A/N: 480 Earth days have passed since chapter 1. It's August, 2153. Enterprise has been in the Delphic Expanse for two months.
THE PAIN WAS excruciating.
Leaning back in the navigator's seat of the shuttlepod, Jon ground his teeth together and clung to the last shreds of his dignity in a failing attempt to stay conscious. His shoulder felt like it was on fire each time he shifted his left arm in the crude sling, which he took as a sure sign of a broken collarbone. Breathing was an exercise in futility – no matter how deeply he inhaled, it seemed like he just couldn't get enough oxygen! Just a little longer, he told himself, fighting the urge to glance toward the pilot's controls in order to see how Travis was doing.
Near the back of the 'pod, Soval sat hunched over, his lips moving rapidly and his fingers twitching as he fought against whatever it was that had driven the other Vulcans aboard the Seleya mad. Even at this distance, Jon could see that the former ambassador was getting worse – sweat was pouring down the Vulcan's face and he snarled furiously at anyone who came within arm's reach.
Anyone but Erika.
She was seated alongside Soval, murmuring something in the ambassador's native language that he seemed to be responding to. They weren't touching, but having witnessed firsthand just how irrational and dangerous Soval could be, Jon was baffled why the Vulcan was letting her get this close without lashing out. Hell, the two hadn't been in the same damned room for longer than thirty seconds for as long as Archer could remember!
"Fifty seconds," Travis called out from the pilot's station, his voice calm and professional. Newly promoted Lieutenant Cole shifted slightly in her seat at the helmsman's voice, but otherwise kept her eyes on Soval, almost as if she expected him to suddenly grow a second head or start foaming at the mouth. Jon couldn't help but to notice that her rifle – and Private Chang's as well – just conveniently happened to pointing in the ambassador's direction. The two MACOs seemed to be poised for immediate action and with good reason.
Automatically, Jon's eyes drifted to the unmoving body of Corporal McKenzie. Stretched out on the deck, the dead MACO woman's eyes were still open – contrary to popular entertainment, closing a corpse's eyes wasn't very easy – and Archer swallowed the thick lump building in his throat. The insane Vulcan who had killed her was dead himself – Soval had seen to that and the ambassador's almost feral assault had been the first warning he was also affected by whatever had turned the crew of the Seleya into savages – but it didn't stop Jon from feeling nauseous. How many more were going to die under his watch?
"Captain," Cole hissed, the sharpness of her words snapping Jon back into the present. He glanced up and found her still studying Soval. "Are you all right?"
"I've been better," Jon admitted through clenched teeth. Cole and Chang exchanged a quick glance, but neither of them moved from their seats nor did their attention truly waver from Soval. Chang's fingers began moving, as if he were using some sort of sign language Archer didn't recognize, but Cole simply shook her head once. In response, Private Chang's lips tightened but he fell back against his seat, a slightly sour expression on his face. His reaction caused Cole to grimace as well, and if it wasn't so damned painful, Jon would have sighed with frustration.
Despite his best efforts, he'd never been able to understand these MACOs. Cole was a perfect example – as the second-in-command of Major Hayes' team now that Kemper was dead, she should have accepted the fact that a battlefield promotion was in store for her as a fait accompli. Starfleet regulations were clear: anyone who was expected to serve as officer of the watch needed to be an officer. Before his demise, Sergeant Kemper was slotted to receive the brevet field commission at the lowest rank in the MACO officer corps, so now it fell to Cole.
And she had yet to stop complaining about it.
If the MACO rank structure made a lick of sense to him, Jon supposed he might empathize with her, but it was a throwback to militaries from the age of the horse, with personnel often serving their entire time in service at the same rank, no matter how well they knew their job. According to her record, Cole, for example, had been slotted as a career Corporal – whatever the hell that meant. Her technical expertise and skill level was equivalent to that of a junior lieutenant in Starfleet, but she'd been perfectly content to remain exactly where she was. Even with this bump to lieutenant, nothing really changed for her – her job remained the same, she was still Hayes' number two, and all of the other MACOs still called her 'ma'am,' exactly like they had before – but she treated the entire promotion as if it were a scarlet letter. Archer wasn't sure if it was a MACO thing, a female thing, or some weird combination of the two.
"Dammit," Travis growled a heartbeat before the shuttlepod began shaking and vibrating. Mayweather's emergency maneuvers threw Jon back against the navigator's seat, knocking his arm free of the sling and jarring his broken clavicle. The universe tilted up and around him – he heard someone cry out in agony – and then … blessed darkness.
When he swam up out of unconsciousness, Jon recognized the distinctive sounds of Sickbay long before he was fully awake. It bothered him on a fundamental level that he'd become so familiar with Phlox's domain. Barely a week passed without someone on the ship finding themselves in the doctor's hands because of some potentially life-threatening illness or injury, and Jon made a point of visiting each and every one of them when they were here. He had learned to recognize each of Phlox's menagerie by the hiss or chirp or growl it made, could tell when the imaging table was acting up by the pitch of the sensor array, and could even identify some of the doctor's crazier treatments by smell alone.
Yes, he decided in the hazy world of near consciousness, he spent entirely too much time here.
"A word before you go, Lieutenant," Erika was saying as Jon struggled to regain his bearings. His entire body felt numb and disconnected, like he was present but only partly there, and he wondered just what Phlox had given him this time. "Do I need to remind you that it is illegal for you to be in possession of a Vulcan database?"
"No, ma'am," came the response. It took Archer a single heartbeat to identify Travis Mayweather's voice – the former Boomer had become so cool and distant lately that Jon hardly recognized him at times. Travis was even worse around Malcolm – when the two were together these days, it was like they were competing to see which of them could out-Vulcan Soval. Oddly enough, Mayweather seemed to work with Erika or Kelby pretty easily. "I know the regs pretty well."
"I see." Erika's voice had a touch of humor in it. "So if I took a look at those data cubes you're carrying," she added calmly, "I wouldn't find the Seleya's database, would I?"
"I'm shocked, ma'am," Travis replied. "I would never do such a thing, knowing how much trouble it might get me in with Starfleet Command." When Mayweather spoke again, Jon could actually hear the smile in his voice. "Even though Starfleet will probably court-martial us all when we get back. I wonder if they'll use MACOs for the firing squads..."
"Earth phased out capital punishment a century ago, Lieutenant," Erika remarked. "Just so we're clear," she said calmly. "Carry on, Mister Mayweather. I trust you'll make good use of … whatever happens to be on those cubes."
"I plan to, ma'am." The hiss of Sickbay's door open and closing echoed loudly in Jon's ears. Once again, he tried to open his eyes and this time, they obeyed.
"Hey," Erika said with a soft smile as he blinked rapidly against the bright lights. "Glad to see you're back in the land of the living." Jon wet his lips.
"Soval?" he asked through thick lips. Hernandez's smile turned into a smirk, though Archer had no idea why.
"He's stable and resting in his cabin," she said. Her good humor faded almost instantly. "Turns out that trellium is toxic to Vulcans and that's why he went nuts." Jon inhaled sharply – he had sent Kelby to obtain more of the ore to line the hull of Enterprise against the damned anomalies – but Erika shook her head. "Don't worry – I've got it secured in the biohazard locker and Phlox has made sure that its safe for the ambassador." She glanced away and Jon wanted to crane his head to see what she was looking at, but he was just too tired. "I've got Kelby looking into a substitute that is safe and Phlox is working with the science department to try and find some way to inoculate Soval against trellium poisoning."
"Good work," Jon muttered. He briefly considered asking her about the Seleya but pushed the thought away almost before it had fully coalesced – none of those Vulcans could have survived a reactor breach.
"You're pretty lucky," Erika said after a moment. "Phlox said you had some internal bleeding. One of your lungs was punctured and you had a pretty bad concussion."
"Soval hit me really hard," Archer murmured, wincing at the flood of memory. In all of his years dealing with the ambassador, he'd never imagined seeing him so enraged, so out of control, and the speed in which Soval lunged at him had been terrifying. "Remind me not to piss him off," he added.
"I'd hold you to that," she said with a snicker, "if I didn't like watching you two fight so much." Jon frowned – he hadn't forgotten how Soval had answered to her and, if memory served, the ambassador had actually called her by her first name once. Jealousy fought with nausea in his stomach. It must have showed on his face because Erika's amusement faltered and was replaced with open worry. "Are you okay?" she asked. "Do I need to get Phlox?"
"Are you sleeping with Soval?" Jon asked, the words tumbling out of his mouth before he could stop them. At Erika's startled expression, he grimaced. "I know it isn't any of my business," he added quickly, "but he just reacted to you differently and I thought …" To his dismay, she blushed and glanced away, all but confirming his worst fears.
It was like a kick in the gut by an especially strong mule.
Thanks to extensive self-reflection at the behest of Phlox's grief counseling sessions, Jon had only recently come to terms with the realization that, yes, he had been nursing something of a torch for T'Pol and this unacknowledged interest had been yet another one of the reasons he'd suffered so much guilt at her death. Nothing could have come of it, even if she'd survived – he was the captain, after all, and it was immoral and flat-out wrong for the commanding officer to have sexual relations with any member of his crew, and that didn't even take into account his knowledge that Trip had been barely hiding a far more obvious and considerably more intent attraction toward the subcommander – but knowing now that Erika, a woman he'd never really gotten over, was lost to him only intensified the unresolved emotions still swimming in his stomach.
"Right," he said brightly, trying desperately to hide his discomfort behind a false smile. "Are congratulations in order?" he asked hesitantly.
She was still laughing when Phlox returned.
To Jon's great surprise, the doctor released him to his quarters with strict orders for eight hours (minimum) of bed rest. Erika volunteered to escort him there, ostensibly to make sure he didn't try to visit the command center or the bridge for a status report, but Archer knew from past experience that she had something to tell him that wasn't meant for Phlox's ears.
"You're an idiot," she told him once they'd reached his cabin. "I'm not sleeping with Soval so please, for the love of God, get that image out of your head."
And then, she kissed him.
It was over before he really realized what was happening and she was through the door an instant later, but Jon started to smile once he realized what she'd just told him without so many words. He limped slowly to his bed, pausing in front of his desk to activate his monitor. A dozen messages were waiting for him, most inconsequential, but the most recent from Lieutenant Commander Reed sent another jolt of pain through him. He read the subject line slowly: Letter of Condolence, family of CPL J. McKenzie.
"How many more?" Jon whispered softly to himself.
"Got another one killed, Cap'n," a disembodied voice whispered across the dark, empty room. His head snapped around and he cast a quick glance around his cabin for the source of those words. His heart suddenly began to pound – that had been Trip! – and he thumbed on the overheads. Light instantly illuminated his quarters.
But there was nothing and no one there.
A/N: Yeah, I suck. December and January suck. Trying to get back on track though...