Captain Archer watched from a distance as Trip and Travis hurriedly completed their preparations.  He remained standing at the entrance to the shuttle bay, just out of sight, while he contemplated placing his friend in danger.

Trip and he had been friends for over ten years now, though their friendship wasn’t as close as it used to be.  The Vissian incident four years previously had seen to that.  He remembered that day with such clarity.  How he had harshly blamed the commander for the Cogenitor’s death.  How he had turned his back on his friend as Trip pled for his captain’s understanding.  Now he regretted that he never took the opportunity to discuss what had occurred, and more importantly, to give his friend some absolution.  After all, he thought, I’ve made enough of my own bad decisions.  But so much had happened since that day and he never got the chance to clear the air. 

As he remained standing out of sight, Archer also remembered the good times.  The nights that he and Trip spent sitting in the captain’s mess, drinking beer and eating junk food, while watching water polo or football.  The times they would debate the merits of time travel - or not.  And the times when Trip would come and just sit and talk. 

He missed those days, and he would give anything to have them back.  I started out as an explorer, and ended up a warrior, he thought bitterly.  Something tugged deep inside of him; a sense of loss.   Archer was brought back to reality when he heard his name being called. 

Trip was standing just outside the shuttlepods hatch, looking expectantly his way.  Archer smiled tightly and walked over as Trip climbed into the shuttle.  The captain leaned through the door and eyed his two crewmen.  “Ready?”

Trip nodded.  “Aye, Sir. Wish us luck!”

Archer’s eyes bored into Trip’s.  “Remember, there and back, Trip, no pit stops.”

Trip nodded, and Archer watched as he pulled the hatch closed behind him.  The captain made his way to the control room and observed with a heavy heart as the shuttlepod left the safety of Enterprise.

* * * * * * * * * *

As the shuttle bay doors closed behind them, Trip’s mind was turning over the events of the last twenty four hours.  The battle with the Romulans, the fight to stop the warp core from breaching, trying to repair the damage to engineering, loosing Columbia, all had drained him considerably.  And now, here he was, flying into the unknown, with limited visibility and sensors, to track down a ship whose sole purpose was to destroy the Enterprise.  He rubbed his eyes and wondered what other surprises the universe had planned.

Inevitably, his thoughts went to the captain.  When Jon had shot him his quiet looks of warning to be careful, Trip had seen something else behind his eyes, something that he’d only seen a few times in their years of friendship – panic and fear.  Fear of losing someone else close, no doubt, he thought.

Trip knew Jon well, even if they had drifted apart over the last few years.  He knew if anything should happen to him while on this mission, Jon would never forgive himself - especially after losing Captain Hernandez.  Trip wanted to tear his hair out in frustration knowing there wasn’t a damned thing he could do that would reassure his friend.

Trip could see him right now, pacing the bridge, annoying the hell out of T’Pol and Malcolm, while he wore a hole in the deckplating.  Better add another repair order to the list, he thought with a smile, but sobered quickly.

Jon had suffered a great loss and Trip’s heart went out to him.  Losing Captain Hernandez like that, well it was a cruel blow and Trip wanted to scream at the injustice handed out to his friend.  When this is all over, he thought, I’m gonna sit Jon down and pour him a stiff drink.  Then we’re gonna talk, whether he likes it or not. 

With that decided, Trip turned his attention to his other concern who was sitting right in front of him.  He snuck a quick look at Travis and contemplated whether or not to approach the subject that also weighed heavily on his mind.

He hadn’t known Lloyd Smith very well, but he was aware that Travis had built a strong friendship with the deceased chief engineer.  Trip was concerned for the young man.  Travis was just moving forward after the death of his own family and, looking at his young friend now, Trip was troubled.  “You okay, Travis?” he asked.

Travis turned in his seat in surprise.  “I’m fine, Commander!”

Knowing from previous experience when Travis lost his family, Trip wasn’t going to give him the opportunity to shut him out.  He pushed on.  “You don’t want to talk about it?”

Travis raised his eyebrows.  “Talk about what, Sir?”

“About Lloyd,” he said gently, keeping his eyes steady with the young man.

Travis shrugged and turned his back on Trip.  “I’m good, Commander.  It’s all good.” 

Travis busied himself with the flight controls, but the indifference in Travis’s voice alarmed Trip.  “You sure?” he asked.

Travis kept his attention on the console in front of him.  “Death happens, right!” he said with another shrug.

Trip frowned.  He definitely wasn’t liking the tone in Travis’ voice.  “True...” he said then paused for a moment before continuing.  “But you and Lloyd were friends, Travis, his death must have affected you.” 

Travis raised his head and looked out into the expanse in front of him, the colours of the nebula reflected back into his dark eyes.  “Lloyd’s dead.  What’s there to talk about?”  He turned back to the commander.  “I’ll get over it.  His family will get over it...”  He trailed off, but the trace of resentment in his voice hung in the air.

Trip kept his steady gaze on the young man.  “Travis...”

Travis turned back to his console.  “We can’t keep wallowing in self pity, Commander, got to keep moving on....” 

Trip stared at Travis’s back and considered saying more, but decided that now may not be the best of times.  “Okay, but if you want to talk,” he said, leaving the offer open. 

For a few minutes, an uncomfortable silence fell between them until Travis broke it.  “So, what do you think’s up with Commander T’Pol?” he asked lightly.

“Sorry?” Trip responded in surprise. 

“Commander T'Pol, requesting that you not go on this mission,” Travis explained.

Trip considered the question.  He had also been surprised by T’Pol’s request and had been left confused. 

Trip knew things would be a bit different when he returned to the Enterprise.  How could it not be when I haven’t been aboard for two years, he mused.  But he thought the bond he and T’Pol shared would have soothed over any uneasiness the time apart had created.  In fact, when he remembered back to his first night on board, the night he spent with T’Pol, he assumed things were okay. 

Now, as he recalled the conversation that he had had with T’Pol, just before he left for this mission, he wondered if things were indeed alright.  He had seen the concern in her eyes, heard the plea in her voice, and he felt frustrated that he was unable to worm out of her what the problem was, but her stubborn streak had well and truly set.  Like stone, he thought.  Trip sighed.  “No Idea!” he told Travis. 

But obviously something had rattled his stoic T’Pol, and he vowed right then and there to find out just exactly what that something was.

* * * * * * * * * *

The mood on Enterprise was unnaturally still.  Hoshi stared ahead into the multi coloured expanse, Malcolm kept a steady watch on his readings.  Captain Archer stood in the centre of the bridge, keeping a quiet vigil over his absent crew, and T’Pol sat stiffly at her station, staring blankly at her console.

“They should be there by now,” Archer said, keeping his eyes fixed on the expanse.

“Assuming Travis was able to locate them,” Malcolm answered looking up from his consol.

Archer turned to the communications officer.  “Hoshi have you picked up anything?”

Keeping her eyes on her readings, Hoshi shook her head.  “Nothing so far, Sir.”

Archer turned his attention back to the nebula.  “T’Pol, any sign that they’ve been detected?” he asked, keeping his eyes forward.  When he received no response, he spun to the commander.  “T’Pol!” he repeated alarmed.

Deeply lost in her thoughts, T’Pol didn’t hear the captain’s question.  Instead, her mind was racing, filled with the bloody image of Trip.  She was agonizing that she hadn’t done enough to convince the commander to stay on Enterprise, hadn’t done enough to keep him safe.  That the dreams that had been plaguing her recently were about to be realised...

* * * * * * * * * *

The sound of the shuttlepods engines were almost deafening in Trip’s ears as they approached the Romulan ship.  The proximity alarm sounded.  “Steady as she goes, Travis.  I want to get in and out of here as quickly and quietly as possible,” he said, almost at a whisper, even though he was aware that his voice couldn’t carry across the expanse between the two vessels.

Travis kept his concentration on his piloting.  “Aye, Sir,” he replied, just as quietly as the commander.

Both men raised their eyes when the shadow of the vessel above cast itself over them.  After a moment of silence, Trip exhaled a nervous breath and raised himself from his chair.  He rushed to the rear of the pod to complete the remaining calibrations to the weapon.

Travis’ voice drifted from the forward section.  “Pretty neat little deployment system you and Malcolm came up with,” he said.

Trip understood that Travis was making inane conversation in an effort to quell his nerves.  He was grateful; his own anxiety was just about to shoot through the roof.   He followed the ensign’s lead.  “Well, it'll do for this job, but it's hardly refined,” he said, “It’s a bit of a modified version of the grappling arm.” 

Trip could almost taste the tension in the air as he continued to work on the calibrations in silence for a few minutes.  His heart kicked up a notch when a beep sounded, confirming that his adjustments were complete and that the weapon was ready.  “Alright, Travis, that'll do it,” he breathed as he raised himself from his crouched position.  Trip turned and rushed to his seat.  “Now let's get the hell out of here before they find us.”

Travis heaved a sigh of relief, and turned in his chair to get the shuttle underway, post haste.  “You don't have to ask me twice.”

* * * * * * * * * *

Captain Archer’s heart skipped a beat when he received no response from his second in command.  “T’Pol is there anything on your sensors?” he repeated urgently, his mind full of visions that her silence meant his men had been detected.  Relief flooded him when T’Pol finally responded after checking her readings, silencing his fears.

She met the captain’s worried eyes.  “No, Captain.  As you predicted, sensors barely function in the nebula,” T’Pol advised calmly, then turned to stare out the forward viewscreen.

Archer’s hopes sank.  Where the hell are they?  “Of course, I only meant...” He turned back and watched the empty space.  “It's been a while since they left,” he said quietly. 

Though relieved that the shuttle hadn’t been detected, Archer’s anxiety still clenched at his stomach.  After losing Erika, he didn’t think he could take another hit if he lost his friend as well.  You almost lost Trip once, remember.  Bile rose in his throat at the memory.  He hadn’t liked the feeling back then; he was certainly liking it less now.  We still have too much to talk about. 

The captain’s eyes were drawn back to the nebula and its colourful dance once again.  Any other time he would have been fascinated by the event, but the current situation subdued his natural tendencies of exploration.  Somewhere in that murky nebula, his crewmen were taking all the risks to ensure the safety of Enterprise.

* * * * * * * * * *

“Travis?”  Trip tried to keep his voice calm as he looked out into the nebula, searching for a sign that the Enterprise was near.

Travis checked his readings again.  “Sorry, Sir, we should be on top of Enterprise by now,” he replied, the fear clear in his voice.

Trip looked out into the empty space again.  He felt the veins in his temple throb, trying to break free of his body.  Where the bloody hell are we...

* * * * * * * * * *

“Anything on sensors, yet?” asked Valdore tersely.

“Nothing yet, Admiral,” advised Sub-Commander Jo’rek, keeping his eyes on his sensors.

The admiral’s eyes moved swiftly as he methodically searched for a way to rescue this situation.  The dark thoughts that Senator Vrax would abandon him to the mines of Remus entered.  They disturbed him greatly so he pushed them aside.  I must succeed, he thought.  And if I don’t... 

He left his silent question hanging in the air when something caught his attention.  He shifted to the edge of his chair in excitement.  “What is that in the distance, is that the Enterprise?” he asked, hope started to replace his gloom.  He looked at Jo’rek expectantly.

Jo’rek checked his readings.  He shook his head.  “Negative, Admiral, it’s too small,” he replied.  Looking up from his console, Jo’rek concluded.  “I believe it could be one of their shuttle pods.”

Valdore felt the thrill run through his veins.  “Set an intercept course,” he ordered.  This time...  This time you will not escape.

* * * * * * * * * *

Captain Archer tried not to pace the bridge as his anxiety grew over the whereabouts of his men.  His adrenalin pounded through his veins, nervous energy begging to be released.  He couldn’t stand it any longer and turned to T’Pol.  “Anything?” he growled.  He tried to keep his frustration from showing while T’Pol checked her readings.

After what seemed like an eternity, T’Pol looked up.  “No, Captain,” came her short, but tense, reply. 

Captain Archer felt his skin crawl.  Dammit, where are they.  He couldn’t stand it any longer, and started pacing, his eyes a constant movement, scrutinizing his crew on the bridge. 

Hoshi had her hand pressed to her ear, her face contorted into a frown in concentration.  Malcolm sat alertly, his eyes shifting constantly over his controls.  But it was T’Pol that set the captain’s nerves on edge, her stiff posture, her unreadable face - but her eyes gave her away.  They were dark with concern...

Archer shifted his attention back to the nebula and tried to quell his breathing, but he was desperate for someone to open their mouths and tell him that the shuttle had returned.  Finally, Hoshi broke through his anxiety.

“Captain, I'm getting something,” she said in a guarded voice.
 
Archer covered the distance to Hoshi’s station in two strides.

“It's the shuttle pod,” she said relieved.

The captain could have laughed.  “Open a channel,” he ordered, allowing a small smile to emerge.

“We’re three minutes away, Capt’n.  Went off without a hitch,” Trip’s calm voice sounded, though Archer suspected that his friend was just as edgy as himself.

“That’s great news, Trip,” he said and started to breathe again.  He was about to order Travis to the bridge, after they docked, when T’Pol cut in.

“Captain, the Romulans appear to have detected the shuttle,” she advised, keeping her attention steadfastly on her readings.

Archer spun to his second in command.

T’Pol raised her worried eyes to meet those of the captain’s.  “They have set an intercept course.”   

Archer’s mouth dried up, and he worked hard to get some saliva going.  He clenched his jaw. Crap!  “Time till they get here,” he asked, tightly.  His throat felt constricted from the tension that was re-building in his body. 

“Approximately three minutes and thirty two seconds,” T’Pol replied.

Archer raked his hands through his hair in frustration.  “Is there anything we can do to speed things up?”

“I would advise against altering our course, there is the possibility that we would pass the shuttle with the interference coming from the nebula,” she said, keeping her eyes locked with the captain’s.  “I suggest that Ensign Mayweather increase his speed.”

The captain steadied his breathing and centred himself.  He reached for the comm.  “Trip, is there a possibility of speeding this up?” he asked, trying to keep the panic out of his voice.

“Capt’n?” Trip replied, the commander’s concern coming through loud and clear over the comm.

“The Romulans have detected the shuttle, Trip.   They’ve set an intercept course, and are about three and a half minutes behind you.  You and Travis need to get back.”  Archer could hear Trip swear and order Travis to do what he could to increase their speed. 

An unbidden image of Columbia, erupting in a ball of flames, flashed through the captain’s mind.  With a determined effort, he pushed the image aside and stared intently at the comm, as if somehow he could will Trip to speak.  It appeared to work.

“We're docking now, Capt'n.”  Trip’s relieved voice sounded.

Taking a calming breath, Archer waited for confirmation that the shuttle was once again tucked safely in the arms of Enterprise.  He looked at Malcolm.

The lieutenant had his head down, brows farrowed, deep in concentration.  He finally lifted his eyes.  “Launch bay doors are secure, Captain,” he advised in his calm, British accent.

Archer gave a short nod in recognition.  Now to get us out of here, he thought, then packed away Jonathan Archer, friend, and put the mantle of Captain back on.  He leaned to the comm.  “Travis, get to the bridge as soon as you can,” he ordered.  He didn’t wait for a reply and turned to the helmsman.  “Ensign, get ready to go to warp.”

Archer stiffened his back and turned to Hoshi.  “Bring their ship up on screen,” he ordered, and watched as Hoshi’s hands flew across her controls, bringing the enemy into view.  “How long?” he asked T’Pol without shifting his attention.

T’Pol checked her readings.  “Approximately thirty seconds, Captain,” she responded.

Archer waited.

In less time than T’Pol predicted, a bright flash spread out as the weapon exploded on the Romulan vessel.  “Get us out of here,” he ordered the helmsman.

* * * * * * * * * *

Valdore’s excitement was growing.  They were close to ending this farce once and for all.  The shuttle he had detected had led them to their prey.   “Enterprise...  Captain Archer,” he uttered.  The Earth ship came into view.  “Time,” he asked, keeping his attention forward.

Jo’rek checked his readings.  “Thirty seconds, Admiral,” he advised.

A cold sneer grew on the admiral’s face.  Finally!  “Arm weapons,” he ordered keeping his eyes transfixed on his prise.

Suddenly, the Qu’lore rocked violently.  Hot flames shot out from panels on the bridge, as circuitry exploded.  Valdore held tight to the side of his chair, and quickly tore his attention away from the Enterprise.  “Report,” he barked.

Jo’rek hastily checked his sensors.  “There was an explosion on the port ventral plating,” he advised with a slight edge to his voice.  He looked at the admiral.  “The resulting damage has taken weapons off line and has weakened our shields.”

Valdore fumed.  “How did this happen?”

Jo’rek remained calm under the barrage of the admiral’s fiery glare.  “I can only surmise that they used the interference created by the nebula to their advantage.  They must have masked their approach and attached a weapon to our hull.”

Valdore’s angered breathing resonated around the bridge as his dark eyes burned a hole into the unattainable earth vessel.  One day, Captain, one day...  “Set a course for Romulus,” he ordered, knowing there was little more to be achieved.

As they followed the Earth ship out of the nebula, Admiral Valdore’s mind worked feverishly, plotting his defence.  His dark eyes stared down at his bleak future as they cleared the nebula and went to warp...

* * * * * * * * * *

Captain Archer wasn’t prepared to let his guard down just yet as the Enterprise cleared the nebula and flew into the star studded universe.  His shoulders ached from the strain of the last few hours.  He moved them slightly to try and ease the knot that had formed between his shoulder blades.  He turned to Lieutenant Reed.  “Malcolm, what's their status?” he asked, watching closely as the lieutenant checked his readings.

“Minimal damage to their shields,” Malcolm advised looking up.  “We may have taken out a weapon or two, it's still hard to tell,” he added.

The captain nodded and turned at the sound of the turbo lift door opening.  A weary looking Travis Mayweather exited and moved to take his place at the helm.  Malcolm’s voice drew the captain’s attention away from the ensign. 

“They're moving off,” he advised.

The captain heaved a relieved breath and moved to the helm.  “Welcome back, Travis,” he greeted, placing a hand on the young man’s shoulder, giving it a tight squeeze.

Travis gave a curt nod.  “Good to be back, Captain,” he replied tiredly.

The captain smiled wearily and looked out to the wonder of the universe.  A part of him wished he could once more enjoy her beauty.  So much had been lost, he thought sadly.  With the Enterprise safe for now, the captain had one more duty to perform.

He took a shallow breath, and with a heavy heart, gave the order.  “Set a course for Salem-One, Travis, we need to pick up survivors.”

 

Click here for the Epilogue 

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