Warp Six Project

By Distracted

Rating: PG-13

Genres: adventure drama romance


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This story is number 12 in the series Virtual Season Five

The Warp Six Project: Adolescent Crushes and the Warp Six Engine

Rating: PG 13 for a little bit of sex
Disclaimer: Paramount owns some of these characters, but I made up the rest. I’m still not planning to try to publish this, though. It all started with Almighty Paramount!
Genre: Romance, Action/Adventure

Summary: Get ready for a real soap opera now, guys. This one kinda got away from me, so there’s definitely gonna be a sequel. This story is a sequel to Barriers to Communication, and Trip and T’Pol get to go to Earth for a nice, long visit. Please let me know what you think. I’ve created a couple of brand spankin’ new characters for this one. Let me know if they’re believable, okay?

Jonathan Archer lay back on his bed with a bemused smile on his face. The UCLA vs Florida State Championship water polo game played on the view screen in his quarters, but he’d already watched the game three times, and he wasn’t paying much attention. He was thinking about the conversation he’d had with T’Pol following his lunch with the Chief Minister of the Vulcan High Council that day.

T’Pau, he corrected himself. She told me to call her T’Pau. He chuckled softly to himself, and shook his head ruefully. He’d been so flattered and amazed by T’Pau’s attention that he’d gotten up the courage to ask T’Pol about it.

All during lunch, she just stared at my face and kept raising that eyebrow… you know… just like you do when you’re amused or pleased, or maybe intrigued by something. What’s going on, T’Pol? She wouldn’t give me the time of day when we met the last time, and now she’s interested?”

T’Pol’s response had floored him.

T’Pau has earned the respect of our people because of her knowledge of the Kir’Shara, Captain, but she is still very young. You must understand and forgive her rather fickle curiosity. Surely even Human young people are intrigued by things that are new and different, are they not?”

Young people? What are you talking about, T’Pol? She’s the Chief Minister of the Vulcan High Council. I thought she was at least…”

Old enough to be your mother, I’m sure.” T’Pol nodded and gazed at him solemnly. “That is the image she wishes to project. The Chief Minister was elected because of her knowledge, Captain… despite her age. She does not reveal her extreme youth to outworlders… out of concern, I assume, over not being taken seriously… but I feel you should know of this so that you will not misunderstand her intentions. T’Pau is barely out of adolescence by Vulcan standards. Should you take advantage of her interest by offering any physical advances, it would be a grave misstep on your part.”

Archer grinned at the recollection and stared up at the ceiling with a sigh. First an old woman’s boy toy, and now the object of an adolescent crush, he thought wistfully to himself. It sure would be nice to catch the eye of a woman my own age… or at the very least, my own species.

The one Human woman he’d managed to have a relationship with in the past decade… if you could call a weekend of talking, hiking, and great sex a relationship… was now just as married to Columbia as if she’d been married to another man… admittedly, in exactly the same way that he was married to Enterprise.

I just wish there were someone at home… waiting for me, he thought, and then thought better of it. What kind of life would that be for anyone, waiting for the one they loved to come home every… what… six months? Every year? I suppose it’s just as well, he thought with a sigh. No point in deliberately making someone else lonely too.

The comm beeped loudly. A welcome distraction, it disturbed his moment of self-pity and brought him back to reality. He rolled over in the bed, climbing over a soundly sleeping Porthos to reach out an arm and slap the controls.

“Archer here.”

“Captain, you have a priority one message from Starfleet Command,” responded McNamara, the beta shift comm officer.

Archer sighed. It was probably Admiral Gardner checking on his progress with the Vulcans. “Send it to my quarters, Ensign,” he replied, and climbed out of bed with a groan. After pausing his water polo game and patting a now awake and tail-wagging Porthos on the top of the head, he moved to the desk chair facing the vid screen and ran his fingers through his hair. Admiral Gardner’s face appeared before him. As usual, the admiral appeared less than pleased.

“Admiral!” said Archer with forced cheerfulness. “I’m glad to report that the Vulcans seemed very thankful for our help with the recent terrorist incident. Our mission was a success, sir. We kept the Vulcans happy!”

Gardner actually smiled… briefly. “So I hear, Jon… so I hear,” he replied. His face rapidly took on a sober expression. “Unfortunately, another problem’s come up. Have you been following the latest news about the Terra Primers?”

Archer nodded with a concerned look on his face. “Yes sir… something about the Chief Engineer on the Warp Six project being exposed as a closet Terra Primer, along with several of his team members.”

“And we were all wondering what the delay was!” said Gardner with a disgusted expression. “The whole lot of them were deliberately causing malfunctions and falsifying data in order to slow the progress of the project. We’d have had a working engine prototype months ago if it hadn’t been for their sabotage.” He sighed and shook his head. “Now the Vulcans are insisting on hand-picked replacements that they know and trust, and Commander Tucker’s name came up.”

Archer looked at Gardner in surprise. “Trip Tucker just carried a bioweapon into the Vulcan High Council chamber and nearly blew up the place. Why would they trust him?”

Gardner’s lips twitched. “Apparently, one of the junior Vulcan engineers on the project is the son of Minister Kuvak, the Chief Minister’s most trusted advisor,” he replied. “He says he just knows Commander Tucker is the man for the job, and he’s convinced Minister Kuvak of that fact as well.” Gardner paused, and then delivered the bad news. “Starfleet Command has asked me to inform you that Commander Charles Tucker the Third has been temporarily reassigned to the Warp Six Project, effective as soon as you can get him to Earth. Lieutenant Janice Hess will be promoted to Lieutenant Commander. She’s your new Chief Engineer… at least for the next three to six months.”

Archer just stared back at him in shock. “You’re taking Trip away from us?” he asked in disbelief.

Gardner paused again. “I’m afraid there’s more, Jon,” he said reluctantly. “The other Vulcan engineers didn’t have a very cordial working relationship with the human half of the team, for obvious reasons. They still aren’t convinced that Kuvak’s choice is the correct one. We’re on the verge of a total program meltdown here, and Starfleet Command wants to appoint a program director with experience in Human/Vulcan diplomacy… someone with a science background and the ability to smooth ruffled feathers and make everyone get along.” Gardner exhaled heavily. “Of all the officers in Starfleet, Commander T’Pol is the only…”

“No!” exploded Archer. “Not both of them, sir! How’s this ship supposed to function without both of them!”

“Jon…” Gardner assured him, “… you’ll have the staff you need. Your Chief Security Officer… Lieutenant Reed, I believe… the hero of the hour? He’ll be promoted to Lieutenant Commander and named interim First Officer. He’ll remain your Chief of Security as well, of course.”

Archer shook his head. “I don’t have a Science Officer with T’Pol’s background available, Admiral. Her knowledge base and experience outstrip any Human Science Officer in the Fleet.”

“The Vulcans anticipated that problem,” countered Gardner. “They’ve offered to provide you with a civilian advisor with equivalent training for the duration of Commander T’Pol’s posting on Earth.”

“Another Vulcan, sir?” asked Archer with a doubtful look. “What makes them think another Vulcan will be able to tolerate a posting on Enterprise? T’Pol’s not exactly your ordinary Vulcan.”

“This one’s got diplomatic aspirations, Jon… He volunteered,” replied Gardner. He gazed regretfully at Archer. “It’s only for three to six months, depending on the project’s rate of progress… and I’m afraid you have no choice in the matter. The decision’s already been made… for all of us.”

Trip Tucker paused mid-chew on his mouthful of scrambled eggs.

“Three months!” he exclaimed with his mouth full.

“Maybe as long as six. It depends on the progress of the project,” replied Archer ruefully as he poured syrup over his pancakes.

T’Pol swallowed her mouthful of plomeek broth and put down her spoon, eyeing the two of them across the table in the captain’s dining room. It had turned out to be a rather surprising breakfast.

“I fail to see the logic in reassigning both of us simultaneously,” she said disapprovingly. “Surely Starfleet Command realizes the impact that losing two command level officers will have on the crew’s morale and efficiency.”

Trip grinned at her. “Guess they can’t help the fact that the two best people for the job are both stationed on Enterprise,” he said teasingly, and then took another bite.

Archer looked at his friend with an expression of hurt disappointment on his face. “You sound awfully happy about this, Trip… have you been pulling for a transfer? Aren’t you happy being Enterprise’s Chief Engineer?”

Trip looked at Archer in surprise. “No! ‘Course I don’t want a transfer!” he said vehemently. Then he grinned and shrugged. “But I was meanin’ to ask you this mornin’ if there was a way for me to get back to Earth to see my folks… they’re havin’ some problems I need to help ‘em with,” he added vaguely, with a more serious expression. Then his face cleared. “Besides… like you said… it’s only for three to six months… and it is sorta flattering that the Vulcans asked for us in particular… kinda makes up for a lotta things,” he said with a smile, cutting his eyes at T’Pol. She raised a brow at him, saying nothing, and spooned up a mouthful of plomeek broth.

Vulcans do not indulge in flattery, husband, she sent. It is more likely that the members of the Vulcan High Council simply want you confined to a secure facility very far away from them where you can be watched for recurrent explosive tendencies.

Trip laughed aloud, choking on a mouthful of eggs. He washed them down with a swig of coffee, his eyes watering with suppressed mirth as he gazed at T’Pol in appreciation of her unique brand of humor.

Archer eyed first one, then the other, and then shook his head with a smile, cutting into his stack of pancakes with a fork. He’d stopped long ago trying to figure out their strange silences and even stranger expressions when all they were doing was looking at each other without saying a word. He took a huge bite, chewed with his eyes closed in pleasure, and then swallowed. Then he focused his attention once again on the two commanders, who were gazing at each other across the table like lovesick teenagers.

“Um… How much time do you think you’ll need to get Hess and Reed ready to fill in while you’re both gone?” He took another bite and gazed at both of them expectantly.

Trip and T’Pol both looked at him in a rather startled manner, as if they’d forgotten he was still in the room. T’Pol recovered first.

“Mr. Reed will be a capable First Officer,” she said. “…quite likely more capable than myself in some respects. I will require some time to prepare the Vulcan civilian advisor for his role as Science Officer, however. How much time will I have?”

“It’s my understanding that Assistant Ambassador Skon is posted on Earth as an assistant to Ambassador Soval,” replied Archer. “You’ll have only a few days to get him ready once we arrive.”

T’Pol’s brow went up. “I will do my best, Captain,” she told him. “Perhaps recording an instructional log for later review will be helpful.”

Archer nodded and turned to his Chief Engineer. “Trip? What about Hess?”

The blonde engineer chuckled. “Hess could take over tomorrow, Cap’n,” he said. “She’s a pistol… and she really knows her stuff. Nothin’ to worry about there.”

Archer nodded again, looked at both of them with a resigned expression, and sighed. “I guess that’s it, then,” he told them. He pushed away from the table, picked up his coffee mug, and stood up. “Time to get back to work.” His voice caught a little on the last word, and he hurriedly left the room, leaving Trip and T’Pol staring at each other in surprise.

Was he cryin’? sent Trip in disbelief.

I believe he was, t’hy’la. Trip could feel T’Pol’s concern for their friend in the bond. You should spend more time with him during the trip to Earth, she sent. He seems very lonely.

Trip smiled wistfully at her. I’ll give it a try, darlin’… but what Jon needs is a little female TLC, I’m thinkin’… and the only female on board that he’s ever thought about askin’ is already taken.

T’Pol’s brow went up in surprise. I‘d thought that you were unaware of his interest in me, she told him. You’ve never mentioned it.

Trip grinned and shrugged. It was kinda hard to miss at first… but then he never said anything, so I figured the coast was clear. I didn’t figure out ‘til later how much we’d hurt him... but by then it was way too late. Guess I’ll have to make up for it by fixin’ him up with somebody sometime. We’ll hafta keep our eyes open while we’re on Earth.

T’Pol nodded decisively. Agreed, she sent. We shall make finding an appropriate mate for the captain one of our priorities while on Earth. Now finish your coffee. Our duty shift began ten minutes ago. I will meet you for lunch at 1200 hours in the dining hall. With that, she briskly rose from the table, and left to join the captain on the bridge.

Trip rolled his eyes and smirked at her retreating back.. Sounds like T’Pol’s gonna have him married and expectin’ his first kid before our stint with the Warp Six Project is half over, he thought with amusement. I wonder what kind of woman she’ll think is appropriate.

“Janie! Yer friend’s here!”

The boy’s high-pitched childish voice echoed through the barn. Janie Rafter poked her head out of the stall she was mucking… the last one of twelve that she’d cleaned that day.

“What’d ya say Sam?” Her waist-length arrow straight auburn hair was stringy with sweat and tied back from her face with a leather cord at the nape of her neck. The freckles on her nose were nearly invisible beneath the grime on her face. She walked out of the stall with a last smelly shovelful and threw it on the manure pile, then leaned on the shovel and wiped her sweaty forehead with the back of a gloved hand. She wore an old pair of jeans and a blue plaid shirt, and there was not an inch of her body that wasn’t spattered with something smelly and unpleasant.

“Yer friend’s here!” the child repeated. “I told him ta just come on up.”

“Samuel Houston Turnbull! I’ve told ya before ta give me some time ta clean up when he gets here!” the girl told him in an exasperated tone. She threw the shovel and gloves down and raced to the horse trough in the paddock, immersing her head and frantically scrubbing her face, hands and arms to remove the worst of the grime. As she turned, wringing out her wet hair, her friend and benefactor entered the barn. His disguise, as usual, made her smile. The young man stood stiffly erect, his square body dressed in an old pair of her father’s jeans and a well-worn red plaid shirt. He had a bandana tied around his head and a beat up old cowboy hat shoved on over the bandana. He looked about as uncomfortable in the get-up as her father had looked wearing formal evening wear.

“Good evening, Miss Rafter,” he said politely.

Janie grinned broadly at him. They’d known each other for over six months now, he was picking up the expenses that she couldn’t afford to pay on the measly salary Mr. Turnbull, the stable owner, was paying her to take care of his horses and his house while she hid from the authorities, and she still couldn’t convince him to call her by her first name!

“Hi yerself!” she replied. As he began to step forward, she held out a hand in warning. “Best keep yer distance my friend. I’m pretty filthy. Sam was supposed ta warn me when you got here so I could change, but he dropped the ball.”

Her friend cocked his head slightly as he processed the idiom, and then smiled ever so slightly. “I do not find your appearance objectionable in the least, but if you’d like to go and change before we leave, I don’t mind waiting.”

Janie’s heart skipped a beat when she saw his smile. She remembered the first time she’d seen him do it, and how it had taken her breath away. She’d been visiting her dad at work. Her dad had thought it would be good for her to meet the engineers he was working with on the Warp Six Project since she would be entering Texas A & M that fall as a freshman in engineering. Thomas Rafter was a strong believer in connections, and despite the fact that he’d gone a little off the deep end since her mom’s death, she still respected his opinion.

And this is my little Texas filly, Ida Jane,” said Thomas Rafter with a proud smile. He pushed Janie forward. She was faced with a row of rather impatient looking men. Each one shook her hand briefly, glanced at his boss to make certain that Rafter was satisfied with his treatment of her, and then turned immediately back to his duties. An older fellow with grease on his clothes approached her father and pulled him away for a private conversation. Janie was left alone next to a linebacker-sized younger-appearing man who was absorbed in a computer screen at a workstation in the back of the room. She hadn’t been introduced to him, so she approached his station. It was only when he looked up at her that she realized he was Vulcan.

Hello,” she said softly, and smiled shyly at him. “I’m Janie Rafter.”

The Vulcan’s eyes widened slightly at her greeting. Then, to her astonishment, a tiny shy smile appeared on his round face... just for a moment. He held out his hand to her. Her mouth fell open and she just stood there for a second before she grasped his hand. It was large, warm, and calloused, but his grip was gentle.

I am Kov,” he said.

Janie looked at him in confusion, her hand still gripping his firmly. “Did you just smile at me?” she whispered.

Kov did it again… a fleeting upward twitch of the lips. Then he looked with exaggerated care around the room. Releasing her hand, he stepped up a bit closer to her and whispered into her ear, “I won’t tell if you won’t tell.” His warm breath tickled her cheek and sent a shiver down her spine. Then he stepped back to his console, still smiling slightly, and began working again as if nothing had happened.

The smile had been the kicker. She’d called him the next day and invited him to go riding… and had ended up teaching him to ride, of course. There were no horses on Vulcan. When he’d found out she was only 17 and that her father didn’t approve of her being friends with a Vulcan they’d hit a snag for a while, but it wasn’t like they were dating or anything… the guy wouldn’t even call her by her first name. They were just friends, and she insisted that her father had no objections.

She was lying, of course. Since her mom had gotten killed visiting her sister in Florida during the Xindi attack, her dad had had some kind of complex about non-humans. He would’ve had a conniption fit about her being friends with a Vulcan… so she just didn’t tell him. Turned out to be a good thing, too. The authorities hadn’t found her after her dad was arrested and deported because Kov was the only one who knew where she was, and no one thought to ask him. There was no way she was gonna get deported away from Earth. It wasn’t fair. Just because she was under 18, she shouldn’t have to move away from her home because her dad decided to join some stupid ass cult. Kov had promised today to take her to the library in Houston now that things had died down a bit so she could do some research into becoming what Mr. Turnbull called an “emancipated minor”. Mr. Turnbull didn’t approve of her running away, but then, he also didn’t approve of Terra Prime. He’d given her a month to “get legal”, as he put it, or he was gonna turn her in. In the meantime, she lived in his house, cared for the horses he boarded, and cooked and cleaned for him and his son. It was a decent trade.

“I’m gonna go change. Two Bits hasn’t been curried yet, if ya wanna do that while I’m changin’,” she said with a smile. “The comb is over there.” She pointed at one wall of the barn where all of the tack and horse grooming supplies hung in neat rows. Two Bits was her chestnut gelding quarter horse, and the reason she’d taken this job to begin with. Her salary was tiny because most of it went to pay Mr. Turnbull for boarding her horse. It was worth it, though. Two Bits was the love of her life. As Kov walked to the tack wall to retrieve the comb, Janie approached the stall.

“Hey Bitsy Boy,” she said softly. “You’ve got a visitor.” Janie smiled at Kov and stepped aside to allow him to enter the stall. Two Bits snorted softly as Kov placed his palm up to the horse’s nose and murmured something softly to him in Vulcan. Kov’s facility with horses had amazed her from the start. He was so calm and reassuring that even the most agitated thoroughbred in the stable quieted at his touch. She left him contentedly combing away, and went to the house to shower and change.

Assistant Mechanic Alfonso Ramirez walked into the convenience store located less than a block from the Warp Six Project compound, plunked a fifty on the counter for a prepaid phone card, and then stepped into the vid phone booth and closed the door. He pulled a data disc from his pocket, sending the contents as a text-only message that traveled first to Cozumel, Mexico, and then was relayed by satellite through several way stations until it reached its final destination. He then pulled a second disc from the opposite pocket, and placed a call to his Terra Prime contact. The young man’s face appeared on the screen. He looked puzzled for a moment, and then grinned.

“Boy, Tucker… You sure make a good spic! I’d a never recognized ya,”

Charles Tucker sighed. He’d thought the idea was a stupid one from the beginning. With all of his hair shaved off, brown contact lenses, and the oral tanning agent they’d given him, he looked the part, but the small amount of Spanish that he knew had a definite Cuban influence from his years working with Hispanic coworkers in Florida. He didn’t sound like the Mexican immigrant he was supposed to be. That didn’t seem to make any difference to the local branch of Terra Prime, who apparently were of the opinion that if you’d seen one spic, you’d seen ‘em all. So far, he’d managed to get by, but someone was eventually gonna notice. When he’d asked his Terra Prime contact what had happened to the original Alfonso Ramirez, he’d been told that the man was well-paid and back in Mexico where he belonged. His employers’ antiquated prejudices got on his nerves, but they weren’t exactly unexpected. Two hundred years ago they’d wanted to drive out the Mexicans for economic reasons… now it was the Vulcans. Same song, second verse.

“Thanks, Austin,” Tucker said dryly, shoving the second data disc into the reader. “Here’s the testin’ schedule. Lemme know what yer boss needs me ta do next.”

“There’s a rumor that the project is gettin’ a new director and a new engineer, courtesy of the starship Enterprise,” said Austin. “Isn’t your son stationed on Enterprise as Chief Engineer?”

Tucker’s eyes widened in surprise. “Who’s comin’?” he asked.

“Dunno yet,” replied Austin. “Our informant thinks it might be the Chief Engineer himself… so if it is him, you’ll need ta stay out of sight.”

Tucker gave him a rueful smile. “No problem,” he told Austin. “If my son saw me he’d probably shoot me on sight, the way he hates me now. The boy just has no appreciation for the trouble I went through to keep him safe. I’m gonna keep my head down, don’t you worry.”

The young man nodded, and placed a disc in the reader. “Here’s more instructions for ya. Good luck,” he said, and leaned forward to cut the connection.

Before Tucker removed the disc again, he brought up its contents and reviewed them. He noted with satisfaction that the Terra Primers had taken his recommendations seriously. When he’d first been posted to the project, they’d had him introduce a computer virus into the computer responsible for the project’s data calculations. As he’d predicted, the Vulcans, quite a few of whom were able to do complex warp field calculations practically in their heads, noticed almost immediately that the numbers the computer was coming up with made no sense. In less than a day, they’d corrected the problem, attributing it to a leftover programming glitch courtesy of the now deported members of the team. Tucker had noticed, however, that both the Vulcans and the remaining, less experienced Human engineers relied heavily on data from the engine’s sensors instead of actually going down to the testing room and putting their hands on the engine. Charles Tucker was not a warp engineer, but in his experience, any really good engineer relied at least in part on the “feel” of the engine. No one on the project seemed to have that “feel”, and he’d been convinced that simply changing the readings of the sensors, without endangering anyone’s life by actually interfering with the operation of the engine, would effectively delay the project. The assignment he’d just been given would either prove him right, or at the very least postpone the moment when he’d actually have to risk the lives of the men and women working with the engine by damaging the engine itself. He forwarded a copy of the disc’s contents back via the same circuitous route that he’d transmitted the first information packet, and then pocketed the disc. Finally, he deactivated the vid pickup. Taking a deep breath to prepare himself, he used the last of the credit on his calling card to place a call to Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.

Catherine is not gonna be very happy with me, he thought with resignation.

Catherine Tucker’s tired, harried face appeared on the screen. She squinted for a moment.

“Hello? Is anybody there? The phone’s not picking up the video…”

Charles Tucker took another deep breath, and then spoke. “Hey, Baby. It’s me.”

Catherine’s eyes grew wide and filled with tears. Her face broke out in a wide grin. “Charles!” she exclaimed. Then she broke into sobs. “I’m so glad you’re alive, darlin’! What happened to ya? It’s been four days! Did they hurt ya?”

“I’m fine, Catherine,” replied Charles in a choked voice. It hurt so much to see her so upset. He felt like strangling the assholes who’d insisted that he wait until he was in place at the complex for a couple of days before contacting her. “I’m doin’ a real important job for some real important people, honey… I’m so sorry I couldn’t call ya to tell ya I was okay.”

Catherine looked puzzled, and wiped the tears from her face. “So nobody kidnapped you?” she asked.

“Well… sorta… at least at first,” he said. “Then they explained ta me what they needed and how important it was… and I agreed to go along.”

“Where are you and what exactly are you doing, Charles Tucker… and why can’t I see you?” Catherine had gotten over her worry and fear, and now she was suspicious… and quite close to being very angry. He could tell.

“I’m sorry, Catherine, but I’m not allowed ta tell ya where I am or what I’m doin’,” he said regretfully. “…But I’m okay, and I’ll call ya again when I get the chance. I love ya, sweetheart.” Catherine’s expression changed from suspicious to downright pissed off.

“Charles Tucker, Junior! You tell me right now or I’m gonna…”

Tucker leaned forward and cut the connection. He blew out the breath he’d been holding. Yep… he thought ruefully. Not happy with me at all…

Kov ran the curry comb over the animal’s flanks in smooth even strokes, his opposite palm flat against the horse’s withers. He could feel the soft buzz of the animal’s contentment in his head as he groomed him. The sensation was soothing, almost like meditation in its ability to calm him. He’d required calming more often in the young woman’s presence lately.

That’s how he thought of her… as the young woman or as Miss Rafter. The alternative required that he acknowledge the troublesome emotions that she evoked in him, and he would not allow himself to do that. He was more than aware that she was, for a Human, physically adult… exquisitely aware at times… but the idea of someone so very young stirring the feelings that she stirred in him was abhorrent to him. He felt desire for her… and tremendous guilt. A Vulcan of her age would literally be a prepubescent child. He should have more control of his emotions.

It was at times like these that he truly regretted being V’tosh ka’tur. Since his reconciliation with his father and his posting on Earth, he had made a great effort to study the Kir’Shara and find a balance between the rigid emotional control that he’d rejected and the dangerous emotional lability which had resulted in Tolaris’ mental decline and eventual breakdown. Realizing that emotional experimentation had resulted in the destruction of Tolaris’ sanity had been the turning point in his search for self-expression. He’d gone home then, and made a sincere effort to “fit in”. His father had even attempted to arrange another betrothal for him, as the family of his original intended bride had made other arrangements for their daughter as soon as his tendencies became known. The new betrothal had been politically motivated. His father was, after all, one of the most powerful men on Vulcan. Unfortunately, after meeting with him only twice, his proposed new bride had refused to comply with her parent’s wishes, citing a distaste for his flamboyant displays of emotion.

Kov recalled the two meetings clearly. He’d enjoyed talking to a young woman his own age… it had been so very long since he’d done so. He’d enjoyed it so much that for a moment he’d forgotten himself… and he had smiled. That was the end of it. Very shortly thereafter, his father had decided that a posting on Earth would give him the opportunity to associate with persons of a more emotionally expressive bent and allow him to “get it out of his system”… to use a very appropriate Earth idiom. Unfortunately, the Vulcans stationed on Earth were just as disapproving of his emotional expressiveness as those at home, and, until he’d met Janie Rafter, none of the Humans had wanted anything to do with him.

“Okay! I’m ready to go!” sounded the young woman’s voice from outside the barn doors. Kov gave the horse a final pat, and exited the stall, pausing to hang the curry comb neatly on the tack wall and wash his hands at the trough before he left the barn. Miss Rafter was standing in the yard next to the ground car. Her waist-length hair fell freely down her back, shining the same bright red as the roan stallion in her care back in the barn. Her porcelain complexion was flawless, highlighted by a sprinkling of freckles over her nose, cheeks, and shoulders. She wore a Kelly green sleeveless dress which hugged her slim curves, and whose hem ended mid thigh, exposing long, smooth, muscular legs and feet clad in strappy sandals with four-inch heels. Kov stopped in his tracks, struck literally speechless. He forced his face into immobility to prevent his jaw from dropping. She was without a doubt the most beautiful woman he had ever seen in his entire life.

Janie’s anticipatory smile faded as she took in his expression. “You don’t like it!” she said in a disappointed tone. Kov recovered his composure and cleared his throat.

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean, Miss Rafter,” he replied in his very best emotionless Vulcan intonation.

Her eyes narrowed. “You men are all the same!” she replied in frustration. “You’re just like my dad… probably wouldn’t notice if I walked around in a feed sack all the time!” She held her arms away from her body. “The dress, you oblivious man… the dress! I made it… what do ya think?”

Kov searched his repertoire of appropriate compliments and, after discarding several as being entirely too revealing of his emotional state, finally came up with something. “Green compliments your coloring. I find it to be a most aesthetically pleasing choice.”

Lieutenant Hoshi Sato sat at the communications console pondering her love life. At first, she’d been happy about Malcolm’s promotion. He’d been so proud when he’d come to her quarters to show her his brand new shiny pips. Lieutenant Commander Malcolm Reed… she’d said admiringly. Then she’d kissed him, and quite brazenly seduced him in celebration afterwards.

That was before he’d become obsessed with becoming the perfect First Officer. The first thing he’d done was to rotate his work shifts so that, over time, he’d have the opportunity to work directly with every junior officer on the ship. This week, he was working beta shift. As the highest ranking officer currently on the bridge, he was now in command. She’d requested that her schedule match his, ostensibly so that she could become accustomed to his command style, but mainly so that their off duty times would coincide. The trouble with her plan was that he apparently never considered himself off duty. Even on his off shift, he was constantly overseeing some aspect of ship’s operations that he felt unprepared to deal with without further experience. Except for her time under his command on the bridge, Hoshi hadn’t spent a single moment with him since their post-promotion celebration over a week before. He’d even canceled their weekly appointment in the armory, telling her that he was “simply too busy now for that sort of thing”. She was beginning to get rather frustrated with him, but so far, she hadn’t been able to figure out what to do about it. Maybe I should just go ambush him in his quarters again… she mused. Then she changed her mind. As on edge as he’d been lately, he might just shoot her first and ask questions later.

The communications console beeped, startling her out of her reverie. She held the earpiece to her ear.

“I have an incoming call from Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, United States, Earth for Commander Charles Tucker the Third,” said the voice of the subspace operator. “Can he accept the call?”

“Just a minute, operator,” said Hoshi. After interrupting the two commanders during their “meditation” period on more than one occasion with rather embarrassing results… at least one of which involving Commander Tucker taking a call from Ambassador Soval wearing nothing but a bed sheet, according to T’Pol… Hoshi had discovered a way to activate the comm in T’Pol’s quarters… with her permission… without an audible page. She put the subspace operator on hold, switched to internal comm, and activated the audio pickup in the Vulcan’s quarters. At first, she heard only silence. Turning the volume up to maximum, she listened carefully through the earpiece. This time, she heard the faint but unmistakable sound of flesh rhythmically impacting flesh, accompanied by occasional soft, guttural moans. She eyed the chronometer. It had been an hour since the last time she’d checked on them, and they were still at it! They certainly don’t act like they’ve been married nearly a year, she thought in amusement. Deactivating the comm link to T’Pol’s quarters, she got back on the line with the operator and took another message. That was three calls she’d fielded now in the past two hours. The commanders definitely owed her one tonight.

Trip Tucker lay face to face with T’Pol, his forehead resting on hers as he caught his breath. His hands gently stroked her smooth skin, roaming over every inch of her body that he could reach.

So… Madam Project Director… does this mean I might have a little influence over my boss in this new posting of ours? he sent, with a teasing smile on his face.

T’Pol stretched luxuriously at his touch. He felt her satisfaction in the bond, but her face showed none of it. She raised a brow. Perhaps I might be persuaded to grant you special consideration, Commander… provided that you continue to perform your duties in such a satisfactory manner.

Continue to perform’? sent Trip in amusement. I haven’t even started the job yet!

Those were not the duties to which I was referring, replied T’Pol dryly.

Duties’, huh? sent Trip with a soft chuckle. In that case, I volunteer for an extra shift, ma’am. Nobody ever called Trip Tucker lazy! He reached for her and pulled her against him. The comm sounded loudly in the quiet room. Trip sighed.

Hoshi’s timing stinks, he sent. T’Pol pulled out of his arms and sat up.

I beg to differ with you husband, replied T’Pol as she climbed out of bed to answer the comm. I have noticed a distinct improvement in her timing. Trip could sense that she was keeping something from him, and that whatever it was amused her intensely.

“T’Pol here,” responded the Vulcan First Officer.

“I have two messages for Commander Tucker, and one for you, Commander T’Pol. Would you like for me to forward them to your quarters?” asked Lieutenant Sato.

“Go ahead, Lieutenant… and thank you for your assistance,” replied T’Pol.

“Um… You’re welcome, Commander,” said Hoshi in a rather surprised voice. “It was my pleasure…” her voice trailed off as she realized how that sounded, and she abruptly cut the comm link.

Trip looked at T’Pol in puzzlement. “Messages?” he asked. “Since when does she take messages?”

T’Pol simply raised a brow at him, and then began to get dressed, walking over to the console on her desk as she did so to check the messages.

“Your mother tried to reach you about half an hour ago. Perhaps we should call her first,” replied T’Pol.

Trip immediately got out of bed to check the messages, all thought of the mystery of Hoshi’s newfound secretarial skills forgotten in his concern.

“Maybe she’s heard somethin’ about Dad!” he said excitedly as he pulled on his briefs. After making short work of dressing, he sat down at T’Pol’s desk and put the call through.

T’Pol sat alone on a meditation cushion before a lit candle in her quarters, but she wasn’t meditating. The evening’s phone messages had given her a tremendous number of things to think about. Meditation was, at that moment, an impossibility.

After soothing her husband’s angry response to the call from his mother earlier that evening, and sitting silently by while the director of the personnel office of the Warp Six Project informed Trip that he would be required to live in the Human section of the compound for the duration of his posting, and would under no circumstances be allowed into the private Vulcan compound for any reason, lest he trigger a diplomatic incident, T’Pol was emotionally wrung out. Trip’s mother had told him that his father had deliberately chosen to disappear, and that he had contacted her but refused to tell her where he was or what he was doing. Catherine Tucker had been relieved but palpably furious, and, of course, now that he’d heard the news… so was Trip. When he’d found out, to top it all off, that he would be effectively segregated from off duty contact with his wife for the duration of their posting on Earth, he’d exploded.

Goddamit, T’Pol! I thought we’d gotten somewhere the last time we talked, and then he goes and does this to Mama! I swear I’m gonna kill him!” He paced the room in an agitated manner, opening and closing his hands futilely as if he were looking for something or someone to hit.

Trip… please calm yourself,” T’Pol said. She placed a hand on his arm, attempting to ease his agitation. He closed his eyes as comfort and understanding flowed through the bond in a wave that quieted his anger and soothed his soul. He opened his eyes and looked down at her in sorrow.

What am I gonna do without your touch for three months, darlin’?” he whispered. His hand came up to cup her cheek as he ran the fingers of his opposite hand through her hair. She could feel his grief already over their impending separation, and they were still two weeks from Earth. His blue eyes glistened with unshed tears.

The lodging arrangements are unacceptable,” agreed T’Pol. “I will contact the personnel office and request other arrangements. I am certain that something can be done,” she reassured him.

Pulling him down to the meditation cushions on the floor of her quarters, she’d insisted that he meditate with her until he was calmer, and then she’d sent him back to his cabin to get some sleep. After his departure, she’d pulled up the message that Hoshi had taken for her, and had been rather dismayed to discover that it was a coded high-priority message from Starfleet’s Office of Covert Operations addressed to “Commander T’Pol of Vulcan, Warp Six Project Director”.

The message had left her with a serious conflict of interest. Her orders specifically prohibited her from divulging the contents of the message to anyone, but telling Trip would relieve so much of his pain. It was this dilemma that prevented her from meditating. She decided, finally, to follow a bit of Human advice that Trip had once given her, and to “sleep on it”. Hopefully, things would be clearer in the morning.

Janie stood in the law offices of Cook, King, and Sanchez. She’d insisted that Kov come with her because she was scared to death. A kindly looking grey haired woman looked up from her computer console at the reception desk.

“Can I help you, honey?” she asked with a smile. Her eyes caught a glimpse of Kov’s ears and she briefly looked startled as he smiled politely at her and nodded. She nodded back at him with an intrigued expression before her smile returned and she focused her attention on Janie again.

“I’ve got a one o’clock appointment with Ms. Sanchez,” said Janie.

“Oh yes… the emancipation client,” replied the older woman. “I’ll let Elena know you’re here.”

She got on the office intercom as Kov murmured to his companion, “I will be waiting here, Miss Rafter,” and turned to have a seat in the waiting room. Janie reached out and gently placed a hand on his arm. He wore a short-sleeved shirt, and the sensation of his warm skin beneath her fingers was comforting. It seemed as if touching him allowed her to access some of his calmness. She felt less frightened. He turned his head and looked at her with intensity. Her eyes begged him to stay.

“Come with me, Kov… please?” she asked softly.

He stared at her for a moment with an unreadable expression on his face, then looked down at her hand where it rested on his arm and cleared his throat.

“Very well,” he replied stiffly. Janie abruptly remembered that Vulcans didn’t like to be touched, and hurriedly removed her hand.

“Sorry!” she whispered with an embarrassed smile. He cocked his head at her, still looking at her intently.

“There is no need to apologize,” he replied quietly, his eyes fixed on hers. “I am not offended by your touch.”

She smiled warmly at him then, and taking him at his word, slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow and led him to the couch in the waiting room, where she sat at his side… shoulder to shoulder and thigh to thigh… until they were called to the meeting with the lawyer. She noticed his increased respiratory rate and rather stunned expression, and was secretly pleased. Maybe I’m finally gettin’ somewhere, she thought smugly. It’s about damn time he noticed I’m female!

“Hey, Ramirez!” called one of the mechanics as he walked toward the exit of the testing chamber. “You comin’ out with us, man? There’s mechanical bull ridin’ at this place down the road. We take bets on the younger guys… it’s a blast!” The man’s grease spattered face lit up in a grin as he ran dirty fingers through his thinning brown hair. “The waitresses ain’t too bad lookin’ either,” he added.

Charles Tucker grinned back at him. “Sounds like fun, Jack. Gimme a minute and I’ll come with ya!” He pulled his data disc from the sensor console under cover of making sure that the console panel was secure, and put it in his pocket. All of the sensor components were in perfect working order. The only problem was the creative reprogramming that the disc had done to the computer that interpreted the sensor readings. If he was lucky, it would take weeks for the engineers to figure out the problem. That oughta make the Terra Primers trust him, all right. He needed to earn their trust. A lotta people were counting on him.

“Did ya hear the news?” asked Jack as they walked side by side to the locker room.

Tucker shook his head and looked at the younger man questioningly.

“We’re gonna get a Vulcan project director… but get this… She’s a Starfleet officer!” said Jack with a bemused grin. “Not only that… but we’re getting’ some kinda engineerin’ miracle-worker by the name a’ Tucker who’s supposed ta come and fix everythin’ all up!” Jack chuckled. “As if anybody could make this project work after all this wasted time and money!”

Tucker grinned. That’s my boy! he thought. He stuck his tongue in the corner of his mouth.

“Oh… I dunno, Jack,” he said. “Ya never can tell. Maybe this guy Tucker knows what he’s doin’.”

Jack laughed. “I’ll believe it when I see it, Ramirez!”

Lieutenant Commander Malcolm Reed entered the Armory at the end of his duty shift. Commander T’Pol had been quite explicit in her instructions, so, despite his fatigue, he dared not be late. He’d changed into sweatpants and a T-shirt for working out, and had expected to see her dressed similarly and ready to demonstrate the self-defense exercises that she’d insisted on reviewing with him that evening. The main chamber of the Armory was empty, however.

“Lieutenant Commander?” Her soft voice issued from the depths of one of the weapons lockers. When he followed the sound, he found her standing in the darkened chamber still fully dressed in her duty uniform. He stopped in the doorway with his arms crossed over his chest.

“May I help you with something, Commander?” he asked her ironically. “You obviously didn’t come here to do self-defense exercises.” T’Pol raised a brow.

“I apologize for the subterfuge, Lieutenant Commander, but I remain the First Officer of this ship for another week, and I have noticed a disturbing behavior pattern on the part of one of this ship’s senior officers. He has become obsessive about his duties to the exclusion of sleep, meals, and recreational activities… and as his commanding officer I felt compelled to call this to his attention,” she said dryly.

Malcolm sighed. “Commander… surely you can’t be serious. I’ve had only three weeks to prepare myself for becoming second-in-command of Earth’s first warp-capable starship.”

“I commend your diligence, Mr. Reed,” replied T’Pol, “…but you are quite prepared to assume your duties as First Officer. I have no doubt that your performance will be more than adequate.”

Malcolm stared at her in shock. I can’t be entirely certain… but I think she just paid me a compliment! he thought in stunned surprise. “Ah… thank you, Commander,” he stammered.

T’Pol nodded at him in acknowledgement. “I am unable to stay to assist you with self-defense exercises,” she continued, “… but I have enlisted the help of a fellow officer who is available this evening. Good night, Mr. Reed.”

Malcolm watched in puzzlement as T’Pol walked past him into the Armory on her way out the door, and then caught sight of movement in the darkness of the weapons locker. Hoshi stepped out of the shadows dressed in workout clothes. He smiled at her, and she returned his smile with a relieved one of her own. Malcolm stepped into the weapons locker to join her, closing and locking the door behind him.

“With regard to scientific away missions, it is important to realize that Humans are often unaware of protocols and precautions which have been proven by our scientists to improve both the safety and the productivity of planetary exploration. Although calling these protocols to the captain’s attention should be considered an important part of a Science Officer’s duty, you should not consider it a personal failing on your part if he then chooses not to take your advice. Captain Archer can be most…” T’Pol paused the recording, searching for a less emotionally laden term than the one that had first come to mind. “… persistent in his actions, despite repeated warnings of potentially dire consequences…” Her door chime sounded. She paused the recording and checked the chronometer. It was time for meditation.

“Come in, Commander,” she called softly. Trip Tucker entered her quarters and carefully locked the door before coming up behind her as she sat at her console and wrapping his arms around her shoulders from behind.

“How was the water polo game?” she asked.

“Okay, I guess…” he answered as he buried his face in her hair and kissed the top of her head. “Jon’s kinda depressed. We spent the whole time talkin’ about when we were workin’ together on the Warp Five project, an’ all the fun we used ta have goin’ out with A.J. It cheered him up a little, I think.” He looked at her console curiously. “Whatcha doin’?”

She reached up to her right shoulder and stroked his forearm gently. “I am recording an instructional log for the new Science Officer,” she said, “… but it can wait.” She reached forward to save her recording, and then stood to wrap her arms around his waist and lay her head on his chest. Trip sighed and pulled her to his body tightly.

“Any luck figurin’ out a way for us ta see each other off duty while we’re on Earth? We’ll be there in four days, y’know,” he said with resignation.

“I believe that I have located suitable quarters only two blocks from the compound,” she told him calmly. “We will, of course, each have to have our own apartment, but as the director of the program I am entitled to live outside of the compound. I simply made it clear that in view of the still rampant Terra Prime sentiments in the area, I was not comfortable living alone. Starfleet has secured something called a “duplex”. It sounds as if it should be adequate for our needs.” Trip pulled back and gave her a worried look.

“If you’re worried somebody might hurt ya because you’re Vulcan, maybe we should just live in the compound. You’ll be safer there.”

T’Pol shook her head and gazed at him reassuringly. “I consulted the crime statistics before I decided to accept the apartment. In the two years since the project began, not one of the Vulcans associated with the project has been attacked… or even threatened. I will be perfectly safe.”

She refrained from telling him that in the same two years, based on the project logs, she had been able to count on the fingers of one hand the number of times that Vulcans had dared to set foot outside the compound. She’d had no choice but to follow her orders and keep the contents of the covert ops message to herself. The least she could do was to avoid telling him anything else that might worry him.

“We’ll still need ta be really careful, darlin’,” replied Trip. “I’d never forgive myself if you got hurt just because I couldn’t do without touchin’ ya for three months.”

T”Pol raised a brow. You are not the only one who was greatly displeased by the prospect of no physical contact between the two of us for three months, t’hy’la. I have become accustomed to our ‘meditation’ sessions. Stopping them would cause me a considerable amount of distress. Her desire for him burned in the background of her sending, causing a certain portion of his anatomy to come to immediate attention.

Well, now… I sure wouldn’t wanna cause you any distress… returned Trip with a sly grin as he backed her up slowly against the edge of the bunk and reached for the fastener on the back of her uniform. She reached for the hem of his shirt and pulled it off over his head. They rapidly dispensed with the remainder of their clothing, and fell onto the bunk, entwined in an urgent embrace. They were both eager that evening for a little distress relief.

The Enterprise orbited Earth. Jonathan Archer had always found the spectacle of his home planet from orbit to be a welcome relief from the endless vista of stars that seemed to be his destiny. This time, the sight of the ball of blue and green studded with fluffy white clouds that filled Enterprise’s view screen did nothing but cause him pain. The new Science Officer would be aboard in less than an hour. After a two-day orientation with T’Pol, Assistant Ambassador Skon would become Science Officer Skon, and Archer would lose two of his closest friends for three to six months. Phlox had tried to fill the gap, in his inimitable way, by joining with Hoshi in planning a huge going away party for the two commanders. It was scheduled to take place on the observation deck in 48 hours. Rumor had it that the celebration was destined to be the biggest and wildest party in the history of Starfleet.

“The shuttle is docking in landing bay two, Captain,” said Hoshi. “Mr. Reed and the commanders are all there, sir… but they’re calling to ask if you plan to be there as well.” Archer looked at her in surprise. The new Vulcan Science Officer was early. Typical Vulcan, he thought in resignation.

Archer cleared his throat, stood up, and straightened his uniform. “Tell them I’m on my way, Lieutenant,” he said. He strode on to the turbolift and turned to face the doors with a solemn look on his face. The doors swooshed closed.

Time to stop this, he chided himself. This will be a new experience… another opportunity to relate to non-Humans, he thought. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. This is what you signed up for, remember? He’s probably just as nervous about this as you are, even though he’d probably kill himself before admitting it. You get along with T’Pol… how hard could this possibly be?

The turbolift doors opened, and Archer proceeded down the corridor. As he entered the launch bay, he walked up behind Lieutenant Commander Reed and Commanders Tucker and T’Pol. They stood side by side looking down the shuttle debarkation ladder. The tallest, thinnest, most solemn Vulcan that any of them had ever seen progressed sedately up the ladder as they watched. He wore a set of traditional ambassadorial robes in shades of grey and brown. His hair was jet black, and cut squarely across his forehead. When he reached the catwalk where the four Enterprise crewmembers stood, he raised his hand in the traditional V salute.

“Peace, and long life,” he intoned in a sonorous baritone voice. “I am Skon.”

Archer stepped forward between Trip and Malcolm and raised his hand in a formal return salute, looking up at the Vulcan, who topped him by at least six inches. “Live long, and prosper, Skon, and welcome aboard.” His face retained a pleasantly polite expression, but his heart sank. This guy could out-Vulcan Surak, he thought in dismay. How will I last three months?

T’Pol and Skon stood side by side on the periphery of the pandemonium taking place on the observation deck. They made a humorous pair. The top of her head barely reached the center of his chest, and he had to lower his head to hers in order to be heard in the incredibly noisy room, even by her sharp Vulcan ears. They were the only persons in the room wearing their usual clothing. In honor of the occasion, however, they had both submitted to having leis placed around their necks.

“Can you explain the purpose of this ritual, Commander?” Skon asked in fascination, his eyes fixed on Lieutenant Hoshi Sato, who wore a bikini and a grass skirt, as she bent backwards almost double and sinuously snaked her way beneath the bamboo pole held by two appreciative male members of the crew. Her performance was accompanied by the sound of hand drums, pounded enthusiastically if not entirely rhythmically by Commander Tucker. Lieutenant Commander Malcolm Reed and Ensign Travis Mayweather stood watching and clapping. They both wore flamboyantly patterned floral shirts, purloined from Commander Tucker’s extensive wardrobe, and several leis of various colors. Numerous other members of the crew, mostly male, were also studying the show with interest, while the remainder of the crew clustered around several tables laden with food and drink.

“I believe it is primarily a competition, testing the competitors’ flexibility and strength,” replied T’Pol.

Skon observed Hoshi as she triumphantly stood up, breathing heavily. She turned to Malcolm. “Ha!” she said in challenge. “Beat that!” He grinned at her, and then eyed the pole, which was a mere meter from the ground.

“I concede your superior skills, Lieutenant. You’re a wonder of grace and flexibility!” he said gallantly. Her eyes flashed at him in amusement. She turned to Travis. “What about you, Travis? Want to give it another try?” Mayweather shook his head with a smile.

“You win, Hoshi. I’m not about to break my back trying to beat that,” he joked.

“Well, if I win, then I get to say what we do next!” said Hoshi gleefully. She walked over to the comm system and brought the music database online. Soon the sounds of a distinctive rhythmic beat filled the room. “Let’s conga!” shouted Hoshi with a wide grin. She grabbed Malcolm’s hand, and then Travis’. Soon the entire ship’s crew was snaking around the room in one long line, hands clasped to the hips in front of them.

Skon looked down at T’Pol again questioningly. She tilted her head to look up at him and raised a brow. “I have no explanation for this one,” she told him, “… but you will find that many Human actions cannot be easily explained.” Skon nodded at her in solemn agreement, and then stood erect again and continued to study the unique Human ritual before him.

Archer stood facing them on the catwalk in the shuttlebay. The moment of their departure had finally arrived, and he had no idea what to say. He looked at Trip for a moment with a falsely cheerful smile on his face.

“Hoshi, Travis, Malcolm and Janice all told me to give you their best wishes this morning, but they’re on duty supervising the inspection and refit crews that we’ll be dealing with for the next several days,” Archer shrugged. “I guess I’m the only crew member non-essential enough to be spared to see you both off,” he added jokingly. Then he stuck out his hand.

“Good luck, Trip,” he told his best friend. Trip Tucker grasped Archer’s hand in a firm grip. “Hurry up and fix their engine before you get too used to solid ground and southern cooking, okay?” added Archer.

Trip chuckled and pulled Archer forward into a back-slapping embrace.

“Don’t worry about me, Cap’n. Ya know I can’t stay away too long…” He stepped back and gave his friend a teasing grin. “… I’ll miss my engine!”

Archer returned his smile with genuine feeling this time. Then he turned to T’Pol with a more serious expression.

“Despite what the High Council believes, T’Pol… you are not replaceable,” he told her. “I may have to make do with this civilian advisor, but he’s not you…. and I hope you realize that we’ll miss you.” He paused for a moment and sighed, looking at both of them ruefully. “I’ll miss you both,” he said.

T’Pol gazed into his eyes. Although her expression was as unreadable as ever, he got the distinct impression that she was just on the verge of smiling at him. She extended her hand matter-of-factly. After a moment of hesitation, he took it in both of his and gave it a gentle squeeze before releasing it.

“Three months is not such a long time, Captain,” she reassured him. “The interim command staff is quite capable. I am certain that they will perform adequately in our absence.”

Archer smiled at her wistfully. “I’m sure you’re right, Commander,” he said. “Good luck.”

Skon’s long and lanky form appeared in the doorway. He approached the three of them. He was wearing a brand new standard issue Starfleet jumpsuit, size XXL, and belted about the waist to take up the slack. It was a bit high-water on him. Archer reminded himself to discuss special uniform requirements for his new Science Officer with the quartermaster. The Vulcan was slightly out of breath. He approached T’Pol and handed her a data disc.

“I had hoped that I would not be too late to give you this disc for Ambassador Soval’s new assistant,” he told her. “He is very inexperienced, and after reviewing a small amount of your instructional recordings last night, I realized that making a similar recording myself might make the transition in staff go more smoothly.”

T’Pol nodded and took the disc from him. “I will deliver the disc at my earliest opportunity,” she told him. “I am pleased to see that you are already making use of my recordings. I believe that you will find them useful in dealing with your new crewmates.”

“I have already found them most enlightening, Commander,” he replied. T’Pol raised an inquiring brow, but Skon did not elaborate. He merely raised his hand in a V salute.

“Peace and long life,” he said, addressing both commanders. T’Pol returned the gesture, and Trip followed rather reluctantly with one of his own after a glance from his mate. Then, with farewells taken care of, the two of them entered the shuttle and closed the door.

As he saw them depart, Archer thought about his new command crew. He realized that the thought of Reed and Hess… and even Skon… in their new positions no longer worried him. T’Pol was right. They were ready. He’d simply had to get used to the idea.

Archer walked side-by-side with Skon down the corridor toward the turbolift. He looked up at the Vulcan.

“Exactly how tall are you, anyway?” he asked curiously as the Vulcan ducked beneath the turbolift door frame to avoid bumping his head.

Skon regarded him gravely. “I am 2.15 meters tall.”

“Isn’t that a little tall for a Vulcan?” asked Archer as they stood together facing the closed doors of the turbolift on its way to the bridge.

“It is a genetic trait, passed on from my paternal forefather,” confirmed Skon impassively. “It can be quite… inconvenient.”

“Inconvenient?” repeated Archer as the turbolift doors opened onto the bridge. Skon ducked once again to exit the turbolift.

“I have been known to occasionally strike my head on low lying light fixtures and doorframes when I am preoccupied with other matters,” admitted the Vulcan.

Archer suppressed a smile. “Sounds painful,” he said.

Skon took his position at the science station as Archer reached the command chair, displacing Malcolm, who took his place at tactical. Skon looked at Archer over the science console and raised an ironic brow.

“Indeed it is,” he replied dryly.

Archer faced the view screen and allowed himself an amused grin. Maybe this Vulcan won’t be as bad as I thought.

Commanders Tucker and T’Pol were met at Houston Hobby Space and Airport by a fresh-faced young ensign from the local Starfleet motor pool who brought them directly to the Warp Six compound. Upon their arrival they were escorted to a reception area, where they were met by a very familiar face. Trip smiled in pleased surprise.

“Ambassador Soval! What brings you ta this neck of the woods?” he asked, extending his hand to the somber looking Vulcan.

Soval gave him a tolerant look and shook his hand.

“Hello, Commander Tucker. It is agreeable to see you again as well,” he said dryly. “The Vulcan High Council sends its greetings, and has assigned me to see to your needs during this period of adjustment.”

Trip looked at him in puzzlement, and then glanced at T’Pol for clarification.

“The Warp 6 Project and its facilities are officially under the auspices of the Vulcan government,” said T’Pol. “We technically became involved in a cultural exchange program on foreign soil when we entered the gates of the complex, and the Vulcan government became responsible for our well-being.” She turned to Soval and nodded a solemn greeting of her own.

“Skon sends his regards, Ambassador,” she said. She pulled the data disc that her “replacement” had given her from her pocket and handed it to the ambassador. “He asked me to give this to your new assistant to ease the staff transition.”

Soval nodded his thanks, took the disc from her, and pocketed it. “Skon was a most conscientious assistant. I am certain that he will serve your captain in an acceptable manner.” T’Pol gave a grateful nod in return, thankful for the ambassador’s reassurance. Soval turned to both of them with a questioning look.

“Chief Engineer Storr is in the midst of a series of engine tests and is unable to meet with you at the moment, but he has requested that I take you both on a tour of the facility, if you feel capable of doing so after your flight,” said Soval.

Trip glanced at T’Pol, who raised a brow. He looked at Soval reluctantly. “We were kinda hopin’ ta get to our quarters first and see what they’re like before it gets too late in the day ta change our minds about stayin’ outside the compound,” he said.

Soval gave him a considering look. “Are you regretting your decision to take lodgings outside of the compound? If so, arrangements can certainly be made for each of you to reside in safety within the complex.”

“That will not be necessary, Ambassador,” insisted T’Pol. She eyed Trip warningly. “We simply wish to be certain that all is in order while there is still sufficient daylight to correct any oversights.”

Soval exhaled and looked from one of them to the other with a slightly puzzled look on his face. “Very well,” he conceded. “I will have a car transport you both to…”

A very loud, raucous siren not unlike Lieutenant Commander Reed’s prize creation on Enterprise interrupted the ambassador in mid-sentence.

“What is it?” yelled Trip over the deafening blasts as Soval , cringing involuntarily at the noise, led them rapidly from the room and back down the hall through which they’d entered the complex.

“It’s the evacuation warning!” shouted Soval in reply. “The engine testing area is armored against explosions of the impulse engines, but a warp experiment failure could vaporize the entire complex. Apparently, one is in progress.”

“Where’s the testing chamber?” demanded Trip urgently.

“There is a map of the complex in the foyer up ahead,” replied Soval, “… but you may not have time to reach the chamber, Commander. You must come with me and evacuate!”

Trip looked at T’Pol. His expression was stern. Maintaining eye contact with her, he told Soval, ”Leave now, Ambassador… keep her safe.” Then he sprinted ahead to the foyer, glanced briefly at the map of the facility on the wall, and then headed rapidly past the two Vulcans again, up the hallway at a dead run. T’Pol stopped and gazed after him. Soval grabbed her by the arm and rushed her out of the building, his bruising grip on her upper arm reminding her that in this particular situation, her most logical course of action would be to get the new Director of the Warp Six Project out of harm’s way and let the new Chief Engineer do his job.

“And I’m tellin’ ya, Mr. Storr… “ bellowed the brown-haired mechanic insistently, “… that there’s nothin’ wrong with this here engine! Ya’ll might as well let me turn off all these sirens so me and Ramirez can figure out why they all went off at once!” The Vulcan, dressed in spotlessly clean robes with not a speck of grease on them, stared at the mechanic in disdain, and then nodded his consent. Gardner walked to a console and pressed several buttons. Blessed silence descended on the testing chamber.

“There is obviously something amiss, Mr. Gardner, or we would have never been treated to your auditorily disabling version of an evacuation warning,” said Storr coldly. Jack Gardner gritted his teeth to suppress the very impolite response that was hovering on the tip of his tongue.

“I’m real sorry about that, Mr. Storr. When I set the volume, I guess I forgot how sensitive Vulcan hearin’ is. I’ll be sure and cut the volume down some when I reset it,” he said apologetically.

Every head in the testing chamber turned then, as the sound of someone frantically pounding on the locked entry doors reverberated through the chamber. Gardner hastily retreated from Storr’s angry glare to go and open the door. A breathless blond guy in a Starfleet uniform entered the room. He grabbed Gardner by the arm, ignoring the greasy stains that the contact left on his spotless uniform.

“Where’s the engine? We gotta keep her from blowin’!” he said urgently. Then he saw the huge mass of the warp six engine prototype in the center of the room, and he pushed Gardner aside as if he weren’t there. He walked toward the engine with an expression on his face just short of pure love, and placed his hands on it reverently. He made a circuit of the engine, touching and intently studying every component part. After a few moments, his face took on a puzzled expression and he turned to face the others.

“She seems okay ta me,” he told them as they all stared in amazement at his antics. “Why’d all the alarms go off?”

Trip Tucker sat with Kov and Jack in the mechanic’s break room, not drinking… after the first taste… the thick, black sludge that passed for coffee at five o’clock in the afternoon.

“How can you guys drink this stuff?” he asked in amazement as he pushed his cup away with a grimace.

“It’s better at 7:30 am,” said Jack in amusement. Trip looked at Kov, who raised his hands in denial.

“I do not drink it,” he stated flatly. “Corrosive fluids do not agree with my digestion.”

Trip laughed aloud and shook his head in wonder. “I’ve sure missed yer strange sense of humor, Kov!”

Kov raised a brow and smiled his tiny smile. “I was not aware that I possessed one until I met you,” he replied.

Jack looked from one of them to the other with a bemused smile on his face. He’d never seen such easy camaraderie between a Human and a Vulcan before. It was great to see. Maybe this Tucker guy can get us all to pull together, he thought.

He grinned to himself as he recalled the expression on old stick-in-the-ass Storr’s face when Commander Tucker had introduced himself. The pompous Vulcan had practically fallen all over himself to give the commander a tour of the facility when he’d found out he was talking to the new head of the Human engineering team. Rumor had it that Storr’s bosses … the Vulcan High Council no less… were insisting that he get along with Starfleet’s wunderkind or else. It just warmed the cockles of Jack’s country heart to see the chief Vulcan engineer taken down a notch or two, especially by someone like Commander Tucker, who was looking to be more and more like a man after Jack’s own heart.

Jack picked up his coffee mug and the commander’s, and walked to the sink to rinse them out and pour out the dregs in the coffeepot. The syrupy stuff coated the sink on the way down in a thick layer similar to motor oil. Hmmm… thought Jack. Maybe I should start makin’ a fresh pot around three pm. He looked up as the break room door opened and Ramirez’ dark bald head peeked around the door frame. Jack’s face broke out in a grin.

“Hey, Ramirez!” he called. “C’mon in and meet the new engineer! Ya missed all the excitement while you were doin’ maintenance in the Vulcan compound.” Ramirez grinned at him and looked over at the table. Suddenly his face sobered, taking on a look of alarm, and he backed hurriedly out of the room, shutting the door before the commander could even get a look at him, much less say hello. The blond engineer looked back at Jack in puzzlement.

“Who was that?” he asked.

Jack stared after his friend with an equally puzzled expression, and then shrugged. “Just Ramirez,” he replied in an unconcerned tone. “Guess he didn’t feel like socializin’ today.”

Charles Tucker walked hurriedly down the hall toward the locker rooms. He had to get cleaned up and back to his quarters before Trip spotted him. He hadn’t counted on the Chief Engineer wanting to hang out in the mechanics’ break room, but now that he thought about it, he should have expected it of Trip. As he headed down the hallway, he heard the sound of voices. He stepped aside to allow two Vulcans, a male in ambassadorial robes and a female in a skin-tight military uniform, to pass him in the hallway. The female’s head came up, and his heart nearly stopped as he recognized his daughter-in-law. She paused minutely in her conversation with the male Vulcan, and looked him directly in the eye, nodding at him briefly as if in recognition as she passed. She said nothing, behaving as if he was nothing more than the mechanic he appeared to be. He was absolutely certain that she’d recognized him. He continued to walk down the corridor toward the locker room, expecting at any moment to hear her voice raised in accusation… blowing his cover. It didn’t happen. She and the male Vulcan entered the break room without further incident, leaving a puzzled Charles Tucker counting his blessings and hurriedly entering the locker room to change for the trip back to his quarters.

Trip and T’Pol sat on a mountain of meditation cushions laid on the floor of the living room in the center of her otherwise unfurnished apartment. Trip’s apartment next door was in a similar condition… minus the meditation cushions. With typical military efficiency, their Starfleet-supplied furnishings and their belongings from Enterprise were scheduled to arrive at 0900 the following morning… precisely twenty-four hours after their arrival in Houston. When he’d discovered the mix-up, Soval had offered to put them both up for the night… in separate quarters, of course. They had both demurred, but did ask to borrow every spare meditation cushion in the entire Vulcan compound. They sat cozily face to face eating take-out Chinese food from cardboard containers with chopsticks… or at least T’Pol was trying the chopsticks. With a little practice, she’d managed to finally get a bite of vegetable lo mein into her mouth without spilling half of it down her shirt. Trip had temporarily given up, and was eating an egg roll with his bare fingers while regaling T’Pol with the story of his first triumphant day with the warp six engine.

“So after we figured out that the siren was a false alarm, it just took me and Jack about an hour ta figure out it was a computer program glitch in the sensor computer. We just wiped the program and started over, and in a coupla hours, not only was the engine still purrin’ like a kitten, but the sensors were finally able ta tell us about it.”

“So you’ve repaired the problem that’s been delaying the project?” asked T’Pol in disbelief.

“I think so…” replied Trip as he stuffed the last of the egg roll into his mouth, swallowed it whole, and reached for another. “…but we’re still not progressin’ very fast,” he said in frustration. “When I asked to see the ship with the workin’ warp prototype, Storr told me that the only engine they had was the one in the testing lab! They haven’t even built the functioning warp core yet!” He sighed. “All the lab testin’ does is give ‘em basic impulse engine data and allow ‘em to extrapolate warp data… but you and I both know ya can’t build a stable warp field on the surface of a planet. The U.S.S. John Glenn is up in Starfleet’s space dock without an engine because the Vulcans were too chicken to let us install a workin’ warp six engine until they got perfect numbers in the lab. Now that they’ve got their precious numbers, I get ta sit on my hands for two weeks or more while the guys in construction actually install the engine!”

T’Pol regarded him soberly. “This situation is entirely your fault, you know,” she said blandly as she took another bite of lo mein.

Trip looked back at her in aggravation. “And how exactly do ya figure that, Miss Smarty Pants?”

“If you hadn’t solved a problem that the entire Warp Six Project engineering staff has been working on for months in a single afternoon, you would not be faced with the prospect of nothing to do for the next two weeks.” He sensed her amusement as she made the statement, and grinned at her despite himself.

“Yeah…. I guess I’m pretty damn good, huh?” he said.

“Indeed,” she agreed complacently. Trip smiled at her and shoved the rest of the second egg roll in his mouth. He leaned back into the mound of cushions at his back and chewed.

“I bet Soval’s wonderin’ why in the world we needed eight meditation cushions!” he joked with his mouth full.

T’Pol eyed him in resignation, and handed him a napkin to wipe his greasy hands and mouth. “I have no doubt the ambassador knows perfectly well both why we refused his offer to stay in the compound tonight and why we require such a large number of cushions, husband. He was, after all, present at our wedding,” she reminded Trip dryly.

Trip stopped mid-chew and thought for a moment with a rather uncomfortable look on his face. “There’s something just wrong about the thought of Soval knowin’ what we’re up to in here,” he said queasily. “Kinda like yer grandma knowin’ yer havin’ sex, y’know?”

T’Pol raised a brow at him in amusement and gestured with the chopsticks she held in her hand. “Thus far, all we’ve ‘been up to’ is an attempt at using these woefully inadequate utensils to get enough food into our mouths to sustain us until the morning. Did you have any other activities in mind?” she asked archly.

Trip grinned at her salaciously. “Might be nice to see if this apartment is as much fun as our hotel suite was in Atlanta… remember? We could start in this room, and move on from there. Then we’ll need to try all the rooms in my apartment… could take a while.”

T’Pol looked at him consideringly, and then gathered the remnants of the Chinese food and placed them to one side, away from the cushions. She then crawled toward him on top of the cushions and straddled his lap as he sat on the floor. Her face remained entirely expressionless during the whole procedure, but Trip could feel her desire building in concert with his own.

“Then I suggest we begin,” she told him softly. “We only have three months, and there are quite a number of rooms to try. A week in each room should give us a basis for comparison.”

Trip grinned at her and pulled her mouth to his. She tasted of Chinese noodles. Noodles had never tasted so good.

As the new director of the Warp Six Project, Commander T’Pol of Vulcan had briefings scheduled at the complex with every department head in succession starting at 0800 that morning. Since she’d already been well-briefed by the chief of the Human engineering team concerning his activities the previous day, she’d decided to give him the day off, and had left early that morning, traveling the two blocks on foot under the escort of a Warp Six Complex security guard. It was in this way that Trip found himself the chief man in charge of furniture arranging and interior design. It was a job to which he was not very well suited.

“Just bring it all up here guys,” he told the movers as he stood on the front steps of the duplex. “If there’s two of somethin’, put one in each apartment.”

The muscular young man in charge of the movers scratched his crew cut and looked up at the engineer with a puzzled look. “Where do ya want the boxes, sir?” Trip cocked his head quizzically, and then walked down the steps and stuck his head into the back of the moving van. A jumble of crates with the Enterprise insignia were stacked in a pile in the center of the truck bed. They were otherwise unmarked. Trip sighed. He’d known it was a mistake to trust the quartermaster’s new assistant with the packing, but he’d had more important things to do.

“Just stick ‘em all in the apartment on the left,” he told them. “I’ll sort ‘em out later.”

Three hours later, Trip sat on a Starfleet regulation couch with his feet on a Starfleet regulation coffee table looking at the pile of boxes in the center of his living room and eating leftover Chinese noodles with a fork he’d rooted out of the box of kitchen utensils. He still had an hour before Kov was supposed to pick him up and take him to meet this mysterious “friend” he’d been talking about the day before. He finished the noodles and put the empty carton down on the table in front of him.

Guess I’d better at least figure out which boxes are mine and which ones are hers, he thought to himself in resignation. He got down on his knees on the floor and reached for the first box. In a very short period of time he had them sorted into two semi-neat piles… his and hers. Deciding that he’d done enough domestic arranging for one day, he grabbed the box containing his off-duty clothing, threw a few toiletries and a towel into it from his “bathroom” box, slid the whole thing to the middle of his bedroom floor, grabbed the shampoo, and stepped into the bathroom to take a shower.

Rafter!… as in Thomas Rafter, the engineer that just got deported for bein’ a Terra Primer?” asked Trip in amazement.

Kov glanced briefly at him and then returned his gaze to the road as he drove the electric ground car to the Turnbull Stables. “She does not share her father’s beliefs,” he replied evenly.

“Still, Kov…” protested Trip, “Why would ya want to get involved with somethin’ like this? The child’s not your responsibility. It’d be safer ta just let the authorities handle it.”

“The authorities would have had her on the ship with her father,” countered Kov calmly. “She did not wish to go.”

He pulled the car into a circular gravel drive. An old wooden frame house stood at the center of the drive. Behind the house, a large red barn with an adjoining paddock could be seen. The place reminded Trip of an old twentieth-century western. The two of them exited the vehicle and began walking across the drive toward the barn. As they approached, Trip could see a woman in cowboy hat and jeans astride a very large brown horse. The woman’s arms and hands were relaxed in front of her as she guided the horse with her knees at full gallop in a figure of eight pattern around two barrels set up in the paddock, obviously for that purpose. Her head came up as she caught sight of the two of them, and he saw her face break into a luminescent smile. Directing the horse away from the barrels with a single twitch of the reins, she slowed him to a walk, and then vaulted off his back with a powerful swing of her denim-clad legs. She strode toward them, all nearly six feet of her, with her bright red hair flapping behind her in the breeze like a flag and her head held proudly erect. She looked like the western version of an Amazon warrior. Trip’s jaw dropped.

“How old did you say this girl was?” he whispered to Kov.

Kov smiled his subtle smile at Trip’s reaction. “She is seventeen years, nine months and fourteen days old,” he said with unmistakable pride.

Trip eyed him in disbelief. “That’s not a child… that’s a force of nature!” he replied under his breath.

“And now you understand my dilemma, my friend,” returned Kov.

Trip stared at him as he stepped up to meet the young woman. She ignored the presence of Kov’s companion completely. Her attention… and her smile… were focused only on the Vulcan. She reached out her right hand, and Kov took it firmly in his in an apparently friendly handshake… but to Trip’s eyes, trained in the nuances of Vulcan/Human social interaction, there was nothing even remotely friendly about it. Only their hands were in physical contact, but it was as if the touch of their fingers completed an electric circuit. Their mutual attraction virtually crackled in the air between them. They stood there for a moment, hands linked, before Kov released his grip. He stepped back and indicated Trip with one hand.

“Miss Rafter, may I introduce Commander Charles Tucker the Third, the new chief engineer of the Human section of the Warp Six Project, and my friend.”

Trip smiled at her. “Just call me Trip,” he said.

Janie Rafter eyed Kov questioningly.

“He can be trusted. You mustn’t worry,” Kov reassured her. “He’s agreed to come with us to the hearing tomorrow and be a character witness.”

Janie extended her hand to Trip and shook his hand firmly. She regarded him skeptically. “I’m pleased to meet ya, Commander… but why would ya agree to testify at my emancipation hearin’? Ya don’t even know me.”

Trip stuck his tongue in his cheek, amused by her directness. “Kov’s told me a lot about your situation, Miss Rafter,” he explained. “He’s also told me how hard you’ve been workin’ ta support yourself, and that he believes you would make a fine engineer if someone could arrange for you ta be able to take advantage of that academic scholarship you have waitin’ for ya over at A& M. Besides… I’ve got no love for Terra Prime, and if you don’t wanna join ‘em, I’ll be damned if I’m gonna sit by and watch the government force ya to do it!”

Janie graced both of them with a bright smile at that sentiment. “Well… all right, then!” she said.

Walking around between them and placing her hands on their shoulders as she directed them toward the barn, she said slyly, “Now that all that’s settled, who’s up for a little ridin’?” She gave them her most charming smile. “And then maybe some curry combin’, and tack cleanin’, and stall muckin’…”

Trip dragged in, filthy and exhausted, at 2100 hours, and went directly to the shower in his apartment. It wasn’t until he emerged, after a thirty minute soak to remove the smell of manure from his hair and hands, and looked for the box of clothes that he’d left in the center of his bedroom floor, that he realized what T’Pol had obviously been up to in his absence. His clothes were hung neatly in his closet, categorized by color and article of clothing. His t-shirts… even his underwear … were neatly folded and separated in his dresser drawers. He dressed hurriedly, and moved into the kitchen, where the cabinets and drawers were filled with neatly organized rows of pots, pans, and utensils. His family photos were arranged symmetrically on the mantle above the gas log fireplace, and his engineering manuals, arranged by size, had been placed on the bookshelves next to the computer console in the living room. There were no boxes in evidence, but a brief search revealed that she’d stacked the empties and stored them in the hall closet. The woman is nesting, he thought in amazement. I didn’t know Vulcans did that.

He exited the apartment and walked next door, ringing the doorbell to alert her to his arrival. The door was unlocked and he stepped inside… into a scene of controlled disorder. There were boxes in every room, each filled with the articles belonging to that room. The kitchen box was half-empty, and there were glasses in the sink. She washed it all before she put it away? thought Trip in puzzlement. It would never have occurred to him to do that. T’Pol was nowhere to be found. He wandered the small apartment, and finally heard the sound of the shower running. Walking into the bathroom, he stood in the doorway with his arms crossed over his chest, appreciatively watching his wife’s silhouette through the frosted glass of the shower door as she washed her hair.

Hey darlin’, need some help in there? he sent with a grin.

As I have already put in several hours of labor… after a full day of briefings at the complex, I might add… quite without your help, I believe that I am capable of showering without your assistance, husband, came her acerbic reply. Trip winced. Her displeasure over his lackluster attempts at unpacking that afternoon and his unexplained late arrival that evening came in loud and clear. The flow of water in the shower ceased, and the door opened. Trip hastily grabbed the bath towel she’d laid out for herself and held it up for her.

“Here’s a towel, darlin’,” he said with a hopeful smile. She took it from him without saying a word, and began to dry herself. He watched her, trying to come up with something to say that would appease her.

“Are ya hungry? I could go get us somethin’ ta eat,” he suggested.

“I have already eaten,” she told him shortly. Trip grinned queasily in recollection. He’d actually already eaten as well. Kov had decided he wanted to try something called a “gardenburger” at one of the local drive-in eating establishments. Trip had eaten a hamburger himself, but he couldn’t really vouch for the flavor of the burger. The aroma of manure in the car had been too strong for him to taste much of anything. He wasn’t hungry anymore, though.

“How ‘bout you just go relax on the bed and let me do some neuropressure on ya?”

T’Pol’s eyes widened slightly at this suggestion, and he could sense her interest. “Very well,” she told him. Then she walked to the bed, stripped off the towel, and lay face down, obviously physically exhausted, without bothering to put on any clothing at all.

Trip grinned in anticipation and rubbed his hands to warm them. He sat down next to her on the mattress, and began at the nape of her neck. By the time he’d reached the dimples at the base of her spine, she was sound asleep, and he was more aroused than he could remember being in… well… at least twenty four hours. He covered her gently with a blanket, turned out the light, and left the room, closing the door behind him. Then he looked around her apartment.

Guess I’d better do somethin’ with all this extra energy, he thought in resignation, and walked into the living room to begin unpacking boxes.

Kov and Trip, both resplendent in their respective dress uniforms, escorted Miss Ida Jane Rafter into the courthouse at nine am the following morning. Ms. Elena Sanchez, Miss Rafter’s attorney, met them in the lobby. Trip’s face took on a look of surprise as he got a good look at the woman responsible for successfully prosecuting all of the members of the largest Terra Prime cell discovered thus far in North America. Dressed in a severe and practical navy blue business suit and sensibly low heels, Ms. Sanchez wore her dark hair in a neat chignon on the back of her neck. Reading glasses, suspended from a fine chain, hung down the center of her chest, and she carried a leather briefcase. She wore no jewelry except a pair of small gold loop earrings, and her left hand was conspicuously bare of anything resembling a wedding ring. All in all, she was the veritable image of a woman permanently devoted to her career… until he got a good look at her face.

She’s gorgeous! he thought in amazement. It wasn’t that he was sexually attracted to her. His bond with T’Pol had pretty much eliminated that particular response from his repertoire. It was simply the fact that her face was so beautiful, with her dark arched brows, impossibly long lashes, full lips, huge liquid brown eyes, and olive complexion, that he couldn’t help but admire it for the natural work of art that it was. An idea began to take shape in his mind as he looked at her, and he smiled.

“Ms. Sanchez? Elena Sanchez?” he asked in a surprised tone of voice. The lawyer turned to look at him with a quizzical expression.

“Yes…” she answered hesitantly. “And you are…?”

Trip gave her his best charming Tucker grin and reached out to pump her hand enthusiastically. “Commander Charles Tucker, ma’am… but everybody just calls me Trip… and may I say it’s a real honor ta meet ya. I have a friend who’s been followin’ your work with the Terra Primers, ma’am… and he just can’t say enough good things about ya. Maybe you’ve heard of him? Captain Jonathan Archer?”

Elena Sanchez’ gorgeous brown eyes widened a bit. “Archer?” she asked in a tone which almost sounded flattered. “The hero of the Xindi War Archer?”

Trip grinned disingenuously. “The very same!” he confirmed. “Why, just the other day he was tellin’ me how much he’d like ta meet the person who’d single handedly brought an entire cell of Terra Primers to justice.” Trip’s expression suddenly brightened, as if he’d just had a wonderful idea. “Say! Why don’t I call him… he’s here on Earth for the next few days, y’know. We could all go out for barbeque or somethin’.”

Elena Sanchez’ eyes narrowed. She looked at Trip as if she suspected him of trying to put something over on her. Then, with obvious reluctance and against her better judgment, she handed him her card.

“If what you’re saying is true, Commander, then I would enjoy meeting your friend,” she told him dryly. “Now let’s get into the courtroom and do what we came here to do.”

Trip took the card, grinning from ear to ear. “Yes, ma’am… anything you say, ma’am!” he replied.

They were the first case of the morning, and so were standing at the request of the bailiff when the judge entered the courtroom. He was a grey-haired grandfatherly type… just the sort of man you’d expect to preside over juvenile court. He looked like a pleasant sort of fellow, until he caught sight of Ms. Sanchez. He addressed her directly after the bailiff brought the court to order.

“Counselor Sanchez…” he said in a rather antagonistic tone of voice. “It’s been a while since you’ve graced us with your presence. Have you run out of high-profile newsworthy cases, then?”

“Just correcting an injustice, Your Honor,” she replied, giving him a brief smile which failed to reach her eyes. She reached into her briefcase and walked forward to hand the judge a sheet of paper. “I have an additional witness to add to the list that I provided earlier.” The judge gave her an impatient nod, and then looked down at the petition before him.

“Looks like everything’s in order, Counselor… We’ve got her birth certificate… identifying information… current address… the statement from her employer….” He paused, reading the paper in his hand. “Says here she’s employed as a stablehand and housekeeper, and her employer’s providing room and board, but that she’s planning to attend college in the fall.” He looked up and addressed Janie directly. “How’re you planning to pay for that, little lady?” he asked in a patronizing tone.

Janie’s head came up in annoyance at his lack of respect for her capabilities, but her voice remained polite as she said, “I have a full academic scholarship to A & M, Your Honor, and once I’m emancipated I plan to get a student loan for living expenses so I can afford to live on campus.”

The judge smiled at her indulgently. “Without a working parent to secure the loan, how do you plan to convince anyone to loan you the money?”

Janie took a deep breath, and then looked at Kov. The Vulcan realized then that it was time for him to speak up. “I plan to cosign the loan, Your Honor,” he said emotionlessly.

The judge stared at him in disbelief. “And just who are you?”

Kov regarded him evenly. “I am Kov, second assistant engineer on the Vulcan team of the Warp Six Project. I have been resident in this state for greater than six months, and I am gainfully employed. I can also vouch for Miss Rafter’s ability to provide for her own needs.”

“Why would you do this for the daughter of a convicted Terra Primer, Mr. Kov?” asked the judge bluntly.

Kov looked impassively at the man for a moment, as if what he’d said made no sense at all. Then he spoke. “She is my friend,” he said simply.

The judge’s eyes narrowed. “This court will take a short recess while I see Miss Rafter and Mr. Kov in my chambers. Don’t go anywhere,” he said. Trip exchanged a surprised glance with the lawyer as Kov and Janie followed the gruff old man out the back door of the courtroom. Elena Sanchez rolled her eyes, sat down, and put her hands in her lap with a sigh.

“He always does this,” she said in disgust. “It’s so frustrating… I can never get him to listen to me… it’s always his way or the highway.”

Trip looked at her in puzzlement. “Does he have a grudge against ya or somethin’?”

The lovely woman sighed. “I suppose you could say that,” she told him. She looked up to meet his eyes. “He’s my ex-husband,” she admitted.

Janie and Kov sat stiffly side by side in matching overstuffed leather chairs facing the judge, who sat at his desk and studied the two of them intently. Janie reached out and grasped Kov’s fingers, seeking comfort. Through the contact, he could sense her nervousness. He marveled at the clarity of the emotions he was able to sense from her, and abruptly realized something that he’d suspected for some time but refused to admit.

I have formed a betrothal bond with this Human, he thought in shock. His eyes sought hers almost involuntarily. She looked back at him, smiled reassuringly, and then gave his fingers a gentle squeeze.

She senses my fear, and is trying to relieve it! thought Kov in amazement. Janie’s smile broadened as she sensed his joy and gratitude.

The crusty old judge, after sitting and watching the two of them hold hands and gaze at each other for several minutes, cleared his throat.

“Do the two of you… ahh… want to be alone?” he asked ironically. Janie started at the man’s voice, and then snatched her hand from Kov’s and sat up taller in her chair, directing her attention to the judge.

“Sorry, yer Honor,” she said with an embarrassed look.

The old man gave them both a kindly look. “Okay…” he told them. “You kids can stop pretending.” They both looked at him in a puzzled fashion.

“How long were y’all planning to wait after it was legal for her to get married without parental consent before you tied the knot?” asked the judge.

Janie looked at the judge and laughed, and then she looked at Kov. He wasn’t laughing. He stared straight ahead as a greenish flush came over his face.

“Kov?” asked Janie in a concerned tone. “Are you all right?” Kov said nothing. The judge chuckled.

“I get it,” he said in an amused tone of voice. “She’s still a minor, so you haven’t asked her yet, have you, son?”

Kov continued to stare straight ahead. “No, sir,” he stiffly replied.

The judge nodded in approval. “You’ll do, boy,” he told Kov. “I like your style… raise her up right and she’ll be the kind of wife you’re looking for.” Kov gave the man an appalled look.

“I’d ask her soon, though. These stubborn Texas women won’t wait forever for you to make up your mind.”

Kov inhaled sharply. “It is not a matter of making up my mind, Your Honor, but of waiting until Miss Rafter is ready to accept my proposal.”

“Kov!” interjected Janie. “What are you talkin’ about?” She placed her hand on his and got the full force of his embarrassment over the judge’s line of questioning in her presence, and his fear that the revelation of his intentions would frighten her away. She smiled wholeheartedly at him and then rounded on the judge in anger.

“With all due respect, yer Honor… It’s none of yer business what Kov and I plan to do after I’m emancipated… and you need ta stop this… Yer embarrassin’ him!”

The judge sat back in his chair with a surprised look on his face. Then he gave her a rueful smile. “You’re certainly a live one, Miss Rafter!” he said with reluctant admiration. “You remind me quite a bit of my ex-wife…” his voice trailed off, and he gazed absently past the young couple for just a moment. He sighed heavily. Then he rose briskly from his chair. Both Kov and Janie stood as well.

“I’m satisfied that you can take care of yourself, Miss Rafter. There’s no need to trouble your witnesses. You’ve got your decree of emancipation.” Janie smiled gratefully at him, and then turned the full force of her joyful grin on a rather stunned looking Kov.

“We did it!” she said ecstatically, and wrapped both arms around his neck. He stood with his arms at his sides for a second, heroically fighting the impulse to gather her into his arms, and then she kissed him, and he gave in quite spectacularly. The judge just stood there with his arms crossed and an amused look on his face.

“When you kids are done necking, follow me into the courtroom, okay?” he said with a smile. Then he left, shutting the door behind him. It was almost five minutes before Kov and Janie re-entered the courtroom. When they came back in, they were holding hands… and both of them were smiling.

“It’s the best barbeque on the planet, Jon… I swear! You’ve gotta come down and come out with us once before ya leave. Even T’Pol likes the place! Last night, she ate baked potatoes with barbeque sauce until I thought she was gonna pop, and then we watched the mechanical bull ridin’… and she said it was ‘fascinating’,” said Trip with a chuckle. Archer’s face lit up on the vid screen and he laughed as well.

“Oh… all right, Trip,” agreed the captain. “How’s tomorrow evening?”

Trip Tucker grinned and fingered Elena Sanchez’ card, which was hidden safely in his pocket. “I’ll get back with ya in a few minutes on that, Cap’n… gotta check my schedule. See ya!” he leaned forward and cut the connection. T’Pol came up behind him from the kitchen.

“What was that about, t’hy’la? We have not been to a ‘barbeque’ restaurant,” said T’Pol in puzzlement.

“Not yet…” replied Trip, “… but we’re goin’ tonight, so what I said won’t be a fib by tomorrow!” T’Pol raised a brow at him.

“I promise! You really will think mechanical bull ridin’ is ‘fascinating’!” Trip insisted.

“And the part about ‘eating potatoes until I pop’?” she asked dryly.

“Just a little poetic license, darlin’… Look!” He pulled Elena Sanchez’ card out of his pocket. T’Pol took it from him and read it with a quizzical expression.

“Do we require legal representation?” she asked.

“No…” said Trip with a sly grin, “… but Jon definitely does… especially from a knock-out gorgeous single professional woman with what I suspect is a serious case of war-hero-worship, if I read my women correctly.”

T’Pol looked intrigued. “You have been looking for an appropriate mate for the captain,” she said approvingly. She glanced at the card again, and then sat at the vid phone. “I will call her to determine if she is a worthwhile candidate,” she decided. Trip took the card from her and stood in front of the vid screen, shaking his head.

“I don’t think so, darlin’. You’ll just scare her away. Why don’t you go get dressed for the restaurant while I see if Ms. Sanchez is available tomorrow night?”

T’Pol gazed up at him with her head cocked to one side, trying to decide if he’d insulted her or not. Finally, she simply got up and went into the next room to do as he’d asked. Trip sat down in the chair with a relieved sigh and entered the number.

That was sure close! he thought. I oughta at least give Jon the chance ta meet her before T’Pol gives her the third degree!

Trip and T’Pol walked hand in hand down the darkened street toward their apartments. The road was deserted, providing enough privacy for T’Pol to be comfortable with this public display of affection.

“So what did ya think of the ‘King’s Ranch Barbeque Barn’?” asked Trip softly.

“Humans in this area of the world consume larger portions of animal flesh in one meal than I have ever seen consumed anywhere else,” replied T’Pol in disapproval.

Trip sighed. “Yeah… that’s probably true, darlin’,” he admitted. “But, aside from that… did ya have a good time?”

“The music was tuneful and quite rhythmic, and the bull riding was… interesting,” she conceded. “I also liked the barbeque sauce very much… but I preferred it on the yeast rolls rather than the potato.”

Trip chuckled. “Elena Sanchez is meetin’ us there at seven tomorrow night,” he told her.

“Did you tell the captain?” asked T’Pol.

Trip grinned and shook his head. “You know how he is, T’Pol… if he knew we were fixin’ him up, he’d never show. He’s meetin’ us at your apartment at six. I’ll tell him then… when it’s too late to back out.”

T’Pol nodded in agreement. “That is probably wise,” she said.

They walked along in companionable silence for a while.

“How’re things goin’ at the complex?” asked Trip.

“The engine installation is progressing rapidly,” replied T’Pol, “…and I believe that I have finally negotiated a compromise between the Vulcan and Human teams which will allow them to work together. You should go to work tomorrow and allow yourself to be seen working with Kov. The example will be instructional for everyone involved.”

Trip nodded. “I can sure do that,” he told her. “Kov and I work well together.”

“How did things go at the courthouse today?” asked T’Pol. “You haven’t said much about it.”

Trip shrugged. “Not much ta tell. I never even had ta testify. We went in, Kov and Janie talked with the judge for a while, and then he granted her decree. Nothin’ to it.”

“What are Kov’s intentions? Do you still believe they are bonded?”

“Sure looked like it ta me, darlin’… but she’s still so young. I get the impression he’s plannin’ ta take it slow.”

T’Pol nodded in approval. She looked at Trip inquiringly. “Perhaps we should invite them to dinner with us tomorrow evening. The ‘King’s Ranch Barbeque Barn’ seems like a place that would appeal to young people.”

Trip smiled. “That’s a great idea, darlin’… we’ll make a party of it.” They climbed the steps to their apartment and entered T’Pol’s side, still deep in conversation as they closed the door.

Behind the hedge at the foot of the stairs, hidden deep within the shadows, a dark figure shifted his position slightly, as if he were trying to get comfortable. It promised to be a long night, but it wasn’t time yet to make his move. It wouldn’t be long, though. He’d eventually catch Trip Tucker alone.

End (But TBC in the next story, of course.)


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