...Touching and Touched
Rating: PG-13, for language
Disclaimer: Star Trek: Enterprise is the property of Paramount Pictures, Inc. All original material herein is the property of its author.
A/N: Thanks again to pookha for character background ideas.
Note: /Dialogue between slash marks/ is inner-thought bond-speak.
Part 15: Epilogue
Trip had arranged for a room for his parents at a five-star hotel a stone's throw from Starfleet. T'Pol was getting Chuck and Catherine settled when Trip tried to tip the starstruck bellboy, but the kid would have none of it. He had recognized the Enterprise officers at once, from articles he'd collected about the war. Chuck and Catherine peeked out from the hallway as the boy stammered out noises of admiration—it was hard to understand him, he was talking so fast—and told Trip he wanted to join Starfleet when he was old enough. Then he worked up the courage to ask for a handshake, which Trip gladly gave him. The kid departed in a deliriously happy fog, looking as if he'd never wash that hand again. For Catherine and Chuck, it was a perspective of their son that they'd seldom seen since the war's end, and a memory they would treasure.
The posh surroundings were suitably impressive. "This is a far cry from the place we stayed in back when you were in Starfleet Training," Chuck told Trip with an approving nod.
Trip shrugged modestly. "Being a war hero isn't all annoying photo ops and sanitized interviews." He thought of the bellboy, and smiled to himself. No sir, it's a lot more than that.
"Any chance we'll get to see you tomorrow?" Catherine asked.
"Unlikely," T'Pol replied. "Admiral Gardner expects the Board of Inquiry to be in session for the entire day."
"What exactly is this inquisition about?" Chuck asked.
A sudden, ghastly thought occurred to Catherine. "They're not making you ask permission to get married, are they?"
"Naw, nothing like that," Trip said with a smile. "They're inquiring as to our ability to remain sufficiently objective enough to continue serving together aboard Enterprise, if and when we do get married."
"Ability to remain objective...?" Chuck looked blankly from Trip to T'Pol. "They do realize T'Pol is Vulcan, don't they?"
Trip and Catherine burst into laughter together, as Chuck and T'Pol traded matching looks of bemusement. T'Pol turned to Trip, arching one graceful, upswept eyebrow. "Your father makes an eloquent point."
Catherine grinned. "Maybe he should testify at that inquiry tomorrow."
"I have a better idea," Chuck said. "Why don't you cut through all the bullshit and red tape, and tell 'em you're already married?"
Trip did a double-take. T'Pol's eyebrows rose faintly, which Catherine took to be the Vulcan version of stark surprise.
"I mean, I know it hasn't been for very long," Chuck went on. "But you've both been on the same ship, and you haven't blown it up yet."
"Say that again," Trip said quietly.
Chuck blinked. "What? That you haven't blown up the ship?"
Trip was smiling now, a tiny, charmed smile that reminded Catherine of Lorian. "The part about T'Pol and me already being married."
Chuck shrugged, looking a little self-conscious. "Once those Starfleet stiff-necks get used to the idea, they'll be all right."
Catherine hung back, holding her tongue, but she thought she might just burst from pride.
Trip caught his mother's eye and winked at her as he slung an arm affectionately around Chuck's shoulders. "Thanks, Dad. We might just do that."
When Trip and T'Pol emerged from the hotel, they found Archer leaning against the ground car, pensively studying the ocean. Wordlessly, the pair took up matching positions on either side of him. The moon was high in the sky, turning the ocean silver.
"Penny for your thoughts, Cap'n," Trip said, as they all watched the play of moonlight on water.
"No secrets..." Archer murmured. "That's what Soval said about the bonding meld." Trip and T'Pol were both struck by the open vulnerability on his face. "What does it feel like?" he asked. "To have no secrets between you?"
Trip nudged T'Pol through the bond, and received an answering nod from her. She sensed it too: a breakthrough in the offing. After all these months of silence and private suffering, was the captain finally ready to cleanse his soul?
"I thought at first that it might make me feel kinda naked, y'know?" Trip told him. "But I found out that it was more like a feeling of being set free."
"The truth and trust between us has strengthened us," T'Pol added.
"To have someone you know so well, whom you trust so much..." Archer's eyes filled with a sad, quiet longing. "Someone to eat the sins of the sin-eater..."
Trip ached for his friend. T'Pol spoke for both of them. "You have us, Captain."
Archer smiled briefly, warmly, in gratitude. A moment later, he was somber once more. "I was hoping that our mission back to the Expanse would give me the chance to work through some things..." He shrugged faintly, summoning up a touch of wryness. "So much for that plan."
"Anything we can do?" Trip asked casually.
Archer hesitated, clearly debating with himself. Finally he ventured, "I know it's been a long day..."
"I'm still wired," Trip responded quickly. "After that wedding, and the reception, and now the bonding ceremony— there's no way I'm going to sleep for a while."
"Nor I, Captain," T'Pol said smoothly. "I found the day's events most energizing."
Archer looked relieved. "I feel the same way." He sounded hopeful as he pressed on. "Would you two like to go somewhere and...maybe just...talk?"
As Trip smiled and nodded, he heard T'Pol's soft, grateful sigh in his mind... /At last./
When Nick Masaro arrived at Orpheus Mining Colony on the Moon, he found the mood among the Primers to be one of controlled fury. It was bad enough that highly placed Vulcan officials had been found responsible for the embassy bombing, but the news that Starfleet was now in talks with the alleged "reformed" government about a formal alliance with Earth—it boggled the mind.
At least the Primers were pleased that the demonstrations at the Memorial had gone well—better than expected, in fact. The Terra Prime-generated leak about the Vulcan Security Minister being arrested for the attack had attracted the press like bees to honey. Support for the Vulcans had plunged within a day, and spontaneous alien hate crimes had spiked impressively. Talk shows were abuzz with renewed discussion about preservation of the purity of the human race. And, to put it bluntly, the bombing had been very good for Terra Prime. The organization's ranks had enjoyed a healthy resurgence following the attack, with more petitioners every day.
As Nick was ushered into John Frederick Paxton's office by his quiet but formidable assistant Josiah, Paxton was studying a video on a screen behind his spacious desk. Nick recognized it at once: Memorial Hall at Starfleet—the tribute to the victims of the embassy bombing. One of the press feeds, most likely.
"Good work, Nick," Paxton said in that velvet baritone of his, without taking his eyes from the screen. "Thanks to the information you provided us, Starfleet's dark secret about the identity of those Vulcan cowards who planted the bomb is now common knowledge throughout the system. The pro-humanity movement has been given a significant boost."
Nick felt a cold shock pass through his system at Paxton's words. Like someone walked on your grave, his mother would say. The idea that he could be single-handedly responsible for stirring up so much hatred...yesterday it would have made him proud, but today he just felt queasy. He was suddenly, stunningly aware that he didn't want to hate T'Pol or Vulcans or Starfleet anymore. He didn't want to be the reason that T'Pol was thrown off Enterprise and Commander Tucker's career was ruined.
"I was just doing my part," he said quietly. Enjoy the kudos while you can, Nick, he thought miserably. After what he had to tell Paxton, he'd probably be branded a traitor to Terra Prime.
Paxton was scanning through crowd shots in Memorial Hall. He froze the frame, zooming in on the section of blue-uniformed personnel from Enterprise...over a few rows, to the crew of Columbia...closer in...and finally stopping on Captain Hernandez's XO. Commander Lorian.
Paxton pursed his lips as he studied the calm, intelligent face on the screen. "So that's the impure half-breed...Lorian." His normally dulcet voice soured at the name, making it sound distasteful, somehow. "I must admit, he doesn't look as satanic as those of his mother's race typically do. Must be the eyebrows. And those blue eyes—they give his face a deceptively pleasant countenance..." —his expression darkened with disdain— "...for a devil's spawn."
"I was wrong," Nick blurted. Paxton turned away from his contemplation of the viewscreen to regard him with mild curiosity. Nick pointed to the frozen image of Commander Lorian. "About him—about T'Pol. Maybe about everything, I don't know—"
"Slow down, son." Paxton rose, putting a hand on Nick's shoulder, comforting and supportive. "Take a breath and start from the beginning."
Nick let it all spill out in a rush, everything he'd learned over the past thirty-six hours. How Lorian had gotten Columbia spaceworthy in a matter of weeks, after her human engineering crew had struggled for months without success. How the other alien hybrids, late of Lorian's crew, were already making their marks in Starfleet. Karyn Archer, part Ikaaran, was redefining the NX-class's navigational parameters with her extraordinary piloting skills. Neela Wallenda, a descendent of Phlox, was presenting compelling new data on genetic engineering to Starfleet Medical. Xirsus, part Zayyan, was working on adapting E2's tractor-beam technology for implementation aboard Enterprise and Columbia.
Then Nick pulled out his data module of Commander Tucker's battle simulations of Azati Prime and explained what he had used the program to do. "I ran the sim five times—I used every officer who'd had command training," he said, fidgeting restlessly with the module. "T'Pol did as well as Captain Archer would have, if he'd been in command. Her performance was no worse—actually, it was better—than the program's Virtual Captain, its version of the ideal starship commander. And Angie died every time I ran the sim. Don't you see? She didn't die because T'Pol was Vulcan. She would've died no matter what."
Paxton's face was unreadable. Nick was growing uneasy, but he'd come this far; he had to finish what he'd started. "Ever since I saw this, I've been thinking...if T'Pol isn't incompetent, if her son is a fine engineer like his father...then maybe creating a hybrid creature isn't going to prove your point after all. I mean, what if it isn't what you expect? What if it isn't a monster?"
"It IS!" Paxton thundered. Nick was startled into silence. He froze, his heart hammering, as Paxton glared dangerously at him. Then, as suddenly as the outburst had happened, it was over. Paxton was once more the quiet, reserved man Nick had always known him to be. Until now.
"Nick." Paxton took the young man's shoulders firmly. Nick summoned all the self-control he had in order not to flinch. "Let's set aside, for the moment, hoary old truisms such as 'hindsight is always 20/20,' and facts such as the notorious inability of computers to mimic or predict a human being's psyche, especially in crisis." Paxton took the data module from Nick's hand and studied it thoughtfully. "How do you know that Tucker didn't doctor his program to show the Vulcan woman what she wanted to see, to ease her guilt and give her false peace? He is in her thrall, after all."
The idea had never occurred to Nick. He shook his head, with a tentative smile of disbelief. "No...Commander Tucker wouldn't do that. He's not that kind of man. He wouldn't lie."
Paxton regarded him with an indulgent, almost pitying look. "A man in love will do anything to protect the one he loves. He will lie, cheat, betray any person, violate any principle." He leaned closer, a hint of suggestiveness to his voice. "You told me yourself that he's been acting more...familiar with her lately, even though she's married to another man now."
Nick's head was swimming, and his stomach was tied in knots. Whom should he believe? He was more confused than ever. It was true that Tucker's behavior with T'Pol on the journey home from Vulcan had been markedly different. Though Nick had still not seen them touch each other, they exhibited the comfortable closeness of loving spouses. It made sense to assume they were carrying on a torrid affair behind closed doors, ignoring both T'Pol's husband and Tucker's moral code. But Nick's gut kept nagging him that he was right about Tucker's integrity, T'Pol's competence, Lorian's goodness...and the inevitability of Angie's death.
He felt the room closing in around him; he could hardly breathe. He had to get out of here. Thankfully, his survival instincts kicked in. His face relaxed, and he nodded to Paxton. "You're right, of course." He even managed a convincing, admiring smile. "You're always right, Mr. Paxton."
He was relieved to see Paxton's hard expression soften as he chuckled. "No, son. I've just been around long enough to have a little better idea of the way people think." He put an arm around Nick, strolling with him toward the door of the office. "Now you go on back home. Spend some time with your parents. We'll handle things from here."
"And when Enterprise leaves for the Barrens?" Nick asked.
"Watch, listen, and report back to us, as always," Paxton instructed. "Your presence on Enterprise has been invaluable, and will continue to be."
As he opened the door, Nick took Paxton's proffered hand. "Thanks for hearing me out, sir. I appreciate it."
After the boy left, Paxton called Josiah into his office. "I'm afraid young Mr. Masaro has fallen under Juliet's spell. Put him on the liability list."
"Unfortunate," Josiah acknowledged regretfully. "And his reports?"
"We'll have to treat them as untrustworthy unless they're corroborated by another of our sources." Paxton shrugged. "But it's probably a moot point. I expect his reports will suffer from a dearth of useful information from now on."
"Perhaps we should have him replaced," Josiah said. "He might talk."
Paxton mulled the possibility over for a moment, before shaking his head. "His confusion will ensure his silence for now. If he turns, his shame will continue to keep him silent, until such time as he can be...persuaded to remain cooperative with us. Such tender youth is easily cowed."
"Good enough." Josiah moved back to the doorway of the office. "Dr. Mercer has a progress report for you. And a new team member."
He beckoned, and Dr. Mercer entered, looking his usual nervous, preoccupied self. Paxton greeted the geneticist eagerly; he'd been waiting for this visit all day. "What news, Doctor?"
"The latest numbers are promising," Mercer replied, with characteristic caution. "The accelerated gestation you insisted on has resulted in some anomalous readings regarding her auto-immune response; we're keeping an eye on that. Otherwise, she—" At Paxton's warning glance, Mercer quickly corrected himself. "It appears about a week away from viability."
"A week?" Paxton nodded coolly, but inwardly he was thrilled. He would be able to get started on experiments with the creature's blood months sooner than expected—and just in time. His body was starting to show signs of resistance to the Rigellian gene therapy; he'd been forced to increase the frequency of his injections three times over the last several months. It was imperative that he find an alternative effective treatment for the Taggart's Syndrome, and quickly. "Good work, Doctor."
"To that end," Mercer continued, "I've brought in someone from one of our cells planetside for the hands-on supervision of the subject, once it has been released from the gestation chamber." He handed Paxton a padd. "She was working at a NICU on the Central Coast."
Paxton scanned the employment history and background data on the padd. A med tech and nurse's aide, with a background in bio-engineering...passed up for several promising research positions in favor of aliens, either Vulcan or Denobulan. Excellent. "She's been screened?"
"Perfect in every way," Josiah confirmed.
"Very good. Bring her in."
Mercer ushered in a blond woman in her late thirties, with gentle, expressive blue eyes. Paxton took her hand, giving her a benevolent smile. "Welcome to the Terra Prime family, Miss Khouri."