Genre: Drama, T/T romance
Archive: Please ask me first.
Disclaimer: Star Trek: Enterprise is the property of CBS/Paramount. All original material herein is the property of its author.
Summary: Spoilers through E². In the E² timeline, Enterprise prepares for the imminent launch of the first Xindi probe...and Captain Lorian receives some unorthodox advice.
A/N: This piece was originally a submission for Strange New Worlds 9. It was a challenge for me to write, but ultimately very rewarding. It remains one of my favorites. Thanks to my betas slj91, Jenna, Ludjin, and TJ.
He hesitated, and seven million lives slipped through his fingers.
March 19, 2153
The Delphic Expanse
Three days before launch of Xindi destroyer-probe
Lorian didn't even bother trying to sleep anymore.
He remembered that his father would joke about it, when the engines were out of sorts—no sleep, until Enterprise was well again. Sometimes Lorian felt as if he hadn't slept since the day his father died.
No sleep, until an entire world was safe again.
Visions of his godfather Jonathan haunted Lorian instead of dreams as he walked the corridors of the battered old ship, monitoring status of ongoing repairs, checking energy reserves and weapons status. He wondered endlessly whether any of their attack strategies would prove effective against the Xindi probe. There was maddeningly little to go on, even after 117 years of diligent searching for the tiniest scrap of information. The Xindi were too secretive, even amongst themselves.
The closest he had come to resting, these last few weeks, was to escape to the dimly-lit solace of his mother's quarters, with its soothing aromas of meditation candles and chamomile tea. Here he could discard his Captain's persona, if not the crushing responsibility that went with it.
T'Pol refilled his teacup. "Karyn worries about you."
Lorian made a faint noise of dissatisfaction. He couldn't seem to hide anything from his first officer. "I wish that she wouldn't."
"She cares," T'Pol replied. "No amount of wishing will change that. She's your closest friend, after all. It's good to have someone from whom you keep no secrets."
Lorian regarded his mother thoughtfully. "Didn't you find it...disconcerting? Never having any secrets from Father?"
T'Pol smiled faintly, just the barest upturning of her lips. "I found it liberating, after keeping so many secrets from him. Secrets are a waste of energy, in any case."
Lorian rubbed his throbbing temples; he'd had the misfortune to inherit the human tendency toward headaches. "But for a captain, they seem to be a necessity."
T'Pol sipped her tea. "You should go to the dormitory tonight. Take part in Storytelling."
Lorian stared at her as if she'd grown a second head. "I beg your pardon?"
She arched a silver eyebrow at him. "Tell them a story, Lorian."
He stood, forcing himself to call upon his reserves of patience. He had precious little remaining. "Mother, the Xindi probe launches for Earth in three days. Our mission—which this ship's entire complement, save you, has literally been born to complete—is about to come to fruition." He stabbed a finger toward her viewport, which showed the dark side of a pockmarked moon. "We've been in hiding here for a month, unable to move closer to the Xindi staging area for fear of being detected, unable to move away to replenish our supplies for fear of breaking down and being stranded. The ship is barely holding together, stores are running low—and you wish me to tell bedtime stories?"
T'Pol poured herself another cup of tea. "One will do. It will be your first attempt, after all."
"To what purpose?" he asked, uncomprehending.
"Passing down the ship's oral history is a way for children to learn, for families to interact—"
"I don't mean that," he snapped. "Why do you suddenly believe I must participate in this exercise, after all these years? Why now?"
T'Pol set her cup down and faced her son. Her velvet-brown eyes had clouded to gray with age, but had lost none of their keenness. "You're pushing the crew away again."
He didn't have time for this. "I've been busy. I have seven million lives on Earth to save."
"You have a hundred lives on this ship, as well," T'Pol said. "You have a crew that needs your support as much as you need theirs. At this time, of all times, you must be among them, visible, interacting with them, demonstrating that you are a part of them—not high atop an unreachable pedestal, hidden by clouds."
"I'm not a storyteller!" Lorian protested. "And yet you would set me adrift in a sea of demanding youngsters."
"Just talk to them," T'Pol replied calmly.
"You expect me to carry on conversations with them?"
Her voice was as dry as parchment. "You were a child once. Surely it will come back to you."
Lorian sighed. This idea was growing more dreadful by the minute. "They will ask inordinately personal questions."
"It's coming back already, I see," T'Pol said with amusement. "If you can engage them, no subject is taboo. They'll be doing most of the talking, at any rate."
Lorian could see by the set of her jaw that she would persist in this mad notion until he acquiesced. "Very well, Mother. Although I expect to make a fool of myself."
She patted his arm. "Speak from your heart, and you will do well."
He looked heavenward as he headed for the door. "I seriously doubt that."
Despite T'Pol's assurances, Karyn Archer had been skeptical. But there was Lorian, just inside the door of the children's dormitory. Now the trick would be to keep him here.
He hadn't looked this apprehensive since that ambush by the marauders last month had briefly knocked out Enterprise's hull plating, leaving the ship defenseless. Apparently the captain considered a roomful of children an equally formidable threat.
No one else had seen him come in; they were all focused on Abbie Mayweather, who was finishing the story of "Travis Mayweather And The Romulan Minefield," acting out her grandfather's part with gusto. "For hours he stayed at the helm, guided by instruments and instincts as much as the mines on the viewscreen. His hand was steady on the stick as he steered the ship toward safety. One wrong move—even a millimeter—and Enterprise would be lost."
Two dozen children hung on Abbie's every word, spellbound. The teenagers who lived in the converted cargo bay had been joined, as they were every evening, by the younger kids and their parents, who came by for Storytelling before bedtime.
"At last Enterprise cleared the final mine," Abbie said. "Commander Tucker slumped over his console in weary relief, telling Travis he'd earned himself a rest. Travis let go of the stick." She held up her hand, comically frozen in a clawlike grip, and the children laughed. "He shook the circulation back into his hand and said, 'I'd prefer to stay at my post, sir.'" The kids applauded, and Abbie took a bow.
Karyn glanced at Lorian. He was hesitating, contemplating escape. Quickly, she rose. "Captain! Come join us."
For an instant, she saw a flash of emotion cross his face—the shock of realization that she'd been expecting him. In reply, she smiled sweetly, beckoning him toward the storytelling circle.
Lorian knew resistance at this point would be illogical, not to mention quite messy. Swathing himself in Vulcan calm, he moved sedately into the circle as Karyn made room for him beside her. He spoke softly, for her ears alone. "You and my mother planned this."
Karyn's face was a portrait of innocence. "Planned, sir?"
He arched an eyebrow at her. When she called him sir, it was usually an attempt to "get his goat," as his father would have said. Refusing to be baited, he replied, "If we weren't going after that Xindi probe in three days, I'd put you on report." He was silent for a moment. "I'm putting you on report anyway."
"Yes, sir," she replied placidly.
By this time, whispers of "Captain Lorian!" were rippling among the children. Many of them appeared awestruck. Lorian didn't feel as important as they seemed to think he was. Perhaps it had to do with that pedestal his mother had spoken of.
"Good evening," he began. He could do this. A simple anecdote, and he would be on his way.
"Good evening," the children chorused politely in reply.
The parents seemed reluctant to speak, but not so the kids. "Why don't you ever come here?" asked one little boy. Tahir was his name, Lorian recalled.
Tahir's mother, Vere Kamal from Security, answered the child before Lorian could even draw breath to reply. "The captain has many duties."
Smoothly, Karyn joined the conversation. "Now that he's here, we might hear a new story about his mom and dad."
"Who's your dad?" asked Isabel, who was only six.
"He was Enterprise's first chief engineer," Lorian replied. "Commander Charles Tucker III."
Isabel brightened. "The Miracle Worker?"
Lorian turned to Karyn. "'Miracle Worker'?"
"That's what we call him in some of our stories," she explained. Lorian was surprised, and oddly touched.
"Didn't you hear the stories when you were a kid?" asked Quinn, whose father worked in Maintenance.
Lorian paused. "My childhood ended...prematurely."
"What's 'prematurely'?" asked another, younger boy.
His father—Graham Marshall, from the armory—replied softly, "It means 'too early', Justin."
Justin piped up again. "Why did your childhood end too prematurely?"
Graham shushed him, but the question was already hanging in the air of the cavernous room. Lorian saw his listeners' expressions dividing cleanly into two camps: the younger children, who didn't know the answer and wanted to; and the older teenagers and adults, who did know, but were averting their eyes, as if that would somehow safeguard the captain's privacy.
Lorian seldom discussed his father's death; it remained a deeply heartfelt loss to his mother, and he had always respected her desire to keep her grief private. But she had counseled him this evening to speak from his heart...and perhaps a personal revelation about Captain Lorian would serve to lower that pedestal somewhat.
"When I was fourteen," he said, "my father was killed."
The young ones reacted with wide-eyed dismay and murmurs of "I'm sorry," while the older teens listened somberly, no doubt able to imagine themselves in the same unhappy position.
"Was he working a miracle?" Isabel asked in a small voice.
Lorian had never thought of his father's death in those terms, but they seemed appropriate. "Yes...his last miracle. The ship was damaged, and he prevented it from exploding. He died so everyone else could live."
The downcast faces lifted a little. "So he was a hero." Justin said.
Lorian nodded. "I suppose he was. To me, he was my father."
Vere, the security officer, spoke again. "Captain...what was your father like when he wasn't being a miracle worker?"
Lorian pondered the question. "Kind. Humorous. Eager to explore. And quite romantic."
Vere smiled. "Romantic?"
Graham chuckled. "He'd need to be, to win the heart of a Vulcan." The rest of the adults laughed.
"He was simply working another miracle," Lorian said dryly, and got a bigger laugh.
"How did your parents get together?" Vere asked. "Did they like each other from the start?"
"Not at all," Lorian replied. "For the first several months of their acquaintance, they communicated primarily through arguments." Everyone laughed this time, even the children.
Karyn smiled at Lorian. "Tell us the story, Captain."
Lorian felt himself relaxing as he continued. "Over time, my parents earned each other's respect as colleagues, eventually becoming trusted friends. In fact, my father began to feel far more than friendship, but my mother remained conflicted. Then Enterprise was thrown 117 years into the past..."
The Delphic Expanse
T'Pol was in the command center, scanning for Minshara-class planets that might be sources of edible plant and animal life to replenish the ship's stores, when Trip came by with a padd of updates on the status of repair operations.
"So what do you think about the Captain's Directive?" he asked lightly, using the nickname the crew had given to Archer's suspension of the no-fraternization rule.
"A shrewd calculation on the captain's part," T'Pol replied, scanning the data on the padd. "Aside from its practical application of providing the ship with the future generations it will need to carry out our new mission to stop the first Xindi attack on Earth, it has served to keep the crew focused on the future, and has minimized the tendencies toward loneliness and depression that would naturally result from our forced exile here."
Trip smiled faintly. "Meaning, it's given people somethin' to hope for."
"I believe I just said that." T'Pol glanced up from the padd. "Judging from the behavior of the female crew members, you are the most desired potential mate on the ship."
Trip gave her a dimpled grin of satisfaction. "Well, well. I wouldn't've thought you'd notice somethin' like that."
"I could hardly avoid it." She arched an eyebrow. "They trail behind you like rats following your mythical Pied Piper."
He stifled a chuckle. "I wouldn't toss that analogy around too freely if I were you."
T'Pol returned to her sensor scans. "It appears that your challenge will be narrowing down the field of candidates to a single choice."
Trip shrugged. "Not really. I look for a woman who's intelligent...resourceful...compassionate. Someone who can hold her own in a fight. If she's pretty, that's icing, o' course." He leaned closer to T'Pol, as if imparting a secret. "Just so happens she's beautiful."
T'Pol kept her eyes on the sensor display, but Trip noticed that her fingers faltered for a moment on the console. "You have made your selection, then?" she asked.
He closed the remaining distance between them, kissing her lightly on the cheek. "I'm gonna marry you, T'Pol." Without another word, he exited the command center, leaving her speechless with shock.
She turned him down flat.
Her rejection was couched in a bunch of Vulcany logic about incompatible DNA, the inability to procreate with a human, the irrelevancy of marriage if not for the purpose of producing children for Enterprise's future crew...but it all added up to no. She wasn't going to marry anyone. Period.
She'd chosen the worst possible place to drop her bombshell—a corridor near the mess hall, with people coming and going all around them. Trip tried to keep his voice steady. "But...what about companionship?"
T'Pol's expression was impassive, her Vulcan mask tightly in place. "You speak of an emotional, human need."
It was all he could do to string words together coherently. "You're telling me Vulcans don't get lonely? Do you plan on watching four generations of the crew pass through your life for the next 117 years while you stay an island?"
"I am Vulcan," she replied, as if that explained everything. Her eyes...those beautiful, expressive sable eyes that he could fall into forever, and never hit bottom...they were blank, impenetrable.
Trip felt as though he were grasping at quicksilver, watching helplessly as it skittered beyond his reach. "It's not logical to deal with a new situation by yourself, when there's someone who cares for you, who wants to walk this path by your side." He took a step closer, trying to get through to her by sheer force of will. "Please, T'Pol, don't push me away."
He saw a flicker of hesitation cross her stoic face. She lowered her gaze, and he held his breath. At last she spoke, her voice a soft monotone. "We are too different. I must make this journey alone."
It was as if she had thrown up a wall of ice between them. Trip felt the cold piercing his heart like a dagger, spreading outward, until everything was numb. He couldn't move, couldn't breathe, couldn't even tell if his heart was still beating.
He bowed his head, squeezing his eyes shut. He couldn't bear to watch her walk away.
For days, Trip managed to avoid T'Pol. He made sure he was always too busy to join her and the captain for dinner. He practically lived down in Engineering, sending Hess up to the bridge whenever someone was needed. Every morning, he'd wake up vowing to get over it and just face her, but he'd end up hiding out, same as the day before.
There was no avoiding the rumor mill, though, and it was buzzing: T'Pol was moody. She was cranky, she was sulky, she was pissy, she was tense. And from the sound of things, she was getting more volatile by the day. It didn't help that she was working impossibly long hours, and hardly eating.
Then, unexpectedly, it happened. Trip was in the mess hall when a crewman from Maintenance came in, gossiping to a buddy that he'd been in the command center when T'Pol "went bonkers" over a program she couldn't get to run right, then stalked out, cursing a blue streak in Vulcan. The crewman clammed up as soon as he saw Commander Tucker—but Trip had heard enough.
He found the door to T'Pol's quarters wide open, her comm unit ripped off the wall. She was at her terminal, muttering Vulcan epithets as she stabbed savagely at her keyboard.
Trip studied the pieces of comm panel littering the floor. "Had a little problem with the comm?"
"I required silence." The ferocity on her face was startling.
"I heard you were having trouble with a program," he said carefully.
T'Pol started to shake her head, and he thought she was going to kick him out. But then she pushed away from her terminal, frustration pouring off her in waves. "I can't get it to do what I need."
"To find out if I killed them," she blurted out. Then, as if realizing what she'd just said, she tried again, her voice more controlled. "To determine if I performed to the best of my abilities."
Trip pulled up a second chair and studied the screen. It was a computer-generated battle simulation, the kind of reconstruction that was routinely made for post-combat analysis. With a sickly lurch of his stomach, Trip recognized this sim at once: the battle of Azati Prime.
"The sim generator is a non-essential system. It was brought back online only today." T'Pol gestured helplessly at the screen. "It will not accept another commander model. Each time I attempt it, the sim recognizes only me."
Trip felt a stab of compassion for her. Why would she be watching this horrific battle over and over, torturing herself about the crewmen who were lost? Of course she'd done her best—she always did her best. She was T'Pol.
"Give me a minute." He tapped rapidly at the keys, getting into the guts of the program, opening up the parameter modules. He recalled a recurring glitch in the sim generator...there it was. A few adjustments to the matrix, and the problem was solved.
"I think it's fixed," he said. "Only way to tell is to run a sim. Let's plug me in as the commander." He punched up his personnel profile and entered it into the module.
"No!" T'Pol said sharply. "There's no need for you to—" She stopped, averting her eyes self-consciously. She was tense now, gripping the edge of the desk like a vise.
Trip backed his chair away, giving her room. "You can take it from here," he said, keeping his voice neutral. "I added a link between the commander module and the personnel database. You shouldn't have any more problems."
He rose to leave—but then her hand was on his arm, stopping him. He could feel her trembling. "Stay," she said softly. She was looking directly at him now. Her fury and frustration were gone, replaced by uncertainty, and an edge of fear that was heartrending.
"Okay." Giving her a reassuring smile, Trip sat back down. "Here we go, then." He launched the simulation.
The battle unfolded as a rotating three-dimensional nightmare, with data flashing on the screen to report the "commander's" decisions and orders, based on the computer's interpretations of Trip's psych profile. The casualty list appeared at the bottom of the screen, and started growing.
It was ghastly to watch. The memory of the bloodbath at Azati Prime was as sharp as broken glass in Trip's mind. Even an animated construct of Enterprise being gouged and pummeled by stick-figure Xindi attack ships was difficult to view. Seeing the computer dispassionately making decisions in his name, followed by a laundry list of dead crewmen...Taylor, Flynn, Kumata...it was gut-wrenching. But T'Pol needed this, for some reason he didn't understand yet. And he'd known, from the moment he arrived here, that he would do whatever she needed.
She never took her eyes off the screen.
When the program ended, Trip felt as though he'd lived through it all over again. With his stomach churning and his heart hammering in his chest, he looked at the casualty list: twenty-four. "According to this, six more would've died on my watch. Good thing you were in the captain's chair."
T'Pol studied the names. "The six additional casualties are all from Engineering. Doubtless there were more deaths there because you were not present in this simulation."
Trip didn't feel reassured. "Want to try Captain Archer next?"
She nodded. Trip entered the captain's profile from the database and launched the sim again. As he gritted his way through the attack, a tiny, detached corner of his mind noted how remarkable it was that the same people were dying, over and over, no matter which officer was in command.
Finally, it was finished. The sim-Archer's casualty list was exactly the same as T'Pol's had been. Trip had to swallow hard before he could speak. "You did as well as the captain. That's..." He trailed off, surprised to see the glitter of tears in her eyes as she stared at the data on the viewscreen.
"One more." Her voice was little more than a whisper. "Use my profile from seven months ago." She hesitated, then determinedly continued. "Before we found the Seleya."
Wordlessly, Trip accessed the medical database, extracting a profile from an exam Phlox did on T'Pol after she recovered from the Loque'eque virus. As he plugged it into the sim module, he recalled what Phlox had said about the Vulcans on the Seleya. The trellium-D had destroyed their ability to control emotions. Trip thought T'Pol had recovered from her exposure to the trellium on the Seleya, but her mood swings, her outbursts...something wasn't adding up. Or maybe it was, finally.
T'Pol waited, her breath quickening apprehensively, her hands twisted into knots in her lap. When Trip launched the sim this time, he watched her instead of the viewscreen. She agonized through every decision, every action, every death. When it was done, she stared at the casualty list, overwhelmed. Trip glanced at the screen.
Eighteen dead. Same personnel. No difference.
"You can relax," he told her, his voice soft. "Whatever the trellium did to you, it didn't affect your command ability. You didn't kill anyone, T'Pol."
Silently, she dissolved into tears, head bowed, shoulders shaking. They weren't tears of sadness, though, but of soul-cleansing relief. Trip ached to take her in his arms and comfort her, but he kept still, and waited.
At last her sobs eased. Without looking at him, she answered the unspoken question that hung in the silence between them. "I am...damaged. My neural pathways suffered permanent impairment. My ability to suppress emotions has been compromised."
"I noticed," he said mildly.
T'Pol ventured a glance at him, through lashes still wet with tears. "I attempted to achieve balance by removing myself from the most problematic emotional trigger." He saw a faint olive blush rise to her cheeks.
Problematic emotional trigger. It was the most creative way of saying "I love you" that Trip had ever heard. He was utterly charmed. "It'll never happen," he said, matter-of-factly.
She looked away again. "So I discovered."
"Do you think it's about time you stopped running away from these emotions, and started adjusting?" he asked.
She looked faintly exasperated. "I lack the necessary expertise."
"Then let me teach you," Trip offered with a smile. "I don't give a damn about your fried neural pathways, and I'm not goin' anywhere." He held out his hand. "Just trust me, darlin'. Hang onto me, and I won't let you fall. We can do this together."
He wasn't just talking about her errant emotions any longer. By the way T'Pol searched his face, he could tell she knew it, too. She studied his outstretched hand...then took it firmly in hers. He matched her strength, making sure she knew he was there, solid and strong.
"I have been considering your earlier proposal," she said, with a shyness that touched him. "I now see the logic of it."
He felt himself beaming at her words. "Does that mean 'Yes'?"
Her face took on an exquisite glow that made her more beautiful than he'd ever seen her. "Yes."
Trip caught his breath as he realized he was seeing genuine love in her eyes for the first time. Captivated, he pulled her close and kissed her. T'Pol responded, her hand coming up to caress his cheek, her touch igniting a delicious flush inside him. He lost himself in her kiss, feeling the sweet warmth build into a hot roar flowing through him like a river of fire.
At last they came up for air. Trip gazed into T'Pol's shining brown eyes...and he grinned impishly. "I guarantee one thing. We won't be bored."
The circle of listeners was silent. Lorian could not tell whether his tale had been engrossing, or desperately tedious.
Finally Isabel's mother, Luz Mather, murmured dreamily, "Yes...he was quite romantic." There were nods of assent from the remainder of the assemblage. The room seemed to blink back to the real world, the children bursting into squirms and giggles, the adults exchanging satisfied smiles.
Lorian saw movement beyond the storytelling circle, at the doorway of the dormitory...a petite, silver-haired figure swathed in Vulcan robes: T'Pol. There were tears in her eyes, and a half-smile of treasured remembrance on her lips. Without a word, she slipped out, the door sliding shut behind her.
The next day, as Lorian divided his time between running attack strategies through simulations and making certain the tractor beam was fully powered, he received no less than fourteen comments regarding his Storytelling debut, all complimentary. Surprisingly, only three were from crewmen who had been in attendance; the rest of the personnel had heard about it from their children, or crewmates, or the grapevine. Lorian was quite taken aback.
The first shift was nearing its end when Graham Marshall arrived with a padd for Beau Greer at Tactical. As Graham turned to leave, he caught Lorian's eye. "Captain, my son asked this morning if you'd be coming to Storytelling tonight."
Karyn, at the helm station, turned to listen. She had been teasing Lorian all day that he had missed his calling as a raconteur.
"I told him you were a very busy man," Graham continued. "But I thought I'd let you know you have a fan."
"Thank you, Graham," Lorian acknowledged. The armory officer smiled and headed off to the turbolift.
Lorian saw Karyn regarding him expectantly. "I'm a very busy man," he told her, with a hint of defensiveness. "And has everyone except myself forgotten that the Xindi probe launches in two days?"
"I think everyone is perfectly aware of that, Captain," she replied. "And they're nervous, and they need a distraction. Like it or not, you're it."
The crew had seemed more relaxed today. Lorian was reluctant to attribute their improved performance to a bedtime story, but perhaps it was best to bow to the inevitable.
Captain Lorian: Ship's Distraction. It would make a colorful entry in the personnel manifest.
When he and Karyn entered the dormitory, Lorian noticed at once that there were more people here than last night—not only the children and their parents, but crewmen who were not related to any children. They had all come for Storytelling.
Lorian was beset by a gaggle of enthusiastic youngsters before he and Karyn had even taken seats. "Captain! You came back!"
He heard himself saying, "I found our time yesterday agreeable." His statement was met by a host of smiles.
Karyn waited for them all to settle, like some multi-legged dust cloud, before she began. "What story would you like to hear first?"
The cloud billowed back to life. "'Trip And T'Pol Get Engaged'! Tell us that one!"
Lorian was puzzled. "I have already related that story to you."
"We want to hear it again," said seven-year-old Lissa, slowly, as if she were teaching a remedial student.
"Especially the part where he kisses her," said Zoey. She was sixteen.
"It's like a favorite Shakespeare play," Karyn remarked aside to Lorian. "They can't get enough of it."
So Lorian gamely launched into the tale again. The response was even stronger during the second telling. His new listeners appeared quite taken by the story, and a few children even chimed in to repeat their favorite lines. Lorian found the experience thoroughly enjoyable.
As he rose to leave, a collective sound of dismay rose from the kids—and, he noted, several of the crew. "You can't go yet!" said young Susie.
Susie's mother, Erin Yancy from Engineering, stroked her daughter's hair. "The Captain has a lot of work to do, honey."
Susie subsided, but her eyes were huge with disappointment. Lorian's feet mutinied, refusing to move toward the door. "Perhaps...one more story," he said. The spontaneous cheer that followed was startling, and rather heartening, truth be told.
After some debate, the children requested another "Ordinary Trip" story, as they called it. With some trepidation as to whether his novice skills would prove efficacious a second time, Lorian related the tale "In Which Trip Learns Vulcan For His Wedding, Or How Hoshi Sato Is Almost Driven To Murder." Aside from an occasional dry observance, Lorian had never deliberately attempted to inspire a group of people to laughter. Judging from the response, he thought it safe to conclude that he had, indeed, inherited his father's sense of humor. The discovery pleased him immensely.
Lorian spent the following day tracking down an elusive power drain tapping Enterprise's precious energy reserves, all of which would be needed for the confrontation with the Xindi probe. By the time the problem was located and solved, necessitating yet more jury-rigging, he had no choice but to designate several more systems "non-essential" and shut them down to conserve power. Nevertheless, the crew remained focused and optimistic. Even Enterprise herself, as if aware that her mission was nearly complete, endured, weary but still giving her all.
Lorian knew his attention should be wholly directed toward the Xindi probe's impending launch, and the strategies for disabling the weapon...but he could not concentrate. He reasoned that a short session of Storytelling might serve to clear his mind.
The dormitory was filled this night—almost eighty of the crew and family members. Lorian thought wryly that the ship must be operating with a skeleton staff. But if there was any night that required distraction, it was this one—the night before the day for which 117 years had been a preamble.
As he expected, they first had him relate "Trip And T'Pol Get Engaged." By now, he knew to pause for the words of his father's that Quinn and Dillon Maguire would echo, and relate the kiss especially slowly for Zoey, so she could savor it.
A clamor arose for another Trip and T'Pol story, so Lorian selected the tale "In Which Trip Teaches T'Pol To Dance, And Nearly Divorces Her In The Process." When Karyn volunteered to provide visual accompaniment by playing T'Pol to Lorian's Trip, the story became decidedly more entertaining. The sight of Karyn doing a spot-on "T'Pol," utterly failing to comprehend "Trip's" patient attempts to instruct her in a foxtrot, brought the house down. As he and Karyn got their legs hopelessly tangled together, even Lorian found himself laughing.
Then, all too quickly, it was time for Storytelling to end, though no one in the dormitory wished it so. The children were practicing dance steps, and the grown-ups lingered, clearly reluctant to turn their attention from the fond memories of the past to the uncertainties of tomorrow. Though Lorian shared their hesitancy, he knew it was time to bow to the inevitable, again.
He rose, with Karyn smoothly standing beside him. "It is late," he said simply.
Murmured goodnights began passing among the crewmembers and their families, along with more than a few heartfelt embraces. The air seemed to take on a disquieting heaviness, as if expectation about tomorrow were descending like a black cloud before a thunderstorm.
Mariko Tadashi from Communications came forward. "Captain...one more story request? A short one?"
Hoping to ease the somber mood, Lorian nodded. Mariko smiled, a little shyly. "How did your parents name you? I've searched all my Vulcan translation texts, but I haven't found the name anywhere."
Others were listening curiously now. "You did not find it because my name is not Vulcan," Lorian replied.
Suddenly, he had the attention of the entire dormitory. He paused to collect his thoughts; only a handful of people had ever been privy to this. "My parents' quest to have a child was a long and difficult one. There were years of research and experiments, disappointments...losses. Both my mother and I nearly died while she was in labor with me. When I was old enough to learn of the danger and heartache my parents had endured, I asked them why they had risked so much. They told me they wanted to share their love with a child."
The room was still, everyone listening in breath-held silence.
Lorian gestured to his fair hair, pointed ears, and startlingly blue eyes. "When I was born," he continued, "my appearance was unique. Neither a human nor a Vulcan name seemed a proper fit. Then my father remembered a book his mother had read to him when he was a child, a fantasy written centuries ago about a land of elves and wizards and enchantment. There was a magical forest, into which evil could not enter...a land of gold and dreams. It was called Lórien."
There came a soft, blissful sigh from his listeners. The air seemed to shift, becoming lighter again. Silently, Mariko smiled her thanks.
Lorian surveyed the group, his eyes resting briefly on each face, before he nodded in farewell and left the dormitory.
"It's trying to break free!" Beau shouted across the bridge, as the ship shook violently around them. On the viewscreen, the Xindi probe strained and bucked within Enterprise's tractor beam, like an angry beast caught in a snare. The glowing graviton beam crackled and sparked in protest.
"Stress on the hull is increasing," Siddhe reported from the science station.
"Phase cannons?" Lorian asked.
"Drained," Beau responded. "I routed the rest of the power reserves into the hull plating—"
"Won't be enough," Siddhe said, scanning her screen. "If we don't cut loose, the probe's going to rip the hull apart."
Reluctantly, Lorian nodded to Beau. "Disengage tractor beam."
Beau put the tractor beam out of its misery. With a lurch, the shuddering around them ceased. On the viewscreen, the probe shot away, ahead of the ship.
"Stay with it, Karyn," Lorian ordered. As Karyn's hands flew over her board, Enterprise leaped forward, pacing the probe.
Lorian turned back to Beau. "Status."
The Tactical officer looked unhappily at the red warning lights peppering his board. "Tractor beam's gone. Power reserves are almost tapped out—hull plating's at emergency minimum. Two torpedoes left, but you already know they're useless against the probe's shields."
Beau looked up. "None, sir. That thing was built to withstand any impact short of a supernova. We don't have the firepower. We've tried everything."
Any impact short of a supernova...
Lorian chose the only logical option remaining. "Not everything. What about a warp five reactor explosion?"
All eyes turned to him, stunned.
"Answer me!" Lorian snapped. "If we ram Enterprise into that probe, will the explosion be enough to disable it?"
Beau swallowed hard as he tapped at his keyboard, running the probabilities. "We'll bust through the shields, but whether we'll do sufficient damage to its main power generator..." He studied his readout. "Seventy-four percent chance of stopping it, Captain, based on telemetry."
"That's not good enough," Karyn protested. "What if the explosion doesn't stop it? We won't have another chance!"
"This is our only chance," Lorian said flatly. "Plot a collision course."
She was very pale. "Aye, Captain." She went to work at her console.
Lorian punched his comm panel. "Engineering."
"Rostov," came Sasha's voice.
"Sasha, on my order, disable the magnetic containment field for the matter/anti-matter reaction assembly."
There was a hiss of dumbfounded silence on the other end of the comm. Then, "Sir...confirming your order. You want me to trigger a warp core explosion?"
"Affirmative. On my order."
Another long pause. Sasha's voice was rough when he spoke again. "Aye, Captain."
"Collision course plotted, Captain," Karyn reported quietly.
Everyone on the bridge was frozen, hardly breathing.
Lorian eyed the viewscreen. Enterprise was close on the probe's flank. All he had to do was give the orders to Karyn and Sasha. His crew would die, but the seven million could be saved.
As he watched the spinning metallic sphere, he incongruously found himself picturing the children in the dormitory. Attentive faces, hanging on his every word...faces going up like flash paper as the ship exploded. No more stories, no pasts, no future.
Lorian drew in a breath to give the order. He had no choice, no other option left to save the seven million, to keep the vow he'd made to Jonathan decades ago.
Zoey, sighing dreamily as Trip and T'Pol kissed.
Susie squealing with laughter as they fumbled their way through their first foxtrot.
Quinn and Dillon, quoting in tandem, "I'm not goin' anywhere."
Eager faces, burning bright, vaporizing. Gone, as if they had never been.
Then the vortex was tearing open a hole in space and the probe was hurtling through it, vanishing. In an instant, it was gone, as if it had never been.
He hesitated, and everything they had worked for all their lives was lost.
Within minutes, the entire crew knew the mission had failed.
Lorian passed through the rest of his shift in a grotesque fog of unreality. He vaguely remembered maintaining an outer shell of calm efficiency, ordering Karyn to take Enterprise away from the Xindi staging area, assessing damage to the ship. As soon as it was feasible, he left the bridge to Karyn and retreated to his ready room.
He sat at his desk, staring at the Vulcan sculpture on the wall without seeing it. What now? He had never speculated past the moment of the probe's launch, never considered failure. He had sworn to Jonathan that he would succeed, no matter what the cost.
It had never occurred to him that he would hesitate.
The door chimed, making him jump. "Enter." His throat was dry.
It was Karyn. "The second shift is here. We can leave, whenever..." She let the words trail away.
Lorian nodded, saying nothing.
She took a seat across from him, studying him. She had a preternatural talent for determining his emotional state simply by observing him. He was able to maintain an impenetrable Vulcan mask in front of everyone else—even his mother, if he wished. But to Karyn, he was maddeningly transparent. He wondered whether he himself permitted it, somehow. Perhaps T'Pol was correct, and he did wish for someone from whom he need not keep any secrets.
Karyn was smiling now. "Don't worry. I'm not going to say anything stupid like 'Get some rest'...'Eat something'."
An answering ghost of a smile played on his lips. "I appreciate that."
"But you are unsettled."
"I didn't stop the probe." Suddenly, Lorian wished to confess everything to Karyn. He needed her to know his terrible secret, and offer him forgiveness for his transgression. I hesitated...
Before he could say the words, she was speaking. "Lorian, you did everything you could. You burned out the tractor beam, drained the weapons, used up the power reserves. And much as I hated your idea about blowing up the ship, it might have worked, if you'd had a few seconds more. You just didn't." Lightly, she touched his arm. "You did everything you could."
He stared at her, crestfallen, unable to speak. No. You don't understand. I hesitated. But it was done. Karyn's face was tranquil; she was at peace with her erroneous belief. He didn't have the heart to destroy that peace with a confession that would serve no other purpose.
No secrets...It had been a pleasant notion, while it lasted.
He nodded to her, giving sanction to her peace, as he tucked his secret safely away from her.
When Lorian told T'Pol what had happened, she pointed out that a seventy-four percent probability was insufficient for a presumption of success. Further, she made it clear that Jonathan Archer, had he been in the captain's chair, would not have given the order either. Lorian appeared conflicted, as if he wished desperately to believe her, but would not allow himself to. Without another word, he left her quarters.
T'Pol contemplated the slender flame of the meditation candle before her as she analyzed the efforts she had taken to reconnect her son with his crew. The seven million had been only a minor component of her calculations; she had always considered them a factor that Enterprise had little probability of influencing one way or the other, despite Jonathan's ambitious 117-year mission statement. She had looked upon the mission primarily as a diversionary tactic, motivation to keep these humans from withering away here, trapped in the past, forever separated from everyone and everything they held dear. She had been more concerned with Lorian, who had been increasingly driven these past fifty years by an unexpected combination of dispassionate practicality and fervent hero-worship for his godfather. Lorian's vow to complete the mission had become an obsession, isolating him from everyone, except perhaps herself, and Karyn Archer.
T'Pol had succeeded: Lorian was part of his crew again. However, she had misjudged the depth of his humanity. She had not considered that he would experience guilt over a catastrophe that could not logically be attributed to him.
She should have anticipated it. He was, after all, captain of Enterprise.
Lorian walked endlessly. Corridor upon corridor, the length and breadth and depth of the ship. Before him, a door would slide open, revealing a room...silent crewmen performing their duties by rote, their faces numb with shock, trying to comprehend that their mission had failed. Another door sliding open, another room, more silent crewmen, more numb faces.
Invariably, the faces would turn to him, softening with...sympathy for his valiant, unsuccessful attempt? Pity for his shameful lack of determination? He couldn't tell. He didn't know.
At last a door opened to a room where the occupants weren't enveloped in noiseless, stunned disbelief, but were engaged, talking, laughing. He was in the dormitory, watching the children during Storytelling. He couldn't recall making the decision to come here; he was simply here.
Karyn was the storyteller, in the midst of "Jonathan And Trip And The Dangerous Desert Crossing." The children listened raptly, reacting to every development, joining in at the high points. The parents in attendance were politely appreciative, but their faces were shadowed. They sat more closely to their children than was typical, even holding them in some cases.
Karyn concluded her story to enthusiastic applause, which was cut short by several young cries of "Captain!" Lorian had been spotted. Within a few heartbeats, two of the little ones had latched onto his hands and pulled him into the circle.
He raised his eyebrows questioningly at Karyn, who shrugged and smiled faintly. "I wanted to go someplace where today was just another day."
The children, apparently more adept than adults at discerning the difference between impassivity and melancholy, picked up on Lorian's downcast mood at once. They seated him next to Karyn, then hovered uncertainly.
Rachel, a forthright ten-year-old, examined him critically. "You've had a bad day."
Lorian had an insane urge to burst into laughter. "Yes. I have had a bad day."
The kids traded glances and whispers. "Maybe we should tell you a story, then," Quinn said.
Slowly, Lorian nodded. "That would be agreeable."
"What would make you feel better?" Justin asked.
Success, Lorian thought. Resounding, glorious success. To the expectant children, he said, "I should like to hear a story about...the Miracle Worker."
The kids excitedly bandied titles back and forth, finally settling on "Commander Tucker And The Almost Vulcan-Andorian War Over Paan Mokar-Weytahm." A command performance, for their Captain. The energetic narrative bounced from one child to another, sometimes several simultaneously. Quinn, Dillon, and Justin took turns playing Commander Tucker.
As the story unfolded, Lorian studied the children. They were blissfully unaware of the deaths they had almost met. Today was just another day. They had not been robbed of their pasts, or their here and now. They were alive, so marvelously alive.
He hesitated, and a hundred lives were saved.