THE BRIAR PATCH
THE BRIAR PATCH
Genre: Drama/Adventure/Angst/A sprinkling of lust and love
Disclaimer: I do not own the Enterprise characters. I do, however, claim ownership of the characters that are the products of my imagination. I have not benefited monetarily from writing this.
Author's note: This story is a sequel to "The Thorn and the Rose." I want to thank Blacknblue for giving this chapter the once over and passing along his opinions.
Please keep in mind that I write slowly, and unlike my first story, this is a work in progress; therefore, it will be awhile between new chapters. I apologize in advance for any delays.
CHAPTER 1: ARCHER
"As Earth and Vulcan prepare to move forward into a new era of cooperation and the Coalition of Planets begins to take shape…"
Captain Jonathan Archer squinted against the glare of the relentless Vulcan sun and stifled a sigh. He hated speeches. He hated listening to them. He hated memorizing them, as a child. But most of all, he hated giving them. The words always looked so good on paper, but when they started coming out of his mouth… Well…
Fortunately for him and for everyone concerned, this speech was someone else's problem; if only it could have been occasioned by happier circumstances.
"...it is only fitting for us to honor the forty-four people who lost their lives over one year ago when a terrorist determined that change could only be brought about through violence and the shedding of blood."
Etienne Belliveau, United Earth's ambassador to Vulcan, paused and cleared his throat. A tall, robust man who stood at the portal of his sixth decade of life, he had piercing blue eyes, pale skin – a rather remarkable feat considering his three-year tenure on Vulcan - and thinning hair which was rapidly turning from brown to grey. Unflappable to a fault, he always projected the supreme self-confidence of a man who was born to a life of privilege.
"We here today," Belliveau continued, "united as one people, want to send a clear message to all would-be terrorists: We refuse to live in a world where violence only begets more violence. We will not tolerate the random taking of lives, nor will we back down in the face of adversity.
"The man who planted the bomb that damaged the United Earth Embassy and took forty-four innocent lives has not yet been brought to justice, but if he is within the sound of my voice, he should take no comfort in that. We will not rest until he has been called to account for his actions. We will not allow forty-four lives to be taken in vain."
As applause filled the air, Archer realized that his hands were moving more from habit than sincere appreciation for the ambassador's words. He was tired, frustrated, and fed up with empty promises. He knew that Stel, the agent of the Vulcan Security Directorate who had planted the bomb, was gone without a trace. The bastard was supposed to have been incarcerated after Soval revealed his involvement in the crime, but V'Las had either had him killed or removed from the planet. Either way, he would probably never be seen again.
From his vantage point behind the podium, Archer slowly scanned the assembled crowd of over two hundred people. He was somewhat heartened to see that representatives from over half a dozen worlds had gathered in the large courtyard on the west side of the United Earth Embassy to dedicate a monument to those who had lost their lives in the bombing. The handsome twenty-foot-tall black granite obelisk – a piece of Earth planted firmly on a rectangular base of Vulcan basalt – was inscribed with the names of all forty-four victims, both human and Vulcan. Glancing at the floral tributes which had been placed around the base, Jon noticed that the flowers were beginning to wilt under the searing rays of the sun. It was unfortunate, he supposed, but it did nothing to diminish their symbolic value. They were tangible proof that people remembered; people still cared.
Why did good men like his friend and mentor, Admiral Maxwell Forrest, have to die on the whim of some madman drunk on power? Archer's eyes began to carefully pick out the Vulcan faces in the crowd. He saw most of the members of the High Council. A few other people looked vaguely familiar; they were probably scientists, government officials, or members of the fleet. How many of them had been privy to V'Las' plans? How many of them had known about the bombing and did nothing to stop it from happening? And how many would willingly look the other way again?
Archer snapped back to reality. Where did that come from? he wondered uneasily. He quickly scanned the faces of the people around him, even though he knew that they could not possibly be aware of his injudicious thoughts. Damn it! He, of all people, should have put his prejudices behind him by now. He'd carried Surak's katra, for crying out loud. He knew better than to lump all Vulcans together; they were every bit as individualistic as humans.
His eyes strayed to T'Pol who was standing in the second row next to Trip and the other members of his senior staff. She had proved her loyalty and trustworthiness many times over in the five years that he'd known her.
So had Soval, for that matter. Archer stopped to consider the man standing to his left in the group of dignitaries behind the podium. Who would have thought when they first met that he and Soval would become friends? Now he unreservedly trusted the ambassador with his life. The universe did indeed move in mysterious ways.
Archer returned his attention to the proceedings when Belliveau said, "Our worlds have recently been beset by internal strife. Let us work together, putting aside any unreasoning fears or distrust, to create a stable, secure environment for our peoples. The future rests in our hands." He made a sweeping gesture toward the monument. "Let us move forward in a spirit of unity born of their sacrifice. We will keep faith. We will not forget."
After acknowledging the applause, the ambassador added reverentially, "Now let us pause for a moment of silence to honor our fallen comrades." The humans in the crowd immediately bowed their heads, while the Vulcans and the other assembled aliens continued to look straight ahead or cast their eyes up toward the heavens.
A picture of a smiling Maxwell Forrest, hand outstretched in greeting, formed in Jon's mind, and he said a silent prayer that his friend had found peace at last.
Off in the distance, a lone trumpeter began to play the first haunting notes of Taps." When Archer lifted his head, he felt a surge of pride as he saw the members of his senior staff snap to attention. Even Doctor Phlox squared his shoulders and lifted his chin in tribute as the flag of United Earth slowly begin its descent down the staff to half-mast.
When the last notes had died away, Ambassador Belliveau said, "Thank you for coming," and stepped away from the podium.
As those assembled began to depart, Archer said a few quick words to Nathan Samuels on his right and then turned to his left to bid farewell to Soval. Surprisingly, instead of preparing to mingle with the other dignitaries, the ambassador stood, hands tucked into the sleeves of his robe, staring at the ground in front of him. Not wishing to disturb his colleague, Archer waited patiently by his side.
After a few moments, Soval must have felt Jon's eyes on him because he raised his head and took a deep breath. "I grieve with thee, Captain," he said in a low-pitched voice, which made it clear that he intended for his words to be heard by Archer alone. "Admiral Forrest was a good man and a good friend. I think of him often in these troubled times. His senseless death was a tragedy for both our peoples." When he turned toward Archer, Jon could clearly see his sincerity and his sense of loss.
"Thank you, Soval." Archer looked toward the obelisk. "You're right. He was a very good man." In unspoken agreement, the two men walked over to the monument. Archer ran his hand over Forrest's name, slowly tracing each letter with reverence. "I wish he was here. We could really use his help right about now."
"We must look to each other…" Soval's eyes traveled across the courtyard to a group which included Minister Vaaris, T'Pol, Trip, and Ambassador V'Lar. "…and to those we trust."
Following Soval's gaze, Archer took in the members of the group. Without question, Trip, T'Pol and V'Lar had his trust; however, he wasn't quite so sure about Vaaris. Jon knew that Soval trusted him implicitly, but there was a secretive air about the diminutive Vulcan that Archer found unsettling.
Taking a deep breath, Jon tried to push any negative thoughts from his mind. "I need to speak to V'Lar. I guess this is as good a time as any."
Soval gestured toward the group. "After you, Captain." The two men moved easily through the thinning crowd, nodding to acquaintances along the way.
As he watched his chief engineer interact with the Vulcans, Archer couldn't help but marvel once again at Trip's steady progress in recovering from his bout of depression. True to his word, as soon as he'd set foot on Enterprise, Trip scheduled a time to sit down with Jon and Phlox. He didn't offer excuses; he simply revealed what he'd learned during his sessions with Torok and accepted full responsibility for his actions over the past several months. He also promised to meet regularly with Phlox so the doctor could monitor his recovery.
A smile tugged at one corner of Jon's mouth. That was more like his friend, the Trip he'd known for over a decade. So many things now made sense: Trip's refusal to allow Phlox to treat him, his nightmares following his sister's death, his violent – though much delayed – reaction to Sim's death.Jon didn't know how the high priest had managed to corral the engineer and convince him to participate in a mind meld, but there was no denying the fact that it had done wonders for Trip.
When Archer walked up behind Tucker and clapped a hand on his shoulder, Trip's head whipped around. As soon as he saw Jon, a look of relief spread over his face. "Captain." His eyes traveled to Soval. "Ambassador. It's good to see ya." He motioned with his head. "Minister Vaaris was just tellin' us that more company arrived about twenty minutes ago."
Archer wrinkled his brow at his friend's rather cryptic statement. "Company?" He looked at Vaaris. "I don't…"
"A second Andorian ship has entered orbit," Vaaris replied. As always, the Vulcan male, though small in stature, was a dominant force in the group. He turned to Soval. "The High Council will be meeting within the hour. We must find a way to defuse this situation before it threatens next week's joint maneuvers. Will you join us?"
"Of course," Soval answered. "Has Torok been informed?"
"No. The High Priest was performing a marriage ceremony and could not be disturbed."
"I will see that he is apprised of the situation." Soval nodded to the others in the group. "Excuse me."
Archer caught a glimpse of Admiral Gardner standing at the edge of the crowd with the Andorian commander and first officer of the Imperial Warship Zibalik. A month ago, the Zibalik had come to the aid of the Vulcan ship, Ti'Mur, when she was attacked by a group of Romulan vessels. Things would have been fine if the Andorians had simply retired when three Vulcan ships arrived in answer to the Ti'Mur's distress call. Unfortunately, Commander Etev of the Zibalik promptly announced his intention to return to Vulcan with the Ti'Mur and her escorts.
The Vulcans were not pleased.
The three men, obviously deep in conversation, did not appear to be a happy group. From the look on Gardner's face, Archer made a guess that the admiral had just been informed that they now had a second Andorian ship to deal with.
From the minute the Zibalik arrived over Vulcan, tensions had mounted. It would be naïve to think that these two longtime enemies could suddenly forget the past and begin afresh, but Archer had hoped that they would at least be willing to try to find common ground in the face of the growing Romulan threat. Unfortunately, to date, neither the Vulcans nor the Andorians had shown any interest in compromise. Even Ambassador V'Lar, who had twice before negotiated treaties between Andoria and Vulcan, had been unable to make any headway.
The Andorians continued to insist that, as members of the Coalition, they had a right to participate in the Vulcan/Terran maneuvers. Archer tended to agree with them. The plan he'd proposed at the first meeting with Commander Etev included scattering members of the Andorian crew throughout various Starfleet vessels. They would have no direct contact with the Vulcans; in fact, the Vulcans might not even be aware they were present. Jon thought it was logical; the Vulcans, when they learned about it, did not. Now, with the arrival of the second Andorian ship, he doubted if Surak himself could propose a plan that would find favor with the Vulcans.
Archer turned to V'Lar and saw his concern mirrored on her face. "Is there anything we can do?" he asked tensely.
"There is always cause for hope, Captain. We must just keep trying. I have a meeting scheduled with the Andorians later this afternoon. I am sure that…" Archer suddenly saw her face darken. "This could be a problem," she said tightly.
Through the dispersing crowd, Archer could see Admiral Kiran, commander of the Vulcan fleet, Minister Sulin, an ultra-conservative member of the High Council, and two other Vulcans he did not know, bearing down on the Andorians. In response to the advancing group, Archer saw Admiral Gardener widen his stance and fold his arms across his chest as though he'd just received the message, "Prepare to be boarded."
"Trip…T'Pol, come with me." Archer motioned to his officers. As he started to move, he took a quick look around but he couldn't locate Lieutenant Reed. He would have felt better having Malcolm nearby, given the situation, but they'd just have to manage without him.
Dodging several minor embassy officials, a Denobulan female, and a group of officers from Intrepid, Archer hurried forward. As he drew up next to Gardner, he heard the admiral say, "This is neither the time nor the place for this, Admiral Kiran."
Kiran puffed out his chest. "This will only take a moment. We want to make the High Council's position perfectly clear. Under no circumstances will we accede to the Andorians' demands."
Commander Etev, took a step forward, but Archer's arm shot out, blocking his way. Pushing Archer's arm aside, Etev, antennae alert, drew himself up to his full height and growled, "You are a fool, Vulcan. We have made no demands. We only want what is our due." He spoke in a carefully controlled voice, but his dark eyes glowed like coals banked low, waiting to burst into flames.
The rheumy eyes of Minister Sulin stared back at the Andorian. There was a determined set to the old man's pinched and withered face that made it clear that he, too, would not be swayed. "We will never allow Andorians to participate in maneuvers that could give them access to classified information. Their protestations of cooperation are a sham."
"The Andorians have only asked to be included," Gardner said. "That is hardly an unreasonable request. They have not asked for access to Vulcan ships nor have they requested an exchange of information. As members of the Coalition, they have a right to prepare militarily, just as we do. They have a right to know that we, as allies, will support them."
"They have no rights," Sulin hissed. "Not here on Vulcan." His eyes slid toward Gardner. "Are you aware, Admiral, that a second Andorian ship has arrived?"
For an instant, Gardner looked slightly uncomfortable, but he quickly covered his lapse, assuming the no-nonsense face of a seasoned bridge officer. "I'm aware of that fact. The animosity between your species is understandable, given your history, but you have to admit that in this instance the Andorians have given you no reason to think that they have hostile intentions."
"Perhaps we should ask Commander Etev if he knows why the second ship is in orbit over our planet," T'Pol said quietly. "They may have a perfectly acceptable reason for being here."
"You have spent too much time with humans," Sulin sneered. Archer couldn't help but notice that the old man's hand trembled as he pointed a bony finger accusingly at T'Pol. "Have you forgotten how many of our people have died at the hands of the Andorians? Have you forgotten their threats?"
"I have not forgotten," T'Pol responded. "But times have changed. That necessitates that we must change as well."
"For all we know, these two ships could be the vanguard for an invasion fleet. The Andorians are ruthless. They will inveigle the humans into betraying us. They will steal our tactics…our classified information and then they will attack."
At first, Archer thought that the Vulcans would be made uncomfortable by Sulin's impassioned words, but they seemed to take it in stride. Perhaps they understood that his age was working against him. Archer looked closely at Sulin. He was obviously suffering from some sort of wasting illness. Vulcan medicine was quite advanced. There ought to be something their doctors could do to help the old man.
"We do not want or need your secrets, Vulcan," Commander Etev stated resolutely. "We came here looking for help against a common enemy. We only ask to be treated as equals. We have no wish to be relegated to the foot of the table, begging for crumbs from the plates of our so-called allies."
Completely disregarding Etev, the stouter of the two unidentified Vulcan men addressed Admiral Gardner. "Minister Sulin may be a bit…overzealous, but that does not mean that we should disregard his words. He has correctly reasoned that it is only logical for us to exercise caution. We have a great deal to lose if the Andorians are not dealing with us in good faith."
Archer didn't know who this guy was, but it really didn't matter. He'd heard it all before. No torture devised by man could hold a candle to trying to negotiate with the Vulcans. There was no give and take. Whenever they were asked to compromise they simply dug in their heels and trotted out that old warhorse, "logic." It wasn't logical to do this; it wasn't logical to that; it wasn't logical to some other damned thing. Hadn't these people ever heard of common sense?
"I understand your position," Archer said, trying to maintain his composure, "but like it or not, the Vulcan High Council did agree to join the Coalition. The Andorians are your allies. You may not trust them, but you at least owe them a modicum of respect."
"Anything done can be undone," Admiral Kiran said frostily. "Do not lose sight of that."
Archer was about to respond when Ambassador V'Lar brushed past him, placing herself between the Andorians and her fellow Vulcans. "Please come with me, Commander Etev." She motioned toward the front entrance of the United Earth Embassy; the pair of ornately etched metal doors stood only about twenty feet away. "Admiral Gardner, will you join us?"
Suddenly reminded of the very public setting for their conversation, Archer took a look around. Their small group had attracted quite a bit of attention. Even now the embassy guards were quietly trying to disperse the curious onlookers. Archer swore under his breath. He should have seen what was all too apparent to V'Lar. This confrontation could only take a bad situation and make it worse.
"Be careful what you promise, V'Lar," Kiran said. "You do not speak for Vulcan."
"Neither do you, Admiral," V'Lar replied in a no-nonsense tone of voice. With her grey hair and plump figure, the ambassador might appear to be little more than someone's aging grandmother, but Archer was well aware of the sharp mind and iron will that lurked beneath her gentle demeanor. "The High Council has empowered me to negotiate with the Andorians. I will do what I think is best."
"You may negotiate, but it will change nothing." Kiran – a bull of man, barrel-chested with broad shoulders and steel grey hair – motioned toward his three colleagues. "We speak for the majority on the Council."
V'Lar turned her back on Kiran and, motioning again toward the front entrance of the building, said, "Gentlemen."
This time Admiral Gardner was quick to go to her aid. Between the two of them, they finally succeeded in herding the two angry Andorians into the embassy.
As soon as the Andorians were out of earshot, Vaaris moved forward to take Gardner's place at Archer's side. "That was unworthy of you," he quietly said to his fellow Vulcans. "It was inappropriate to undermine V'Lar's authority when she is working to secure the safety and security of Vulcan."
"Don't fool yourself, Vaaris," Kiran replied. "We are the ones who are working for the safety and security of Vulcan. We will not be led like animals to the slaughter."
"And what about the Romulans?"
"The Romulans do not have ships circling overhead. The Andorians do." Apparently needing to have the last word, Kiran turned on his heel. "Out of my way, human," he said as he pushed past Trip and stalked away. Archer was surprised by the self-satisfied look that spread over Sulin's wizened features as he followed Kiran.
Archer barely had time to process what had just happened when he saw his first officer stiffen. Following her line of sight, he saw Koss striding towards them.
When the young Vulcan reached the group, he raised his hand in the ta'al, the traditional Vulcan salute, and said, "Live long and prosper, gentlemen." Koss' eyes locked on his former wife. "T'Pol."
Following proper etiquette, Archer returned the salute, even though he doubted if Koss really noticed. "Peace and long life. I believe you know my chief engineer, Commander Tucker."
Trip nodded his head stiffly in recognition. The engineer's face remained impassive as he quietly took a step closer to T'Pol. Knowing his friend as well as he did, Jon could see Trip's thoughts clearly reflected in his eyes: No trespassing.
Obviously Koss didn't get the message because he allowed his gaze to linger on and over T'Pol far longer than necessary. When she finally shifted her weight uncomfortably, Koss turned his attention to Archer.
"We meet again, Captain. I see you've met my father."
Archer's gaze immediately shifted to the two unidentified Vulcan males. "I'm afraid we haven't been properly introduced."
Koss glanced questioningly at Vaaris before saying, "That oversight can be corrected. I would like to introduce the two newest members of the High Council." Koss pointed to the man whose build was very similar to his own. "This is my father, Minister Herac. The gentleman to his right is Minister Tel. Father…Minister Tel, this is Captain Archer of the starship Enterprise."
That's just great, Jon thought as he plastered a smile on his face. Two new members of the Council and they're both in tight with the conservative faction. Damn! Things weren't already tough enough.
Aloud, Archer said, "It's an honor, Ministers. I look forward to working with both of you."
Herac took a moment to study Archer. "My son has told me about you, Captain. Vulcan owes you a debt of gratitude for the part you played in returning the Kir'Shara to us."
"I was glad I could help. We couldn't have succeeded, however, without your son."
"So I understand."
Archer suddenly realized how awkward this must be for T'Pol. Koss seemed to be unable to keep his eyes off her. Fortunately, as far as Jon could tell, there didn't seem to be anything lascivious in his gaze. Archer glanced at Trip, who stood rigidly still, his hands clasped firmly behind his back. He could practically hear his friend's teeth grinding together.
"T'Pol, Ambassador V'Lar may need some help with the Andorians." He glanced at his chief engineer. "Trip, go with her. I want you to find Ambassador Belliveau and ask him to do what he can to help. I'll join you in a few minutes."
T'Pol's features never changed, but the look of relief in her eyes was unmistakable. "As you wish." She gracefully executed the ta'al. "Peace and long life."
Minister Tel raised his hand in response, but Herac continued to stare straight ahead. That, however, wasn't surprising. From the outset, he had refused to acknowledge the existence of his former daughter-in-law. T'Pol gave a quick nod of recognition to Koss, but before he could reply, she turned and headed toward the entrance to the embassy, with Tucker close beside her.
Archer watched as Trip motioned to Major Luvan, his Vulcan bodyguard, and the lanky member of the Security Ministry immediately walked over and joined the two commanders as they disappeared inside the embassy. The Security Ministry had assigned Luvan to guard Trip when an attempt was made on his life. Over the past four weeks, Archer had had several opportunities to observe the major. It hadn't taken him long to realize that Trip was in very capable hands. Jon made a mental note to thank the Vulcan someday. Knowing that someone was watching over Trip left him with one less thing to worry about.
"Koss." The decided edge in Herac's voice got Archer's attention. "You will do well to exercise more care in how you behave around that woman. Thankfully, she is no longer your wife. You are well rid of her."
Koss gave every appearance of being a dutiful son, but Archer couldn't help but wonder what was really going on behind that emotionless Vulcan facade. It was obvious that he was still interested in T'Pol. So why had their marriage ended? Who had really made the decision to seek a divorce: Koss or his father?
Quickly stepping in to fill the uncomfortable lull in the conversation that followed this exchange, Minister Tel said, "We know of your friendship with the Andorians, Captain."
Until now, Tel had virtually faded into the background. A nondescript man, he had mousey brown hair cut in the traditional Vulcan style and blue eyes that appeared to have faded from too many years of exposure to the unforgiving rays of the sun. He was the same height as Herac, but he somehow managed to appear smaller – a middle-aged man whose olive green robes seemed ready to swallow him up.
"We understand your desire to accede to their demands," Tel continued, "but the time is not yet right. We must first lay the proper groundwork. Acceptance will undoubtedly take many years, but…"
"With all due respect, Minister," Archer interrupted, "I thought the Andorians took care of the groundwork when they rescued the Ti'Mur. Like it or not, Ambassador V'Lar and everyone on that ship owe their lives to the Andorians. Believe me, they are not the enemy."
"Perhaps." Tel pursed his lips. "However, as Minister Herac so ably stated, logic dictates that the High Council must exercise caution. This could only be a ruse to lull us into a false sense of security."
Archer's face evidently reflected his growing frustration because Vaaris immediately put a halt to any further discussion. "We'll talk about this further, gentlemen, when the Council meets. Captain Archer, you probably want to join Ambassador V'Lar."
Gratefully, Archer nodded his head and quickly made his good-byes, exchanging a few extra words with Koss before he walked away. Much to his surprise, Vaaris decided to accompany him.
When they neared the embassy's imposing front doors, the Vulcan came to a halt. "A moment, Captain. Before I take my leave, I would like to say a few words to you." Gesturing past the uniformed guards, who stood at attention on either side of the double doors, he pointed towards a stone bench which was situated near the far corner of the building.
Still on edge and eager to get out of the sweltering heat, Archer tried to keep his response reasonably civil. "Sure. Why not." He led the way over to the bench but saw no need to sit down. He didn't intend to be here that long. Once again, he had to remind himself to cast his eyes slightly downward. He had difficulty thinking of Vaaris as anything but a large, overpowering man. "You've got my full attention, Minister. Go ahead."
Vaaris glanced around quickly to be sure that no one was within hearing distance. "Do not judge Minister Sulin too harshly. He is a very sick man who only has a short time to live. He does not mean to give offense, but his mind is focused solely on the loss of his son, who was killed in a skirmish with the Andorians. It happened over a century ago, but in Sulin's mind the memory is still fresh."
Jon didn't know what he'd expected, but it wasn't this. "I'm sorry," he murmured sympathetically. "I understand how the death of a loved one can weigh on a person's mind."
This time it was Archer's turn to look around. What he had to say now didn't need an audience. "Sulin's feelings are perfectly understandable, but what about the others? Why are they so hellbent to ignore what the Andorians can bring to the Coalition? I've fought the Romulans. I have a pretty good idea of what they're capable of doing. If we're going to stand a chance of keeping them out of this sector, we're going to need the help of all our allies, the Andorians included."
"I agree with you, Captain. The Romulans are a formidable foe, but they have not left an open wound across Vulcan society in the same way the Andorians have. I fear that Vulcans are very slow to accept change. My people still see the Andorians as the enemy and they are deeply distrustful of them." Vaaris must have noticed Archer's dissatisfaction because he added, "That does not mean that those of us who understand the magnitude of the growing Romulan threat will idly stand by and do nothing. We will do all we can to change the opinions of the members of the High Council and the people at large."
"You might start by taking a little more care when you appoint new members to the High Council. Herac and Tel are going to side with Kiran, aren't they?"
"Were any other ministers appointed – anyone who will support you and T'Pau in the Council?"
"No. Herac took the seat left vacant when Speth was killed. Minister Tel is filling the seat of a man who was closely aligned with V'Las; he disappeared at the same time as the Administrator and has not been seen or heard of since."
"That wasn't too smart, Vaaris." Archer struggled to keep his growing frustration in check. "How do you expect to accomplish anything if you can't control the Council?"
"Council members are selected based upon their aptitude for governing, not on the basis of their political beliefs."
Archer rolled his eyes. "You might want to consider revising that rule," he observed with a trace of anger in his voice. "How do you expect Vulcan to assume a position of leadership in the Coalition if your hands are constantly tied by Kiran?"
"We will do what we can, Captain. That is all I can promise." Vaaris stood calmly with his hands folded behind his back. The look on his delicate features gave no indication that he fully appreciated what a grievous mistake the members of the High Council had just made.
Archer took a deep breath and tried to calm down. Getting all worked up accomplished nothing. Common sense obviously had no place here – not when measured against tradition, logic, and blatant self-interest. Vulcans are what they are. It was pointless to try and change them.
"I will not detain you any further," Vaaris said. "I know that you still have much you wish to accomplish today. I will tell T'Pau and Kuvak of our conversation. Peace and long life, Captain Archer."
As he watched Vaaris walk away, Jon had to fight to keep his spirits up. Now he had the unpleasant task of telling Admirals Gardner and Uhlani that they had yet another major obstacle to overcome. Slowly, he covered the short distance to the embassy's entrance. A guard was holding one of the doors open for him when he arrived. Although the gesture barely registered with him, he did manage to mumble, "Thanks," as he entered the building. He realized that he only had a few minutes to organize his thoughts before he had to face V'Lar and the Andorians.
"You no longer speak to your friends, Archer?"
Jon's head snapped up, and his eyes searched the lobby for the owner of the voice. Finally, he noticed Shran strolling out of the waiting room to his right. Quickly closing the distance between them, Archer grabbed the Andorian's arm and pulled him back into the waiting room.
"Be careful, pinkskin," Shran said defensively. "I might get the idea that you aren't glad to see me."
Archer came to a halt when they reached the center of the room and planted his feet firmly on the seal of United Earth, which was woven into the plush dark blue carpet. "I'm not," he snapped, "if you're in command of the ship that just entered orbit. Do you have any idea how much trouble you caused?"
A look Jon could only describe as shame passed over the Andorian's face. Caught off guard, Archer asked, "What is it?" He took a moment to study Shran, but the Andorian refused to meet his eye. "What's the matter?"
Without a word of explanation, Shran slowly pulled his arm from Archer's grasp and walked to the far end of the room where he stood quietly, looking out the floor-to-ceiling window.
"Shran?" Jon felt his anger drain away as he followed his friend, quietly taking up a position next to him.
"I didn't think it would be this hard," the Andorian finally responded before taking a deep breath. "You see, it's not my ship." There was a hint of bitterness in his voice. "I'm only the first officer."
"What?" Archer tried to keep the shock out of his voice, but failed miserably. Demoting Shran made no sense. He seriously doubted that the Andorians had too many people in command of their ships that were better qualified for the job than Shran.
"Remember I told you that the Imperial Guard does not reward commanders who lose their ships. It will take some time for me to regain their trust."
"I'm sorry, Shran," Archer said sincerely. "I wish there was something I could do to help. You deserve better."
"Don't let it concern you." Shran looked over his shoulder at Archer and smiled ruefully. "What's done is done."
"So why are you here?"
"I thought that would be obvious even to a human. We're here to assist with the negotiations. Andoria wants to be included in these maneuvers of yours."
Archer sighed. "You and I both know that isn't going to happen – not now, and probably not for some time to come. We've been in negotiations for almost a month, trying to get the Vulcans to see reason. They simply won't budge."
"You're the man who's orchestrating this Coalition, Archer. Use your influence to…"
"You aren't listening, Shran. I have virtually no influence here on Vulcan. The conservatives are in control of the government. As for the joint maneuvers, Admiral Kiran is the man in charge and, believe me, he has no love for the Andorians. He'll do everything in his power to keep your people out."
"Kiran." Shran spat out the name as though it was a rancid piece of meat. "I've heard of him. He only wants one thing: a war with my people. Frankly, I'm surprised that he agreed to these maneuvers. He has no love for humans, either."
"So I've noticed." Archer scrubbed one hand wearily over the back of his neck. "It's been made perfectly clear from the beginning that there's only one man running this show. Every suggestion Starfleet's made in regard to the maneuvers has been summarily dismissed. We were able to get Trip on one of the Vulcan ships as an observer, but that's about it."
"Commander Tucker is going to be allowed access to a Vulcan ship? That's very interesting," Shran smirked. "Don't be too surprised if it's a freighter. With the commander's eye for engines, I doubt that the Vulcans will let him get a close look at one of their combat cruisers."
Archer heard a commotion in the lobby. He turned in time to see Commander Etev and his first officer storm out of the building.
This time it was Shran's turn to sigh. "It appears as though the negotiations are not going well."
For a split second Archer considered chasing after the Andorians, but just then he saw Ambassador V'Lar walk into the lobby. Glancing into the waiting room, she caught sight of Jon. He took a couple of steps toward her, but she shook her head. One look at her face told him everything he needed to know: she hadn't been able to repair the damage done by Kiran and his cronies. Without uttering a word, V'Lar folded her arms and walked quietly out of the embassy.
"It looks as though I may have come too late," Shran murmured.
Still reeling from V'Lar's failure to make any headway with the Andorians, Archer whipped around to face Shran.
"I've had just about enough. Either tell me why you're here or get out. I'm not in any mood to play games."
"Take care, Archer. Right now, I'm probably the only friend you have on my world."
The Andorian raised a hand placatingly. "All right, but you're not going to like what I have to say."
"Spit it out."
"I came here to warn you."
"Warn me about what?"
"We've brought instructions from the Andorian government. If the Vulcans persist in their efforts to exclude us, we've been ordered to return home. We leave tomorrow morning."
"Just like that you're giving up and going home with your tails tucked between your legs?"
Shran smiled grimly. "Don't delude yourself. This isn't a retreat. We're just…reassessing our position."
"What in the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"Our government has been in contact with the Romulans…"
"Lower your voice, human," Shran hissed as his eyes darted around the room. "This conversation is not meant for public consumption."
Gritting his teeth, Archer took a moment to remind himself that strangling Shran would accomplish nothing – although right now it would be damn satisfying. "Just tell me what the Romulans want," he growled.
"They've offered to negotiate a non-aggression pact."
"That's crazy. You know you can't trust the Romulans."
"As it stands now, we have no faith in the Vulcans, either. At least the Romulans are willing to talk."
"But the Romulans destroyed your ship!"
"And the Vulcans killed my brother!"
Stunned, Archer sucked in his breath. He saw the anger and hurt burning in the Andorian's eyes and knew that what he'd said was true.
"I'm sorry, Shran. I didn't know." What else could he say?
Turning back to stare out the window, Shran quickly got hold of himself. "You'll have to do better than apologies if you want to salvage anything from this situation. You need to persuade the Vulcans to bargain in good faith – and soon."
"I've told you that there's…" Archer stopped in mid sentence when he noticed that two young embassy employees had just entered the waiting room. He was going to ask them to move along, but his scowl did his talking for him. One look at his face, and the young women turned around and beat a hasty retreat.
When they'd gone, Shran said, "As soon as we break orbit tomorrow morning, a ship carrying our ambassador at large and a diplomatic delegation will leave Andoria and head for a secret rendezvous point. Agents acting for the Romulan Star Empire will be there waiting for them."
"Your people aren't even meeting them face to face?"
"Evidently that isn't the way the Romulans do business."
"And exactly who are these agents?"
Shran shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine."
Archer pressed one hand against his forehead and tried to think. "I can't believe your government would do something this stupid." Restless and upset he started to pace. He'd almost reached the center of the room when he whirled around to face Shran. "Think of how this will look to the Vulcans. They'll figure you've been in league with the Romulans all along. How can the Coalition ever function effectively if…"
"Apparently I haven't made thing clear to you." Shran stalked over and planted himself firmly in front of Archer. "We will not be shoved aside. If we are not equal partners, Andoria is no longer interested in belonging to your…Coalition."
Incredulous, Archer stared at Shran. "If we want to keep the Romulans out of this sector, the Coalition is our only hope. We need the Andorians!"
"When you were planning your Coalition, Archer, you should have first figured out how you were going to make it all work. As you say on Earth: The lambs will not willingly lie down with the lions."
"But that's just what you're doing!"
"My people don't see it that way." Suddenly Shran seemed to take pity on Archer and his face softened. "For what it's worth, I agree with everything you've said, but this time there's nothing I can do to help you."
Archer felt as though he'd been poleaxed. Struggling to collect his thoughts, he headed for the closest chair and flopped down on the gold and blue striped seat. "I don't understand any of this. Governments don't just walk away from alliances. Not after all of the work we've put into this."
"They do if they had reservations about the alliance from the very beginning."
Fighting to keep his desperation in check, Jon looked up at Shran. "At least tell me how to get ahold of your ambassador." The Andorian shook his head. "Where is this meeting supposed to take place? Maybe…"
"I've already told you too much. If you want to know more, you'll have to find out for yourself." Shran slapped Archer sympathetically on the shoulder. "I have to go. Commander Thalan will be wondering where I am. I could get into a great deal of trouble if he ever found out how much I've just told you."
"Thanks, Shran," Archer said. He felt like a battered, rudderless ship drifting inexorably into dangerous waters. "Don't worry. I'll keep your name out of it."
"I'll try and talk to T'Pau and Ambassador V'Lar. Maybe they can get Kiran under control." Archer knew that he should try to sound a little more upbeat, but he couldn't seem to keep the hopelessness out of his voice.
"I wish you luck. It would upset me greatly if I was forced to face you as an enemy one day."
Archer froze. The thought of the Andorians as neutrals was bad enough, but what if the pact they negotiated with the Romulans went beyond non-aggression? What if they became allies and set out to conquer this sector together? Could Starfleet manage to hold the other members of the Coalition together long enough to try and stand against them? And what if the other species deserted them? What would…"
"Take care of yourself, pinkskin."
Roused momentarily from his thoughts of gloom and doom, Archer noticed that the Andorian's hand was outstretched towards him. He managed to mumble, "Thanks again," as the two men shook hands. When he saw the pity in Shran's eyes, he wanted to say something, but the words wouldn't come. Numbly, he watched as Shran turned and left the waiting room. He knew he should get moving. He had a lot of work to do if he was going to try and salvage anything from this screwed up mess. But for the moment, all he could do was sit rigidly, both hands clutching the arms of the chair, while he watched his hopes and dreams for the Coalition turn to dust before his eyes.