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"If you ask me, it's just bloody unnerving."
Lieutenant Malcolm Reed stood to one side of the crowded hall. He was trying very hard to keep all of his charges in sight, but the shifting crowds made that difficult. His temper was fraying. His nerves were already on edge, and had been since the discovery of what kind of people they were about to make 'first contact' with.
"Well, just for once, Loo-tenant, I kinda agree with ya." Trip had wandered over to him in a break between making his contribution to the social small-talk. "But they're really good-lookin', most of them."
"That's just the trouble. What do they really look like? I don't like it at all. I wish the..." He shut his mouth with a snap, aware that he was about to break protocol by criticising his commanding officer aloud.
"You know he wouldn't refuse an invitation." The blue eyes were amused. "'Specially not from people who're this friendly."
"Hmm." He crossed his arms across his chest and refused to be either convinced or consoled.
Shape-shifters! That's what these people were, if one could even define them as 'people' in any real sense – the scanners had given off readings that made no sense whatsoever until the incoming call had been posted up on the bridge. The person who had spoken to them was humanoid – at least, that's the form he or she had chosen to assume, ostensibly in an effort to make their visitors feel at ease. There were quite a few other possible reasons for doing such a thing that anyone as suspicious as the ship's security officer could come up with very readily indeed, and not one of them made him feel good about the situation. The empty space at his right hip where his phase pistol should have been clipped was an almost physical ache. How the hell was he supposed to carry out his primary bloody responsibility properly when he wasn't equipped with the means to do so?
The relative isolation of the landing party down here from any support from the ship was another irritant to his peace of mind. The planet's atmosphere was subject to high-level storms that effectively cut off communication between them and Enterprise while they lasted. They'd flown the shuttle down in one of the relatively rare calm periods, but the activity had started again soon afterwards, though at present it was only intermittent. Not that anybody seemed all that worried about it – anybody but himself, that was. He'd made an attempt to underline the dangers of it and been brushed off, as usual, with the stock insinuation that he was 'paranoid.'
'Paranoid?' He was trained and paid to be bloody paranoid. Or, in security terms, just very, very careful. For all the thanks he got for his efforts. He'd occasionally wondered why Captain Archer didn't just make everybody wear badges sporting the words 'Please Kill Me.'
The lieutenant almost glared across to where the captain and Hoshi were absorbed in conversation with President Arritar of the Siurh-halla's Ruling Council. Their host appeared to find the linguist positively enchanting. He (if it was a he) was bending forward towards her, carefully enunciating a series of words for her to mimic. Coming a bit too damned close for propriety, in fact. And the captain, who should have done something about it, was just standing there grinning.
"Lighten up, Malcolm." Trip was as observant as ever. "I'll keep an eye on her."
"That's my job." He affected not to see the knowing twinkle that this terse reply elicited. It was nevertheless somewhat comforting that the chief engineer did indeed make his way across to the little group and slip a brotherly arm around Hoshi's slender waist; and even more so that the president appeared to respond to this gesture by leaving just a little more space between them while he continued to elucidate the mysteries of his world's language for her benefit.
"You did not eat a great deal at the banquet." One of the Siurh-halla had drifted up to him. That was one of the things that he found unnerving – that they all drifted. He hadn't worked out yet how they did it, because their legs seemed to move in exactly the same way as a human's did, but the effect was very different. The gait appeared as stealthy as a cloud even when it was relatively rapid.
"I just wasn't very hungry, thank you." He would never eat much whilst on duty. Surfeit made one slow.
She studied him. She was pretty, if one relied on the evidence of one's eyes, which he reminded himself that he couldn't. Under the intricate coronet around her brows, her dark hair curled around her slender face with its slightly pointed chin. As far as he could discern from the long robes she wore, she had a good figure. But just like the others, there was this – effect that he couldn't stop seeing, the faint but persistent slipping of the visual perception. It was almost as if they were holograms and the programme wasn't perfect. Nevertheless they all seemed to interact without difficulty with a physical world; the glasses were real enough, and she was carrying one in each hand. A hologram couldn't have done that.
"And the wine was not to your taste? We made every effort to make it palatable to your species." She offered him the one in her left hand.
"I'm sure it's delicious. But no, thank you. I'm not allowed to drink while I'm on duty."
The eyes wandered over him. Were they green or blue? He had a suspicion they might have been yellow a few seconds earlier. "I am sorry that you are here only as a duty. We would like you to feel we are your friends."
"The captain's very grateful for your welcome. And your hospitality." He stared back at her through the gun-slit of his defences, yielding nothing.
"And you?" Her hand slipped onto his arm. He could feel the coolness of it through the sleeve of his uniform. "I would wish to be your friend, Lieu-ten-ant Reed."
She was standing too close; suddenly panic clawed at him. "I have no friends when I'm on duty." It wasn't diplomatic, but it was the truth.
"Then perhaps when you are no longer on duty we shall become better acquainted." Her smile was pleasant enough, and she moved away without haste, but sweat had sprung out at his temples. Abruptly he realised that the room was suffocatingly hot and airless.
"Sir, are you all right?" Travis was beside him, which was worrying because he hadn't noticed him arrive and it was his job to notice everything.
"Hot," he mumbled. There was a buzzing sound in his ears. The room seemed to be going away from him. No. He couldn't be going to –
He regained consciousness on the terrace outside. Travis and Trip had carried him out between them. This in itself would have been mortifying enough, but a small crowd of Siurh-halla had gathered and were peering down at him with intense curiosity.
The chill of the night air on his overheated body made him aware that someone had pulled down the zip of his dress uniform jacket and unfastened his shirt, opening both in the attempt to cool him down. The bluish light of the largest of the planet's three moons lit up the terrace like a searchlight, illuminating his bare torso. For some reason this was intensely frightening when he realised it.
"What the..." He began struggling to sit upright, trying to drag together his clothes, his senses and his dignity.
"Whoa, buddy." Trip held him down gently but firmly. "Just take your time till you feel better."
"I feel fine!" As a matter of fact he didn't feel anything of the sort. He had a headache that actually made him wish he was in Sickbay, and that was something. And his heart was leaping about behind his sternum like something small and terrified in a cage. Banked flowers in tubs had been placed here and there around the terrace, their perfume scenting the night air. The stench of them in the back of his throat was nauseating.
His clearing gaze darted around the crowd, flinching away from the way that none of them except Trip and Travis seemed quite solid. She was there. He'd known she would be. If it was her, and not somebody else. He could feel the eyes on his body, and they were yellower than the third moon that was low on the horizon, grinning across the silver landscape.
"What's going on here?" The captain's voice was quick with concern. "Malcolm?"
"It's nothing, sir. Must have – just got a bit overheated." The automatic lies should have been choking him. It wasn't 'nothing.' It wasn't. Deep water. Danger. The alarm bells were clamouring in his head, and that was what he'd thought was a headache.
He clamped a hand around Trip's wrist. "We should get back to the ship. Now."
"I'll fly you up and come back to pick up the others." Tucker looked puzzled and a little alarmed.
"No!" Leaving the rest of the landing party here, unprotected – not for a single minute! His free right hand scrabbled at his hip, trying to draw his non-existent phase pistol from an empty clip. "All of us – all of us should leave!" He could hear somebody's breathing becoming stertorous with fear, and was far too deep in it to realise that it was his own.
"The Lieu-ten-ant is unwell." Her voice was smoother than water sliding over hidden knives. "I am a physician. With your permission, Captain, I will treat him." Seeing him hesitate momentarily, "We will take the greatest care of him."
The buzzing was back. Water – deep water – drowning – Captain, don't let her – Trip – Phlox –!
The anguished shriek was the last thing he remembered.
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