Major Morales caught Serahn's sharp gesture toward the floor of the ravine. Another pile of ash, again vaguely man-shaped. Bits of cloth that had survived the strange combustion fluttered in the desert breeze but that was all that remained. Resting atop the ash was a long metal baton of some sort, capped with a short, thin spike. Slightly scorched itself from…whatever had happened…

He frowned. Completely unidentifiable. No way of telling who that was…

Where the hell were his people…?

A half dozen rifles snapping to bear got his attention and he found himself looking down his own sights at Captain Tucker before he realized it. She'd come out of nowhere…

She waited for a moment before speaking, giving him enough time to shift his aim respectfully away.

"I have injured personnel that require immediately medical attention..." She said quietly.

"Schaffer!" He yelled out behind him. "We've got wounded! Move it!"

He turned his attention back to the Captain. It was obvious she was shaken up or…something.

"Are you alright, Captain?" He asked, concerned.

That brought her attention abruptly into focus.

"I am fine." She said clearly. "Ensign West has suffered heat stroke and dehydration. Rodriguez, to a lesser degree."

He nodded. "Hostiles?"

"There were three." She reported. "One was slain by a sehlat. This is another." She gestured at the pile of ash at his feet.

Rico nodded. "We dropped one about a hundred meters back, Captain."

"So I gathered." She said simply.

Rico looked around, glowering. Something had exploded here…pretty dramatically, from the looks of it…prior to whoever this was here burning to ash for no apparent reason…

"What happened here, Captain?" He asked.

She stared back for a moment, as if he'd asked some impossible question. Morales suddenly wished he hadn't.

"Let us focus on the injured." She said at last. "This is our immediate concern."

Right. Okay, then.

He turned aside to Serahn. "Sergeant, I understood you had Search and Rescue with you?"

The man nodded, then began issuing a series of hand signals skyward. The two shuttles that had been shadowing them in the distant sky suddenly darted into position high overhead, back down the ravine. Rappelling lines arced out, falling with a 'thump' less than fifty meters away, just a few seconds later.

Morales frowned, realizing the dampening field was a heck of a lot lower that he'd thought. It finally struck home that his team could have dropped right on top of the Starfleet crew all along, just as the Vulcans had dropped directly onto their path.

That was quite a long open rappel, of course…five hundred meters at least…but it certainly beat parachuting from high atmo and humping it all over the place.

Well, damn, he thought.

Ensign Schaffer staggered up, long since ran ragged and almost looking like he needed a medic himself. Captain Tucker stepped forward to escort him. They disappeared around an outcropping of rock, presumably to where the others were waiting.

Morales let out a sharp breath then. There wasn't much left to do until Search and Rescue started hiking people out of there…

"Alright." He said aloud. "Let's establish a perimeter. We may have more hostiles in the area and there have been two animal attacks already. No more surprises."

Corporal Stetson jumped in immediately. "North, ammo check! Simms, you've got the pack! The rest of you take position. Double up, both ends of the canyon and full cover north and south…"

"Aw, my feet ache something awful, Jimmy!" Someone joked from down the ravine.

"I can give you one of mine, right in your ass, Cole!" Stetson barked. "Get up that wall!"

Major Morales turned to the Vulcan squad leader. "Sergeant. If you want to coordinate…"

Serahn nodded, issuing a short hand signal that caused his men to leap into action yet again, flowing smoothly to match the MACO movement.

Rico was beginning to be impressed. He couldn't recall the Vulcan Sergeant having actually issued a verbal order to his squad all this time.

"If we're looking at heat stroke and dehydration, then I figure…half hour, tops." Morales continued. "Then we'll need to start hiking people out of here. Unless your Rescue teams are quicker than that?"

"I would estimate twenty minutes before they are prepared to begin evacuation." Serahn simply.

"And then we'll have a long hike out, with civilians on our backs." Rico nodded. "So that leaves us…"

"If you will excuse me, Major." Serahn said. "There is a hostel available, less than one half kilometer to the south. I recommend proceeding there."

A hostel? Less than…?

"Wait…what?" He said, startled. "Where?"

Serahn pointed south, at the short ridge just where the ravine closed in on itself.

"Immediately beyond the tallest point along that ridgeline." Serahn replied calmly.

Morales stared in that direction for a moment. Right. They'd been so busy trying to catch up with the Captain that he hadn't realized. They'd arced around right back to the border…

Rico glared at the ground then and sighed. Which meant…

"So the dampening field cuts out somewhere between here and there, I take it?" He said.

"I would estimate 200 to 250 meters south of our position." Serahn said passively.

Morales turned his glare back to the ridge line.

He was an officer of the MACO. He wasn't about to start acting out. He wasn't going to curse. Wasn't going to snatch his headgear off, toss it to the ground and start stomping on it…but he was sorely tempted…

"Son of a bitch!" Stetson suddenly exclaimed. "Are you kidding me?"

Serahn barely raised an eyebrow. "Certainly not."

NX-35 Vigilant

Vulcan Orbit

Commander McArthur stood up from the chair, turning to address the bridge crew. The worst seemed over and there was little more that could be done…but he was more concerned with using the opportunity to suss out if any of them had witnessed what he had.

The Captain, their Captain, tossing a downed man the very weapon he'd used to take his own life. Pretty obviously with exactly that intent in mind.

Overwatch had been rather high at the time, moving around trying to catch all the action…but he'd seen it. Surely someone else must have.

"Summers, get in touch with whoever's running Search and Rescue." He said. "I'm sure they already know the situation but do it anyway. Update Sulok while you're at it, so he can get ready."

Ensign Summers got to work, showing nothing more than relief that help had finally reached her fellow crewmen.

"Trindi, we're gonna keep overwatch on our people on the way out." He advised. "Reckon they've got a habit of getting in trouble, so let's not miss it."

Achilla chuckled mildly as she began working the Tactical station. Again clearly relieved the worst was over.

"Hsaio, I don't care what High Command says." He continued. "Nothing's keeping us from sending our own shuttle down for retrieval. Let's angle in for as short a run as possible, in case we can manage that. Get clearance through Comm' once you got it."

Helm got to work, plotting where exactly he could park the Vigilant to shorten the shuttle run as much he could. Nathan Hsaio was smiling, though. Nothing troubling him.

"Duvall, I'd sure like to know how the hell the Vulcans dropped their folk right on top of ours." McArthur glared suddenly. "And why we couldn't do that."

Geraldo blanched but he'd been upbeat before Henry came down on him.

"I…sir, there's no…" He began.

"Put it in your report, Ensign." Henry relented. "Can't muster a give-a-damn right now."

"Foster." He continued, nodding to Engineering. "I'm surprised nothing exploded or caught fire during all the excitement, seein' as how that's the usual. Reckon it's a good time to run that diagnostic I've been harpin' on you about."

Ensign Foster hesitated though, not wanting to meet his eye.

"Uh…yes, sir." He said. "Everything's green at the moment…"

"Matter of fact…" Henry interrupted, rubbing the side of his nose thoughtfully. "Come on to the ready room for a bit and let's go over somethin'."

Foster looked trapped for a second but moved to comply readily enough.

"Chilly, you got the chair." Henry nodded at her, already stalking the man.

Adam Foster stumbled to the side as Commander McArthur barreled through the hatch. Once it had shut behind him Henry turned to face him head on. Standing far too close for comfort.

"Somethin' troublin' you, Foster?" He demanded.

Adam stuttered in surprise. "Sir? I…sir?"

"See somethin' you ain't quite sure about?" Henry pressed.

He could only work his mouth soundlessly in confusion. He sort of knew what the Commander might mean...but…he wasn't…he didn't…

"Let me clear things up for you then, son." Henry rumbled, stepping forward to tower over him, forcing him back against the wall. Until he was face to face with the engineer, glaring down at him.

"The Captain and crew got themselves in a bad situation down there." He growled. "And they conducted themselves in a manner befitting the highest expectations of Starfleet. Are you with me so far?"

"Sir…I…" Foster stuttered.

"We're all damned proud of 'em." He continued. "As fine an example as one could hope to follow. Get me?"

Foster nodded meekly.

"And if I was to hear anything to the contrary…so much as a rumor to that effect…" Henry threatened. "Well, I'm sure I'd take it real personal."

Foster was utterly cowed.

"Might get plumb mean about it." Henry continued. "You ask around for an idea about that. There's folk on this ship that can illuminate you in great detail."

Foster couldn't even respond.

"I reckon if a body wanted me to take an interest in their discomfort…" Henry concluded. "Well, I guess castin' aspersions and undermin' morale around here would be a right proper way to go about it. You reading me, son?"

Foster gulped.

Henry glared menacingly down at the man for a long while.

"I'm waitin' for a 'yes, sir' outta you, Ensign." He grumbled.

"Yes, sir!" Foster squeaked.

"Outstanding." McArthur nodded. "You stand there and get your head unscrewed from your ass, then I'll see you back on the bridge."

Henry turned away and left the room, leaving Ensign Foster to slump in relief behind him…certain of little more than keeping his mouth firmly shut about…

Well, whatever it was he'd seen…and everything else he could think of. Just to be safe.

E'tum-mazhiv-kov Hostel

Tat'sahr province, Vulcan

Jenny opened her eyes. Slowly and carefully, having learned on some unconscious level that doing otherwise could often prove most unpleasant…

Her head didn't seem to be hurting, though. Which was a little surprising, really.

Blinking languidly, she examined her surroundings. She was drowsy still but cautious about moving her head for a better view…something else she'd grown wary of it seemed.

Light brown walls. Solid stone. A cool breeze blowing from somewhere, too steady to be natural. No windows but there was a dull orange light glowing behind her.

The surface she lay on would probably have been a little uncomfortable at any other time. A thin mattress or thick mat, maybe. Woven straw, or something similar. Right about now it might as well have been billows of silk and cloud.

It felt amazing.

She sighed, closing her eyes again. Those horrid cold packs the Vulcans had buried her in were gone at least. Which was nice. She hadn't enjoyed that very much…

Oh. Right.

She'd almost died. Again.

Wait…she hadn't, had she? Almost, right?

"Better be careful or P'Trell's going to trip over himself running in here again."

That was…Marisa. Somewhere to her right.

Jenny risked turned her head. Nothing above the neck objected especially…but her stomach suddenly cramped up.

"Ow!" She hissed, clutching at it.

Well, that figures.

Marisa winced in empathy, propping herself up on a low bed of her own a few feet away. "Take it easy, chica." She advised.

"Wha' happ'n'…?" Jenny slurred. Which was a little embarrassing.

Yeah, this was starting to suck already.

"Just relax. We're fine." Marisa soothed. "Rico and the boys got us out a while ago. We're at one of those hostels on the border."

Jenny relaxed a little, waiting for her stomach muscles to ease up on the assault.

"Everyone okay?" She asked, somewhat more clearly.

"Everyone's fine." Marisa assured her. "A little beat up…but fine."

Beat up? Jenny wondered vaguely. Oh, yeah. She remembered something about a fight…

A flash of blue from the left. And Jenny found herself surprisingly relieved all of a sudden. She might even have smiled, if she'd had time to.

P'Trell had swooped in, pushing lightly down on her shoulder.

"West." He said, gruffly. "Stop moving. Lay back and rest."

"I'm okay. Just…" Jenny assured, struggling to sit up.

"You're not okay." P'Trell snapped, pushing back firmly. "You nearly died and you're still dehydrated. Now, lay back and stop…"

"I'm fine, Rex." She argued. "Just a cramp…"

"Because you need water!" He said, raising his voice.

To her surprise. And irritation.

P'Trell grunted irritably himself. A little uncomfortable as well, perhaps.

Silence for a short moment.

"I'll get you some…" He said suddenly, turning away.

She sighed in frustration. "Wait…just…"

"Lie down!" He snapped, already moving through the door.


But he was gone.

Jenny slumped, frustrated. As much as she could slump in her position.

"Damn it." She groused.

Marisa, she realized, was laying back in her bed again, giggling quietly. Thoroughly pleased with it all.

Jenny glared at the ceiling. "Oh, shut up." She pouted.

T'Pril stepped aside as P'Trell charged by, intent on nothing more than securing water for West. And very probably wishing to focus on something other than his own behavior.

Having witnessed the short exchange it was obvious to her that the affection the Security Chief had developed for Ensign West was reciprocated. Which may require her administration at some point. Should the two intend to give heed to their attraction then they must be reminded of the strict boundaries imposed by Starfleet regulations. Reminded, specifically, that it would not be allowed to interfere with their duties in any way.

Or so much as come to anyone else's attention, for that matter. That both she and, apparently, Ensign Rodriguez were aware of it at all had already exceeded allowances.

Now was not an appropriate time for that, of course. All involved required rest and reduced levels of stress in the interests of recovery. In fact, affectionate behavior, taking into account the Human and Andorian natures involved, could prove therapeutic to them both.

If P'Trell managed to apply some maturity to the process, of course. What she'd witness did not appear to be a successful communication of affection.

But T'Pril found herself discomfited in some other way by what she'd just seen. Something she suspected it would be best not to examine too closely…

…but, too late. Simply acknowledging the emotion had afforded her insight into it. It would seem she'd had begun to yearn for such affection herself. With no family or anyone else with whom to appropriately accommodate such a thing…she was…perhaps…

She required meditation, obviously. Well overdue as a result of recent events. Hence most of the disturbing behavior she'd exhibited recently. She would go forward to convey interest in the health of her crewmen, as expected, and alleviate any concerns they may harbor regarding circumstances at the command level.

Then make use of whatever meditation room was available here…

One of the hostel stewards approached her. A relatively young woman to whom T'Pril had not yet been introduced.

"Captain Tucker." She said humbly. "I am T'Sol. We have received a transmission from a Commander M'carfer, aboard your vessel."

"McArthur." T'Pril corrected, patiently. "What was the nature of the transmission?"

"He has elected to wait, asking to speak with you directly." She replied. "Additionally, our equipment allows only audio communication. Will this be sufficient?"

She nodded. "It should. If you will escort me, I will speak with him now."

"Very agreeable." The girl nodded solemnly. "You may follow me."

Left to her own devices by the departure of the steward, T'Pril found herself suddenly dreading the conversation to come. And yet, at the same…

She stepped forward to depress the 'transmit' button, speaking into the air. "This is Captain Tucker. Go ahead, Vigilant."

"Captain." McArthur's voice. Speaking sternly, provoking an alarming tightness in her stomach. "Good to hear from you."

She suddenly found that she could divine no appropriate response to that. Unsure even if he was sincere...

"Yes…understood." She replied awkwardly.

She was significantly overdue for meditation.

"I'm told our people are near about out of the woods." He said. "Glad to hear. How are you doing?"

Something about the conversation wasn't sitting well with her already. Something in his voice…but she had no idea what. So she said the first thing that came to mind.

"I think 'out of the woods' not an especially appropriate turn of phrase for the situation." She reflected.

Henry's quiet laughter filled the air. "I reckon not. I bet you'd have chewed a leg off for a proper shade tree down there."

"Tempted perhaps…but, no." She replied.

A ridiculous thing to say, of course.

She required meditation.

"Right, right." He said. She imagined him nodding and smiling, humored. But there was still that subtle tone present that she could not yet identify.

"Had you on overwatch most of the way." He observed. "Looked like a rough time. Can't imagine."

She could think of nothing appropriate to say to that either...and found herself hoping for something…and yet dreadful…

This conversation had to end soon.

Meditation. Overdue. Needed it.

"Of course, we had a peck of trouble ourselves." McArthur continued, serious now. "Damn near provoked an incident."

That brought her attention to focus.

"What has occurred?" She asked, concerned.

"Well…I didn't take kindly to the folks down there dragging their feet, so I steamrolled 'em a bit. Got the High Command riled up in the process. Damn near tangled with the Fleet out here before it was over."

T'Pril was tempted to frown…

"Starfleet hasn't weighed in yet but I imagine Admiral Archer'll be calling directly to express his disagreement. He's probably got a Minister or two giving him grief right about now."

T'Pril began turning the matter over in her mind, assessing how best to deal with the political fallout Commander McArthur's tendency to aggressive negotiation had certainly…

But she couldn't think clearly. She was becoming overwhelmed...

"Reckon you might have to take some disciplinary action when you get back." He said, with some regret. "Thought you might ought be prepared for that. I don't mind, of course. Just know you don't care for surprises, is all. Figured I'd give a heads up."

This was suddenly too much. She must meditate. It was not logical to expect her to able to perform adequately as Captain at the moment. Not without proper meditation. At the least.

"Commander." She said, struggling for calm. "I...think this discussion would be better served…"

"Not to mention we probably embarrassed Starfleet all to hell." He continued, ignoring her. "Skunking a simple retrieval and gettin' showed up by Vulcan Search and Rescue like that. Damned sorry business, I tell you what."

T'Pril allowed herself to frown at last. There was no one to see her. That small indulgence seemed almost necessary at the moment.

He didn't understand. It was too much...

"All of which I reckon is your fault." Henry concluded.

She blinked.

So he was angry, then. Seeking a confrontation.

"Yeah, I'm pretty damned sure of it." He carried on. "You stirred up one hell of mess all over the place, Captain. All for some Romulan gadget or other you couldn't be bothered informin' the rest of us about."

T'Pril closed her eyes and gathered her resolve. Whatever she had hoped for, this certainly wasn't it.

Well, so be it…

"Commander,…" She began, speaking with authority at last.

"Which, the way I figure it, puts me up a couple of points." He said, confidently.

"…I am certain if you…" She continued, talking over him now…



"Don't see how you can argue it, Captain." McArthur replied. "One hell of a mess, you gotta admit."

T'Pril ponder furiously for a moment. 'Two points'? Was he seriously suggesting…?

He must be.

This was entirely inappropriate. Unacceptable.

"Commander McArthur." She asserted. "If you are referring to our game then I must reiterate my objections. The rules continue to lack delineation and there has been no formal agreement…"

"Kinda the whole point of the thing, Captain." He argued. "Don't try backing out now, just 'cause you're down a couple points."

"Hardly." She asserted. "I remain confident that I can meet your challenge. However, my objection stands. Without a logical, properly agreed upon…"

"Yeah, that may fly on a Vulcan ship." Henry denied, smugly. "Which this ain't one. Don't embarrass yourself arguin', Captain. I got you nailed on this one."

She started to object…but…

"Very well." She said at last. "I will concede you two points. But be advised, you will not retain them for long."

"If you say so." Henry replied, an obvious smirk in his voice.

T'Pril realized then that the tightness in her stomach had gone. Along with most of the oppressive sense of weight that had afflicted her for...longer than she could estimate.

She felt profoundly relieved. And grateful.

She stared at the transmitter for some time, carefully assessing the most appropriate response.

Until, at length…

"Thank you, Henry." She said solemnly.

"Don't know what you're talking about." Henry denied. "So I guess you'd better get yourself back to the ship soonest, Captain. Without stirrin' up any more trouble. Reckon you got some catchin' up to do."

"I will endeavor to do so." She assured.

"Good enough. See you then, Captain. Vigilant out."

And...that wraps it up, folks.

Hope you enjoyed.

- Mary