, she'd have resigned her commission right then and there.

What was more frightening, though, was admiral's body language; he seemed almost relieved when she acknowledged the orders, as if he was sending her out of danger rather than into it.

Needs of the service, love, Malcolm's voice whispered softly from the past. Hoshi tried not to focus on that voice, tried not to think about how hard it was for her to even remember what Malcolm looked like. With each day that passed, her memory of him seemed to be slipping farther and farther away. Entire days passed in which she didn't even think about him, and guilt inevitably came on the heels of those moments.

Unsurprisingly, the Reeds accepted the deployment without question, though an old navy family like them ate duty and honor along with their breakfast. Stuart offered to watch over his grandson before Hoshi even had the opportunity to ask them if they could do so, which immediately caused an argument between him and Maddie over who would have the responsibility. Even now, twenty days after the fact, the memory of their good-natured bickering over which one of them would get the chance to spoil Mal Junior caused her to smile.

The hiss of the galley door opening caused Hoshi to shift her focus from the blurring stars to the reflection of the hard-faced Vulcan woman now entering. Dressed in ceremonial robes denoting her status as a kolinahr Initiate-Master, Lady T'Sai's eyes seemed to instantly lock onto Hoshi and the Vulcan started toward her without a trace of hesitation in her step. They hadn't had much interaction for the journey, with the Initiate-Master evidently preferring to spend her time in quarters meditating.

Either that, or she thought Hoshi smelled.

"Lieutenant Commander Sato," T'Sai said by way of greeting. She took up a rigid stance alongside Hoshi, hands locked together at the small of her back and gimlet eyes locked on the streaking stars beyond the viewport. "I have questions regarding the protocols for greeting Endeavour's captain." A flash of what looked like mild embarrassment crossed the woman's face, though Hoshi suspected most humans wouldn't have even noticed it. "My human Standard is … not so good," Lady T'Sai added in broken English.

"Captain Tucker speaks passable Vulcan," Hoshi replied. She winced at the stab of pain shooting through her skull. "He tends to slur his r's," she added, "and you've not lived until you hear Vulcan with a Southern twang."

"You have a headache," T'Sai said, slipping back into her native tongue. She narrowed her eyes. "Were you recently accosted by a telepath?"

Hoshi flinched. Almost at once, she grimaced at the telling delay in her response, especially in the presence of a woman who had spent most of her life honing the psychic gifts nature had given her. The entire situation with Rajiin was classified well beyond what would normally be Hoshi's security clearance, and she doubted the admiral would be happy to know that she'd already let someone find out.

"I'm afraid," Hoshi said calmly, "that's classified." Humor suddenly danced in Lady T'Sai's eyes, reminding Sato that this was a woman who had spent most of her life living under V'Las' High Command where 'that's classified' was a catchphrase for all sorts of governmental abuse.

"I would offer to aid you with your headache," T'Sai remarked, "but I understand the need for operational security." Her Vulcan mask of dispassion fell back into place, wiping away all traces of emotion or amusement. She tilted her head slightly and pinned Hoshi with eyes that seemed to pierce straight through to her soul. "Have you ever been tested for psychic potential?" the Vulcan asked abruptly. Hoshi responded immediately and with great wit.


"I suspect that you are unaware of it," T'Sai continued, returning her attention to the viewport, "but I sensed your potential from the moment I met you." She raised an eyebrow. "You do not appear surprised," she said.

"There was … there was an incident in the Expanse," Hoshi said. "An alien named Tarquin … we never learned his species … he implied that I might be … sensitive." She glanced down, once again questioning herself. Was this untapped ability part of the reason she had been able to struggle past Rajiin's telepathic assault while the security team was rendered insensate? Or maybe explained how she was able to pick up languages so quickly? None of her contemporaries seemed capable of what she could do in her sleep.

"You have been given a great gift," the Vulcan remarked, "but a much greater burden." At Hoshi's look, T'Sai drew herself upright. "There are telepathic species in this galaxy," she said, "who might perceive what you do unconsciously as an assault on their privacy."

"I … had not thought of it like that," Hoshi replied.

"Of course not," T'Sai said wryly. "You humans are still young on the evolutionary scale."

A chime warning them of their impending arrival prevented Hoshi from replying, and, if she didn't know better, she'd suspect that the Vulcan had timed her comment for exactly that reason. Beyond the viewport, she could see the stars return to normal as the Ni'Var slowed from warp speed. Movement was instantly apparent, as Endeavour and a Daedalus oriented toward them while two other Daedalus-classes maneuvered to protect a heavily damaged Vulcan ship that reminded Hoshi of the Vahklas.

"Before we depart," T'Sai declared, "I will provide you with study material." She gave Hoshi a long look. "You must learn to control this gift, to harness it." Her eyebrow climbed. "Have there been human telepaths before?" she asked.

"Not that I'm aware of," Hoshi replied.

"Then perhaps you shall be the first." Though the Vulcan clearly meant it to be encouraging, Hoshi suddenly felt a crushing weight of responsibility bearing down upon her shoulders. Was this what Admiral Archer felt after Daniels told him of the future? She had always felt different, unique, but this? This terrified her.

Flanked by a quartet of armored security personnel, Trip and T'Pol were waiting for them at the airlock, muted surprise on both of their faces at Hoshi's presence. Dropping her duffel bag to the deck, she gave her new commanding officer a reasonable approximation of a MACO salute – damn that Kelly; he'd been a bad influence on her – though it was spoiled by the half smile on her face.

"Lieutenant Commander Hoshi Sato-Reed reporting for duty, sir," she said, lowering her hand and offering Trip the PADD containing her orders. He accepted it hesitantly, his surprise fading into what looked to be resignation.

"Welcome aboard, Hoshi," he said without enthusiasm; like Admiral Archer, he clearly didn't like the idea of putting her back into the fire. "You're my new Ops officer?"

"Yes, sir." Hoshi grinned. "The admiral said you wanted the best so he sent me."

"Then we got the best," Trip replied with a smile. He exchanged a quick look with T'Pol who nodded slightly. Before either could speak, T'Sai strode through the airlock, her face an imperious mask. T'Pol's eyes widened fractionally at the sigils decorating the newcomer's robes and straightened to an almost painful stance.

"I am T'Sai," the kolinahr Initiate-Master announced, bringing her hand up in the ta'al. Tucker and T'Pol reciprocated instantly and in perfectly harmony, causing T'Sai's lips to tighten. Her eyes darted between the two and her nostrils flared. Hoshi was instantly reminded of how easily the woman had detected her own psychic distress and could only imagine what she thought of when facing the bonded pair. When she spoke, T'Sai addressed her comments solely to Trip. "The High Council has informed me that you have the victim of a forced mind meld aboard. I am to take him to Gol for treatment."

"I'm Charles Tucker," Trip said in Vulcan, slurring his r's exactly as Hoshi had warned. "And this is-"

"T'Pol," Lady T'Sai identified coolly, a hint of disapproval creeping into her voice, "daughter of T'Les. I know her reputation." Coming from a kolinahr Initiate-Master, it was as much as calling T'Pol a V'tosh ka'tur and was yet another reminder that, despite all T'Pol had done for both Earth and Vulcan, there were still some who disapproved of her and the choices she had made. Trip's eyes flared with banked anger and a coldness seeped into his voice that Hoshi had never heard before.

"Commander T'Pol," he corrected flatly, "is the first officer of Endeavour and will show you to sickbay so you can arrange for Master Chief Mackenzie's transport."

"His condition is currently stable," T'Pol said as she gestured for the other woman to follow her. "I was forced to induce a low-level trance to prevent further neural decay," she began to explain as they rounded the corner and disappeared from sight. Trip's eyes followed his mate the entire way.

"Damned bigots," he muttered under his breath before focusing once more on Hoshi. His eyes narrowed at the sight of the small group of Starfleet personnel now crowding out of the Vulcan cruiser. "You brought me more rookies, Hoshi," he said with a hint of humor. As one, the replacement crewmembers blushed and looked away, most still wearing expressions of awe at being aboard the pride of Starfleet.

"Filling out your roster, sir," Hoshi replied. "Lieutenant Kimura," she called out. The named security officer stepped forward. "You've been bragging about having memorized Endeavour's deck plan our entire journey," Hoshi said, "so time to prove it. Escort everyone to the Operations officer on duty and report in."

"Aye, ma'am." The lieutenant hefted his bag and set off, the rest of the group at his heels. Trip watched with visible amusement.

"Command suits you," he remarked with a grin as he grabbed her duffel and slung it over one shoulder. Hoshi blinked – there was probably a regulation somewhere that said one's captain wasn't supposed to carry your gear – but fell into step beside him without commenting on his old-fashioned chauvinism. If T'Pol couldn't break him of it, there wasn't a lot Hoshi could do. "Hoffman," Trip said, half-glancing at one of the security personnel. "Send somebody with 'em to make sure they don't get lost."

"Yes, sir." One of the troopers gestured sharply with his head and two of his men headed out in pursuit of the new arrivals.

"Feel free to haze them a little bit," Hoshi grumbled. Trip shot her a surprised look.

"You've turned mean in your old age," he said with a smirk as they turned away from the airlock. The remaining two security troopers remained where they were and, for the first time, Hoshi realized that Trip was carrying a sidearm on his own ship. She hated what that implied.

"You didn't have to spend eighteen and a half days listening to them gossip," she retorted. Lowering her voice, she continued. "I have eyes only orders from the admiral for you, sir," she said. Trip grimaced.

"I was afraid of that," he muttered. He nodded to a door leading into a small conference room. Securing the door behind them, Hoshi extracted a data card from inside her jacket and handed it to him.

"You'll need T'Pol present too," she said. "Admiral Archer coded it to all three of our voice identities."

"Lovely." Trip reached for the comm. panel and depressed the transmit button. "Commander T'Pol to conference room six," he said before gesturing to the tables. "Now we wait."

They didn't have to wait long. T'Pol joined them within minutes of the page, and, from the rigid tension in her muscles, seemed more than glad to have left Lady T'Sai in Sickbay. Together, they watched the coded instructions, and Hoshi could see the lines forming in Trip's forehead as he glowered.

She knew exactly how he felt.

"Should have seen this coming," Tucker said before giving T'Pol a frown. "Pass the word to department heads," he ordered. "I want us ready for warp speed in one hour." The Vulcan nodded.

"It might be best," she ventured grudgingly, "if Commander Sato encouraged Lady T'Sai to accelerate her planned timetable." Trip's eyes flashed and the muscles in his jaw quivered.

"You've got nothin' to be ashamed of, darlin'," he said darkly, "but if you think its best, then that's what we'll do."

"I do need to speak with her again before she leaves," Hoshi interjected.

"Then do it." Trip stood, pressing a button on the display device to eject the encrypted data card. "I'll contact Hsiao, Smith and Wong to give them their new orders," he continued. He sighed, and his next words hung heavy in the conference room.

"Looks like we're heading back to the Delphic Expanse."


Watch for Endeavour: Amaterasu coming sometime before the Rapture...