Keepin' in Touch

By Distracted

Rating: PG-13

Genres: adventure drama romance


This story has been read by 522 people.
This story has been read 828 times.

This story is number 14 in the series Virtual Season Five

The Warp Six Project: Keepin’ in Touch


By Distracted

Rating: PG-13
Disclaimer: Paramount owns most of these characters. I just come up with friends for them to play with. Don’t sue me... please!
Genre: Romance, Action/adventure
Summary: This is a sequel to At First Sight. In it, Elena gets to play spy, we find out what Janie’s father’s been up to since he was exiled and deported, and Trip, T’Pol, Kov, and Charles Junior deal with an unexpected Warp Six Project saboteur.

A/N: After all the fun I had with the “pen pal action” in my last story, I decided to see how many times I could have characters use various means of electronic communication in one story, and use that to move the story along... thus the title (and the mind meld is done with a touch. Well... you’ll see what I mean). After you read this story, feel free to go back and count the number of times the characters use vid phones, text messages or comms. I counted 17. Did I miss any?

“He’s ‘unavailable’?” repeated Elena Sanchez in disbelief. The smooth-faced ensign gazed back at her with an unperturbed expression.

“Yes, ma’am,” he confirmed. “He’s off-duty now and I’m not allowed to disturb him unless it’s an emergency.”

Elena gave the young man a small, wry smile. “Then when he wakes up would you please inform him that Elena Sanchez called to cancel her appointment for nine am tomorrow morning? A briefing won’t be necessary because I’ve decided to withdraw my offer of assistance. I’m afraid he’ll need to find someone else to be the bait tomorrow.”

The young officer’s eyes widened slightly. “Umm... yes, ma’am,” he replied in a slightly flustered voice. “If you’ll just wait a minute... maybe I should wake him up.”

Elena’s smile broadened. “Oh... don’t bother, Ensign,” she told him. “I’m sure such a busy man needs his rest.” Before the alarmed young man could say anything else, Elena cut the connection. Then she sat back in her chair with an angry but satisfied expression on her face, and waited. One minute and thirty seconds later, her vid phone registered an incoming call. When she answered the call, Harris’ tousled head appeared on the screen. He had a forced smile on his stubbled, sleepy face.

“Miss Sanchez, I can’t tell you how relieved I am to see that you’re uninjured,” he told her.

“No thanks to you, Mr. Harris... and one of my closest friends is in the hospital with a bullet hole in his chest. I thought you said your department was capable of protecting me?” She tried her best to look like a frightened, helpless female for Harris’ benefit.

Harris looked relieved. “Is that what this is about?” he asked. “Miss Sanchez, let me reassure you that we have the situation entirely under control. We had advance warning, and I had a team on site. The gunman is in our custody as we speak. You have no reason to be concerned for your safety tomorrow.”

Elena exhaled heavily, and abruptly stopped the damsel in distress act. She allowed her anger to get the better of her for a moment. “I thought you knew in advance, you cold-blooded snake! I volunteer to help you with this investigation, and you repay me by using me as bait to draw out an assassin, and nearly getting a friend of mine killed in the process!” Harris straightened in his chair with an offended look on his face. Apparently, no one ever dared to speak to him in that manner. In Elena’s opinion, it was about time that someone did.

“I want you to get one thing straight, mister high and mighty Starfleet Covert Ops Director...” she continued vehemently, “... I am neither stupid nor subordinate to you, so when I volunteer to put my life on the line to help you, you’d damn well better keep me fully informed... or I’m walking, and you get to find somebody else to help you nail Buchanan.” She eyed him grimly. “ I understand the need to capture that assassin, and had I been informed, I probably would have been willing to help you by acting as bait... but I sure as hell wouldn’t have risked my friends’ lives to do it.”

Harris looked at her for a moment with a thoughtful expression. “Terra Prime has an agent in the DA’s office,” he admitted. “Buchanan knew about your dinner plans before we did. It was a judgment call. I felt that changing your plans at the last minute could tip off Buchanan, and so I made the decision not to inform you.” He met her eyes squarely, and then exhaled heavily. “I’m sorry if I underestimated you, and I’m sorry about your friend. We were not as well prepared as we thought. The assassin’s location took my agents by surprise, and they had to change positions in order to get a good shot. A phase pistol on stun is a close range weapon, and we needed the assassin alive.”

Elena considered his revelation. His reasoning was sound. Assuming, as he obviously did, that she was incapable of maintaining her cool under fire, he’d kept her in the dark to prevent her from revealing the trap he’d set for the assassin.

“You made an error in judgment about my ability to remain calm while in a critical situation, and you’ve apologized for it,” she told him in a coldly conciliatory tone. “I can accept that.” She met his eyes evenly. “Just don’t do it again... and make sure your man is better prepared tomorrow. I’ll be waiting for him at nine am.”

Harris returned her gaze with reluctant admiration. “Agreed,” he told her, and leaned forward to cut the connection.

Elena closed her eyes and sat back in her chair. It had been a very long day after very little sleep, and she was exhausted. Not only that... she realized suddenly, ...but I still haven’t had dinner yet! Harris definitely owed her a favor. I hope I live long enough to collect, she thought ruefully.

Trip pocketed the data disc with the warp core sensor modifications he’d worked out, and grabbed his duffle. T’Pol was waiting for him in the car with the driver and the rest of the crew. They’d decided to travel to and from the spaceport together since they were on the same domestic flight to Yosemite Station. From there, a shuttle waited to transport them to Jupiter Station. He looked around the apartment. He and T’Pol had only been there for two weeks, but it already felt like home. He wasn’t looking forward to going back to the sterility of off-world military quarters... separate off-world military quarters... even for just a week. Oh well... he thought regretfully, I guess I shouldn’t get too used to us sharin’ a room. We’re eventually gonna have to go back to Enterprise. He sighed. Separate rooms are better than separate ships, he told himself firmly, and then left the apartment, locking the door after him.

As soon as the door closed behind him, the vid phone activated, indicating an incoming call. When no one answered, it went into message-taking mode. Catherine Tucker’s smiling face appeared on the screen.

“Hey, Darlin’... I guess I missed y’all. I wanted ta tell ya to be careful with that new engine of yours... and I’ve got a surprise for ya. I guess it really will be a surprise now, since ya won’t get this message ‘til afterwards. My flight’s been changed. I’m comin’ in a day earlier to see y’all, and I’ll be meetin’ ya at the airport when ya get in Sunday evenin’. I’m really lookin’ forward to seein’ ya both, and to meetin’ the crew of this ship you get to captain for a little while. I know it’s just a test flight, but it’s your first command, and I’m real proud of ya, son! See y’all on Sunday!”

“Janie! ‘Phone!” called Sam in his high-pitched childish voice. He was standing on the back porch hollering at the top of his lungs.

“Comin’!” Janie bellowed back as she dismounted from Two Bit’s back and tied his rein to a fencepost. She ran excitedly up to the house. No one ever called her here, but she’d given Kov the Turnbull’s ‘phone code. Must be Kov callin’ already from the airport, she thought in amusement. Didn’t think he’d be quite that lonely for me... but it’s still kinda nice!

“The operator wouldn’t tell me who it is,” reported Sam as Janie stepped up on to the porch. “He just said it was a ‘subspace call’... Do you know somebody in space, Janie?” he asked. Janie looked back at him in confusion. A subspace call? Not even a call from Yosemite Station in Earth orbit required subspace access, and Kov was supposedly still at Houston Hobby. She walked into the house and sat down at the vid screen.

“Ida Jane Rafter?” asked the serious young man on the screen. Janie nodded.

“That’s me,” she said.

“Please remain on line for an incoming subspace message,” he replied. The screen faded to black, and then suddenly a familiar face appeared before her. She sat and stared in disbelief.


Thomas Rafter smiled at his only child. His thinning red hair and freckled face were familiar to her, but his clothing and surroundings were not. He sat in a room that appeared to be filled with scientific equipment. Janie was unable to tell exactly what type from the limited view afforded by the vid screen, but the fact that her father wore what appeared to be a uniform of sorts gave her pause.

“Hey, Janie baby,” he said softly. He looked her up and down as if he expected a major change in her appearance after a mere two months away from her.

“How did you find me?” she asked in a hesitant voice.

Thomas Rafter smiled ruefully. “The courts are required to notify the parents of a minor who’s petitioning for emancipation. The notification message had your current address and place of employment in it,” he replied. His eyes fixed on hers. “I’m glad you did it, Janie,” he told her. “This place is no place for a beautiful, smart girl like you.”

Janie’s eyes filled with tears. “You’re smart, too, Daddy... Why’d ya do it?”

He shook his head. “It’s too complicated to explain, baby... It was just somethin’ I thought I had to do.”

Janie still looked puzzled. “I thought that one of the rules of exile was that y’all weren’t allowed ta communicate with Earth?”

Her father nodded and smiled. “Things have changed a little bit around here, Janie... and I wanted to call ya before all this hits the news. Can ya remember somethin’ for me, baby?” Janie nodded at him wordlessly, just the way she’d done so many times when she was little.

“Just remember that I love ya, sweetie... and that I’m not a bad person. We just did what we had ta do.” He smiled regretfully at her and reached forward.

“Wait, Daddy! Don’t go!” she cried, but he’d already cut the connection. Tears ran down her face. She’d lost him again.

Captain Jonathan Archer was awakened from a sound sleep by the sound of the comm.

“Sorry to disturb you, Captain, but there’s a priority one message from Starfleet Command,” said Ensign McNamara, the beta shift comm officer.

Archer groaned and rolled over in bed. “Just gimme a second, Ensign,” he growled. His timing couldn’t have been worse. The dream he’d been having was without a doubt the most incredible one of the bunch... and he was starting to forget it already. Something about Elena in a bikini... and they were playing one-on-one water polo. He sighed and sat up, rubbing his eyes. Then he got out of bed and sat at his desk.

“Okay, Ensign... put it through,” he said in a resigned voice. As Archer expected, Admiral Gardner’s face appeared on the screen. The admiral looked like he hadn’t gotten much sleep either.

“We’ve been contacted by the colony on Second Chance,” he told Archer gruffly. “There’s been a change in your mission instructions.”

Archer looked at Gardner expectantly, still too sleepy to make interested noises.

“The last batch of colonists we sent over in the supply ship took control of the ship on the way there. When they arrived at Second Chance, they organized the colonists, and only a week after their arrival, took control of the shipyards on the northern continent and the partially completed spacedock facility. They obviously knew it was there, Jon. Their spokesperson contacted Starfleet command with a formal request for colony independence before they will release the shipyards and spacedock facility back to Starfleet control. You’re now instructed to regain control of the captured facility and return the colonists to their designated area. Starfleet Command refuses to negotiate with terrorists,” said Gardner flatly.

Archer looked at him with a puzzled expression. “How am I supposed to achieve my mission goals if you won’t allow me to negotiate?”

Gardner gave him an exasperated look. “They’re a bunch of civilians with one supply ship armed with minimal protective weaponry, Jon. How hard could it be to simply threaten them with Enterprise’s firepower and get them to behave?”

Archer’s eyes narrowed. He didn’t like this situation at all. Somehow, he didn’t think it was going to be as easy as Gardner made it sound.

“Who do I talk to when I get there?” he asked.

“The spokesperson is a guy named Thomas Rafter. The others are calling him the newly elected ‘president’ of the colony,” replied Gardner in resignation.

“I see...” replied Archer thoughtfully. “Have they killed anyone?”

“We don’t think so,” said Gardner. “Apparently security was rather lax at the facility. No one there expected any kind of resistance. The colonists showed up in a supply ship, and when they walked out of it carrying guns, the facility personnel gave in without a struggle and were confined... at least that’s what Rafter told us.”

“If it’s true, it’s an impressive story,” replied Archer. “So far, they’ve achieved what they want without bloodshed... and all they’re asking for is independence. Would it hurt to listen to what they have to say?”

“There’s no way that Earthgov will allow these people an independent colony, Jon. If they insist on it, they may regret it. There are women and children in that colony. I don’t think the colonists will be willing to risk retaliation,” countered Gardner.

“And if they are willing to risk it... will Starfleet Command order an attack on a civilian colony?” asked Archer. “If we do that, aren’t we as bad as the terrorists?”

Gardner sighed heavily, looking back at Archer with a rueful expression. “Now you see the difficulty we’re faced with, Jon. It’s your job to convince these people that they don’t have a chance, and get them to voluntarily return to their confinement. If you can’t do that, I’m not sure what Earthgov will decide to do.”

Archer laughed weakly. “We’ll do our best, Admiral... but you haven’t given us a whole lot to work with.”

“I realize that, Jon... just keep me posted on your progress,” replied Gardner gruffly. “Good luck.” He cut the connection, leaving Archer staring at the empty screen in disbelief. He leaned back heavily in his chair.

How am I going to pull this off without somebody getting killed? he thought hopelessly. He had only two and a half weeks to figure it out... their remaining travel time to Second Chance. He sighed. I wish I could talk this over with Elena... she’s the one who prosecuted this Rafter guy. I’ll bet she could give me some insight... but it’s a classified mission... He considered his options for a moment, and then pulled up her last text message.

“Mi querido,” it began. Archer smiled as he remembered Hoshi’s face when he’d asked her the meaning of the expression. Apparently, the fact that he’d needed to know how to say “my darling” in Spanish was now the main topic of off-duty discussion among the crew.

“You have no idea how happy it makes me to know that you haven’t changed your mind. You don’t need to worry that I will change mine. I rarely do. Of course, usually my decisions are made with careful consideration of all options available to me. You probably would not have realized that about me, since my behavior with you has been so atypical of my usual approach. You must think I am an empty-headed, flighty woman prone to excessive emotions and snap decisions. Nothing could be further from the truth. That’s what makes this situation so strange. I don’t behave this way. At least... not with anyone but you. So... to your questions. One... Rocky Road. Two... dancing with you, evidently, since I haven’t done anything else except work for the past ten years or so. Three... here’s something for you. Miranda took it last year at the corporate retreat on Galveston Island. I hope it gives you a reason to come back to me.


Archer smiled even more broadlyand pulled up the attached photograph. He’d looked at it a half-dozen times since she’d sent it the previous afternoon, but it always affected him the same way. She was smiling directly at the camera with her sunglasses pushed up on top of her head, lying on her back on a beach towel in the sand with her arms above her head. Her smile was relaxed and completely unselfconscious, as if she were unaware of her beauty. She wore a deep red one piece bathing suit in a conservative cut... everything was adequately covered... but the color of the suit highlighted her dark hair and olive complexion, and it clung to her like a second skin. If he focused only on the photograph, he could pretend for a moment that she was smiling for him alone... and that soon she would take him in her arms... and the suit would come off... and all of his concerns would become irrelevant. He reached out and touched the image of her face on the screen with a wistful expression on his face, and then forced himself to minimize the photograph.

“Focus, Jon... focus,” he chided himself. He pulled up the text message program. He’d just have to ask for her help without telling her exactly why he needed it. The information she could give him about Thomas Rafter might mean the difference between life and death for the inhabitants of Second Chance. If he could learn enough about the man to understand his motivations, perhaps he would be able to convince him to back down for the sake of the people in his care. It was the only thing he could think of that might work. He just hoped Rafter was willing to listen.

Elena Sanchez stepped out of her office bathroom and into the center of the room with a resigned look on her face. The young covert ops agent assisting her with preparations for her meeting with Buchanan that day stopped and stared.

“Is there something wrong, Mr. Norfleet?” Elena asked acerbically.

The young man cleared his throat and hurriedly looked down at his equipment. “Ah... no ma’am,” he replied. He picked up her throat mike and recording device and busied himself attaching them to the one-piece solid black form-fitting garment she wore. Its high neckline, short sleeves, and short leggings gave it the appearance of a shorty wetsuit, but it was actually a suit of very light-weight, sophisticated body armor. Elena found it reassuring, but somewhat uncomfortable to wear for more than one reason. She was certain that it would be over forty degrees centigrade at noon on a summer day on Galveston Island. She wasn’t looking forward to the extra layer of clothing in the heat. Also contributing to her discomfort was the fact that the way it clung to her body seemed to be a source of distraction for young Norfleet, and she wanted his attention entirely focused on the job at hand.

“I’m assuming that your team is better prepared today than they were yesterday?” she asked him shortly.

“I wouldn’t know, ma’am,” replied Norfleet with his eyes focused on the neckline of her body armor as he adjusted her microphone. “My team and I were assigned this morning. I wasn’t present yesterday.” He made eye contact with her. “The rest of my men are on their way to the rendezvous point right now to set up an observation perimeter. No assassin will get past them,” he said with calm certainty.

Norfleet stepped back and inspected his handiwork, now completely businesslike in his demeanor. “You can go and dress now, ma’am. We’ll do a mike check when you’re ready.”

Elena gave him an approving smile, and nodded. This one looks like he’ll do, she thought in satisfaction. Maybe Harris is finally taking me seriously.

Trip Tucker disembarked from the domestic shuttle, slung his duffle over his shoulder, and walked with his wife and his crew toward the in-system shuttle gate on Yosemite Station. It had been an awkwardly silent flight. T’Pol and Kov, being Vulcan and not inclined to small talk, had focused their attention on data PADDs that they’d brought on board for that purpose. Trip didn’t want to start up a conversation with his father, for fear that he’d forget he was supposed to have just met the man and say something to give them away, and the usually gregarious Mr. Gardner had been strangely silent and introspective. He must not like flying much, Trip decided as he glanced sidelong at Gardner’s serious, tense expression. That had to be it. The man looked scared to death.

“What’s the matter, Gardner... nervous about bein’ up here off the ground?” he asked teasingly, trying lighten the mechanic’s mood. Gardner looked at him with a startled expression, paused for a moment in puzzlement, and then gave him a reluctant smile.

“Guess so, Commander,” he replied. “I suppose I’m just a natural landlubber.”

Trip smiled at him and clapped him on the shoulder. “You’ll get used to it,” he said reassuringly. “Once ya get in the engine room, it’ll feel just like home.”

“Commander Tucker?” Trip turned at a businesslike female voice, and then looked down. A petite brunette in a Starfleet uniform extended her hand.

“I’m Lieutenant Jeanette Slinn, your new communications officer, sir,” she told him as she shook his hand firmly. A muscular blonde beach-boy type stood at her shoulder, topping her by over a foot, also in uniform. He reached over her shoulder and shook Trip’s hand as well.

“Lieutenant Wormald... helmsman,” he said briefly in a heavy Germanic accent. The woman eyed her companion in amusement.

“Roy doesn’t talk much... but he can fly anything meant to operate above the ground,” she told the group dryly.

Trip smiled. “Welcome to the crew,” he replied. He stepped back to allow the two of them to introduce themselves to the remainder of the group. After a few moments, when the handshakes and introductions were over, he nodded his head down the corridor. “We’d better get movin’... our shuttle leaves in fifteen minutes.”

The group proceeded down the corridor, with Gardner trailing behind. He looked around the busy terminal as if looking for an avenue of escape, and then caught sight of a man in a dark jacket looking directly at him. The man lifted his hand from the pocket of his jacket, and Gardner caught a glimpse of the hilt of a weapon before the threatening figure pushed it back down into his pocket again. Gardner abruptly turned and hurried up the corridor after the rest of the crew of the John Glenn. It appeared that escape was impossible now.

Elena Sanchez strolled down the sidewalk in front of the huge twelve-story glass pyramid that housed the aquarium at Moody Gardens. The high neckline of the body armor had been visible above the collar of the shirt she’d planned to wear, so she’d solved the problem by simply dressing as if the suit of body armor were the shorty wetsuit that it appeared to be. She wore flip-flops, sunglasses, a large straw sun hat, and a gauzy white cotton beach cover up that concealed just enough of her “wetsuit” to make it decent. Surf suits had recently become all the rage on Earth’s beaches, replacing skimpy bathing suits as the evidence linking the gradual destruction of Earth’s ozone layer with the exponential increase in potentially fatal skin cancers became obvious to the public. What she wore was outwardly identical to the clothing worn by dozens of other women on the island that day. The fact that she turned heads while wearing it had more to do with how she filled it out than with anything else.

“Target is approaching... twenty meters directly ahead,” whispered Norfleet’s voice from the microphone inserted in her right ear canal. She had to hand it to him. Norfleet and his team seemed to be extremely capable. They’d located and incapacitated the six members of Buchanan’s security force in only a few minutes without alerting him to their presence. Her eyes scanned the crowd and found Buchanan... a completely ordinary-looking grey-haired fellow in a loud floral Hawaiian shirt and khaki shorts.

Gah! she thought. Who dresses like that nowadays? She saw him pull out his digital vid phone and put the earpiece in his ear.

“He’s talking to someone,” she whispered into her throat mike.

“We’ve got the signal,” replied Norfleet. “Slow down and let him finish his conversation before he sees you. I want to get this recorded first.”

She stopped and entered a souvenir shop, browsing through the t-shirts and sun hats in the front of the store and waiting for the signal to approach Buchanan.

Bill Buchanan scanned the crowd, a canvas beach bag full of bearer’s bonds on one shoulder. At first, he’d been sure that this meeting was a set-up. Elena Sanchez had a reputation for being remarkably honest for a lawyer. Blackmail just wasn’t her style. Then he’d done some calling around. Neither his man in the Houston PD nor the woman he had planted in the DA’s office knew anything about a sting. As a matter of fact, the girl in the DA’s office... a delicious young thing with talents far beyond espionage... talents that he’d enjoyed indulging in tremendously while he was recruiting her... had told him that the DA’s office had closed its case on him weeks ago for lack of evidence. Now he was wondering whether Elena’s threats had been real, or whether she was simply using her knowledge of his involvement with Terra Prime for her own personal gain without any real clout to back it up. He’d decided that if she did have access to the information she claimed to have, she had plenty enough clout with the DA’s office to reopen the case... and so he’d brought the bearer’s bonds... and six members of his personal security force as insurance. As he continued to search the crowd for the woman he’d come to meet, the vid phone in his pocket beeped for his attention. He stuck the earpiece in his ear and flipped it open. Austin’s face appeared on the screen.

“I did what you asked me to do sir,” he said with a rather reluctant expression on his face. “Are you sure about Tucker? He seemed ready ta go last night when I last talked to him.”

“Tucker’s been compromised, Austin... I told you that already!” said Buchanan impatiently. “He might get picked up by the authorities at any point!”

“I guess that’s true if you say so, sir...” replied Austin. “But why do we have to...?”

“He knows too much, Austin. We don’t have a choice,” replied Buchanan brusquely. Austin nodded in understanding, refusing to meet his eyes.

“How’s the old woman?” Buchanan asked.

Austin met his eyes again and grinned. “The security guys had a hell of a time with her, sir... but we’ve got her in a safe place.”

Buchanan nodded in satisfaction. “Keep her safe, Austin. Plan B won’t work without her. She’s our insurance policy.”

“Yes, sir,” replied Austin. “You can count on me, sir!” He straightened and looked Buchanan squarely in the eye before cutting the connection.

“Sentimental young idiot!” muttered Buchanan as he closed the phone. As he walked past one of the ubiquitous souvenir shops that seemed to be on every street corner, Elena stepped out beside him and began walking with him as if she’d been waiting for him to arrive.

“Hello, Bill,” she said coolly. “I see you’ve got something for me.”

He smiled his most charming smile and offered her his arm. She looked at him for a moment, her eyes unreadable behind the dark sunglasses she wore, and then placed her hand lightly on the underside of his upper arm as if she were reluctant to touch him.

“You’re gonna have to do better than that, my dear,” he said softly, with a slightly menacing smile. “We’re supposed to be on a date, remember?”

“No one could pay me enough to date you again, Bill,” she replied under her breath. “Just give me the money and I’ll never bother you again.”

“I’m still not sure I trust you to do that, Elena. Why the sudden change of heart? I thought you were willing to do anything to see me behind bars? Isn’t that what you told me the night you found out I was the head of Terra Prime?”

She smiled at him in satisfaction. “Did you get that?” she asked of no one Buchanan could see. A pierced and tattooed young man browsing through airbrushed t-shirt designs in the adjacent store turned suddenly, grabbed Buchanan around the neck, and cuffed him. Flashing a badge in the direction of two alarmed looking bystanders, Norfleet grinned at her from under a shock of bright purple bangs.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “Got every word.”

Trip sat with T’Pol in one of the crew’s dining rooms at Jupiter Station. The room was huge... but then the station, and by extension its crew, was also huge. The view port in the dining hall faced in-ring, so the view consisted mainly of the enormous spokes of the ring station and the colossal globular hub at its center. There were small transport vehicles and repair robots swarming around the place like a cloud of insects. Trip took a bite of his rather tasteless vat-grown protein patty and made a face. He drenched the next bite in ketchup to make it edible.

“Seems like with all the workers out here, somebody would strike for better food,” he told T’Pol jokingly.

“I did some research about the station before we arrived,” replied T’Pol. “Many of the high-risk work crews are from the poorer countries on your planet, and the generous wages enable them to return to their homelands as wealthy men and women after only a few months. The competition is fierce. Only the most talented and dedicated workers end up here. I seriously doubt any of them would be willing to jeopardize their positions here by complaining about the food.”

“I guess they could always spend some of those wages to eat at one of the restaurants on the tourist side of the ring... which is what I’m gonna do for the rest of the time we’re here, that’s for sure!” said Trip ruefully as he pushed the plate with the remnants of his meal away from him. He eyed T’Pol’s bowl. She was spooning up and doggedly consuming a green gelatinous substance similar to pudding in consistency... but it sure didn’t smell like pudding.

“How can you eat that stuff?”

“Green algae paste is a nutritionally complete food, Commander,” she replied blandly.

“Only if you can keep it down,” he retorted.

She raised a brow at him and stubbornly took another bite. Trip leaned back in his chair and eyed the table across the room where the remainder of the crew of the John Glenn... after some not-so-subtle prompting by both Kov and “Ramirez”... had removed themselves to allow the commanders some privacy. His father was regaling the entire table with some story or other, and flirting outrageously with young Lieutenant Slinn, who seemed to find his antics highly amusing. Even Lieutenant Wormald was smiling... a little. Kov... and Gardner, strangely enough... sat silently, solemnly observing the others at the table. Trip shook his head with a grin.

“Some things never change,” he told T’Pol with an amused expression. Then he stopped and thought for a moment. When had his Dad’s penchant for flirting with pretty women changed from an embarrassment to an endearing personality quirk? I guess it’s all in how ya think about things, he thought. They’d talked a lot in the days since he’d discovered that his father was working for Starfleet. He trusted his father now... more than he’d ever trusted him in his adult life. Now that he knew for a fact that being unfaithful to his wife had never even crossed Charles Tucker’s mind... Trip really couldn’t explain how he knew it, he just did... his father’s flirtation with other women had become nothing but an amusing diversion. I wonder if Mom knows how much he loves her, thought Trip. He looked at T’Pol, who was finishing her meal with a look of determination, and smiled. I’m so lucky, he thought. I don’t have to say it, but she always knows.

T’Pol pushed her empty bowl away with a rather relieved expression, and then met his eyes.

Indeed I do, t’hy’la... she responded in silent amusement, ...but if you ever behave in a similar manner with another female, you will nevertheless live to regret it.

Trip caught himself before he laughed aloud. My dad’s the master of flirtation, T’Pol... I wouldn’t dream of tryin’ to compete with him! he sent back. He sensed her satisfaction with his reply.

“The evenin’s still young, yet... ya wanna see some more of this place before we each have to go back to our quarters... alone?” Trip said softly in a disgusted tone of voice. T’Pol raised a brow.

“The commissioning ceremony is at 0900 tomorrow morning, so we shouldn’t stay out too late... Perhaps the science museum on the tourist side of the ring is still open?” she suggested. Trip grinned at her and shook his head. She could sense that he was keeping something from her deliberately... something that he was certain she would enjoy.

“I’ve got a much better idea!” he whispered excitedly. “Come on!”

Jack Gardner excused himself from the table with a self-effacing smile, and left the dining room, headed for the vid phone booth he’d seen in the hallway. Using cash rather than his traceable Warp Six Program ID, he placed a call to the number he’d been told to call at precisely 7 pm station time. The dark haired young man who’d introduced himself as Austin answered the ‘phone.

“Mr. Gardner... right on time!” said Austin approvingly.

“Where is she? I wanna see her!” demanded Gardner.

“She’s fine, Gardner... Look, here she is.” He stepped aside to allow Virginia Gardner to be escorted in front of the screen by a muscular guard, who held her securely by both upper arms from behind. Her teeth were clenched in fury and her hands were cuffed behind her back.

“Don’t you do anythin’, Jack! Don’t give in ta these assholes...!” Austin nodded to the guard, who hauled her away, struggling against his grip.

“See? Just as feisty as ever!” said Austin with forced cheerfulness.

“What are ya doin’ to her? Why is she cuffed like that?” asked Gardner angrily.

Austin laughed. “We haven’t done a thing to her, Mr. Gardner. Those cuffs are for our protection. She nigh on to gelded one of our guys when they came to get her in her hotel room, and gave a couple more of ‘em black eyes. I swear, if we’d a known one old lady was gonna be so much trouble, we’d a picked somebody else’s mama to kidnap!”

“You said you were gonna tell me what I had to do ta get her back safely,” prompted Gardner. Austin nodded reluctantly.

“It’s pretty simple. First, you’re gonna use the security code I’m about to send ya and go to the armory to get a weapon...”

Trip led the way down the corridor of the central hub, holding on to the hand-holds in the walls and floating effortlessly in zero-G. T’Pol followed after him, gracefully grasping and releasing to propel herself forward. Suddenly Trip stopped at a door. He read the instructions on the wall and checked the light above the door, which shone green. T’Pol came up behind him and read over his shoulder.

“Zero-G recreation room?” she said in a puzzled voice.

Trip grinned and pressed a large red button near the door. A hissing sound emanated from behind the door, and the light over the door turned red. T’Pol looked at him questioningly.

“The sanitation cycle,” he explained. “These rooms are pretty popular... I had to call in a few favors with the boys in the engineering department to get us a reservation.” The hissing sound stopped, and the light turned green again. Trip punched in the code one of his old Starfleet Academy classmates had given him. The door made a whooshing sound as the high pressure seal was released. He pulled it open, and they floated in. It was a small room without a view port. The grey walls glistened slightly, evidently from the gaseous mixture that had been used to disinfect them. T’Pol touched the warm, slightly moist surface and found that it gave beneath her hand.

“The walls are padded,” she said in a bemused voice.

“Remember the white space fantasy you created for us about the sweet spot?” asked Trip with a smile as he closed and locked the door. There was a single dim light fixture in the room. T’Pol could see his eyes gleam in the darkness as he pulled his shirt off over his head, kicked off his shoes, and then launched himself into the center of the room, waiting for her.

“I thought it might be nice ta do it for real,” he whispered as he floated there. He felt her agreement, and a sensation of blazing warmth in his gut as she released the handhold on the wall and flew into his arms. With his eyes fixed on hers, he began unfastening her uniform as she made efficient work of removing his pants. Spinning, they careened from one padded wall to another until every stitch of their clothing floated in the air along with them.

“This was easier when you could do your trick with the clothes,” whispered Trip teasingly with his lips on hers. She ignored him, wrapping her legs around his waist and devouring his mouth with hers. It wasn’t long before he realized that the trouble was well worth it. No white space fantasy could possibly compete with the real thing. Even if he did have floating shoes occasionally hitting him in the head.

Elena Sanchez locked the door of her apartment, tossed her purse and keys on the table by the door, and went straight to the console in her spotless living room to check messages. The room was spotless because she spent virtually no time in it except to check her messages before going to bed. She was not a person prone to sitting on a couch all day. Her life since her divorce was her work... seven days a week... until she’d met Jonathan Archer. She collapsed into the chair in front of the vid screen with a satisfied sigh, pleased with her achievements that day, and smiled when she noticed a subspace message waiting for her. Sitting up eagerly in her chair, she pulled up the body of the message.

“Sweetheart,” the message began. Oh... we’re getting creative, are we? she thought in delight.

“Your photograph should have come with a warning that a lonely sex-starved man should never look at it right before bed. What an amazing night I had last night!” Elena could feel her face getting warm. Damn! she thought in consternation. The man can even make me blush from fifteen light years away!

“Unfortunately, right in the middle of my most favorite dream of all... remind me another time to tell you about it when we’re together so I can demonstrate... I received a message, which has left me with a problem that I hope you will be able to help me with. I’m sorry that I can’t give you any more details than that. Our mission is classified, you see, and I’m probably stretching the rules even asking for your help... but I’m desperate for a solution and you’re the only person I can think of who might be able to give me what I need.”

Elena smiled. He was asking for her help! He didn’t think of her as an empty-headed female, after all... despite the way she’d acted around him. She returned to the message, her face taking on a look of puzzlement as she read.

“Can you send me everything you have on Thomas Rafter? I need to know everything possible about him. I need to understand how he thinks and what motivates him to act. This information may save several hundred lives, Elena... and result in Earth regaining control of resources that could be very important to its defense in the future... but I have to be honest with you and tell you that I might be forced to use the information you give me against the man if he won’t cooperate. I’m telling you this because I don’t want you to be angry with me later for using you to destroy someone... perhaps hundreds of someones. I promise that I will do everything in my power to prevent that from happening. If you choose not to send me the information, I swear to you that I won’t be angry or hold it against you. Do what you think is right. I trust your decision. I trust you.


Elena sat back and stared at the screen for several minutes. He trusts me, she thought, with a bewildered smile on her face. After knowing her for only a few hours, he trusted her enough to reveal a significant amount of classified information... enough, she was sure, to get him into serious hot water with Starfleet should word of it get to anyone who cared about such things. She pulled up her files on Thomas Rafter, did a search of all public records for anything she could find about the man, and began to compile the data Jon had requested. It never even occurred to her not to send it. Jon needed her help... of course she would provide it. There was no question about it.

Janie Rafter was in the kitchen washing the dinner dishes when Mr. Turnbull called her into the living room.

“Janie... I think you should see this, my dear.”

She walked into the living room with a plate in one hand and a dishtowel in the other, and nearly dropped the plate when she saw her father’s face on the evening news.

“Thomas Rafter, the self-styled president of the Second Chance colony, issued a statement today via subspace transmission,” said the announcer’s voice. “Official Earthgov sources have called the statement a ‘list of terrorist demands’, and have suppressed its release to the public. A clarifying statement from Starfleet Command, issued only a few moments ago, simply reiterated Starfleet’s longstanding policy of refusing to negotiate with terrorists, and implied that force will be used, if necessary, to resolve the situation. Civil liberties organizations from twelve nations have begun lobbying the Earthgov congress to allow the release of Rafter’s statement, claiming that Rafter and his fellow colonists have paid their debt to society simply by being exiled from Earth, and that they have the right to independence. A special session of congress begins tomorrow to debate the issue.”

Janie looked at Mr. Turnbull’s kindly face in disbelief. “So that’s what that phone call was about!”

Ralph Turnbull pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose and gave Janie a reproving look. “I think we need ta discuss that phone call, Janie. If a terrorist calls this house, I expect ta be told about it.” Janie smiled at him sheepishly. Then the vid phone rang.

“I’ll git it!” said Sam, hastily leaving the room before the two of them could get started. He came back in immediately, while Janie was still trying to figure out what to tell the man who’d taken her in and given her a home to reassure him that he and his son were in no danger from her father.

“It’s fer you, Janie... It’s Kov,” Sam said. Janie gave Mr. Turnbull a pleading look. He gave in with a sigh.

“Go ahead,” he told her, “... but we still need to talk about this when you’re done.”

She smiled at him gratefully. “Yes, sir,” she told him. “I’ll be right back,” she called over her shoulder as she eagerly ran to the phone.

Kov sat patiently waiting. It was difficult for her to tell without being able to touch him, but he looked concerned. She’d grown so used to the access to his emotions their betrothal bond provided that seeing him this way was painful for her. Too much was missing.

“Hey, Kov... How’s everything at Jupiter Station?” she asked softly.

His brow went up. “I just watched a newscast about your father. I find it unlikely that you would be interested in the fact that Jupiter Station is operating at full capacity. Are you all right?”

Janie smiled at him, touched by the fact that he had called to check on her. “Yeah... I guess so,” she replied sadly. “Daddy called me yesterday and sorta warned me this was gonna happen. I didn’t know exactly what was goin’ on at the time, but I think he was tryin’ ta say goodbye, just in case...” Her voice choked up and her eyes filled with tears. They spilled over and began to fall silently down her cheeks. Kov’s head came up and he inhaled deeply. His hand reached out for the vid screen involuntarily, as if he were attempting to touch her. She extended her hand as well, touching his fingertips on the screen.

“This is extremely difficult,” said Kov thickly. “I wish that I were able to comfort you...” He cleared his throat. Janie watched in disbelief as his eyes shone with unshed tears. She gave him a damp smile.

“You did, honey... just by callin’ me,” she told him. She wiped her cheeks with the back of her hand. “See? No more cryin’. I feel better already.”

Kov sighed, and lowered his hand. His face regained its composure, and he gave her a small smile. “Although I’m aware that you’re very likely to be exaggerating the degree of emotional comfort you’ve derived from my call, I’m pleased that you’re feeling better. I’m transmitting a vid phone code which you may use to contact me at any time, should you wish to speak with me. I will arrive at Houston Hobby at 1800 hours on Sunday if you’d like to meet me there.”

Janie’s smile broadened. “I’ll be there,” she told him. She hesitated, and then said, “I love you, Kov... ‘Bye.” As she reached forward to cut the connection, she saw his eyes widen. She’d never said the words before... neither of them had... and she ended the call without giving him the chance to decide if he was even able to say them back.

It’s just as well... thought Janie wistfully. If sayin’ the words embarrasses him, then why make him say ‘em? I know how he feels. There’s no point in makin’ him uncomfortable. She got up out of the chair and went back into the living room to have a talk with Mr. Turnbull.

It was 0700 on Jupiter Station, and Commander Charles Tucker the Third climbed through the airlock to inspect his first command. The John Glenn was still in space dock with all of its umbilicals attached. It wasn’t scheduled to be moved to the launching area until 0800... one hour before the commissioning ceremony that would precede the first live test of the warp six engine. Testing of the ship’s support systems was currently underway, and the artificial gravity plating had just been activated.

Trip stepped on to the bridge. It was tiny, with barely enough room for a three person bridge crew to maneuver between stations. There was no command chair per se... just three work stations arranged in a semicircle around a forward view screen. The central body of the ship was cylindrical rather than saucer shaped, with a central corridor that led aft... directly to the engine room, from which branched the ship’s two cylindrical warp nacelles. The ship’s three berths, a small galley, and a head with a UV “shower” were arranged in a spiral fashion down the corridor, allowing the six man crew to divide into two shifts of three persons each for multi-day test flights. He walked down the corridor to the engine room. Kov, Gardner and “Ramirez”... Trip had to force himself to think of him that way... he didn’t want any embarrassing slips of the tongue in such close quarters... had just come on duty, and were going through the engine’s startup protocols.

“Mornin’, gentlemen!” he announced cheerfully as he approached the engine room. Charles Tucker peeked out from around the side of the huge engine and returned his happy smile. Kov approached Trip and shook his hand.

“Good morning, sir,” he said formally, before returning to his work. Trip rolled his eyes and grinned. Apparently, he was going to get the commanding officer treatment from Kov as long as they were on board. Gardner just nodded before returning his attention to the console in front of him.

Charles gave Gardner an odd look, and then turned back to his son. “Mornin’, Commander... did ya sleep well?” His grin was mischievous. He’d been assigned the room next to Trip’s, and was well aware that his son had not come in until the wee hours of the morning. Trip gave him a warning look.

“Very well, thank you, Mr. Ramirez,” he replied dryly. He walked up to the engine, and put a hand on it. It was still cold and still... but very soon the entire ship would be filled with the thrumming pulse of a live warp engine. The engine that had been installed on the John Glenn was a scaled-down model of the engines destined to power an entire fleet of smaller, faster, and better-armed warships... ships destined to defend Earth and its allies from the Romulan threat and make the Enterprise and the Columbia seem outdated and ponderous by comparison. This engine was proportionate to the size of the ship in which they stood in order to get accurate speed and maneuverability data. It was less than a quarter of the size of the engine on the Enterprise, but would nevertheless propel the John Glenn forwardat a speed hopefully in excess of warp six... an achievement never before attained by any Human-built starship.

“Is she ready?” asked Trip. Charles knew exactly which “she” he was talking about. The ship might have been named after a man, but the engine would forever be female.

“I think so...” replied Charles. “We’ll just have ta see when we fire her up.”

He looked inquiringly at Trip, who smiled at him reluctantly and shook his head. “Still no word,” he whispered.

“Should I tell Gardner and Kov?” asked Charles under his breath.

Trip shook his head. “I’ll tell them if it’s needed,” he replied softly. “Just keep doin’ what ya need to do.” He raised his voice to carry to the back of the engine room where the rest of the engineering staff was working. “Good job, guys... just keep it up. I’ll see y’all at the ceremony.”

He turned and walked back up the corridor, headed for his quarters and a change into his dress uniform before breakfast, when young Lieutenant Slinn stepped through the airlock and motioned for him to follow her onto the bridge. Once the two of them were out of sight of the engine room, she leaned toward him and whispered quietly into his ear.

“We’ve just been notified, sir... Buchanan is in custody and they have enough evidence to hold him.” She gave him a relieved smile. “Covert ops has given us the go ahead... we can proceed with uninterrupted trials of the engine.” Trip smiled back at her. He was still curious about whether his plan to fake a warp core breach would have worked, but his plan had required nearly the entire crew to abandon ship and go EVA, or have everyone assume they’d gone up with the ship. Covert op’s contribution to the plan was to have Lieutenants Slinn and Wormald “go up with the ship”, and then fly it to a secure location after the faked warp core breach, thereby preserving the warp six prototype engine and keeping the Terra Primers happy. Although he would never know now whether the sensor modifications he’d planned to make would have fooled anyone, he was relieved to know that he didn’t have to risk his life and the lives of his crew trying to pull off a nearly impossible stunt.

“Thank you for informing me, Lieutenant,” he said gratefully. “Does Commander T’Pol know?”

“Yes, sir... I told her just a few minutes ago,” replied the young woman

Trip grinned at her, and then pushed past her and shouted down the corridor, ”I’m leavin’ ta go change now, guys! It’s a go, Ramirez! Ya hear me? That engine better be in perfect workin’ order when I get back!”

Charles Tucker’s head appeared around the doorjamb in engineering. He was grinning broadly. He winked, and gave Trip a thumbs up.

“You got it, boss! Perfect workin’ order!” he shouted back.

At seven am that Monday morning, Elena Sanchez sat at her desk at work. She was the only one in the building at that hour, and she preferred it that way. After seeing the newscasts about Thomas Rafter and the Second Chance colony the night before, she was certain that she knew exactly why Jon had asked her for information, and she’d begun to suspect the critical importance of the task he’d asked her to perform. After compiling all of the information she could find about Thomas Rafter in the public domain, she was in the process of gleaning everything she could from the confidential evidence files stored in her office computer. When her task was complete, the information she’d collected was exhaustive. She’d included the complete transcripts of Rafter’s pre-trial depositions and court testimony, a copy of his court-ordered psychological evaluation, and even such mundane things as his college and high school transcripts, his birth certificate, marriage certificate, credit rating and bank statements... anything she could think of that might give Jon some insight into the man’s thought processes. She thought about contacting Harris and demanding the details of the Enterprise’s mission so she could weed through some of the extraneous data and send Jon only what was pertinent, but she realized that doing so might put Jon’s career at risk. Starfleet could not know of her connection to Jonathan Archer. The confidential information he’d revealed to her was concrete evidence of his trust in her, and she was not about to betray that trust. The sheer volume of information she was sending him would probably overwhelm him, but only he could determine what portion was useful to him in his current situation. She checked the list of items one last time for completeness, and then pressed send. Leaning back in her chair, she reached for her mug of now lukewarm coffee and took a sip. Noticing her message-waiting indicator, she reached out and pulled up her phone messages from home. A call must have come in that morning while she was at the office. She opened the file, and, to her surprise, found her youngest brother’s face smiling back at her.

“Hi, ‘Lena! Sorry I missed you. What are you doing not home at seven am?” he teased. Elena smiled. Her baby brother Arturo had been a toddler when their mother died. His need for her had kept her going at a time when she’d wanted to curl up and give up. He was still the only one of her brothers who called on a regular basis.

“I know... I’ll bet you’re at work already,” he said wryly. Arturo was always pestering her about working too much. Before the birth of his first child, he and his young wife Sarah were always trying to get her to go out with them and socialize. She was ashamed now that she’d always refused their invitations, claiming that she was too busy with work to engage in such a waste of time. A year ago, when their son Jacob was born, they’d stopped asking... too busy with the new baby to worry about Arturo’s workaholic older sister. Elena found that she missed the invitations.

“I just wanted to call and invite you to Jacob’s first birthday party on Saturday at two o’clock. We’ll all be out by the pool if you want to come. I hope you do come, Elena... I miss you,” he added wistfully. Elena froze the image before he ended the call. Arturo had always been a beautiful boy. Now, at twenty-eight, he had a classic Latin handsomeness that turned heads wherever he went. She smiled into his gorgeous brown eyes.

“It’s about time I rejoined the family, little brother,” she murmured. Pulling up her day planner, she entered the time and date of the party, and added a note to “Buy Birthday Present.” Then she began to prepare for her day at work. She was due in court at nine am, and her client deserved her full attention.

Commander T’Pol, Director of the Warp Six Project, stood at the podium alongside Admiral Gardner, Ambassador Soval, Vice President Nguyen, and young Mr. Herschel Castor Glenn, the three times great-grandson of Colonel John Hershel Glenn, Jr... the celebrated 20th century test pilot and astronaut after whom the newly commissioned ship had been named. Vice President Nguyen was detailing Colonel Glenn’s achievements to the crowd. The observation deck of Jupiter Station was filled to capacity with journalists and photographers. Commander Tucker and his crew, after enduring a brief introduction to the media, had been spared the most tedious portion of the ceremony, and were on board awaiting orders to proceed with the launch.

T’Pol wore a brand-new standard issue Starfleet uniform, a wardrobe change insisted upon by Admiral Gardner to emphasize her role as a representative of Starfleet. T’Pol found the change a logical public relations tactic, and had no objections to it. Trip, however, had expressed his dissatisfaction with her new uniform that morning with the disgruntled comment that it “hid all the best parts.” T’Pol was both intrigued and amused by Trip’s increased interest in her physical attributes since they had begun cohabitating. He’d reverted to a desire for physical intimacy which approached the intensity of the first weeks of their marriage. When they’d first arrived on Earth, she’d gotten into the habit of shielding her thoughts from his whenever they were not alone, as the images she received from him were often very vivid and rather distracting. Unfortunately, as the days progressed and their nightly activities became more varied and memorable, she found that shielding was no longer sufficient. Her own memories were often quite distracting enough. Lately, she’d even found herself initiating a significant proportion of their intimate encounters. Curiously, the emotional and physical release that she gained from their time together seemed to strengthen rather than weaken her control during the workday. She felt stronger and more emotionally stable than she’d felt in a very long time... but it would have been nice to get a bit more sleep.

“I would like to introduce Starfleet Cadet Herschel Castor Glenn, who will do the honors in the christening ceremony,” finished the Vice President. She stepped aside to allow the young man in Cadet’s dress uniform to grasp the remote control for the robotic arm protruding from a maintenance robot positioned at the nose of the vessel visible from the observation windows. The arm held a facsimile of a magnum of champagne. With the reduction in champagne grape production in recent years due to climate changes from global warming, it would have been considered politically incorrect to waste a real magnum of champagne in such a manner, but no one minded that the champagne in question would soon be served in the lounge after the ceremony. Cadet Glenn had a bit of trouble with the awkward controls, but managed to give the arm a convincing swing. As the fake champagne bottle shattered against the nose of the vessel, cheers broke out amongst the crowd.

You may proceed, Commander, sent T’Pol.

You got it, darlin’! came Trip Tucker’s enthusiastic reply in her head, causing her lips to twitch upward slightly, and the John Glenn began to move ponderously out of the launch bay... out into open space.

If Commander Tucker’s order to “Take us out, Lieutenant Wormald... half impulse” was issued a fraction of a second before Lieutenant Slinn received the all-clear from the data analysis team on the station, anyone who noticed simply chalked it up to his enthusiasm to move things along. He had an enormous grin on his face as the John Glenn approached the periphery of the Sol System and achieved sufficient distance from the station at Charon to go safely to warp.

The Vulcan chief engineer Storr and his hand-picked team of theoretical engineers, both Vulcan and Human, had been on board Jupiter Station for several days prior to the arrival of the flight team, calibrating the long range sensors that would enable them to collect the detailed data about engine operations that the project required from a safe, objective, remote location... thereby protecting the valuable information in the event of mishap. They had set up a laboratory within the engineering department of Jupiter Station. It was here that T’Pol had set up a small workstation for herself... a place from which to observe the engine trials without getting in anyone’s way. She knew that it was illogical of her to wish to be present, and that Admiral Gardner would have preferred that she stay longer at the reception... but, after giving her respects to the dignitaries present, she’d found it impossible to remain in the room exchanging meaningless social pleasantries while her mate risked his life testing a previously untried warp engine. She watched, outwardly calm, as Storr communicated with the John Glenn.

“You may proceed, Commander Tucker... Begin with warp one for thirty seconds,” he said without expression. His eyes were focused on the sensor data in front of him to the exclusion of all else. The room became silent.

“Okay, Control... we’re there,” came Trip’s excited voice over the comm.

“I am aware of that, Commander... the sensors are fully operational,” Storr responded dryly. “Proceed to maximum warp in thirty second increments.” The entire room held its breath as Storr and the other engineers studied the incoming data with intense concentration.

“Sir, I’m detecting a fluctuation in the warp core energy signature,” said one of the Human engineers. Storr nodded solemnly in agreement.

“Come out of warp, Commander... there is a potential problem with the warp core,” said Storr over the comm. There was a prolonged pause from the John Glenn. “Commander?” Storr said again. Trip Tucker’s voice responded.

“Ah... there may be a problem, Control. I’ll get back to ya in a minute.” Storr’s brow went up, and T’Pol got up and walked over to the communications console where Storr stood, positioning herself at his shoulder... forcefully restraining herself from pushing him aside so that she could speak with her husband and demand to know what in the name of Surak Trip thought he was doing. Another thirty seconds went by.

“Sir, the warp core is beginning to destabilize,” said the young Human engineer in a rather frightened voice.

“Commander Tucker, what is your status?” asked Storr calmly. There was no response.

“Sir... communications just went offline,” said the Vulcan manning the comm station.

T’Pol focused her attention on the sensor data before her, and watched helplessly as the John Glenn’s warp core energy fluctuations worsened. If something wasn’t done soon, a warp core breach was inevitable, and there was nothing she or anyone else in the Control Room could do about it.

“Okay, Kov... Take us out of warp,” said Commander Tucker’s voice over the comm. “We need to check the warp core... Storr thinks it’s actin’ up again,” he continued in a long-suffering tone.

Kov reached for the comm switch on the wall. “Acknowledged, Commander. The sensors are detecting an imbalance in the warp core. I was just about to suggest the same thing,” he replied. Then he turned to the warp control console... and came face to face with Gardner, who was holding a phase pistol rather unsteadily in his direction. In his agitation, Gardner failed to notice that the comm to the bridge remained open.

“I can’t let ya do that, Kov,” said Gardner in a shaky, reluctant voice. The desperate sound of Gardner’s voice caught Charles’ Tucker’s attention. He peeked out from behind the engine housing.

Kov’s brow came up. “What are you doing, Mr. Gardner?” he asked in a puzzled voice.

Across the room, Charles Tucker stepped slowly out from behind the engine with his hands in the air. “Yeah... what the hell are ya doin’, Jack?” he asked in an exasperated tone. “Ain’t ya figured out by now that Kov’s one of the good guys?”

Gardner started nervously, his hand jerking the muzzle of the phase pistol in Charles’ direction. “Stay back, Ramirez!” he said in a panicked voice. His eyes cut back to Kov as the Vulcan moved slowly toward the bulk of the engine, intending to try to use the metal housing as a shield should Gardner decide to fire. The muzzle of the phase pistol was suddenly pointed at Kov again. Kov froze in his tracks, only a few feet from Charles. Eyeing Charles’ posture, he lifted his hands in the air in imitation of the older Human.

“Tucker to Engineering... What’s up guys? Stop messin’ around! Take us outta warp before we blow up!”

Gardner walked to the auxiliary control console and, with one hand... as he held the phase pistol on the other occupants of Engineering with the other... proceeded to transfer control of communications to Engineering, and then deactivated the comm. Both in-ship and outbound transmissions were no longer possible. The process took him all of ten seconds. Jack Gardner was apparently a lot smarter than he appeared. Charles stared at him in puzzlement.

“Why’d ya do that?” he asked.

Gardner stepped back from the console and once again gave his full attention to his captives. “They told me not ta answer your questions or ta trust you... said ya were a spy for the Vulcans. Tell me the truth... you’re name’s not Ramirez, is it?”

Charles Tucker sighed. “No, Jack, it’s not...” he admitted, “...but I’m not workin’ for the Vulcans either.” He looked at Gardner beseechingly. “Listen, buddy. You don’t wanna do this! Why don’t we drop outta warp, and then we can talk about whatever’s botherin’ ya while ya show me what ya did to the engine so we can fix it?”

Gardner shook his head. “It’s too late fer that. The Terra Primers took my mama, and to get her back I’ve gotta prevent Jupiter Station from knowin’ what’s happenin’,...” he gestured to the deactivated comm, “...blow up the engine ta keep the Vulcans from takin’ over our warp program, get rid of the Vulcan,...” he waved the pistol in Kov’s direction, “...and get outside in an EV suit... all in the next ten minutes.” He looked squarely at Charles. “They told me to kill ya, but if you’ll go now and get yer suit on, I’ll let ya come with me. The same goes for the Humans on the bridge.”

Charles’ eyes narrowed. He had no idea whether Gardner’s pistol was set on stun or kill, but there was no way he was gonna stand by and watch while his deluded ex-friend shot Kov in cold blood and left him on the ship to die. “What about him?” he asked, jerking his head in Kov’s direction.

Gardner pointed the pistol, more steadily now, directly at Kov’s chest. “He won’t need an EV suit,” he said… and without warning, he pulled the trigger.

As Gardner began to speak, Charles launched himself at the stocky Vulcan, knocking him to the deck. What Charles failed to realize was that in his attempt to save the Vulcan engineer, he’d put himself directly in Gardner’s line of fire. The beam from Gardner’s pistol took Charles Tucker squarely in the back, leaving a smoking hole in its wake. Gardner’s phase pistol had been set to kill.

Trip Tucker exhaled heavily. Things had been going so well, and now they were gonna have to trouble-shoot the warp core again. This project must be jinxed or somethin’, he thought ruefully. Nothin’ ever goes the way it’s supposed to.

“We’re at warp three point five, Commander... our speed is increasing,” Lieutenant Wormald pointed out in his guttural accent. Trip exchanged a worried glance with Lieutenant Slinn, who was listening to something on her earpiece.

“The comm in Engineering is still open on their end, Commander,” she told Trip quietly. “I think you should hear this.” She transferred the comm signal to the overhead speakers on the bridge.

“What the hell are ya doin’, Jack?” came his father’s voice over the comm. “Ain’t ya figured out by now that Kov’s one of the good guys?”

“Stay back Ramirez!” Gardner’s voice replied. He sounded both frightened and agitated.

“Commander?” reminded Storr from the Control Room on Jupiter Station. Trip indicated to Slinn that she should transmit his response.

“Ah... there may be a problem, Control. I’ll get back to ya in a minute.” he replied, and then temporarily relegated Storr to last on his list of things to worry about.

“Tucker to Engineering...” he said in a worried tone. “What’s up guys? Stop messin’ around! Take us outta warp before we blow up!” He waited a few seconds for Engineering to respond.

Lieutenant Slinn looked up at him with an alarmed expression. She adjusted her controls for a moment, and then said, “All communications are off-line, Commander. Someone in Engineering has rerouted and deactivated them.”

“We’re now at warp four, Commander,” put in Lieutenant Wormald.

Trip exhaled and stood up. “That’s it!” he said in aggravation. “I’m goin’ down there and fix it myself! Mr. Wormald... Keep drivin’ and don’t hit anything while I’m gone.”

Wormald cut his eyes at Trip. “Aye, Commander,” he said dryly.

Slinn stood up and pulled a phase pistol from the side pocket of her uniform. She handed it to Trip.

“I suggest you take this, Commander... and I’m coming with you.” She gave Wormald a businesslike glance. “Hold the bridge if something happens to us,” she told him sternly.

“Yes, ma’am,” he replied softly, pulling a phase pistol out of his uniform pocket and laying it on the console in front of him. Trip eyed Slinn.

“I guess you’re not really a communications officer or a lieutenant, then... huh?” he asked with a knowing smile. She smiled back at him, saying nothing. Pulling another phase pistol out of the pocket on her opposite leg, she armed herself.

“After you, Commander,” she said softly.

The two of them proceeded down the hallway quietly. They reached the entrance to Engineering and positioned themselves on either side of the doorway in the corridor. Suddenly, the sound of phase pistol fire echoed noisily in the confined space. Slinn propelled herself into the room, rolling to reach the cover of the engine housing, and shot Gardner in the back with a phase pistol stun blast. He dropped to the floor. Trip was faced with the sight of Kov... whose face held a stunned expression... sitting on the floor with Charles Tucker in his arms. The elder Tucker had a phase pistol burn through and through his right lower chest.

“Dad!” cried Trip as he ran into the room. He threw himself to his knees and checked his father’s pulse. It was weak, but still present. Charles Tucker opened his eyes. He was pale and gasping for air, but he smiled at Trip.

“Good...” he said in a barely audible whisper. “... you’re finally here, son.” He coughed wetly and crimson appeared on his lips. “When are ya gonna fix the engine so we don’t blow up?” he asked, in a weak attempt at humor.

Trip smiled back at him with tears in his eyes. “Don’t worry, Dad... I’ll take care of it,” he said gently. Charles’ smile broadened slightly, then his face went slack and his head lolled to one side as he lost consciousness.

As Trip checked Charles’ pulse again to reassure himself that his father was still alive, Kov asked in a puzzled voice, “This man is your father, Commander?” Trip sat back on his heels with a relieved sigh after feeling a pulse. He eyed Kov ruefully.

“It’s a real long story Kov, but yeah... this is Charles Tucker, Jr... my father.”

Kov met Trip’s gaze with a solemn expression. “Go and repair the engine, Trip. I will care for your father.” Trip smiled at him through his tears, grasped him by the shoulder in thanks, then stood and made his way rapidly to the warp control console. Gardner had done a very thorough job. This was gonna be close.

As Commander Tucker frantically worked to deactivate the warp drive before the crew of the John Glenn was forced to experience the effects of a warp core breach first hand, Kov focused his attention on the fragile Human whose head now rested on his knees. His initial response to the man’s heroic action had been puzzlement. It simply had not been logical for Assistant Mechanic Ramirez to risk his life to protect a near-stranger. Kov had come to respect his practical mechanical knowledge, but the man had never struck him as the self-sacrificing type. When Kov had discovered the mechanic’s true identity, however, his actions suddenly made more sense. It was not surprising to him that the man who’d fathered Trip Tucker would be prone to acts of selfless heroics.

Kov placed a hand on Charles Tucker’s forehead, and dimly sensed the Human’s desperate struggle for life. He was going into shock... his racing pulse and erratic respirations were evidence of that. Without surgery to remove charred tissues and repair the damage done to his right lung... and very probably to other organs in the right upper abdomen that Kov had insufficient knowledge of Human anatomy to anticipate... it was likely that the older man would not survive for long.

Kov removed the Human’s head from his knees and laid him gently on the decking. Then he lay down beside him, face to face, and placed his fingers on the mind-meld contact points on his temples. Closing his eyes in preparation, he exhaled completely, ignoring his surroundings and reaching for the inner calmness that he required. He’d promised to take care of Trip’s father. It was time.

“My mind to your mind... my thoughts to your thoughts,” he whispered. He entered Charles Tucker’s semi-conscious mind, merging with him into a single mental entity.

Kov/Charles gasped as the searing pain in his side took him by surprise. He struggled to suppress it, and regained his composure. Pain was of minor importance. He slowed his respiratory rate and entered a meditative state. Within moments, his heart rate had slowed to only a few beats per minute. Entering deeply into a Vulcan healing trance, his body’s metabolism reduced to a mere fraction of what it previously had been, the being that was both Vulcan and Human deliberately decreased his physical need for oxygen and nutrients, thus prolonging the moment... inevitable now without medical intervention... when blood loss and shock would result in organ failure and irreversible brain damage. The merge was unbreakable. Until sufficient healing was achieved, the death of one would result in the death of the other. It was now just a matter of time.

While Lieutenant Slinn secured the prisoner by the simple expedient of securing his hands and feet with disposable restraints that she just happened to have hidden on her person, Trip Tucker rapidly deactivated the warp drive. He breathed a sigh of relief as the ship quickly decelerated to impulse speed and the warp core stabilized. Then he turned to inspect the engine. It was then that he caught sight of the two men lying face to face on the floor of the engine room. Kov and Charles breathed in unison at an abnormally slow rate. Their eyes were closed as they faced each other on the decking, but each of them appeared to be intently focused on the other nevertheless. Kov’s fingers were splayed over Charles’ temples in a manner that was very familiar to Trip. He knelt on the floor and checked each man’s pulse. Although they were extremely slow, both pulses were strong. Trip felt a pang of gratitude... and sadness. Now that Kov had chosen to risk his life in this way, two people that he held dear were in danger rather than just one. There was nothing he could do about it now, though. T’Pol had warned him about the effects of separating the participants of a mind meld... especially if one of them was physically fragile. The two of them would have to remain linked until someone with more experience could assist in their separation. That meant getting back to Jupiter Station ASAP... and that meant getting the warp engine back on line.

“Lieutenant Slinn!” he called. Slinn popped her head out of the bunk room where she’d confined the prisoner. She’d just completed modifications to the door lock that would allow it to be opened from the outside only. She stepped into the corridor, closed the door, nodding in satisfaction as the locking mechanism activated, and then turned.

“The prisoner is secure, Commander,” she said as she re-entered the engine room. When she caught sight of the two men on the floor, she started toward them with a concerned look on her face. Trip stopped her with an outstretched arm.

“Kov’s got him stable for now, but if he was desperate enough to do this, then we don’t have much time.” He looked at her intently. “I need to be the engineer and fix this thing so we can get back and get some help for them.” He jerked his head at the pair on the deck. “I need you to reactivate communications and take command. Talk to Control and get ‘em ready with a medical team, ‘cause I have the feelin’ that even if we make it in time, it’s gonna take a lotta work to save them.”

Slinn gazed back at him seriously. “It’s taken care of, Commander... You just get the warp drive back on line,” she said in an authoritative tone.

“Aye, Cap’n,” he said half-jokingly. Her brows went up in surprise.

“How did you...?” she asked him in puzzlement.

“Just a wild guess,” he responded with a smile. “Command suits ya.” Slinn grinned at him, shaking her head as she proceeded to the communications console. Trip turned and approached the engine to begin a thorough inspection. He’d seen what the sensors were telling him, but after all he’d learned during this project about how deceptive sensor readings could be, he wasn’t gonna trust anything but his own eyes and ears. Fortunately, they were usually the best sensors around.

“They’ve reached warp four point five, and sensors indicate a warp core breach is inevitable within two minutes if nothing is done,” reported the Human engineer to Storr in a hopeless tone of voice.

T’Pol closed her eyes and focused her attention on the bond with her husband. At this distance, she was unable to sense anything but a feeling of intense preoccupation... but at least he was alive, and apparently doing something about the problem. She opened her eyes and resolutely suppressed the feeling of helpless fear that was growing in her chest. There is nothing I can do, she told herself firmly. Panic serves no purpose. The seconds dragged on... one minute passed. The young engineer who was monitoring the John Glenn’s progress finally spoke.

“Their warp drive just went offline, sir. They’re slowing to impulse speed.”

T’Pol closed her eyes in relief.

“The warp core has stabilized,” continued the young man with a broad grin. Cheers and clapping filled the Control Room... all originating from the Human portion of the team, of course... but even the Vulcans appeared relieved.

“Jupiter Station Control, this is the John Glenn,” came Lieutenant Slinn’s voice over the comm.

“Where is Commander Tucker?” asked Storr with forced calmness. “May I speak with him?”

“The commander is rather busy at the moment, sir... but he’s left me in command,” replied Slinn politely. “He asked me to reactivate the comm and inform you that as soon as we can safely go to warp again, we will be returning to the station. Please have a medical team standing by to treat three injured crew members... two Humans and one Vulcan. One of the Humans is critically injured.” There was a pause as Slinn spoke with someone beyond the range of the comm’s microphone, and then she resumed speaking. “Commander Tucker estimates that repairs to the engine will require approximately one hour... and then he plans to see if this engine can really make it up to warp six.”

Storr raised a brow. “Please ask the commander to explain the damage to the engine. It was in perfect working order when I inspected it the day before his arrival on the station,” he told her haughtily.

Slinn got off the comm... apparently to ask the commander Storr’s question. There were noises that sounded like shouting on the other end of the line. T’Pol couldn’t understand what Trip was saying, but his tone was unmistakable. Slinn got back on the line.

“The commander is in the middle of a critical portion of the repairs, sir, and can’t be disturbed,” she told Storr dryly. “We’ll have a full report for you when we return to the station. In the meantime, although you didn’t ask, I would like to inform you that while the injured crew members appear to be in stable condition at present, one of them is in pretty bad shape, which is why Commander Tucker is so intent on making the repairs as rapidly as possible. I’ll notify you when we’re preparing to return to warp. John Glenn out.”

Storr opened his mouth as if to say something, looking a bit nonplussed by Lieutenant Slinn’s rather insolent tone, and then closed his mouth again. She’d ended the transmission. Verbally reprimanding someone who was unable to hear the reprimand would serve no useful purpose.

T’Pol stood in the station’s landing bay as the medical transport shuttle that had gone out to meet the John Glenn touched down and began to unload. The John Glenn’s return to the station had been surprisingly uneventful, aside from the fact that Trip had pushed the engine up to warp six point two on the return trip. Storr had ridden with a team of both Vulcan and Human engineers to the ship in the medical transport, and had stayed on board to check the status of “his” engine. Slinn and Wormald had been granted the dubious privilege of remaining on board with him to ensure the ship’s safe entry into the docking bay, while Trip had accompanied the three injured crewmen on the medical transport back to the station.

First off the shuttle was Jack Gardner, still somewhat wobbly from the phase pistol stun blast, but walking on his own two feet with his hands restrained behind his back. Two armed security guards were waiting to escort him to sickbay for medical clearance, and then to the brig. He stared at the floor as he passed T’Pol, refusing to meet her eyes. She reminded herself to speak with him about his actions at a later time, and then dismissed him as being of minor importance. The man for whom she’d been anxiously waiting... though she’d never admit it... stepped off the shuttle. Although she’d been told that he was not among the injured, the painful knot in her chest that had formed as soon as the warp core malfunction had been discovered had stubbornly refused to resolve until the moment he’d stepped onto the deck of the landing bay.

“Be careful!” Trip Tucker told the medics as they pushed the large stretcher bearing both Kov and Charles Tucker. “If ya separate ‘em ya might kill ‘em both!”

The medics ignored him as they adjusted the oxygen mask over the Human’s face, carefully avoiding the Vulcan’s fingers as they clung to the man’s temples. A Vulcan medic was part of the team, and he gave quiet instructions to the others as they turned the stretcher toward the station’s well-equipped hospital. T’Pol stepped forward and placed a gentle hand on Trip’s arm as he began to follow them. She pulled him into one of the private reception rooms off the landing bay area. The two of them were still visible through the observation window, but the room provided a bit more privacy than in the center of the landing deck.

They appear to be quite knowledgeable and capable, t’hy’la, she sent reassuringly, looking into his eyes and sending him all the comfort and affection she could manage in such a public place. We should step back and let them do their jobs.

Trip’s eyes filled with tears, and he visibly relaxed at her touch. He closed his eyes, basking in the emotions he felt through their bond, and returning her affection with a wave of intense love and gratitude that took her breath away. She could sense his need for physical comfort, and closed her eyes, entering the white space and drawing him there with her.

They stood face to face in glowing whiteness for a moment before she took him in her arms and held him tightly.

What happened, ashayam?” she asked him softly, with her cheek against his chest.

His tears began to fall in earnest.Gardner was bein’ blackmailed...he replied in a choked voice.He shot at Kov and hit Dad instead... through and through the chest... and when Dad was dyin’, Kov did the meld,he said sadly.And now Kov’s gonna die, too!

T’Pol held him wordlessly for several moments. She was unsure of what to say. Logic dictated that he was probably correct... if his father’s wounds were as severe as he described... but she couldn’t find the strength to destroy his hopes... so she just held him. After a while, he exhaled heavily and pulled away.

I need ta go see ‘em, T’Pol. I won’t get in the way... I just need ta know,he said pleadingly.

T’Pol nodded...

...and they found themselves standing in the reception room once again, still at a respectable distance from each other with only the fingertips of T’Pol’s right hand lightly touching Trip’s forearm. She pulled her hand away, but her eyes were fixed on his... full of unexpressed affection.

“I will accompany you,” she said.

“Assistant Engineer Kov? Are you awake?” asked the voice again. It was a nuisance. He wished it would go away.

Kov/Charles felt a dull ache in his right side. The pain was persistent and somewhat annoying, but much less intense than it had been before... before what? He couldn’t remember. He tried to open his eyes, but his eyelids were so heavy. The effort of moving them was just too much. He retreated into his memories... too exhausted to try again. The Human memories were so vivid... they drew him in...

Charlie? Where are ya, ya little scamp?”

Mama smiled as she searched for him. He stifled a laugh.

“There ya are!” she laughed, pulling him out from under the bed by his heels and tickling him until he laughed so hard he was crying. Playing hide and go seek with Mama always made her smile... and when Mama was happy, Charlie was happy...

“You look real pretty, Mama,” he said on the day his mother took off the ugly black clothes and put on her favorite dress with the pink flowers. Mama smiled at him then... through her tears.

Your daddy would be so proud of you, son...”

The row of schoolgirls stood watching and giggling as he stood on his hands and walked all the way across the playground on them. When he lowered his legs and stood on his feet again, red-faced, Anna smiled shyly at him. He puffed out his chest, turned around, and did it again... all the way back the other way... just to get another smile...

He held his arm out to Catherine and led her in front of the preacher. The idea of marriage scared him half to death, but she was so in love, and he loved her too, of course... and he couldn’t break her heart... he needed her. He needed to make her happy...

The tiny baby girl in his arms filled him with awe. He loved his boys... there was no doubt about that... but girls were special... precious.

Precious little Lizzie...” he whispered, smiling. The hours old infant opened her bright blue eyes and smiled back. Catherine said it was just a gas pain, but he knew better...

“Thank you, Daddy!” Lizzie shouted, throwing her arms around his neck. He’d worked nights and weekends to get her the used car, and then used every trick he knew to get it to run... and look... like new. His baby girl was worth it. The grin on her face when she got behind the wheel made it all worthwhile...

He stood in shock looking at the vid screen in the hotel room where he and Catherine were staying, staring at the horrible wound in the Earth. It was supposed to be a second honeymoon. It had saved their lives. His precious daughter had not been so lucky. He couldn’t believe it. It was a nightmare... it had to be... so why couldn’t he wake up?...

He sat in his favorite bar in Bay St. Louis. The booze killed the pain... for a while... made it go away so all that was left was anger. His buddy Jake understood. All the smiles were gone. Lizzie was gone. Catherine was alive... but nothing he did could make her happy anymore. Jake had a theory... something about the Vulcans. The more he drank, the more sense it made, until he knew what he had to do...

The Vulcan never smiled, but Trip loved her... needed her the way he needed Catherine. What he’d done was wrong, he realized. So horribly wrong. He went to Catherine to beg forgiveness... to ask her what to do... and he did everything she asked. He had to. It was the only way to get her to forgive him. He needed her to forgive him...

They asked for his help... a chance to redeem himself, the man said... a chance to make a difference. He was frightened... not of the risk to his life, but of the possibility that Catherine would be angry... that she would think he didn’t love her anymore. But the fate of the planet was at stake, they said... they needed someone the Terra Primers trusted... so he agreed...

He was just plain mad. The Terra Primers had done it again... twisted a good man’s beliefs until he didn’t know wrong from right anymore. He couldn’t let this happen. Kov was a good man, too. He didn’t deserve to be shot in cold blood... and if Jack shot him, someday he’d come to realize how wrong it was to take another life. He had to protect them both...

Ahhh, the pain! It burned through him like a brand. He cried out...

... and woke gasping, alone in his own head. Kov opened his eyes, disoriented for a moment, and then found himself looking into a pair of startlingly blue eyes. Their color contrasted sharply with the dark brown of the man’s skin, which Kov knew now was artificially induced, just as he knew that the eye color change had been brought about by removing a pair of contact lenses. The eyes regarded him for a few seconds, and then closed. Kov removed his fingers from Charles Tucker’s temples and closed his fists several times to relieve the stiffness of prolonged immobility. Then he sat up. The Vulcan medic regarded him solemnly.

“I thought for a moment that physical force would be required to wake you,” he said blandly.

“This Human’s memory of pain was sufficient to do the job,” Kov replied sadly, looking down at his charge, who seemed to be peacefully sleeping. He looked up at the medic with a reluctant, inquiring expression. “Will he survive?” he asked.

“He would not have survived had you not melded with him,” said the medic in reluctant respect of Kov’s achievement. “He was in surgery for several hours while the two of you remained in the meld. He has lost portions of his right lung and part of his liver... but these organs apparently have remarkable recuperative powers in Humans. The Human physicians believe that he will live.”

Kov exhaled in relief, and nodded. “I am... pleased... that my efforts were not wasted,” he said carefully, trying to control his responses so as not to offend the other Vulcan. His lips twitched involuntarily with his efforts not to smile... and his eyes shone with unshed tears. The Vulcan medic averted his eyes.

“I am certain that such prolonged and intimate contact with a Human mind has left you in some difficulty,” he told Kov. “If you wish, I can arrange for you to have use of a private meditation chamber in the Vulcan sector of the station for the next several hours.”

Kov straightened proudly. He refused to allow this Vulcan’s discomfort to cause him shame. “Thank you,” he replied in the Human fashion, “... but that will not be necessary.” He swung his legs over the side of the bed that he had until recently been content to share with Charles Tucker, and stood. He walked with dignity toward the waiting area to find his friend Trip.

The Chief Medical Officer of Jupiter Station, a tough-as-nails military surgeon by the name of Paul Lee, walked into the surgical waiting room, pulling his mask down around his neck as he approached Trip and T’Pol. They sat face to face on the floor, meditating.

He cleared his throat to catch their attention. “Commanders?” he asked softly. The two of them opened their eyes in unison and turned to look at him with eerily identical expressions of serene acceptance on their faces.

“He’s in recovery...” said the surgeon with a weary look. “If he heals the way he should... his chances are very good,” he told them carefully.

Commander Tucker gave him a small, bleak smile of gratitude. “Thanks for doin’ what ya could, Doc,” he told him. The doctor nodded in acknowledgement.

“It was the first time I’d ever operated on someone being stabilized by a Vulcan mind meld,” replied the surgeon with an amazed shake of the head. “I have to tell you, Commander... injuries that severe should have killed that man long before he got to my operating room. Just the fact that he survived to get here is a miracle. You really ought to have a talk with that Vulcan and thank him. He’s the only reason I even had a chance to do my job.”

Trip’s smile broadened. He looked past the doctor to see Kov enter the waiting room. He brushed past the surgeon to reach his friend and extended his hand. Kov took it without hesitation and smiled. As the doctor looked on in amazement, Trip pulled Kov into a bear hug. Kov stiffened for a brief moment, and then wrapped his arms around his friend, squeezing until the air left Trip’s lungs and lifting him completely off the floor for a moment before letting him back down again. When Trip could breathe again, he started to laugh.

“Feels like you’ve been takin’ huggin’ lessons from my mom!” he joked with a wheeze. Kov regarded his breathing difficulties with alarm.

“Did I injure you? Janie says that Humans find hugs comforting in times of stress,” he told Trip in a concerned voice. Trip wrapped an arm around his shoulder and grinned.

“Usually hugs are more enjoyable if ya don’t break ribs when ya squeeze,” he said in a confiding tone, still laughing.

The surgeon turned from the incredible spectacle of a Human and a Vulcan doing some friendly rough-housing to find T’Pol gazing at the two men with one brow raised. He smiled at her reaction. She returned his gaze evenly.

“May we see the patient?” she asked the surgeon. He nodded.

“Normally we don’t let anybody but family into the recovery room, but since Mr. Ramirez has no family here, I suppose it’s all right for you to go in... one at a time.”

T’Pol nodded. “Thank you, doctor,” she told him calmly. She approached Trip.

The doctor says you may see your father now. We may go in one at a time, but you should go first, t’hy’la. He will want to see you, she sent.

Trip smiled at her, grasped Kov’s shoulder without a word, and then turned to enter the recovery room, accompanied by the surgeon.

T’Pol eyed Kov thoughtfully. He straightened before her gaze, made slightly uncomfortable by her regard, and looked at her as if he expected her to reprimand him for his very un-Vulcan behavior with Trip a few moments before.

“You risked your life to save a man you barely know,” she told him in a puzzled tone. “Explain the logic of your actions.”

“He is precious to my friend, and he nearly gave his life for mine,” replied Kov. “Saving him was the right thing to do.” T’Pol’s gaze softened. If he hadn’t known better, he would have thought she was on the verge of smiling at him.

“You have done a great service for one who is precious to me,” she told him quietly. “I will not forget it. You may call upon me in the future if you ever have need. I will consider your request as coming from a member of my family,” she told him formally.

He closed his eyes and bowed his head briefly. “I am honored,” he replied.

T’Pol debarked from the shuttle at Houston Hobby with a feeling of satisfaction over a job well-done. After she and the crew of the John Glenn, minus two mechanics, were satisfied that “Ramirez” would survive... and after Jack Gardner was taken into custody... T’Pol had assumed command of the John Glenn. With Trip and Kov in Engineering and so-called “Lieutenants” Slinn and Wormald filling their respective roles, the remainder of the warp six engine testing protocol had proceeded without a hitch. Not only was the project back on schedule, but both the Vulcans and the Starfleet brass were so satisfied with the new engine that mass production was scheduled to begin in less than a month, and the Warp Six Project, after the construction of a full-scale engine prototype, would officially be ended in three weeks time. Since Enterprise was not scheduled to return for them until the completion of its current mission, she and her husband would then have the time for a much overdue vacation.

T’Pol grasped her duffle more tightly, and proceeded to walk toward the private landing area reserved for medical transports. Kov and Trip had opted to ride with Charles Tucker, who, while medically stable now for transport, was not sufficiently recovered to sit erect in a domestic shuttle for the several hours’ ride from Jupiter Station to Yosemite Station, and thence to Houston Hobby Spaceport. She had found his insistence on having both of them accompany him rather illogical, but had chosen not to argue the point after seeing the pleased look on Trip’s face when his father had said in no uncertain terms that he wanted “both of his boys” on the shuttle with him. The mind-meld that Kov had undertaken with the Human had resulted in an unforeseen side effect... he’d now “adopted” Kov, and treated him as one would treat a son. Kov’s reaction to Charles Tucker’s behavior had been one of complete acceptance. Presumably, Kov was aware of the elder Tucker’s previous history with non-Humans as a result of the mind meld. The fact that Kov seemed just as content with his new relationship with Charles Tucker as Tucker was himself had given her a great deal to think about.

As T’Pol walked down the corridor, she caught sight of a familiar slim, red headed figure walking rapidly toward the gate where the domestic shuttle had recently unloaded. Turning, she walked briskly toward the young woman.

“Miss Rafter?” she called. Janie Rafter turned with a worried look on her face. She smiled in relief when she saw a familiar face.

“Commander T’Pol!” she said. “Kov asked me to meet him here... but I can’t find him.”

“There was a change of plan at the last minute,” T’Pol reassured her. “He and Commander Tucker accompanied an injured crew member on the medical transport. If you’ll follow me, I’ll show you the gate.”

“I suppose I’ll follow y’all, then,” said a friendly female voice from behind T’Pol.

T’Pol turned, and found Catherine Tucker standing there with a smile on her face. T’Pol paused in poorly disguised surprise, and then recovered her equilibrium.

“Good evening, Mrs. Tucker,” she said with a puzzled expression. “It was my understanding that you were scheduled to arrive tomorrow morning.”

Catherine grinned broadly. “It’s nice ta see you too, T’Pol!” she replied jokingly. “I thought I’d surprise my boy... you were sayin’ that you know where he is?”

T’Pol hesitated. She was trapped in a situation which could trigger the ending of her father-in-law’s undercover assignment... and very possibly his marriage. Perhaps if she arrived soon enough at the gate, she could prevent Charles Tucker from debarking until after Catherine Tucker had been safely removed from the premises. Although Tucker had been relieved of duty by covert ops because of his near-fatal injury, T’Pol didn’t relish the idea of the public spectacle that would undoubtedly result should Catherine Tucker encounter her husband in his current condition... or indeed in any condition without a very good explanation for where he’d been for the past month.

“His shuttle is not due to arrive for some time,” T’Pol lied. “I suggest that the three of us have a seat in the café and have some tea.” She indicated Janie with one hand. “May I introduce a friend of one of our engineers, also here to meet him... Miss Janie Rafter.”

Janie smiled and extended her hand. “So you’re Commander Tucker’s mother?” she asked politely. “My Kov and Commander Tucker are real close friends,” she told the older woman as they shook hands. “Maybe he’s talked to ya about him...?”

The two of them headed toward the spaceport café in the corridor and seated themselves at a table, in animated conversation about the men in their lives. T’Pol excused herself politely as they sat down and headed in the direction of the bathroom. Seconds later, she left the bathroom and walked rapidly toward the gate where the medical shuttle was scheduled to debark in less than fifteen minutes. She hoped she had time to warn them.

Trip watched the medics closely as they strapped Charles Tucker securely into his stretcher, and walked alongside the stretcher as they slowly rolled him out of the enlarged doorway of the medical transport shuttle. Kov accompanied them. He had little choice in the matter, as Charles Tucker grasped his right hand just as firmly as he grasped Trip’s left hand. Trip exchanged an amused glance with Kov before leaning down to whisper in his father’s ear with a grin.

“You can let go now, Dad. Nobody here knows we’re family. We’re gettin’ some strange looks.”

Charles Tucker chuckled, and then winced as his action pulled at the healing surgical site in his right side. He released their hands, saying in a pained whisper, but with a smile on his face, “Don’t make me laugh. It hurts when I laugh!”

Trip laughed aloud at that, and then, looking out over the reception area, caught sight of T’Pol waiting for their arrival. He could sense her worry from across the room.

Don’t worry, darlin’, he sent with as much reassurance as he could muster. He’s just fine... see? He stooped to whisper something in Charles’ ear, and the elder Tucker promptly turned his head to look out over the reception area, caught sight of T’Pol, and waved at her with a grin.

I am pleased that your father is well, husband, but that is not why I’m concerned. Your mother is here, replied T’Pol.

Trip looked back at her with a pleased smile. Here in Houston? When did she get here? he asked.

Here in the airport, emphasized T’Pol. Trip’s expression was rapidly transformed into one of sheer terror. His eyes were focused at a point over T’Pol’s left shoulder. T’Pol closed her eyes in resignation as she heard a familiar voice behind her.

“There you are, T’Pol! We heard the announcement about the shuttle arrival and figured it got here early... and Janie said that she thought she’d seen you go this way...” Her eyes passed T’Pol and focused on her son as he stood next to a man on a stretcher across the room. She smiled at him and waved.

“There’s my boy!” she announced enthusiastically, and began to make her way vigorously across the room with a good hug on her mind. While still about five feet from her objective, she stopped suddenly. The look on her face as she recognized the man on the stretcher was so appalled that it was comical. She stood there without speaking for several minutes, her mouth working in an effort to figure out what to say. Trip smiled at her sheepishly.

“Hey, Mama,” he told her in a rather shaky voice. “I guess we owe ya an explanation...”

The End (until the next installment)


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