Disclaimers, etc. in Chapter 1
Author's Notes: And on we go. Next chapter, those of you who want Trip and T'Pol in the same room will be happier.
Malcolm and Hayes arrived together, flushed from yet another drill designed to hone their teams' skills at repelling Xindi boarders, to find the rest of the senior staff already gathered around the situation table. T'Pol waited for them to find places, then said, "Mr. Baird?"
Baird coughed uncomfortably and Malcolm reflected that there must be some unavoidable extra pressure attached to taking over the science officer's position when your CO was the person who'd last held it. "As you can see," Baird said, pointing, "Forward scans indicate a larger array of anomalies across our current course than we were anticipating."
Malcolm stared down at the chart on the situation room table, willing it to mean something quickly so he wouldn't feel stupid. Yes, there was their course. There was their current position. And there… ah. Yes. That was rather an awful lot of red.
T'Pol said, "These are anomalies we didn't encounter the last time we traversed this route?"
"Correct," Baird said. "Red indicates areas that were clear on our way out. These anomaly fields appear to have extended over 200,000 kilometers beyond those predicted by past charts and models. Previously-identified anomaly fields are indicated in purple. To a much smaller degree, we're also seeing new areas of transformed space arising – those are marked in green."
"Degree of expansion of the anomaly fields?" T'Pol asked.
"23%," Baird said promptly.
"Is it accelerating?" T'Pol asked.
Baird said, "On average, yes - but I can't as yet determine a predictive model that works with the data we've collected. The acceleration appears to be random."
Malcolm exchanged concerned glances with Hoshi and Travis. "What would cause that?"
Baird said, "Intelligent agency by the sphere builders is the most obvious possibility. Or, there might be one or more amplifying or retarding factors that we haven't yet identified."
T'Pol began to slowly circle behind the officers gathered at the table. Malcolm watched her curiously – that was rather odd behavior from T'Pol, wasn't it? He shot a querying look at Hoshi, who gave him a tiny shrug in return.
T'Pol said, "If we project an average rate of expansion similar to what we have seen thus far, what can we anticipate over the course of the next month?"
Baird pulled up another chart and animated it. Red zones gradually ballooned between them and North Star. T'Pol stopped and studied the fields' final positions.
"Can we even get there from here?" Malcolm asked.
Travis said, "We can, but it's going to take longer to go around all those fields."
T'Pol said, "And after we get there, it is unclear whether we will be able to escape the Expanse before it becomes untenable for ship's operations."
Malcolm said, "With the barrier there, escaping the Expanse was not necessarily an option to begin with."
"The Kumari left and returned," T'Pol said.
"The Kumari has a stronger hull – and shields," Malcolm reminded her.
Hoshi said, "I guess this means the captain was right about destroying the sphere network."
T'Pol said, "Yes, but it would appear to be a far more urgent task than even he had anticipated."
Hayes said, "I should probably know this, but what happens to an inhabited planet that gets swallowed up by one of these red zones?"
T'Pol looked at her science officer to answer, so Baird flushed slightly and said, "An atmosphere and a planet's own magnetic field might provide some protection from the effects. But the gravitational fields that hold a star system together would eventually become unstable … which would result in…" He sighed. "Bad things."
Malcolm growled, "I hope that happens to the Xindi before it happens to anyone else."
"Damned straight," Travis said.
"That is hardly a helpful sentiment," T'Pol admonished them. "This finding raises two obvious questions. One, is it time to drop our communications blackout in order to warn other species of the danger? Two, should we abandon our current mission to North Star in favor of assisting the captain and the Andorians in destroying Sphere 41?"
Baird quickly said, "That last option would be somewhat problematic." He slid the new star chart back in the opposite direction, to where Sphere 41 sat surrounded by a broad field of red … and some green, too.
Malcolm felt his mouth fall open and snapped it closed. "Enterprise would never make it through that."
Hoshi said, "That leaves the question of communications."
Malcolm said, "And that could tell the Xindi where to start looking for us."
T'Pol said, "Once they see this data, the Xindi should have more immediate concerns than finding us, though it would be foolhardy to expect a logical response from them. Ensign Sato and I will devise a warning that includes the relevant data, and broadcast it generally as well as to our allies beyond the Expanse. Perhaps they will finally recognize the growing risk and take action. In the meantime, Mr. Mayweather, I would like you to plot a course to North Star that avoids the anomalies, yet might also remain unpredictable to anyone who might wish to do us harm."
Mayweather frowned and nodded thoughtfully, staring down at the chart.
T'Pol turned to her side. "Ensign Sato, after you and I prepare the general warning, perhaps you could work with Ensign Mayweather on embedding a message that might reach his family on the Horizon."
Mayweather looked up, clearly surprised, and broke into a huge grin. "Thank you, Commander!"
Surprised, Malcolm watched T'Pol and Sato exit into the ready room. T'Pol was actually going to let Travis try to contact his family?
That was a rather sentimental decision, surely?
Hayes said, "Isn't breaking the comm. blackout taking a pretty big risk, if they're looking for us?"
"Captain Archer would have done exactly the same," Malcolm said, and meant it. Still, he wondered if he should be concerned about T'Pol. In the past, he would have relied on Trip to notice if something was off with her, but Malcolm was her second now.
Yet another reason to hope Trip would be waiting for them at North Star.
Of course, any reunion would be temporary if the planet and Enterprise were equally doomed by the transformation underway.
x x x
During the first hymn, Trip quietly stepped into the church and grabbed a seat in the last pew. He hadn't wanted to excite any attention. He carefully focused on the neatly hand-written hymnal, avoiding eye contact, but it still seemed to him that every head in the pews in front of him turned his way for at least a moment.
He'd decided to take MacReady's advice. Maybe this was what it was going to take to allay the townsfolk's enduring suspicion. If nothing else, it was something new to do in a town that didn't offer much in the way of entertainment.
As far as he was concerned, though, MacReady might be dead wrong. It might just make people more suspicious, especially when they noticed he wasn't wearing a set of proper church clothes and didn't seem to have a clue what was going on, or just couldn't bear to return the following week. That would just confirm that he was a terrible heathen.
It wasn't that Trip had never been to church. Although his parents were not believers, his grandmother had dragged him to services and other church activities from time to time. He hadn't hated it, exactly – he'd rather liked the music. But he had never found anything particularly compelling there compared to having Sunday morning to get out on the Gulf or pull apart engines. Certainly he'd never felt God speaking to him, or that Christ was his personal savior, or that the people in the church had anything over the people outside of it - beyond, perhaps, readier access to gossip.
At this service, the readings focused on the Jews wandering in the desert, and Jesus in the desert, too, and the sermon took off from there. Trip was not surprised that the Reverend Miller drew parallels between the Egyptians as slave owners and the Skagarans, but Miller then surprised him by preaching that just as the Egyptians had been capable of experiencing God's forgiveness and love, so were the Skagarans. A few people shifted in their pews or made faces at each other, but there was no outraged rush for the exits.
So perhaps things were changing here, if slowly.
Then again, there wasn't a single Skagaran present.
In the church hall afterwards, Trip helped himself to the free coffee and refreshments and smiled politely and made small talk with people who for the most part seemed a little rattled to see him there. Bethany shook his hand and said, "It's about time." MacReady merely nodded at him from across the room.
The Rev. Miller said, "What brings you to us at last, Mr. Tucker?"
"The sheriff suggested I come along, sir. I'm sorry I'm not as well turned out as I should be."
Miller chuckled. "Sheriff wanted you to serve some hard time in the pew, did he? He was probably jealous of your freedom on Sunday mornings. I couldn't care less how you dress, although I'm sure there are some who would reprove me for that. Come regularly enough, and the ladies guild might just undertake to dress you themselves, as a matter of charity."
"I don't need…"
"…of course you don't," Miller said smoothly. "But it does their souls good, so consider taking them up on it when the time comes. Are you a praying man, Mr. Tucker?"
"Know your Bible?"
Trip grimaced. "Not really."
"Well, if you ever want to borrow a copy, let me know. You're in a peculiar exile here with us, aren't you? You never know, you might enjoy the reading. I certainly enjoy reading that device Bethany was given. I wish she'd part with it more often."
"I know the feeling," Trip said. He'd thought of begging Bethany to let him rig up the device to a screen so he could show movies, but the challenge of actually achieving that with the supplies he had at hand had put at least a temporary stop to that effort.
"If your people ever show up, do you think they might see fit to give this poor preacher one to use as well?"
"I don't see why not." Archer and T'Pol had distributed one padd and database to each Human settlement, for educational purposes. It wasn't nearly enough, but then it had already been a challenge for Trip's crew to fabricate enough solar rechargers for all of them, especially since they'd had no idea how soon their mission would allow them to resupply the required parts.
"A fair number of Bibles made the trip out with our ancestors," Miller said. "But very little in the way of scholarship. I believe I could happily spend years catching up."
"I liked your sermon," Trip said. "I was relieved it wasn't all hellfire and damnation."
Miller smiled. "I feel much more called to share God's love than God's wrath. You ever just want to talk, now, you feel free to step into the church or the parsonage. It must be lonely for you, not knowing when or if you'll see your home again." He squeezed Trip's arm companionably, then walked off.
Trip blinked back sudden tears, surprised and embarrassed by his reaction to the man's compassion, and decided he'd better run for it before someone tried to make him an usher.
x x x
"It's pretty simple," Jon said, in one of the Kumari's meeting rooms. "We load up a shuttle with matter/antimatter torpedos, I pilot it into the interior of the sphere, and I detonate them – or you do."
Shran scowled. "I thought Humans frowned on suicide."
"I don't love this solution either," Jon said. "But it's better than risking all hands. I'm a good pilot, and this is my fight. In fact, this is what we tried to do with the weapon when we found it."
Talla, Shran's tactical officer, rather acidly said, "The same weapon that later blew up your planet?"
Jon ignored her – he'd discovered that it was the best way to piss her off when she was being snide with him – and turned to Shran. "It would have worked if I hadn't been intercepted."
Shran's antennae stood up straight in surprise. "I? You really must have a death wish, pink skin."
"Better me than my crew," Jon said. He was conscious that this was not something any admiral at Starfleet would agree with, but then he was also quite sure none of them had been forced to make the kind of decisions he had in the last year. "That applies even better here, with your crew."
"I wouldn't say that," Shran said. "You pink skins are an endangered species now. Don't be so quick to drop your numbers even further." He turned to Talla. "You said Astrometrics had some new findings?"
"Yes," she said, with a withering look at Archer. "Scans are indicating a significant change to the space around sphere 41."
Looking at the visual, Jon blew out a long frustrated breath. He recognized the new field all too well, for Enterprise had pulled a transdimensional alien out of one not so very long ago. "I'm afraid this operation just got a lot more complicated."
To be continued…