"What do the sensors show?" Archer asked his science officer as he stared at the tiny blinking object on the view screen. For three days Enterprise had been following what Hoshi had felt was a distress call – but that was only her best guess because the language wasn't in the database. They had finally arrived only to find a small buoy floating in space, days from any planetary systems. There was also no sign of any vessels or remains of vessels anywhere nearby.
T'Pol looked up from viewing hood. "It is approximately three meters tall and two meters wide. Judging from the markings on it, it has been in space for quite some time."
"Is there any sign it could be dangerous to bring it on board?"
"Not that I can see," T'Pol said. "I see no indication of weaponry, no life signs, no organic materials. It is not emitting any dangerous radiation. However, it would be prudent to take precautions until we understand why a device like this is emitting a distress signal. It could be a lure of some kind."
"Agreed," Archer said. "Let's bring it into the launch bay." He signaled Malcolm to deploy the grappler. "You and Trip and Malcolm can take the first look. Just to be safe, wear EV suits."
The years had made Archer more cautious. That didn't mean he didn't enjoy a mystery.
x x x
Malcolm focused on getting his EV suit on and wondered if Trip and T'Pol were ever going to be fun to work with again. On their own, they were tolerable companions, but when forced together the atmosphere around them always seemed to curdle. It was fairly obvious that Trip never even looked at T'Pol if he could avoid it.
In the immediate aftermath of their cloned daughter's death, Malcolm thought they'd finally achieved the kind of closeness he knew Trip had long wanted. They'd stood close together at the memorial service, and he'd watch Trip introduce her to his family with a certain pride despite the sadness of the occasion.
But once back on Enterprise, T'Pol had gone into virtual seclusion, and after a couple of weeks Trip had begun to simmer with an anger and disappointment that was obvious to anyone who knew him. Eventually it had evolved into outright depression and finally a chilly blankness that was not like Trip at all. He'd confided in Malcolm that he was only staying because he knew he couldn't request another transfer any time soon – he'd blown that opportunity by coming back from Columbia so shortly after leaving. And he wasn't ready to leave Starfleet just to get away from the situation. Not yet, anyway. Malcolm was glad Trip felt he had no choice but to stay, but he hoped he'd snap out of it soon.
"Hoshi's hoping we'll find something that might give the translation matrix a better fix on their language," he said now, just because the silence had begun to feel uncomfortable.
Neither Trip nor T'Pol said anything in reply, not that there was anything useful they could add. Malcolm sighed and snapped his helmet shut. "Ready?" he asked.
In the launch bay he walked around the small device sitting on the deck and pointed his scanner at it. The other two were already busy scanning.
"The exterior of this buoy is over 200 years old," T'Pol said. "I'll need quantum dating to be more precise."
"It's running on an antimatter battery cell of some kind," Tucker said. "But it's nearly at the end of its operational life."
"Pretty impressive battery life," Malcolm said. "I'm still not showing anything that could be interpreted as a weapon, though there is a small device of some kind operating inside."
"Simple control device for the transmitter, probably," Trip said. "It wouldn't need to draw much power. Any objection to me trying to open this thing?"
It was a question for T'Pol, obviously, though Trip neither addressed her nor looked in her direction. It bordered on rudeness really, Malcolm thought, but T'Pol merely answered softly, "No."
Trip started feeling his way around the device as best he could in the EV suit, looking for latches and not finding any. "Any objection to me taking my gloves off?" he said.
"No," T'Pol said again, her voice just as soft as before. Malcolm peered at her and was struck by the bleakness of her face as she watched Tucker work.
She's just as miserable as he is, he thought, a bit stunned by the clarity of his insight. Vulcans weren't supposed to be so obvious.
x x x
"What is it?" Archer asked, turning the device in his hands. It was green, and smooth, with a small screen that exhibited a random blinking light that might be a cursor of some kind, a few buttons with unfamiliar markings on them, and oddly shaped handles on each side, with three holes that looked as if they were perhaps meant to correspond to fingers.
"Some kind of control device," Tucker said. "It was attached to a transmitter on the buoy. Half of it is taken up by a power cell. The other half?" He shrugged. "We're not sure yet."
Archer grunted. "Apparently it belonged to a race of beings with three fingers on each hand."
"Most likely four or more," T'Pol said. "A race this technologically advanced would almost certainly have an opposable digit of some kind. And the control buttons would only be reachable with additional digits."
"Ah," Archer said, mildly embarrassed by the flaw in his own reasoning. "Have you managed to get any information out of it?"
"Not yet," T'Pol said.
"Any chance this could be some kind of explosive device, weapon, anything dangerous?"
"I don't see how," Malcolm said. "The power source is so depleted at this point that even an accidental overload would have limited impact – probably less than a quarter of a kiloton."
"That could still do some damage," Archer said.
"We'll use the engineering lab on E deck," Trip said. "It will minimize the risk to the ship."
"Fine, but be careful," Archer said. "It's not just risk to the ship I'm worried about. You and T'Pol work on it for now. Malcolm, I want you to take charge of long-range scanning for any other signs of the folks who put this here."
"I can take this thing apart on my own if you want T'Pol for that too," Tucker said, a little too quickly.
Archer grimaced. He didn't know what had gone wrong between his two senior officers, but he'd had just about enough of it. "I want you two to work together," he said, with more emphasis than was strictly necessary.
x x x
Great, Trip thought. Just what I need. Me, T'Pol, and a very small room.
He hazarded a quick glance at T'Pol. She looked pained too, but that was not exactly a surprise. Her sadness was a constant, maddening presence in the back of his mind. For months now he had had to constantly tamp down the urge to do something, anything, to make her feel better. He'd already learned the hard way that any attempt he made would be rebuffed, and he just couldn't take any more of that. Not when he was already coping with grief of his own – not so much for little Elizabeth, for whom he'd grieved at the time of her death, but of the new hope it had given him that he and T'Pol might come together at last. Letting go of that had taken a lot longer, and the pain could still stab at him without warning.
"You want to run the quantum dating on the buoy while I see what I can come up from this thing?" Trip asked, carefully keeping his eyes focused on the device in his hands.
"A reasonable plan," T'Pol said. Her voice was so subdued that he couldn't help flicking another glance at her.
Don't say a word, Tucker, he told himself sternly. Don't even try to be nice. You know she'll just kick you in the balls if you do. He hunched over the device, blocking out his view of her as completely as he could while he tried to find a way to make it deliver up its secrets.
In desperation a couple of months ago he'd approached Phlox for help. He wasn't in denial this time. He knew why he felt like shit and he wanted help with depression, not insomnia. And no goddamn Vulcan neuro-pressure and nothing to do with alien leeches either.
Phlox had reluctantly prescribed him an anti-depressant, noting that Tucker's depression was completely situational, so it didn't make sense to treat it chemically for any length of time. But Trip was so thrilled that something had finally taken the edge off his pain, he was not interested in trying life without chemicals anytime soon. Phlox countered by making the condition of each weekly supply of pills a session of talk.
Which hadn't been all bad. He and Phlox had discussed his entire relationship with T'Pol. Trip now felt at least he wasn't nuts for feeling crazed by the mixed signals she'd given him over the last two years. And it was Phlox who had pointed out T'Pol's tendency to pursue only when she felt she was at risk of losing Trip's devotion.
Trip had actually tried for awhile after that to just sit tight, hoping it might entice her out of her seclusion. He'd even contemplated having a flirtation with somebody, anybody, just to make her jealous. But of course with this bond there was little opportunity for faking anything, and it would have been a really crappy thing to pull on some innocent bystander.
Ultimately, what had helped him most was the passage of time. Phlox had recently weaned him off the pills, and while he was not happy, neither was he crippled by depression. He did his job, and avoided unnecessary contact with T'Pol, and looked forward to the day when he could avoid her completely, even as a small, stubborn part of him dreaded it.
But Jon didn't understand any of this. Lately he'd seized on any excuse to put them together, probably thinking it would force them to resolve their difficulties. Trip should have filled him in. Probably he hadn't really buried his hopes as much he liked to think. He knew that if there was the tiniest chance T'Pol would ever take him back, they couldn't afford to let the captain know about it.
"Two hundred thirty-four-point-six-two-five solar years," T'Pol announced.
"Ah," Tucker said. "Well, that's pretty close to what you figured."
"Maybe you should go tell him."
He felt a surge of irritation from her through the bond. "I hardly think the information warrants it. You are merely trying to get me to leave."
So they were suddenly going to talk about this today? It just figured she was suddenly willing to try to resolve matters when Archer demanded it. "Maybe I am," he said darkly.
And felt a hot slice of pain, so strong that he almost couldn't tell whether it was hers or his. He looked up. "You hate me," she said.
"Why do you suddenly want to talk about this now?" He fought to remain calm and ignore the two powerful, conflicting urges he felt – to reassure her on the one hand, and to wreak vengeance on her for all the grief she'd caused him on the other. "Was it what the captain said? Or do you have some sort of internal switch that suddenly goes off and says today might be a good day to start talking to Tucker again?"
She just stared at him and in that silence Trip realized there was an audible hum coming from the device. "Hey!" he said, conscious of a pleasant current now running through the fingers of his left hand.
She held her scanner up to it. "I believe it is scanning you."
"It's an odd sensation," he said. "Right here, in the finger grips." It reminded him a little of those pebbles Ah'lenn had shared with him. "I sure hope this thing can't get me pregnant."
Her eyebrows went up. "That seems doubtful. Perhaps if I..."
He handed it over. She was the telepath, she was welcome to it. She threaded three fingers through the grip where his had been. "I don't feel anything," she said.
"Maybe it doesn't like you," Trip said.
Another twinge of pain.
"I didn't mean it that way," he said, although of course he had.
"I am sorry I have caused you pain," she said. "It was not my intention. I was ... overwhelmed. I couldn't handle my own emotions, let alone yours."
He stared at her, nonplussed. What was he supposed to say? He'd waited so long for this discussion that his primary emotional reaction to her disclosure was resentment. And suspicion. If he responded with any form of reassurance, wasn't it likely she'd just feel free to treat him like crap again?
He held out his hand for the device. "Maybe if I try both grips."
"We don't know what might happen."
"Presumably it might complete a circuit of some kind. Maybe that would allow communication, or some other higher function."
"It could be risky."
"I've got nothing to lose," Trip said, and slid fingers from each hand into the grips.
x x x
What the hell? Suddenly Trip was lying in a hammock strung between two spreading live oaks. The air was sweet with orange blossom, moist and warm but pleasant thanks to a steady breeze that rustled the leaves and silently lifted the Spanish moss.
Just like home – but it was not home. The Tuckers had never owned a hammock, let alone two old oaks as impressive as these. He sat up, which set the hammock swinging, and stared around him. An old whitewashed wood-frame house sat a short distance away. It looked vaguely familiar, like something out of a historical park, right down to the tin roof and the traditional shotgun floor plan that allowed breezes in through one door and out the other. Judging from the laundry hanging on the line and the large, fenced-in vegetable plot, he was looking at the back door.
It reminded him of an elementary school field trip. But that old Florida homestead hadn't looked as authentic as this. Here there were no refreshment stands or exit signs or parking lots. This place appeared to sit in the middle of palmetto and pine scrub that extended for acres.
Why would the device be showing him this? "Must be dreaming," he said, and shook his head, trying to wake up.
He winced against a stab of pain and decided against further head-shaking. It hadn't worked anyway: everything was still the same. He reached for his communicator, but he wasn't wearing his uniform anymore. Instead he was clad in a simple cotton shirt and a pair of heavy twill pants. Worn leather boots completed his outfit. He stared down at himself, bemused.
Somewhere nearby a mockingbird burst into song, and as if in answer, a bob-white called. Cicadas sang. Trip sank back into the hammock. Okay, so it was a dream. At least it was a nice one. Quite relaxing, really.
"Here is your iced tea," T'Pol's voice said gravely.
He jumped, then struggled out of the hammock and onto his feet. He hadn't heard anyone approach. T'Pol regarded him curiously from where she stood, holding out a tall glass beaded with moisture, in an outfit like nothing he'd seen on her before. Well, maybe once, back on that dusty planet in the Expanse where those humans and Skagorans had lived their marginal lives. As she had there, T'Pol had wrapped a kerchief around her hair, covering her ears. Her cotton dress was long and full.
"Excuse me?" he said.
She looked a bit taken aback. "You requested iced tea, did you not?"
"I don't remember doing that."
She regarded him. "Your head injury has obviously affected your short-term memory. I told you it was unwise to attempt to fix the roof when it was still wet. What is the last thing you remember?"
"You and I were in the engineering lab – on Enterprise – trying to figure out what the story was with that alien device."
"That was over two-point-seven-two years ago," she said. "That alien device somehow transported both of us here. We've been here ever since."
"This can't be real. First of all, there's no way a device that small would have the ability to transport matter as far as would have required to reach a planet like this. And then this is just like home ... like Florida ... only better. And you ... well, I just don't see you bringing me a glass of iced tea. So this has to be a dream."
"I see. If you don't want your iced tea, I will drink it instead."
"I didn't say I didn't want it." He reached out and took the glass. He gulped it down. It was just the way he liked it – heavily sugared, with a sprig of mint. "Thanks. You made this yourself?"
"Of course," T'Pol said, with some asperity. "How is your headache?"
"Not too bad," he said. "So you're saying I fell off the roof?"
"So presumably that's our house."
"How'd we get a house?"
"This is where we were deposited by the device. Everyone in the neighborhood seemed to assume it was ours, so, after some initial exploration failed to suggest a way to get back to Enterprise, we returned here."
"The neighborhood?" He looked around. "We have neighbors? What are they like?"
"Rather like you," she said dryly. "They appear to be human. Without a scanner it is hard to know for certain. They are not technologically advanced."
"What do they call this place?"
He shook his head again before remembering that it hurt. "Sugar Creek? As in Sugar Creek, Florida?"
"Indeed. Sugar Creek, Florida, in the year 1911."
"1911 Florida? So you're telling me we just happened to be beamed back through time together to a house of our own in some idyllic rural location in Florida's past. On earth."
"And this doesn't strike you as something that has to be the product of my brain?"
She pursed her lips primly. "I admit the possibility exists. However, since there is nothing to be done about it, I see little point in further debate. Here we are, and here we have been for two point seven two years. I did not think you considered them altogether disagreeable." She sounded a touch aggrieved.
He tilted his head. As long as his brain was indulging itself like this it wasn't going to stop at mockingbirds, was it? "Let me guess. We're pretending to be married."
"No," T'Pol said. "We are not pretending. We are married. You wished to make it 'official'."
He snorted. "And you agreed, huh? So now you're what... T'Pol Tucker?"
"I go by Paula Tucker for obvious reasons. You still call me T'Pol in private."
Her tone lowered suggestively on the word 'private.' His subconscious was soooo predictable. "I take it we're not waiting seven years to consummate this thing?"
"Certainly not," she said, and reached up to kiss him.
So clearly this was all just an unusually vivid Charles Tucker III dream production. But hot damn, it was a good one.
x x x
Archer ran into sickbay. Trip was lying unconscious on a biobed, limp except for his hands, which maintained a compulsive grip on the small green device they'd discovered in the buoy. Phlox was scanning him and frowning.
"What happened?" Archer demanded.
T'Pol turned to report. "We were examining the device in the engineering lab when it suddenly activated and appeared to scan the commander. When he picked it up by both hand grips he fell unconscious. When I tried to remove the device from his hands, he began to convulse. I put it back in his hands and the convulsions stopped."
"What's it doing to him?" Archer demanded.
Phlox sighed. "That's not entirely clear. He appears to be in some sort of heightened dream state. It's already lasted longer than a normal REM stage should in humans. However, he doesn't appear to be in any immediate danger." He grimaced. "As long as we don't try to disengage the device. All attempts at that have resulted in quite serious seizures. I'd rather not expose him to any more of those if we can possibly avoid it."
Archer scowled and turned back to T'Pol, who was staring fixedly at Tucker. "Did you make any progress in figuring out where this device originates?"
It seemed to him that she only returned her attention to him with some difficulty. "No, sir."
"Maybe another species has encountered one of these. Give Hoshi a copy of your scans. She can get out some requests for information. In the meantime, see if there's anything else you can find out about it."
T'Pol glanced at Phlox. "I am concerned that further attempts to access the device might cause harm to Commander Tucker."
Phlox smiled nervously. "Perhaps if we wait long enough it will simply finish whatever it's doing and let him go."
Archer doubted Trip would feel equally sanguine about lying around hooked up to some alien device until it decided it was done. "How can you be so sure it's not causing harm to him right now?"
Phlox gave T'Pol a look. "Would you care to comment on that?"
T'Pol looked uncomfortable. "Captain, Commander Tucker is currently in no distress. On the contrary, he seems ... quite content."
Archer raised his eyebrows. "You mind melded with him while he's under that device's control? Was that wise?"
"I did not mind meld with him, Captain." She gave a slight cough. "As you may know, Vulcans are touch telepaths, and Commander Tucker and I have spent a fair amount of time together. The result of this is that I can, at times, be somewhat attuned to his emotional states."
"I see," he said, though he didn't. Neither of them had ever volunteered anything about what had clearly become a close relationship at some point, and he wasn't about to start demanding details about it now, especially since they appeared to have become estranged. Though T'Pol wasn't striking him as particularly estranged at the moment; she had returned to staring at Trip.
Phlox said, "If the commander persists in this state, a full mind meld might be one way to determine what is happening. Perhaps she could even pull him out of this dream state."
"Would that put T'Pol at risk?"
"Possibly," Phlox said. "Unfortunately we just don't know."
[continued in part 2