Disclaimers, etc.: In chapter one.
Author's Note: Sorry for the continuing delays. I've been focused on launching my real life fiction career via Sheer Hubris Press (see my profile by clicking on my author name if you want to learn more). Anyway, here's one last little moment of sweetness before we're off to Vulcan and mayhem. Many thanks as always, reviewers!
When Trip came through the door into a conference room that contained more people than he'd expected, the captain looked up and said, "Good morning, Trip. I assume you'll be pleased to hear that you're going to Vulcan."
"I'm very pleased, sir." He looked at Soval, curious if he'd managed that, but the Vulcan gave nothing away.
"And I'm going to stay here," Jon said. "We have a hell of lot to do to get this planet ready for our refugees."
Trip finally let go of the tension he'd been feeling ever since Archer had called him there without T'Pol, who was on duty on the bridge. Jon's delivery of the news had been a bit terse, but not hostile. Either he'd decided their friendship was worth keeping, or he'd come to see the logic of Trip going instead.
"So when do we leave?" he asked. He and T'Pol had already packed the night before. He'd even gone to Phlox to pick up the supply of hyposprays he might require to survive Vulcan.
Jon looked over at Shran and Soval, who were sitting on the same side of the table for once, opposite Forrest and Harris.
"The Kumari is authorized to leave as soon as the Nyran leaves," Shran said.
Soval said, "The Nyran is authorized to leave as soon as the Kumari leaves."
Trip looked from one to the other in disbelief. "So …why don't they both just agree to leave at the same time?"
Soval said, "Captain Tavek has orders to verify the Kumari's departure and continued course. We can also assume the crew of the Nyran will notice if a Vulcan life sign suddenly appears on an Andorian ship."
Harris said, "Worst case, they'll assume it's a kidnapping and commence hostile action. Best case, they'll learn that T'Pol has left the ship. You must understand, Commander, that she will be of interest to the High Command as a potential bargaining chip with her mother, or at least as someone who could potentially lead them to her mother and the other Syrranites."
Trip looked at Soval, who confirmed that analysis with a slight nod.
Didn't this mean T'Pol was already at risk? "What makes you so sure they aren't already privy to everything we're discussing right now?"
"They're not," Harris said confidently.
Soval frowned. "Precautions have been taken," he said. "But it is of course impossible to know with certainty. Such are the risks of any such undertaking."
Trip swallowed. If T'Pol was possibly in danger before they'd even left Enterprise, they were well and truly committed now. "Okay. So how the hell do we get to Vulcan?"
"We'll need a diversion," Forrest said.
"Malcolm is already working on it," Archer told Trip. "In the meantime … we've been invited to a wedding."
Jon grinned. "Russ and Bethany are getting married at 1400 hours today. Apparently they consider the matter urgent."
x x x
Russ stood in front of the simple altar and twisted his neck, trying to loosen the iron grip of his stiff collar without actually putting his finger up and yanking on the damned thing.
"Nervous?" Trip whispered. Russ had met the shuttle full of Enterprise crew – Trip and T'Pol at least in clothing suited to a church wedding, and the rest in their uniforms - and asked him if he'd be willing to stand up with him.
"Nope," he said. And he wasn't nervous at all. Not after last night. He just hated wearing a collar and tie. He'd wear them everyday if that's what it would take to keep Bethany happy, but thankfully she didn't strike him as likely to demand that.
Trip had asked him why the big rush as they walked to the church.
"Let's just say matters have developed rather quickly," Russ said. "And I believe in doing the right thing by a lady."
Trip had chuckled a little. "Phlox could have helped you out with that, but something tells me you're just fine with this."
"That I am." Russ hadn't been able to keep from grinning broadly. He'd noticed Trip's answering grin fade into wistfulness after they reached the altar and turned towards the congregation, where T'Pol was taking her own seat in a pew with the other Enterprise guests. "Maybe we'll be doing this for you before too long," Russ said.
Trip's smile tightened. "Maybe."
There was another woman there he didn't recognize, a redhead wearing a regular Starfleet uniform. At least it didn't look like T'Pol's long underwear.
Bethany appeared silhouetted at the doorway, and Magnussen started up with a hymn on his fiddle and everyone in the pews stood up. Only after she'd made it about halfway in did he realize she was wearing a pretty green silk dress he'd never seen her in before. How'd she manage that, he wondered, until it occurred to him that the Widow Johnson had a dress pretty much exactly like it. She was walking down the aisle with Bethany, who'd lost her adoptive parents to the epidemic of '26.
And then Bethany was right there, smiling at him, and everything else in the room faded away.
x x x
Anna stood against the wall of the church hall, watching about a dozen men lead their partners around the room in an old fashioned waltz. It was being played by a motley group of musicians on an even more motley collection of small instruments. She could have rigged up just about anything they wanted to hear from the ship's database, but as the keyboard player in her high school's jazz band, she did appreciate hearing live music. She just would have appreciated it more if all the instruments were in tune.
The church lacked any keyboard instruments. Perhaps there were none on the planet. She could fabricate one as one of her little side projects. It was unthinkable that no Human would ever learn to play the piano again.
She shook her head a little. First things first, like making sure everyone got fed. As tiny as its population centers might be, it was clear the local population was having a hard time wringing their livelihood from it —and now they would be adding tens of thousands of Human refugees.
This was certainly a huge change from hiding out in the hydroponics lab. From time to time she felt panicked about it, as she had earlier today when the captain had asked her to come down for this weddng. "You need to establish good relations with the locals," he'd told her.
She hadn't said anything, reluctant to tell him just how horrified she was by the idea. Who showed up a two strangers' wedding just so she could conduct business? But Archer had seemed to read her mind. "Don't worry, Lieutenant," he'd said. "The bride and groom will understand."
After the ceremony, he'd introduced her to the happy couple, as well as some of the more prominent folks in the small town. The men had failed to hide their dismay that a woman would be heading the agricultural project, and she'd found that just irritating enough to whet her appetite for the job. Now she saw Archer heading her way again, this time shepherding over a painfully thin fellow who looked even less dressed for a wedding than she was.
Archer said, "Anna Hess, this is Skrim. Bethany told us he's a good man to have on your staff, especially since he can help you recruit Skagarans who want to work."
Now she noticed the pleated ridge over his nose and a peculiar metallic vest device. "Pleased to meet you," she said, holding out her prosthetic hand.
He shook it and then stared down at it, much as the others had when they'd realized it was not real. Nobody had actually remarked on it, though, and he was no exception.
They discussed an upcoming meeting Archer had set up to launch planet-side operations, and then the captain spied someone else he wanted to talk to and left.
The Skagaran could have made his excuses and left as well, but instead he gave her a surprisingly blunt stare. "Your hand is not true flesh," he said. It sounded like an accusation.
"Both of my lower arms are engineered," she said. "I lost them in an accident."
"And the rest of you?"
She gave a startled laugh. "I'm real enough. Why, what did you think?"
He colored. "My ancestors had many artificial life forms on their home planet," he said. "They served many functions. Those who settled this planet left their home planet swearing never to allow such evil to overtake them again."
Had he really thought she might be an android or something? "So instead they enslaved living beings?"
"It was not their first choice. They discovered that they lacked the labor capacity required to thrive on this planet. It was not an ideal solution, but at least they provided their Human labor force with a reasonably comfortable life. The same cannot be said of the Humans. They would just as soon we all starve to death." His eyes softened as they fell on Bethany dancing. "Though not all of them."
"Well, we don't believe in letting anyone starve," she said. "Which is why we need to get this operation up and running as quickly as possible."
"And how would we be compensated for our labor?" His tone suggested that he expected anything but a fair wage.
"We're prepared to pay you the going rate for Human labor in the local currency, or in room and board," she said, for the captain had already settled as much.
"And our families?"
"We can house them as well, if that's what is needed. But if they are farming I wouldn't recommend leaving any crops behind until we're established. In fact, we are willing to pay your farmers to expand their own farming operations."
He frowned. "Unless you can expand the supply of water, there would be little point."
"We're working on that," Anna said. It was, in fact, the highest priority infrastructure project they had.
He regarded her with new interest. "Sufficient water could turn this planet into a paradise." Then he scowled. "For Humans."
"Not paradise," she said. "But something better than this. For all of us. Can you recruit laborers for us?"
His lip curled. "Of course. As many as you need. Skagarans don't have any choice but to work if they possibly can."
"I think you do have some choice. You're not slaves, after all." It was not a very diplomatic thing to say, but his attitude was annoying her.
"You've never been a slave to hunger, have you?" He crossed his arms and softened his tone. "You'll have as many of us as you need for as long as you need us." She got the feeling he did not think it would be for long.
"Great," Anna said, with a fixed smile, though it was the opposite of what she was actually feeling. If this guy was typical of the Skagarans she'd be working with, it appeared likely that she would soon be coping with labor issues on top of everything else.
x x x
T'Pol watched the dancers with scientific detachment. Presumably this was how Humans from the American West had entertained themselves. It would be interesting to compare their dances and music to that of the world they'd been taken from. What had changed? What had stayed the same? Could any useful generalizations about the species be drawn from the answers?
The captain joined her. "Care to dance, T'Pol?"
"No," she said.
"Not even with Trip?"
"He'd enjoy it, you know. I've seen him dance. He's good."
"Vulcans do not dance."
"The woman who taught the Suus Mahna to a settlement of deuterium miners can't figure out the waltz step? I doubt that. Besides, Trip would lead."
She turned and regarded him. "Why are you pushing this?"
Archer gave her a smile. "I know Trip. He's a romantic. Nothing would make him happier than to dance a waltz with his own true love."
"We already do far more intimate things together," she said, and watched a blush rise on Archer's cheeks. "I fail to see why a dance should have any great import."
"That's because you're not Human," he said, then shrugged. "Well, never mind. I'm sure Trip knew what he was giving up when he chose to be with you." He raised his glass to her and left.
Giving up? She stared after him in consternation.
x x x
Jon ambled back towards the Skagaran whisky Russ had told him was stashed in the corner behind one of the musician's ancient violin cases.
It wasn't as if he'd actually expected T'Pol to dance with him – or with Trip, for that matter - but he'd completed all his business and now he was suddenly aware of having nothing in particular to do.
And of being alone.
At least until a delicate hand landed on his forearm and stopped his progress. He turned in surprise.
It was one of the young ladies from Bethany's rooming house. "I know of at least one lady who would like a partner, Captain Archer," she said, and pointed the closed fan in her hand at herself.
She was tall and freckled and sturdy-looking and blonde – just about the complete opposite of Hoshi. He had no idea what her name was. "I'm sorry," he said. "I'm afraid you have me at a disadvantage, Miss...?"
"Loretta," she said. "I should be offended that you don't remember me." She didn't seem offended, though. She smiled merrily. "But mostly I could still use a partner."
Nice smile. And there was the great relief of sensing no actual desperation from her. "Then I'd be delighted," he said, and gave up on the whisky for the moment.
x x x
When Trip finally made his way back to T'Pol, she was watching the dancers rather intently.
"Drawing any useful conclusions?" he asked. Loretta had successfully snared the captain, he noticed, and they both seemed to be enjoying themselves.
T'Pol looked up at him. "Most of this music utilizes a three-beat measure with emphasis placed on the first beat."
"Uh huh," he said, amused. "It's called a waltz." He settled in next to her and wondered if she'd let him hold her hand. Maybe if she thought the skirt of her dress could hide it from plain sight? "I told Russ where we were going." He snorted a little ruefully. "He asked if we were going to seek your father's permission."
"My father is dead."
"I know. But we are going to ask your mother's permission as soon as we find her. Right?" He couldn't help worrying about what a return to Vulcan might mean for their relationship. Of course, worrying about what it might mean to their continued existence would probably be smarter.
"That goes without saying."
They watched for awhile. The musicians finished one waltz and began another, slower one, and there were fewer couples on the floor. Archer was still there with Loretta, though. Trip wondered if he knew just how much dancing two dances in a row with the same woman would be remarked upon in town. He was just about to start surreptitiously feeling for her hand when T'Pol suddenly drew in a long breath and turned to him. "I am unlikely to be a proficient partner, but would you care to dance with me?"
He stared down at her in shock. "I'd love to dance with you. I just can't believe you're willing."
In answer, she simply gave him her hand.
He grinned and led her out onto the least traveled part of the dance floor. "Just follow my lead," he said, and started with a simple ONE-two-three.
Being bonded added a whole new level to the experience of waltzing with a beautiful woman. It meant that he sensed her initial panic, but it also meant that he could reassure her without saying a word, and he smiled with delight as she began to follow him almost instinctively. As they gained confidence, he swept her into the circling pairs.
She was looking up at him with her beautiful dark eyes and the music was sweet and plaintive and he couldn't believe she was in his arms right in front of everyone, undeniably his.
How he loved this woman! Even if it all went to hell tomorrow, at least he'd had this.
To be continued…