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"Would anyone mind explaining to me exactly why we had to fly half way around the system to come in at this angle?"
Shran spoke with the air of one who has little expectation of receiving a satisfactory reply. He was therefore not particularly surprised when he didn't. It did not escape him for a moment that the strange trajectory the Hath had adopted on its approach to the third planet in this remote little system had kept the maximum distance possible from the fifth planet; he was becoming accustomed, however, to being little more than a glorified taxi driver on whom nobody bothers to bestow more than the minimum necessary information. He eyed the scanner readouts with interest. At this distance the Andorian ship could pick up little detail (even less than usual since the 'adjustments' Tucker had seen fit to make), but what there was was strange. Doubtless the pinkskins had their reasons for giving it a very wide berth indeed, even if they weren't prepared to share them. Archer had been far too impulsive for his own good sometimes; it didn't take too much imagination to guess that they'd had some kind of run-in with the place that had taught them a hard lesson.
"You don't wanna know," said Trip shortly, from his place just at the rear of the captain's chair on the bridge.
"I do, but I dare say I'm not going to."
"Take it from me. You don't."
"Maybe we could schedule a visit on the way home." As a matter of fact he had no intention of it; if Enterprise had learned respect the hard way, the much less formidable Hath certainly wasn't going to risk it. Nevertheless, there was no harm in a little provocation. He'd been good for far too long, and Tucker was a promising victim: much less accustomed to controlling his reactions than Archer had been, though even Archer had been fun to rile at first before he wised up to the game and became boring.
"Not if you wanna get home at all."
"You did." His antennae signaled piqued curiosity.
"We were lucky." The dark glance Trip shot at his wife was a telling one. Obviously the Vulcan was the better able of the two to disclose details. Unfortunately, Vulcans weren't noted for their inclination to gossip and T'Pol certainly didn't look inclined to deviate from the norm on this occasion. "Lucky we got out of there at all, if you want the truth."
"You actually landed there?"
"Took a shuttle down for a look," said the engineer briefly. "Didn't get anywhere near landing. We damn near didn't get it back."
"You could say that."
It was obvious that Tucker had now said all he was going to say on the subject – at least for the present. He crossed his arms and looked almost as Vulcan as his wife. Perhaps it was catching.
Grimacing at that thought, Shran turned his attention to the third planet, which they were now approaching. Standard Minshara-class in Starfleet terminology; almost a fifty-fifty split between ocean and land masses, if first impressions didn't lie. The land was heavily forested except for a couple of swathes of desert near the equator. The atmosphere bore quantities of cloud. A fertile, blue and green planet: too warm for his tastes (though the polar ice caps would be homelike), but humans would find it attractive. He wondered again what it was about it that was so valuable. What were they were so desperate to keep secret?
His second-in-command ran standard checks with the scanners, caught his eye and shrugged. The crew was already aware that their captain's meddlesome guest had interfered with the ship's equipment. As a result, they were able to tell virtually nothing about the planet as they established a high orbit around it. What they could glean from a visual inspection, they were welcome to.
At that moment the door on to the bridge hissed open, and there stood one of their less voluntary passengers. It was the first time since that memorable evening at Starfleet Headquarters that Shran had seen Archer on his own two feet. He'd spent much of the voyage sleeping and most of the remainder withdrawn and silent, refusing to be drawn into conversation on the rare occasions when he actually seemed to know who and where he was. Even his own crew-members seemed to have little luck in getting him to communicate. Every attempt at conversation was a walk onto the thinnest of ice sheets, sheets that could crack underfoot without warning, plunging him back into the freezing icy depths of withdrawal. They'd tried talking to him about their ship, relaying reports of how the repairs to Enterprise were going; Trip had contrived to keep open a line of strictly unofficial communication between himself and the ship, since even at this remove he took the keenest interest in the progress of her restoration. Sometimes Archer listened, expressionless, as though they were speaking a foreign language in which he had no interest, and at other times he turned away, physically rejecting them all by curling up into a ball. The sheer lifelessness of him was appalling; like him or loathe him (and even now Shran wasn't at all sure which he did), Archer had always worn his heart on his sleeve, and there had always been more than enough of it to go round.
It was obvious now how the lack of food and the emotional battleground he'd been in had worn him. He'd lost a considerable amount of weight, and with it some of his strength. He not so much stood as swayed in the doorway, supporting himself with one arm on the side of the frame. His face was gaunt, wasted. His eyes were dull hazel in shadowed hollows, fixed with painful intensity on the viewscreen in front of him.
"You … brought me back?" he rasped at last.
"It was all we could think of, Jon." The faintest stumble betrayed that at the last instant Trip had remembered not to use the other man's title in front of others, though naturally it sprang automatically to his tongue.
"You shouldn't have bothered. I'm not going down there."
"I have news for you, Pinkskin. After we've come all this way, you're going down there whether you like it or not." Shran glared at him. "You can go in a shuttle or you can go through the airlock, it's up to you."
The captain's face contorted. In another life he'd have argued, but he seemed unable to marshal an effective reply. For one horrible minute the Andorian thought he was going to cry again; this was something they'd tried to keep from the gaze of the ordinary members of the crew. Even though they knew him only as Jon Tucker, he was still a starship captain and as such should have his dignity preserved as much as possible in the circumstances. As a fellow captain, Shran had strict views on such matters.
Then it happened.
Even Shran's antennae stood up straight in astonishment as Archer's eyes widened and his gaze went away from the bridge into distance. He looked as though he was listening to a message through an invisible earpiece from someone dear to him who he'd believed dead; joy and incredulity swept over his face like a banner of sunshine across a storm-battered landscape.
"Oh, thank God, she's still alive," Tucker said softly. The relief in his voice was palpable.
Shran swung around to stare at him in amazement. "She knows he's here already?"
"Oh, yes." The human grinned ruefully. "She knows all right."
A narrow-eyed frown. "I'm looking forward to seeing this amazing person for myself."
"You have no idea how amazin' she is till you meet her." His gaze too had become abstracted, but he was now looking at his wife, and if Shran had been in the habit of using human idioms he would have described Trip's expression as 'mushy'. He glanced at T'Pol, and she was returning her husband's gaze; Vulcans didn't do 'mushy', or anything even remotely approximating it, but there was no doubt about it, there was a particular intensity in that wide brown stare that said that something was being exchanged between the two of them.
Given the fact that they shared a cabin and were wearing the identical rings that humans customarily wore to indicate that they were in a quad – he revised that to a 'pair', remembering that humans had less complex familial arrangements – the Andorian had already surmised that the two of them were in a relationship that almost certainly didn't have the blessing of the Vulcan High Council, or probably Starfleet's either. They hadn't made much of a show of it to date; their daily behavior had in fact not been that much different from what he'd noticed when he'd known them only as fellow crewmembers on board Enterprise, but you'd have to be blind not to see and understand the significance of their expressions now.
Great. His ship was turning into a love-fest, and Jhamel was back on Andoria.
He just hated being the odd man out.
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