A vein pulsed near his temple in anger.  “Why have we been unable to detect them?” Admiral Valdore barked at his scope operator, his dark eyes remained staring out into the nebula.  They had been close, so close.  Now the Earth ship had disappeared. 

The scope operator read his sensors.  “The nebula emits a certain form of radiation, Admiral, which is interfering with our sensors,” he advised evenly.  He looked up and continued, “it is preventing us from detecting their ship.”
 
Valdore gritted his teeth.  This was not the information he was hoping for.  He had delayed updating the senator, believing that the superiority of the Romulan fleet would easily overcome the earth ships, and victory would have been complete.  Yet the remaining earth ship had once again managed to thwart their plans.  Now there was no putting off that report.  Valdore glared out to the nebula as he rose from his chair.  You can’t hide forever, Captain...

* * * * * * * * * *

The lights in the armory blared brightly as Lieutenant Reed stared at the report he held in his hand.  “Shit,” he swore.  Restoring the weapons wasn’t going to be easy, and was going to take time, time that Enterprise didn’t have.  They would be vulnerable and he needed to find a way to protect the ship. 

Malcolm wiped the sweat from his eyes.  Right now he wished he could have had the assistance of Commander Tucker to get the weapons back online, but he knew the commander had his hands full trying to repair the warp engines.  He didn’t envy his friend.  The tension in Trip’s voice, when it looked like the warp core would breach, was enough for the head of security to leave the chief engineer to his work. 

Thinking about Commander Tucker brought Captain Archer to his mind. 

Malcolm was concerned when, on the bridge, the captain appeared oblivious to his surroundings in the middle of a battle.  He was relieved when Commander T’Pol had assumed control. 

Malcolm understood, on some level, that the captain had suffered a deep loss, he acknowledged as much to himself as he watched the shattered captain leave the bridge, but a part of him still felt that the man should have pulled himself together.  Stiff upper lip and all that, he thought sourly.

Though he and the captain had built a stronger connection over the years he had served on Enterprise, the last twelve months had soured Malcolm, considerably.  Trip had pulled him up over his attitude several times, but with the commander based on Earth now, it didn’t take long for Malcolm to slip back into old routines and see the world through cynical eyes. 

With his mind distracted, an idea emerged.  He walked to the comm, and pressed the button.

* * * * * * * * * *

“Okay, let me try this,” Trip murmured to no one in particular, and entered a different command into the diagnostic processor.  He watched carefully as the program ran, his eyes a constant movement taking in each response.  Trip threw himself up out of his chair and spun around, growling in frustration.  He pulled at his hair and glared at the computer.  “Why will you not do what I want you to do?” he snarled at the mute console.  He was about to sit again when the comm sounded.  Trip stormed to the panel.  “Engineering,” he barked.

Malcolm’s calm voice responded.  “Commander, I know you’re busy, but could you come down to the armory?”

Trip stared at the uncooperative computer.  Maybe a break is a good idea, he thought.    ”I’ll be right there.”  He looked back at the console which was giving him a belligerent flashing red light.  “Next time you and I meet you better cooperate,” he ordered, pointing at the inanimate object.  Trip huffed and made his way out of engineering. 

With his mind still full of the problems he was encountering, Trip didn’t see Malcolm when he entered the armory.  He approached a crewman.  “Can you tell me where Lieutenant Reed is?” he asked.

The young crewman pointed to one of the Jeffries tubes.  “He’s in there, Commander.”

Trip nodded his thanks, and made his way over.  He bent as he entered the tube and let his eyes adjust to the softer lighting before eyeing the lieutenant.  “Malcolm, you wanted to see me?”

Reed turned and met his friend’s eyes.  “Ah, Trip, thank you for coming.”

Trip shrugged but said nothing as he made his way over to Reed.

Malcolm took that as his cue for continuing.  “We suffered massive damage to the weapons systems,” he said.

“I’m aware,” Trip replied as he came to a stop.

Malcolm’s eyes narrowed.  “Targeting systems are off line, phase cannons are down and we have zero torpedos.”

Trip’s shoulders ached from too many hours spent sitting in front of a computer program that refused to cooperate.  The last thing he needed was for Malcolm to go via Draylax to get to the point.  He rubbed his eyes to stave off the headache that had been building.  He heaved a frustrated breath.  “Your point, Malcolm?”

Malcolm gave a tight smile.  “Basically, Commander, I’m not going to be able to get weapons back on line soon which leaves Enterprise unprotected,” he replied tersely.

Trip placed his hands on his hips and raised his eyebrows.  “Your point, Malcolm,” he repeated, his irritation growing.  When Malcolm stood almost at attention, his body tense, Trip realised the anger that was niggling at him, that he projected toward Malcolm, was unwarranted.  “Sorry, Malcolm, I’m just tired,” he said, letting his shoulders drop to lessen his confrontational stance.

Malcolm nodded his understanding.  “I’m sorry to take you away from engineering, but I thought it would be best to put forward my idea to you before taking it to the captain.”

Trip nodded.  “Okay, what’s your idea?”

“Do you remember when we were trapped on that drone ship a few years back?” he asked.

Trip smiled at the memory, not in fondness, but in relief.  He had dodged a bullet that day.  “Yeah, I sure do,” he sighed.

Malcolm gave a tight smile in return.  “Do you also remember that I managed to rig a phase pistol to overload their warp matrix?”

Trip gave a short nod.

“I was thinking that maybe we could try something similar with a pulse rifle.  The yield is much greater than a phase pistol.”

Trip folded his arms and frowned.  “Okay, but for what reason?”

“We have to find a way to take out that Romulan ship,” Malcolm said gravely.

“Agreed!  What do you have in mind?” Trip asked his curiosity piquing.

Malcolm’s eyes grew dark.  “Well, I was thinking if we could find a way to attach to it their hull, we may cause enough damage to allow the Enterprise time to escape.”

Trip kept his eyes steady with Malcolm’s as his mind went to work.  “We could try rigging up a system on the shuttle pod that could deploy and attach the weapon to their hull,” he said rubbing his hand on his chin in contemplation.

Malcolm’s eyes glistened with anticipation.  “Exactly what I was thinking!” He looked away for a moment then back at Trip.  “My only concern is that, in this murky nebula, there’s a possibility of getting lost.”

Trip’s face darkened.  “Yeah, I know,” he sighed.  He particularly didn’t want to get lost out there.  “But Travis is a good pilot, and, as you said, this could be our only chance,” he reasoned, already deciding he and Travis should be the ones to go.  The gravity of the situation fell on Trip’s back, adding to his building headache.

“I’ll talk to the captain,” Malcolm said quietly, heading out of the Jeffries tube.

Trip followed in deep thought.  He regretted that he hadn’t had a chance to visit the captain after his friend had left engineering, but with all the damage done to the warp drive, he just hadn’t been able to find the time.  Trip knew how he was feeling about the loss of Captain Hernandez, so he could only imagine how his friend was coping.  The look in the captain’s eyes still haunted Trip.  He placed his hand on Malcolm’s arm.  “No, look, I’ll talk to the captain.” 

Malcolm studied his friend for a moment.  “You sure?”

Trip nodded emphatically.  “Yeah, I want to see how he’s doing,” he said, squinting at the brighter lighting as he stepped out of the Jeffries tube. 

* * * * * * * * * *

Captain’s log, April 8th, 2157. 

We’ve been drifting in the Kerada Nebula for just over thirty minutes.   Lieutenant Reed says he has devised a weapon utilising a phase rifle.  Apparently, he had success with a similar design just over two years ago.

The captain switched off his recording and looked over to Porthos who took that as his cue to trot over to his master.  Archer bent down and gave his pet a gentle rub behind his ears before standing and walking to his observation window, Porthos followed at his heels.  The captain stared out to the vastness of space; he was relieved to have some time to himself before he faced his officers. 

After he was satisfied that Enterprise was safe for the moment, the captain had retreated to his ready room for some much needed privacy.  He had kept the lights down low, as if by doing so it could mask his inner turmoil.  But now, as he watched his reflection and noted the lines of exhaustion that marked his face, he knew that, no matter what, he couldn’t hide from the truth.  He had failed Erika and his crew.  He rubbed his fatigued eyes.  You can’t go there, Jon, he admonished.  But no matter how hard he tried, the finger of blame kept pointing at him. 

He knew his behaviour, earlier on the bridge, was unprofessional and he was in dereliction of his duties.  He wouldn’t, couldn’t, blame anyone if they reported his failures to Starfleet command, but right now he wasn’t sure if he cared enough to worry about the consequences.  He tried to stifle his rising anger at himself, and forced his mind elsewhere.  He went over the visit he received from Trip earlier. 

"Hey, Capt’n!" Trip greeted as he entered the captain’s ready room.

Archer looked up from his console surprised.  He hadn’t heard his door chime.  Instead, he had been staring blankly at the console in front of him, lost in his own world.  He planted a tight smile on his face to hide his lax of concentration.  “Hey, Trip.  How’s everything in engineering?” he asked as he watched his friend take a seat opposite him.  Archer frowned when he noticed just how weary his chief engineer was looking. 

“I’m still having trouble finding where the problem is,” Trip said looking up with tired eyes.  “I’ve got a team working twenty four eight trying to track down that damn glitch.”

Archer watched in sympathy as Trip tried to stifle a yawn.  “You should get some rest, Trip.”

Trip gave a mirthless laugh.  “Don’t have time, Capt’n, besides there’s something else that’s going to be taking up my time,” he said looking directly at Archer.

The captain shifted in his chair restlessly, under the steady gaze of his friend.  He could see the inevitable question coming, and thought frantically to try and find a way to head it off, but it was of no use.

“But before I tell ya about it, I wanna know how ya doin’?” Trip asked.

Something blew into the captain’s heart shattering it to pieces, at his friend’s concern.  He took a sharp breath and buried it.  Right now isn’t the time to be self indulged, he thought.  “I’m fine, Trip,” he responded, trying to put as much confidence he could muster in his voice, to shift attention away from his mental state.  He couldn’t help but feel as if he had betrayed his friend, at seeing the hurt in Trip’s eyes. 

“I’m sorry, Trip,” he finally whispered, “just not now.”

Trip nodded his understanding.  Archer moved on.  “So, fill me in about what’s going to be taking up your time.”

The captain smiled at the memory of his friend finally relieving him of any further exploration of his feelings.  He drew his attention away from his reflection and looked down at Porthos.  Without saying a word, he straightened his back, turned, and left for the tactical room.

* * * * * * * * * *

The soft hues of the nebula reflected in the captain’s eyes as he stood with his back to his officers.  For a moment, Archer took in the beauty of its colours.  Its reds, purples, and golds, intermixed in a silent dance, reminding him of all he had lost; reminding him of their predicament.  Dragging himself away from its hypnotic beauty, he turned and met the expectant faces of his officers.

He took a tight breath.  “Here’s where we stand,” he began and started to pace.  “The warp drive is unstable, repairs are ongoing on the hull plating, and weapons are down.”  Keeping his eyes downcast, he continued to walk past T’Pol and Trip.  “Malcolm has engineered a weapon that can be attached to the Romulan vessel.”  He stopped and finally lifted his eyes to face those gathered. 

The captain was feeling the crushing weight of responsibility bearing down on his shoulders with the order he was about to issue.  It always left a sour taste in his mouth when he had to place others in harm’s way. 

Archer gave himself a mental kick, and straightened his back.   He looked directly at Ensign Mayweather.  “Travis, I want you and Trip to take a shuttle pod and attach the weapon to their ship.”  He turned to Trip.  “Sensors are useless in the nebula so they shouldn't be able to detect your presence.” 

Even though he was confident that this was true, the captain was still concerned that the shuttle pod would be detected somehow.  Archer tried to convey his unease to Trip through his eyes.  He felt little relief when he could see that Trip understood his warning.

Commander T’Pol interrupted his thoughts.  “Captain, wouldn’t Lieutenant Reed be better suited for this mission?”

Archer dragged his eyes away from Trip.  “I need Malcolm here,” he answered then turned to address Travis, but was stopped when T’Pol continued.

“Then I would suggest you send someone other than Commander Tucker,” she persisted. “His services would be more valuable to us aboard Enterprise.”

The captain cast a quizzical look at T’Pol.  By Vulcan standards, this was practically an emotional outburst.  He studied her face for a moment, but she gave nothing away.  It wasn’t until he reached her eyes that he was surprised to see something akin to.  What, anxiety? he thought.

He looked at Trip confused but was only met with a shrug in return.  Okay, so Trip’s in the dark. Archer gave a mental shrug.  Whatever it was that was bothering T’Pol would have to wait.  There were more important issues right now.  Like getting us out of here! 

Keeping his eyes on his second in command, Archer nodded in Trip’s direction.  “I appreciate the suggestion, T’Pol,” he said, “but Travis is going to need him on that shuttle pod.”  He placed his hands on the operations table before him and stared blankly at the display.  “Trip, Travis, you better get started,” he ordered, looking back up.

His officers acknowledged his order with strained Aye, sirs, as they left to carry out their tasks.

As they left, Archer looked back down to the display once more.  He took some deep breaths and tried to relax his aching muscle.  He knew he needed to be in top form to get his ship and his crew to safety, but his mind kept throwing out images of everything going wrong.  He shook his head to clear the dark thoughts and looked up – his eyes fell on Trip who had just entered the turbo lift.  He gave a tense smile at Trip’s ‘thumbs up’, and as the doors closed, that knot that had formed in the pit of his stomach, tightened.


* * * * * * * * *

T’Pol’s eyes followed Commander Tucker, as he approached the turbo lift, after the briefing had been dismissed.  She watched for a moment as Trip stopped before entering the lift to cast a concerned look at the captain, then the thumbs up that she knew was a gesture of support. She made to go after him, before the doors closed, but the captain halted her progress.

“T’Pol!”

T’Pol stopped in irritation and turned.  “Yes, Captain,” she answered, placing her arms across small of her back.  She eyed her commanding officer evenly as he approached.

“What was all that about?” he asked.

T’Pol knew the captain was seeking a reason for her behaviour in the briefing, but she wanted to stall any explanations for the time being.  “Please clarify you question, Captain,” she replied, keeping her face neutral.

Archer gave her a curious look.  “You know what I’m talking about, T’Pol,” he said, exasperated. 

T’Pol feigned understanding.  “You are referring to my request that Commander Tucker remain aboard Enterprise?”

Archer nodded.  “Yes, T’Pol, that is what I am referring too.”

T’Pol raised an eyebrow.  “I assure you, Captain, that it was merely an observation, nothing more.”  She made to leave again but the captain, once more, halted her progress.

“You know, I could have sworn I saw something close to panic in your eyes, T’Pol,” Archer said gently.

T’Pol stared at the captain.  She appreciated his concern, and regretted what she was about to do, but she had no intention of involving anyone else in her quest to keep Trip safe.  She was determined to do this on her own.  “I do not feel panic, Captain,” she said evenly as she turned to make her exit, this time determined to make her destination.  “I am Vulcan.”

T’Pol took deep breaths, as she hurried through the busy halls of Enterprise, to catch up with Commander Tucker.  Her mind dwelled on her short conversation with the captain.  She knew her behaviour had confused not only the captain, but those who were at the briefing.  But they couldn’t have realised, what they didn’t see was the image that had flashed across her mind, when the captain had ordered Trip to go on the away mission.  The same image was replaying itself now, a bloodied Trip pleading with her.  Don’t let me die T’Pol... 

Her resolution fortified when she caught site of his back.  I have to find a way to convince Trip to remain on board.  She quickened her pace.  “Trip, can I have a moment?” she called after him.

Trip ceased his walking and turned.  “Can this wait, T’Pol? I have some work do to on the shuttlepod before we go,” he replied.

T’Pol recognised the edginess in his voice, but was determined to proceed.  “I think you should talk to the Captain.”

Trip turned and continued walking to his destination.  “About what?”

T’Pol matched his pace.  “Remaining on Enterprise.  Let someone else take your place on the shuttlepod.” Her heartbeat quickened in the hopes that Trip would agree.

Trip sighed.  “T’Pol, Capt'n already said he needs me on that pod.”  He stopped suddenly and looked into T’Pol’s eyes.  “What’s up with you lately?” he asked gently.

T’Pol struggled to maintain her composure under his penetrating blue eyes as she answered.  “I am unsure what you are referring to?”  Liar, her mind accused.

Trip kept his eyes steady with hers.  “You just seem... I don't know, not quite yourself.”

T’Pol straightened her back further.  She was absolutely committed to keeping Trip safe.  Life without you would be unacceptable, she thought.  “Are you going to talk to the captain?” she asked unwaveringly.

“No, T’Pol, I’m not...  I gotta go.”  With that, Trip turned and resumed his journey to the shuttle bay, leaving T’Pol watching his retreating back, as she struggled to breathe.

* * * * * * * * * *

The senator took an angry breath.  “I may not be able to protect you this time, Admiral,” he murmured standing alone, at the door to the praetor’s chamber; once more bearing news that the senator knew would not please their leader.  Vrax straightened his cloak, to calm himself, before pressing the door chime.  He entered at the Praetor’s command.

“You have good news?” Praetor Remal asked without preamble as the senator entered. 

The senator’s footfalls where muted by the plush carpet as he crossed the room, but the carpet couldn’t silence the sound of his breathing that echoed in his ears.  Vrax felt his pulse quicken, and steeled himself.  “Admiral Valdore reports, apart from his vessel, the earth ship has managed to destroy the last of our warbirds and has escaped into a nearby nebula,” he advised coolly.

Remal’s dark, menacing eyes, bored into the senator’s.  “You assured me that this plan would work,” he growled.

Vrax tried to placate his leader.  “The fight is not over yet, Praetor.  Admiral Valdore assures me that the earth vessel will be destroyed within hours.”   

Vrax remained quiet as he watched the praetor absorb this information. 

“You have a secondary plan in place?” Remal finally asked.

Vrax shifted uncomfortably on his feet.  “No, Praetor.  We did not anticipate that the humans would be this successful.”

“Then I suggest that you do.” 

The Praetor turned, leaving no doubt in the senator’s mind that the suggestion wasn’t a suggestion, but an order.

Knowing that he was dismissed, Senator Vrax spun on his heels and left the Praetor to his thoughts.  As he left the chamber, Vrax smiled to himself.  At least I was able to deflect the blame for this failure on the admiral...

Click here for Chapter Three 

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