Grateful thanks to my friend Gabi2305, who always supports my writing with her wonderful comments, and to Kathy Rose for a super-fast beta reading job, in absence of RoaringMice.
Set after Minefield, before Season 3
Malcolm crouched behind one of those russet rubbery things that passed for trees on this planet, and studied the situation. His mission was far from easy, but that, of course, only served to whet his – some would say insane – appetite for adventure with a capital A. This was, after all, one of the reasons why he had enrolled in Starfleet.
A shiver travelled down his spine. It wasn't strictly fear; more like a sign that his well-trained machine was getting ready for action. Energy was reaching full power; muscles were deliciously tense, mind gratifyingly sharp. He never felt as alive, as vibrant as when he was about to test himself. Although he'd never boast of it, he went rather proud of his peak condition, the fruit of constant work in the gym and firing range. It made him feel on top of things, and that's where he liked to be, especially in difficult circumstances. Let the universe throw what it liked at him, he'd accept the challenge and prove his worth.
Yes, Admiral Reed, you'll see yet.
But the old man would never want to see.
That last train of thought creased Malcolm's face in a grimace of displeasure. He should be able to forget about home and its problems, light years away from them. That shadow in his life was not going to disappear, not ever. Why, then, keep torturing himself? Right now his mind ought to be as unencumbered as possible. He forced it back on the task at hand.
The captive crew member was somewhere in the camp that stood less than a kilometre away from his current position. Fires glowed in a semicircle around the small village, a sharp reminder of T'Pol's warning about those night beasts. The planet supports a diversified fauna, Lieutenant; most of it seems innocuous, but there is evidence of large bipeds not unlike some of the creatures Humans refer to as dinosaurs, and it appears they favour the night.
Bloody hell, he should have brought Trip along. The engineer had always wanted to meet a T-Rex. Or was it a Stegosaurus? Well, be it carnivore or herbivore, a large creature was a large creature; he'd have to keep his eyes open. To minimise risks, he had transported down in daylight, but since the prisoner had been in no danger, he'd waited for the cover of darkness for his foray into the aliens' camp.
Malcolm refocused down the meadow that started at the edge of the trees where he was concealed and gently declined toward a ribbon of silver. He heaved a steadying breath. Fighting off this planet's version of dinosaur was something he hoped he could, with a bit of luck, avoid, but there was no way to circumvent the obstacle that stood between him and the camp: a wide stream that protected the site on the south, just as steep cliffs prevented any approach from the north. The river's water wasn't particularly turbulent, but it looked deep enough that he would have to swim. And that definitely subtracted from his enjoyment of this mission. His stomach muscles tightened at the idea of having to face his greatest fear, but he controlled the rising anxiety and strengthened his resolve. His captain was counting on him, and he would not fail.
Speaking of whom... He flicked open his communicator. "Reed to Enterprise."
"Go ahead, Lieutenant," Archer's voice promptly replied.
Malcolm could picture the man sitting on the edge of the captain's seat, in the middle of the Bridge. He generally had a hard time convincing Archer that rescue missions were not meant for the person in command, for he wasn't the type of leader to stay behind, no matter what the danger; but this time Malcolm had put his foot down – or rather, had found the right arguments to make him see reason. The key word had been "non-interference," and – quite predictably – he had found a valid ally in their Vulcan second in command. T'Pol had pointed out that, while it was bad enough that one of the away party had been captured while studying these primitive people, the unfortunate incident would not have happened had Archer followed her recommendations, at which Malcolm had not been able to restrain a grave nod. Now they had to make sure no one else was spied, not even from afar. In other words, this was a one-man covert mission.
"I am about to move in, Sir. Darkness has fallen and the camp seems to be quiet."
Malcolm was wondering whether Archer's curt reply was due to his being royally pissed off at having been left behind or simply a measure of his tension, or a mixture of the two, when the Captain added warmly, "Be careful, Malcolm. I'd like you both back in one piece."
"Both in one piece, Captain? That would be rather awkward."
Dry wit was his only weapon against Paternal Archer, a mode of the man that made him utterly uncomfortable; but his joke fell flat, and he added a dutiful, "I'll try my best, Sir. Reed out."
With a sigh, Malcolm replaced his communicator into his sleeve pocket. He had a father who felt ashamed of his phobia, and a father-figure who felt bad about it in a protective way, and frankly he didn't know which he hated the most. He was sure that Archer had been as concerned for the captive crew member as for his aquaphobic would-be rescuer. He cursed under his breath. Whatever had made him reveal to the man – his captain! – his greatest secret? It had to have been Phlox's painkiller making him confused that time, because not even being on death's door, as he thought he had been, would have normally pushed him to share such an embarrassing confidence. But the damage was done, and now he had to live with the knowledge that his captain knew him better than he'd ever intended him to.
Well, time to get a move on. It would be inappropriate to be too late and find that the captors in the meantime had decided to serve their captive for breakfast. From what they had observed of these people's diet during their rash, covert anthropological expedition, they were more than capable of it.
Captain Archer got up from his chair in the centre of the Bridge and, with a curt "I'll be in my ready room," made a fast escape.
After watching him disappear behind the door, Trip turned and his gaze locked with a pair of dark eyes across from him. T'Pol's expression was as neutral as usual – if you disregarded that small twitch in the corner of her mouth. Who would've thought one day you'd be able to read a Vulcan, Trip mused, and the thought brought a faint smile to his lips.
With a sigh, he got up from his station and headed for the ready room.
The stretch between him and the river was bare of tall vegetation and particularly exposed, being higher ground. Malcolm crawled on his belly, taking care to do it unhurriedly and to stop from time to time. On the other side of the river, there seemed to be no sentries guarding the camp's perimeter, but the sky was clear and the moon bathed the place in a pale light that might just be bright enough to reveal an approaching form to the trained eye. Better to be safe than sorry.
As he paused one last time, he looked up, searching the starry vault for a drifting dot of silver. To his dismay, he could not find it. He was used to the loneliness that came from lack of close bonds; now, though, to his surprise, he felt a sense of abandonment, of being cut off from... his friends? Almost without knowing, he had become quite attached to the crew he served with; probably more than a security officer ought to – for his and their own good. Emotional involvement was detrimental to clearness of thought, which was of vital importance in his profession. But that small bubble of air in the middle of the universe was proving to be a truer home to him than any he'd ever had on Earth.
The river banks were flat and sandy; a coarse, dark grey grit stuck unpleasantly to Malcolm's palms and uniform. Wincing, he snaked on, among sets of tracks left by those biped predators, which obviously came to water at this stream. Not a particularly welcome notion. He hoped at least that the river itself held no dangerous species. T'Pol had assured him that it didn't, but his natural distrust for the liquid element made him prone to imagine all kinds of monsters swimming in it. One reason more to make it quickly to the other side.
Clenching his jaw, Malcolm edged on and immersed one hand, and then the other. He dared not rise from his prone position for fear of being spotted, so he entered the river chest first, like a crocodile silently going after its prey. The temperature was uncomfortably cold, like that of any flowing water. He felt it soak his clothes, reaching with its icy tendrils all over his body even before he was completely submerged, and he could not repress a shiver of distaste that had nothing to do with the temperature of the water.
The riverbed dropped gradually, for which he was grateful. He kept in contact with it as far as he could; then, without warning, he was waterborne: the current lifted and carried him away like a determined parent a recalcitrant child. To keep the panic at bay, he concentrated on his breathing, remembering the instructions that a number of doctors over the years had drilled in him. In and out, in and out, and keep your muscles from tensing or you'll turn into something with the floatability of a stone.
His problemwith water had come at an age when he had already learnt how to swim. Thank God for that, or Starfleet would have remained an impossible dream. He was no champion, but had the right movements well-mastered and could actually swim with some grace when he managed to control that damning anxiety that threatened to constrict his chest. Free style would undoubtedly get him to the far bank in the shortest time, but a breast stroke was a lot quieter and more unobtrusive – not to mention that it felt safer – so he opted for that.
The river moved like a gigantic conveyor belt, flat and steady, and the current was stronger than he had anticipated. It always amazed him – in an unsettling way – to experience the strength water could have. A single drop was inoffensive, yet any large body of water could be invincible. That was part of his grudge with the element: he didn't like invincible foes.
Wrong thought. In one alarming moment, his tentative balance was lost, and he was at the river's mercy. He became rigid, which made him start to sink, which made him flounder like an idiot. Cursing, he forced himself to override his instinct and do what surely must be absolute madness: abandon himself to the current. It worked, of course, and he let himself be carried, gradually regaining control of himself.
When he felt confident enough, he resumed doing something active to reach the far bank. His moment of panic had made him waste time, though, and he saw that his calculations for an easy landing had been thrown off by quite a stretch. He would no longer touch ground on the sandy banks near which the camp was situated, but would have to tackle the rocks that bordered the river farther ahead.
The bloody things were slippery. He slid and glided like an inexperienced skater, falling back in the water a couple of times. Hopefully he was far enough that his splashing would not be heard. The good news was that over time the boulders had been rounded off, which meant that he earned himself only a series of painful bruises, instead of open wounds.
Laboriously, he finally managed to pull himself onto firm ground, where he rolled limply on his back and tried to convince himself that his ragged breathing was due to the strenuous swim, and his phobia had nothing to do with it. He lay there for a good few moments, feeling light-headed from the relief despite the fact that the most dangerous part of the rescue was yet to come. It was the shame of it, in the end, that jerked him out of his immobility.
Malcolm pushed up to a sitting position, silently cursing against the feeling of inadequacy that always gripped him when he felt the sting of fear. Ironic, how he could escape his father by travelling the universe but it would never make the slightest bit of difference because he couldn't run away from an even more severe judge: his own conscience. He could force himself to do his duty and make it across a river or an ocean, but how he managed that – with panic choking his throat – would inevitably mortify him, and in the silence of his own thoughts he'd never hide his weakness from himself.
Fortunately, his disciplined self was there to take charge again. Clearing his mind of those damning thoughts, Malcolm started in a low crouch back up along the river bank, toward the aliens' camp. Adrenaline was coursing through his system now, making his senses sharp. He was aware of a pungent smell of rotten leaves, which he associated with the presence of water, and his sight was so clear that no movement could possibly escape him. He was a different person. He felt great.
Before leaving Enterprise, he had taken time to change into camouflage pants and T-shirt, and cover his face and hands with dark grease to minimise the chance of detection, and as he moved in closer, nimble and silent as a panther, he wondered whether the captive crew member would be startled by his strange appearance and inadvertently reveal him with a frightened reaction. But no – he felt sure he could make himself known before that happened.
Suddenly, the silence was split by a loud howl that made him drop flat on the ground, heart thumping loudly against his ribcage. His mind raced. Had that been the prisoner? Could they be-
Before he could finish the alarming thought, drums started beating a tribal rhythm, and more yowls rose through the night. He lifted his head and narrowed his eyes, but the camp was still quite a way off, and all he could make out were some lights – torches – moving in symmetrical patterns, as if a dance were under way.
He didn't like that. Not one bit. The only positive aspect was that all the attention would be on the proceedings – whatever they might be – which meant that he could possibly be a little less cautious in his final approach.
Malcolm pushed back up and hurried on.
"Capt'n, everything'll turn out okay," Trip said. "You know you can trust Malcolm."
He went to sit on the edge of the armchair, eyes never leaving his friend. They both knew that things might not be as certain as his optimistic reassurances declared, but what else could he say?
Archer bit his lower lip. "I should have listened to T'Pol," he admitted with a grimace. "But how could I imagine he'd disobey orders?"
Trip let a smile mellow his blue eyes. "Don't forget, he's young and not used to away missions."
"If something happens to him, or to Malcolm…"
Archer's gaze was a dark, green pool. Trip blinked. A captain shouldn't show his feelings like that. But, after all, this wasn't Captain Archer. This was his friend Jon.
"They'll be back safe and sound," Trip insisted, and he realised as he was saying it that deep down he really believed it. Malcolm would find a way.
"Yeah," was the much less confident reply.
In the launch bay, T'Pol had looked at the member of the away party who would later be captured, raised her eyebrows, and pointed out with her usual and infallible logic, "Captain, I do not believe this mission requires his presence."
"You don't think he'll be useful?" Archer had countered good-humouredly. Then, with his equally infallible stubbornness, he had added, "Noted." And he'd gone on to order said crew member into the shuttlepod.
Malcolm watched from behind a palisade the prisoner being carried, inside a cage, to the thick of some rather frenzied dancing. Oh yes, it was a relief that he had managed to leave the Captain on Enterprise. Having a guilt-ridden Archer beside him would be awfully distracting right now, when it looked like he would need all his wits to pull this off. And it was better the man didn't see this scene, or he'd have nightmares for a month. The poor caged devil, whimpering and cowering in a corner of his constricted space, was obviously terrified. Well, who could blame him? In the central square, a large open space where the tribal dance was taking place and around which the entire village seemed to have gathered, a fire had been built. Whether these primitive people were planning to roast their strange-looking prisoner and serve him for breakfast, or slaughter him as an offering to their gods – no doubt in the belief that so different a creature must necessarily be evil – the end they had in store for him wasn't a particularly merciful one.
Although Hoshi had not been able to determine what this planet's natives called themselves, as soon as Malcolm had set eyes on them a name had sprung automatically to mind: Blockheads – no disrespect intended. The fact was that their most unique feature was the shape of their heads, which was oddly cubical. Amazingly cubical, in fact. For the rest, they were short – shorter – and stout, with barrel chests and the cranial ridges that numerous humanoid species seemed to almost unfailingly have. Their olive complexion in the light of the torches had an odd shine to it, rather like the skin of a wet snake, and their eyes were deeply set, three dark sockets that from afar were disconcertingly unfathomable.
Three sockets, three eyes: two in front and one in the back, just to make things easier for him. At least while they'd been studying them from afar they had observed that front and back vision were not simultaneous – it would be a bit too confusing. But it was of little comfort to Malcolm. The fact remained that in the blink of an eye – no pun intended – the Blockheads could switch from one to the other. Ancient Earth mythology had three-headed monsters, one-eyed cyclops, and all kinds of oddities, but these blokes had to beat them all as far as ugly looks.
Their garments consisted of animal hides and pelts. Malcolm briefly wondered if any of those furs belonged to the large biped predators T'Pol had warned him against. After all, she had only said "not unlike some of the creatures Humans refer to as dinosaurs," probably referring only to their size. The next thought that crossed his mind was that the body temperature of these people must be quite high, for the planet wasn't at all cold by human standards, certainly not cold enough to wear fur.
The spirited dancers sported brightly coloured ornamental head gear and ankle rings. Sparing them a last glance, Malcolm turned his attention to the spears in the hands of a small group waiting – these perfectly immobile – by the fire. They looked a distinguished company, compared to the others. Their rulers? Their religious leaders? Or simply the executioners? Their spears were primitive but Malcolm wasn't a fool; a weapon was always as good as the hand that wielded it, and he knew that even the most unsophisticated one could be deadly dangerous.
The drummers now increased their deafening rhythm; the spectators began to utter strange growls of excitement; then, as if cued by an invisible conductor, all fell silent. In the eerie sudden absence of noise, the sound of the river rushing by slowly emerged through Malcolm's consciousness, but louder than that was the thumping of his heart. The captive looked forlornly out between the bars and gave another whimper as the cage was placed on the ground in front of the armed group.
To die passed through by a spear rather than roasted alive might be a slight improvement, but the end result would be the same. Malcolm realised that if he was to save the prisoner he had not one moment to lose. All his carefully prepared plans, all the tactics and strategies, were going to have to be put aside. No interference would also have to go down the drain. He was one against the lot of them, and the hell if he would go to any length to make himself invisible, or refrain from using the stun setting of his phase pistol, the only weapon at his disposal, in order not to interfere. Okay, he also had the element of surprise, but that would be quickly spent.
Malcolm took in several deep breaths, building up the foolhardiness necessary for the task at hand. He watched as one of the dancers opened the cage and another made to grab the prisoner. An angry growl escaped the poor guy's throat, and he turned against the man. He bit the hand that reached for him – what else could he do? – and, taking advantage of the brief moment of confusion that ensued, propelled himself out of his confinement. All the spears lifted in unison.
Malcolm raised his own weapon and fired a rapid volley.
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