The Important Things in Life

By Distracted

Rating: PG-13

Genres: adventure drama romance


This story has been read by 551 people.
This story has been read 839 times.

This story is number 15 in the series Virtual Season Five

The Warp Six Project: The Important Things in Life


By Distracted


Rating: PG-13

Disclaimer: Paramount owns everything except my imagination.

Genre: Romance, Action/Adventure

Summary: A sequel to my story Keeping In Touch. As Charles Tucker, Jr. recovers in the hospital and Trip and T’Pol patch things up with Catherine Tucker, the Enterprise is sent on a mission to discover the fate of the Second Chance colony, Kov and Janie move on to the next step in their relationship, and Archer and Elena hear the ticking of their biological clocks... Tick... Tock... Tick... Tock…

Catherine Tucker sat at her husband’s bedside in the post-op surgical unit of Ben Taub hospital, watching him sleep. The pain medication he’d been given had made him pleasantly drowsy and quite talkative before bedtime, and he’d spoken with her about a lot of things which, she was certain, were highly classified. They were alone in the room, so she had not had the chance to observe her son and daughter-in-law’s reactions to Charles’ disclosures, but judging from the conspiratorial looks on their faces at the airport, she had no doubt that they were perfectly aware of her husband’s recent activities, and had in all likelihood participated in them to at least some degree. It had been their expressions that had clued her in, and had caused her simply to walk up to her son in the airport and give him a hug after Charles Tucker’s rather shocking unveiling. She’d initially ignored her husband completely, and then, after embracing her son with a bit less than her usual exuberance, she had turned to her husband with a cool expression and offered her hand in introduction. The ride to the hospital had been both silent and uncomfortable, primarily because the others had been deathly afraid of her atypically quiet reaction to the situation. As soon as Charles was settled in his bed, she’d summarily dismissed the lot of them... including the young Vulcan whom Trip had introduced as Kov. This was the very same Kov about whom Janie had spoken in the airport café... the same one that Trip had written home about in his first year on Enterprise... an engineer who’d apparently developed an attachment to Trip and to Charles, of all people. Charles had been quite emphatic about his affection for the young man, a revelation that had been only the first of several very surprising revelations that evening. Initially, she’d been so furious with her husband that she’d had trouble even carrying on a conversation with him, but as his tale progressed, her anger had somehow simply melted away.

Catherine raised her hand to stroke the top of Charles’ head, where grey-blonde stubble was just beginning to sprout. The feel of it made her smile as she remembered the summer when Charles, tired of her eternal battles with their pre-teen boys over washing their hair, had taken a pair of clippers to both Trip and his older brother Richard, rendering them nearly bald in the process. He’d called it their “summer hair cut”, and the style had been, in fact, eminently practical in the muggy Florida heat.

She studied Charles’ face as he slept. His complexion beneath the artificial tan was an unhealthy appearing orange tone... caused, she’d been told, by the elevated bilirubin levels which had resulted from the phase pistol injury to his liver. His doctor had told her that the damage was beginning to repair itself... the Human liver being a remarkably resilient organ... and that her husband’s jaundice would most likely resolve very soon, providing that his past alcohol use had not reduced his liver’s regenerative capacity too severely. Once the doctors were certain that he would not require a replacement liver, he would be allowed to go home. Catherine found the prospect of her husband’s return home somewhat daunting. Before today, she’d thought that she knew the man as well as she knew herself. The tales he’d just told her in his unguarded and drugged state had made her realize that she no longer knew him at all.

She continued to absentmindedly stroke his head as she came to the realization that, although she loved her husband, she hadn’t been in love with him in years. A small smile played across her lips as she contemplated the possibilities. This Charles Tucker was stronger, more self-confident, and more morally admirable that she’d ever thought it was possible for him to be.

Might be kinda fun to get reacquainted, she thought with anticipation.

Commander Charles “Trip” Tucker sat in the post-op surgical ward waiting room with his elbows on his knees, staring morosely at the floor. Kov had left to bring Janie home less than an hour before, leaving T’Pol to look after her obviously distressed and preoccupied husband. They were alone in the room. T’Pol had initially attempted to interest Trip in meditation, but he was unable to concentrate. When she accessed his emotions through the bond... the fact that he made no attempt to shield her from them was a sure sign of his preoccupation... all she could sense was fear.

“Your mother seemed to accept the events at the airport quite well,” offered T’Pol softly. “Perhaps she is not as angry as you believe her to be.”

Trip chuckled dryly. “You don’t know my mom, T’Pol...,” he told her in a voice filled with dismay. “When she’s just jokin’, she yells her head off... When she’s a little bit pissed, she raises her voice. The only time she’s quiet like that is when she’s so goddamn mad she’s about ta kill somebody.” He shook his head ruefully. “I’ve got half a mind ta go in there and make sure she’s not smotherin’ him in his sleep!”

T’Pol actually looked alarmed. “Would she really do that, t’hy’la?”

He smiled at her reassuringly. “No, T’Pol... at least I don’t think so...” He sighed. “She might be in there askin’ him for a divorce, though. That I could see her doin’ after all he’s put her through.”

T’Pol placed a comforting hand on his arm. “Then we must speak with her and convince her to give him another chance,” she told him. He smiled at her gratefully and placed his hand on top of hers. They heard a noise then, and both of them started and turned, dropping their hands instinctively as the waiting room door opened.

“Hey, kids,” said Catherine Tucker with a weary smile on her face as she walked through the door. “He’s sleepin’ like a baby. How about we grab somethin’ to eat and head for bed? I’m beat.” She turned from one of them to the other with a puzzled look on her face, while they stared at her as if she’d grown two heads.

“What’s the matter with you two? Did ya think I’d be mad about bein’ married to a hero?” she asked jokingly. “At least he’s a live hero and not a dead one... then I’d a probably been a little pissed at y’all.”


Elena Sanchez sat curled up on her bed that Sunday evening surrounded by legal briefs and three data PADDs containing reference materials. She wore a comfortable grey sweatshirt and sweatpants, and was paying absolutely no attention to the work she’d brought home for the weekend. Her attention was held by a fourth PADD, which contained digital footage of her nephew Jacob’s first birthday party that she’d gone to the day before... the first non-work related party that she’d attended in over ten years. She smiled as she replayed the segment of Jacob unwrapping the gift that she’d bought for him, shredding the paper and putting strips of it in his mouth in the process. She remembered how he’d then proceeded to completely ignore the shiny new wagon, and had crawled into the box it had been packed in and played there happily for several hours... finally falling asleep inside of it while the grownups were visiting. She paused the frame on a close-up of his face. Although he was fairer than his father, his head of brown curls and deep brown eyes reminded her of her brother Arturo when he was a toddler. She smiled wistfully as she remembered the feel of Jacob’s small, warm body in her lap for the brief moment he’d deigned to remain there during the party.

Arturo had been that way, as well... always on the go... not much of a child for cuddling except when sound asleep. He’d needed some cuddling after their mother died, though. She could still remember him climbing into her bed at night for months afterward and crying himself to sleep in her arms. She’d mothered him for years after that, and had married Jeffrey only after Arturo was old enough to be embarrassed by her hugs. Abuela Lucia had been there, of course, but, unlike the other boys, Arturo had always looked to his sister rather than his grandmother for mothering. The fourteen-year age difference had had a lot to do with it. Arturo had considered her an adult, and she did look an awful lot like her mother.

Elena sighed as she studied her nephew’s smiling, icing-covered face. When she’d married Jeffrey, he’d already been “fixed”, as he liked to put it. His first wife had insisted, he’d told her, and he’d already had three grown children, the eldest of which was only three years younger than she was. She’d married him knowing there would be no possibility of children, but after she’d just spent nearly ten years raising her younger brothers, the prospect of being childless hadn’t really concerned her. Now that she was over forty... with her chances of bearing a child very rapidly diminishing... she was beginning to realize what she’d missed.

I wonder if Jon likes children? she mused. Her nephew’s light brown curls caught her eye. A son fathered by Jonathan Archer would probably have hair color just like Jacob’s, she thought with a speculative smile. He would be such a beautiful boy!

It had all started with the 2156 Summer Olympic Games and the decades-long rivalry between the United States and Russia in that most American of sports... basketball. During the tedious three week voyage to Second Chance, Russian-born Rostov in Engineering and American-born Mitchell in Security had placed bets, started a pool, and even begun friendly one-on-one games of basketball in the court they’d cobbled together in Cargo Bay 2. Then the Russian team won the Olympic gold, and things got really competitive. Mitchell’s statement about the win being “dumb luck” set off Rostov, and by the end of it a grudge match between two teams of five... one team from Engineering and one from Security... had been scheduled for two weeks later. The teams rotated off-duty practice days in Cargo Bay Two, and everyone on board was taking the upcoming game very seriously indeed.

One week prior to the long-awaited game, Lieutenant Commander Janice Hess was commiserating with a very discouraged Crewman Nicolai Rostov, who sat across the table from her in the dining hall at breakfast nursing a lukewarm cup of coffee and a broken ankle in a walking boot.

“I can’t believe I was so clumsy on the treadmill last night!” he said miserably. “Now we’ve only got four players, and Mitchell has already said he’s not going to delay the game to wait for this ankle of mine to heal.” Rostov eyed Hess speculatively over his coffee cup, taking in his superior officer’s muscular build as if he’d just noticed how in shape she seemed to be. “You don’t play, do you Janice?”

Hess sighed. It never failed. As soon as she had the down time to do enough weight training to get herself back into shape, someone was always trying to get her involved in some type of team sport. Although she was a team player when it came to the engine, she preferred solitary physical training. It was much more relaxing than putting up with an entire roomful of testosterone-laden grown boys trying to impress her with their physical prowess.

“No, Nick...”she told him emphatically, “... I don’t...” Her voice trailed off as she caught sight of several members of the bridge crew as they entered the dining room. She eyed one of them in particular with a speculative expression. “Is there anything in the rules that you and Mitchell have set up about recruiting players from other areas of the ship?” she asked Rostov.

The brown-haired crewman returned her gaze with a puzzled expression. “You know... we never really discussed it. I just assumed the teams would be from our own departments... but I don’t suppose they have to be... why?”

Hess’s green eyes looked over Rostov’s shoulder as her chin jerked to his right almost imperceptibly. He pushed his chair back and nonchalantly looked behind him. His eyes were wide as he turned back to her, and an incredulous grin split his face.

“No! You can’t be serious!” he whispered. “The guy’s probably never even seen a basketball!”

Hess shrugged. “How hard could it be to teach him to stand under the basket, catch the ball, and toss it through a hoop?” she asked him with a small grin.

Rostov eyed her doubtfully. “But he’s command staff. I can’t just go right up to him and ask him!” His face took on a thoughtful expression for a moment, and then he smiled at her with wide brown eyes. The look he gave her bore an uncanny resemblance to the looks she’d once received from a puppy she’d had as a child. “You’re command staff, now... you could ask him...” he said beseechingly.

Hess rolled her eyes. The things I do for a pretty face! she thought ironically.

“All right, Rostov,” she said in a resigned voice, “But I’m not promising anything.”

Rostov grinned at her, turned his chair slightly so he’d have a better view of her attempt... and then sat there looking at her expectantly.

“Now?” she asked him in disbelief. “You want me to do this now?”

“Practice tonight’s at 1800 hours,” replied Rostov.

Hess exhaled, nodded reluctantly, and then directed her attention to her quarry. He looked as if he were on the verge of finishing his breakfast. She didn’t have much time.

She stood, and after running her hands through her short blonde hair to tidy it and straightening her uniform, she approached his table. As she drew near, he stood up... and up... and up... and walked toward her. She froze directly in his path and stood with her chin up, just staring. Seven feet tall was much taller than she’d expected when the person in question was standing directly in front of her within arm’s reach. He cocked a brow and looked down at her expectantly.

Lieutenant Commander Hess abruptly realized that she was standing in his way, cleared her throat in embarrassment, and finally spoke.

“Mr. Skon?... Ah... I was wondering if I could speak with you for a moment.”

Captain Jonathan Archer laid the PADD that he’d been focused on for the past four hours on the table in front of him and wearily rubbed his eyes with thumb and forefinger. He checked the chronometer.

1200 hours already? he thought in amazement. He chuckled. I guess time flies when you’re having fun, he told himself ruefully.

He’d tried to remain on the bridge in the command chair on the first day of his intensive study of all things Thomas Rafter, but after becoming so distracted by the usually unobtrusive noises made by the bridge crew that he found himself reading the same screen three times, he’d finally given up and retired to his ready room, leaving Lieutenant Commander Reed nominally in charge. Fortunately, thus far, the voyage to Second Chance had been singularly uneventful, and there had literally been nothing for him to do except read.

He’d learned many things about Thomas Rafter in the preceding five days... only a few of which were likely to be of benefit in his current mission. For example... Rafter had been a gifted mathematics student, but had gotten mediocre grades in English. He was apparently quite the romantic, because every month of the eighteen years of his marriage he had purchased flowers from Royal Florists... located just three city blocks from his home... on the 24th day of the month, the anniversary of his marriage to Amy Hopkins Rafter, mother of his only child Ida Jane. He had held a position with Boeing-McDonnell-Douglas as Chief Researcher in Experimental Engineering for twenty years prior to his inclusion on the Warp Six Project team, and was the man primarily responsible for the innovative research that had convinced the Vulcans that Humans were technologically ready for a warp six engine. Ten years into his tenure as chief researcher, he had inexplicably converted nearly his entire life savings into BMD stock, making him completely dependent on the company for his financial stability.

The psychologist’s evaluation that had been done on him prior to standing trial had revealed him to be an intelligent, reasonable man struggling with a tremendous amount of grief and guilt over his wife’s death. An argument between them over finances had apparently triggered the visit to her sister in Florida that had resulted in her being in the path of the Xindi weapon. The defense counsel had presented him as a man who was desperate to improve BMD’S corporate finances so that he would be able to provide a proper college education for his only child. He hadn’t even particularly hated the Vulcans. He just hated what they represented... a finger in Earth’s pie and the source, in his view, of all of his financial woes. By delaying the project, he’d thought he was giving the CEO and the Board of Directors of BMD the time to make alternate income arrangements for the company. He’d had no idea of the extremes to which Buchanan had been willing to go.

Archer sighed. Now that he knew Rafter was a decent man in an impossible situation, he had the feeling that it was going to be even harder to do what he suspected he’d have to do. A decent man with a cause was much more difficult to persuade than someone with baser motives. If he truly felt he was in the right, it was entirely possible that he’d refuse to back down, and Archer would be forced to destroy him.

Archer pushed back from the table, intending to take a break and have something to eat, when he noticed the message waiting indicator flashing on the console in the ready room. He pulled eagerly up to the table again and accessed his messages, hoping for a text message from Elena to provide a moment of distraction from the dilemma that had been troubling him for over a week now. Instead of a text message, a digital video clip began to play.

To the slightly off-key strains of the “Happy Birthday Song” sung by what sounded like an entire room full of adults, a winsome toddler with a head of brown curls and a bright smile proceeded to rather messily blow out one large birthday candle on an even larger chocolate birthday cake, and then to shred the wrappings of a present as big as he was, all the while being playfully molested by a tiny black puppy with a big blue bow around its neck. Archer smiled as the video then cut to the same child, ensconced in a high chair with a bib on, as he growled menacingly at the camera... in imitation of his new puppy, evidently... and then proceeded to push his entire face into the plate of chocolate birthday cake on the tray in front of him, eating it with gusto without benefit of utensils or hands. He then raised his head to grin broadly at the camera with chocolate icing completely covering his face up to and including his eyebrows and ears. Archer could hear the adults roar with laughter as the clip came to an end. A text message accompanied the video clip.

“My dear Jon,

I’d like to introduce my nephew, Jacob Miguel Sanchez. He was one year old yesterday, and I thought a taste of the festivities might cheer you up. I must say that attending his party yesterday has made me rethink some of my priorities. I have something I want to ask you, and I hope it won’t scare you away. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, and even had a dream last night about a beautiful boy with his mother’s stubbornness and his father’s eyes. The eyes were yours, Jon. Have you ever thought you might want a child of your own?


Jonathan Archer just sat looking at the message for a moment in shock, and then he started to chuckle. At this rate, she’ll be planning the wedding reception before this mission is over! he said to himself in amusement. The thought should have made a confirmed bachelor like himself run screaming in the opposite direction. The thing he found most amusing about the situation was that the idea didn’t frighten him at all.

After placing rice and water in the rice cooker, Trip Tucker pulled the wok out of the dishwasher and placed it on the stove. Then he turned to the cabinet to find the seasoned oil.

“I missed the doctor when I went to visit Dad today at lunch,” said Trip with his head in the cabinet. “How’s he doin’?” He pulled out the bottle of oil with a grin of triumph, poured a dollop into the wok and turned on the fire.

“It’s sorta complicated,” replied Catherine Tucker as she continued to add to the rapidly growing pile of chopped vegetables on the counter. “He’s got three doctors now, all residents in training... a surgeon, Dr. Reddy, who pulled his chest tube today and told me that from a purely surgical point of view he was ready to go home... a pulmonologist, Dr. Hernandez, who told me he’d lost a third of his right lung, but that he would be just fine because ‘that’s why God gave us two’... and a gastroenterologist, Dr. Singh, who told me that... let me see if I can get this straight... his ‘transaminases and bilirubin were decreasing at an acceptable rate’ and he should be ready to go home by the end of the week,” she said with a wry grin.

“So which one of them did I meet last night?” Trip inquired as he walked over to the counter to grab a double handful of vegetables and toss them in the wok.

Catherine paused for a moment in thought. “I’m not sure,” she said finally. She grinned at him. “I can’t tell ‘em apart... all three of ‘em look like little boys ta me!” She finished chopping the last stalk of celery, put her knife down on the counter, and walked over to look in the stasis box. Trip searched the drawer near the stove for a spatula, and began stirring vigorously. T’Pol walked into the kitchen from the bedroom with her hair still damp from the shower. She blinked at the sight of her husband and his mother preparing the evening meal in perfect harmony, as if none of the recent events had ever taken place. Trip had obviously been correct. When his mother forgave someone, the issue was closed.

“I thought you said you got some tofu when you went to the store, son?” said Catherine in a puzzled tone. “All I see in here is a container of strawberries and four cans of whipped cream. What could y’all possibly need with four cans of whipped cream?”

“Check the bottom drawer, Mama,” replied Trip hastily. He looked apologetically at T’Pol as she came to stand at his side by the stove. She raised a brow.

You have plans to continue kitchen week while your mother is staying with us, husband? T’Pol sent incredulously. Trip smiled weakly.

I was gonna wait ‘til she went ta sleep, darlin’... honest!

Janie snuggled close to Kov on the couch with her head on his shoulder. His body was warm and solid. She felt safe and loved with his arm wrapped around her. The evening news played at low volume on the vid screen. She’d put Sam to bed an hour before, and Mr. Turnbull always stayed out past eleven when it was his turn to lead Bible Study for the Singles group at the Baptist church, since he always went out to dinner with friends afterwards.

“Kov...” she asked softly, “What’s gonna happen when the Warp Six Project ends in three weeks?” She reached up and laced her fingers through his where his hand draped over her shoulder. The skin-to-skin contact allowed both of them to feel her worry about their future together...and his pleased anticipation. Janie sat up and eyed Kov suspiciously.

“You’re keepin’ somethin’ from me, aren’t ya?” she asked him with a hesitant smile. “Somethin’ good!” He smiled back... a tiny Kov-smile.

“I’d intended to tell you when I had finalized the arrangements,” he admitted, “... but you are far too clever for me to keep anything from you, it seems.”

Janie rolled her eyes. “Don’t flatter me, you aggravatin’ man! Tell me!” she insisted.

Kov raised a brow at her impatience. “You are speaking with the newest assistant professor in the Engineering Department of Texas Agricultural and Mechanical College,” he told her. Janie grinned broadly, squealed in excitement, and wrapped both arms around his neck.

“You’re gonna stay... you’re really gonna stay!” she cried as she hugged so hard she nearly strangled the object of her affections. Kov reached up and loosened her arms a bit so he could breathe.

“Of course I am staying, Janie,” he told her matter-of-factly. “You must remain here and go to school, and I have no wish to be apart from you.” He looked at her proudly. “I have also arranged for us to share accommodations in order to conserve our funds. You will not need to use your student loan money to pay for a dormitory room.”

Janie’s eyes narrowed in puzzlement. “But I thought you wanted ta wait until we got married ta have sex?”

He gazed back at her in equal confusion. “What do our living arrangements have to do with the decision that we’ve made to refrain from sexual intimacies?”

Janie just stared at him for a moment, and then she started to laugh. “I think what we have here, honey, is a basic failure to communicate,” she told him in amusement. Trying her best to keep a straight face, she pulled away from him so that she could look him directly in the eyes, and took both of his hands in hers as she tried her best to explain.

“Kov... When two Humans of opposite genders share the same apartment, people usually assume that they’re... well... involved.”

Kov’s brow came up in surprise. “So, even if we choose to wait, if we occupy the same apartment...”

Janie smiled and nodded. “Everyone will assume we’re sleeping together,” she finished.

Kov gazed back at her thoughtfully. “Does it matter what others think as long as we are comfortable with our own actions?” he asked her.

She shook her head and laughed ruefully. “I wish it were that simple, Kov... Doesn’t the university have an ethics code for its professors?”

“I have not yet received my ‘employment package’ from personnel,” replied Kov solemnly, still completely in the dark about what was causing Janie so much concern.

Janie sighed. “I think you’ll find that a professor havin’ sex with a student is frowned upon by the administration of every university on this planet, and in some instances might actually get him fired,” she told him dryly.

Kov shook his head. “It simply isn’t logical to waste our money to obtain separate accommodations solely to maintain appearances... but it seems that we have no choice,” he said musingly.

Janie squeezed his hands in hers, took a deep breath to gather her courage, and said, “You’ve forgotten the most logical solution to the problem, Kov.”

Kov’s brow came up again, this time in amusement over his favorite Human attempting to “out-logic” a Vulcan. “And what would that be, young Miss Rafter?” he asked her teasingly.

She released his hands and placed both hands on his cheeks. He felt her love for him so clearly that way that it stopped his breathing for a moment. She stared into his eyes and smiled at him.

“We could just get married,” she told him.

He returned her caress, placing the palm of one hand on her cheek and gazing back at her with a serious expression.

“I love you, Janie Rafter,” he said, “... but I don’t think you’re ready for marriage yet.”

Janie stared back at him in frustration, oblivious to the fact that he’d just said “The Words”. “Meanin’ I’m not old enough? Would it help if I reminded ya that I’ll be eighteen in six weeks?”

Kov shook his head and gave her a small rueful smile. “Vulcans don’t reach the age of legal majority until age thirty,” he told her.

“Well if ya expect me ta wait until I’m thirty, you’re out of your cotton-pickin’ mind,” she retorted. Then, what he’d said registered, and her face broke out into an incredulous smile. “You said it!” she exclaimed. His smile became tender as he caressed her cheek.

“You are an innocent, Janie... I don’t want to hurt you,” he told her softly.

Janie cocked her head at him and pursed her lips in aggravation. “I may be a virgin, Kov... but I had boyfriends before you. I’m not the total innocent ya think I am. At least I’d kissed somebody before that day in the courtroom. You’d never kissed a woman before, had you?”

Kov sighed. “No...” he admitted, “... but sexual readiness is not the only measure of readiness for a lifetime commitment such as marriage,” he told her.

“And what other things are?” she demanded. “I’m an adult in the eyes of the law, I have a job, in four years I’ll have an Engineerin’ degree, and I’ve arranged ta pay for it all. Just how goddamn responsible do I have ta be to prove to you that I’m ready ta get married?”

“I have no doubt of your ability to care for yourself,” replied Kov. “I simply believe that it would be unjust of me to place any more responsibilities on your shoulders at such a tender age.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Since you were perfectly willin’ ta have us move in together to share expenses, I’m assumin’ that doin’ the laundry and washin’ the dishes aren’t the ‘responsibilities’ you’re talkin’ about.”

Kov flushed a pale green. “No,” he said shortly, “... they are not.”

Janie chuckled. “I guess ya wouldn’t know this, bein’ Vulcan an’ all, but the idea of the ‘duties of the marriage bed’ bein’ an unpleasant requirement of marriage kinda went out of fashion about three hundred years ago on Earth.” She eyed him speculatively for a moment, and then seemed to come to a decision.

Holding his gaze with her own, she got up on her knees on the couch with her hands still cradling both sides of his face, and, before he could even think to protest her actions, fastened her mouth to his eagerly as she swung one leg over to sit on his lap, straddling his thighs. The kisses they had shared in the courtroom on the day of her emancipation... the only kisses he had ever experienced... had been tentative explorations, expressions of tenderness and wonder. This kiss was an all-out frontal assault on his senses. Her tongue plundered his mouth roughly, as she laced her fingers through his hair and pulled his mouth forcefully to hers. He felt her desire for him burn through their bond, igniting the fire within him that he could never manage to completely extinguish. He began to respond to her advances, drawing her body to his and slipping his hands beneath her shirt from behind, reveling in the feel of the warm, smooth skin of her back beneath his sensitive fingers. He allowed himself to feel a fraction of the passion that blazed between them, but managed to keep himself under control... until she began to move in his lap, rising up on her knees and rubbing herself insistently against him. They were still fully dressed, but it made no difference. With an incoherent moan, he lost control, breaking the kiss and trailing his mouth along her neck to the juncture of neck and shoulder, licking a path toward her right breast as she rode him. Fortunately for both of them, before he arrived at his destination a voice interrupted them.

“Ahem... Janie?” said Ralph Turnbull sternly. The couple on the couch froze for a second, and then Janie scrambled off Kov’s lap and plopped herself down on the couch next to him with her hands between her knees. Mr. Turnbull looked from one of them to the other. Neither of them made eye contact with him. Janie’s face was a very interesting shade of bright red, while Kov was an unusual shade of green from the neck up. A little early for Christmas, thought Ralph in amusement.

“I think it’s about time for Kov ta go home,” Mr. Turnbull continued in a mild tone of voice. He turned to Kov. “There’s nothin’ wrong with a little spoonin’, son... but I hope you realize that I won’t stand for any premarital fornicatin’ in this house,” he told him. Kov’s eyes widened at the Human’s frank statement. Then he nodded.

“Of course, sir,” he said in an embarrassed tone, his complexion going from dark green to an even darker shade, “It was never my intention to...”

“It was my fault, Mr. Turnbull, “ piped up Janie. “I’m sorry. It won’t happen again, sir,” she added contritely. Her employer nodded, valiantly keeping a straight face as he turned to leave the room.

“I’m goin’ ta bed now,” he said. “Why don’t ya escort your date to the door, Janie? I’ll see ya in the mornin’.” He walked out of the room without looking back so the young couple couldn’t see the smile on his face. He’d been worried over the idea of Janie being so fond of a Vulcan... worried that the young man was simply not capable of returning her affection. It didn’t look like that was gonna be a problem.

Skon entered Cargo Bay Two dressed in the same specially altered Starfleet jumpsuit that he’d worn that day while on duty. He hadn’t changed for basketball practice simply because, other than the ambassadorial robes that he’d worn upon his arrival... robes which were not exactly conducive to free movement on the court... he had nothing else to wear. His eyes scanned the room until he located the person who’d convinced him to participate in this... his first attempt at Human recreational activities since the going away party that had so fascinated him three weeks before. He approached her as she sat courtside on a folding stool with her elbows on her knees, studying a PADD of maintenance reports. He towered over her as he glanced at the screen, and raised a brow at her chosen activity.

“You are not participating, Lieutenant Commander?” he inquired. “It was my understanding that you were a member of the team.” He gazed at Janice Hess unblinkingly. She had the oddest feeling that he was somehow disappointed, although his face showed no emotion at all. She smiled a rather embarrassed smile.

“I’m sorry if I gave you that impression, Mr. Skon, but I’m just a bystander on this one. I’m not much of a basketball player,” she told him. He stared back at her with a slightly puzzled expression on his face.

“I fail to see how my participation would be preferable to yours, considering the fact that I have yet to touch, or even see a basketball, other than in the video footage that I watched during my lunch period today,” he replied.

She grinned up at him. The action required her to tilt her head so far backwards that she nearly capsized her stool. “But you’ve got so much more potential, Mr. Skon!” she said teasingly.

“I see...” he replied evenly, “...So the only reason you asked me to be of assistance in this endeavor is the fact that I am so much taller than everyone else on board.”

Janice’s eyes narrowed. The new Vulcan science officer almost sounded... insulted. It had to be her imagination. Then his comment about his lunch hour activities registered.

“You watched a game on your lunch break?” she asked him in surprise.

“A portion of one, yes,” he answered. “I also researched the history and origins of the game, and familiarized myself with the rules.” He looked thoughtful for a moment. “I had not realized that an activity existed in which my height would be considered an asset rather than a liability. I am interested in determining whether I am capable of developing sufficient skill to be a member of your team.”

Janice smiled and shrugged. “Like I said... I’m just watching. Rostov’s the coach.” She jerked her chin at the brown-haired fellow standing beneath the goal catching the ball and tossing it back as each team member made a shot at the goal. Four other men were lined up making the shots. Skon was not familiar with any of them.

“Who else is on the team?” he asked Hess. She pointed at the muscular pale blond man who was holding the ball.

“That’s Nordstrom... the guy behind him with the dark complexion is Ndele... then behind him there’s Chin and Gomez... We’re an international bunch over in Engineering,” she joked.

“Ah... then I must join the team,” Skon replied dryly, and began walking across the court to join the drill.

Hess sat with her mouth open, staring at his back as he approached the five men and began to introduce himself. I’ll be damned, she thought in amazement. He just made a joke!

Jonathan Archer sat at the desk in his quarters attempting to compose a message to Elena in response to her last communication that would honestly tell her how he felt, but at the same time not imply that he necessarily expected her to either marry him or to bear his children. Since that was precisely what he was beginning to suspect he did want from her, he was having some difficulty with the message. Before he was able to get much past the “Dear Elena, You have a very handsome nephew” stage, the comm sounded. Archer reached out and activated it.

“There’s another scrambled high-priority message from Starfleet Command, Captain,” said the comm officer in a rather surprised voice. Ensign McNamara had the right to be surprised. It was the second such message in less than a week.

“I’ll take it in my quarters, Ensign,” replied Archer. He saved his writing attempts and activated the vid screen. Admiral Gardner looked even less pleased at having to call this time than he had the last time.

“Jon... we’ve got a really serious problem on our hands,” he began in a concerned tone.

Archer’s brow wrinkled. “Worse than the really serious problem from last week that I haven’t had the chance to solve yet?” he asked.

Gardner sighed, shaking his head ruefully. “You tell me,” he said. “Here’s a transmission we received from one of the covert ops agents we have stationed on Second Chance. She’s the director of the dilithium mining facility in the foothills of the mountain range the settlers call the Skyscrapers... about a hundred klicks east of the main settlement.” His face vanished, replaced by that of a stocky middle-aged woman in bright orange mining overalls.

“I’m sending this message off schedule, so I hope someone receives it. The colony’s subspace transceiver has been destroyed, so I’ve been forced to use this one that’s reserved only for official emergencies. I suppose a nuclear bombardment qualifies.” She swallowed with a sick look on her face. “The surface security cameras on the perimeter of the mine picked up this image at 0900 hours this morning.” Abruptly, the image of a pristine forest appeared on the screen. There were no sounds except the faint twitter of feathered bird-like creatures fluttering from branch to branch among trees that were virtually indistinguishable from Earth’s redwoods. Above the tops of the trees, an ugly grey cloud appeared. It billowed silently upward, assuming the shape of a mushroom. Then the shockwave arrived, blowing the branches explosively from the trees, pseudobirds and all, before the picture went black. The woman’s distressed face reappeared.

“None of my workers have left the mine since the explosion, and thus far our radiation levels are within acceptable limits. I don’t know the extent of the surface destruction, but the fact that the colony’s subspace transceiver isn’t functioning is an ominous sign. It was in orbit.” She sighed heavily. “There are twenty-one of us here. I have no idea if anyone else has survived. I don’t know who attacked us.” Her eyes filled with tears. “My husband and family were at Second Chance settlement. I hope Starfleet isn’t responsible for this attack. My husband was a Terra Primer, but he didn’t deserve this. No one does.”

Admiral Gardner’s face reappeared on the screen while Archer was still attempting to absorb what he’d seen.

“A nuclear attack?” he asked Gardner in disbelief. “Who would do that to a civilian colony?”

“I have no idea, Jon...but if even one of our loyal agents entertains the idea that Starfleet might be responsible, it won’t be long before we’re going to hear accusations flying. You have to find out who did this and rescue any survivors... but be careful. Whoever did this may still be in orbit,” warned Gardner. “Not only that... but if the colonists believe we did this, they may attack anyone in Starfleet uniform attempting to rescue them.”

“Admiral, with all due respect... this is beginning to sound like a mission for more than one ship. How are we supposed to mount rescue operations and defend an entire planet from nuclear bombardment?” asked Archer.

Gardner nodded. “You’re right, Jon. The Columbia’s on its way. Their ETA is one week behind yours, though, so you’ll need to do your best alone until they arrive. Keep me posted on your progress, Captain,” said the admiral brusquely. Then, before Archer could acknowledge his instructions, he cut the connection. Archer sat back in his chair and stared at the blank vid screen.

This is getting more impossible by the minute, he thought in disgust. After a few moments of thought, he decided to delegate. He got on the comm.

“Archer to Phlox,” he announced.

“How may I help you, Captain?” came Phlox’s insufferably cheerful reply.

“Please come to my quarters, Doctor... I have a job for you,” said Archer.

Kov strode down the hall of Ben Taub hospital’s rehab unit, searching for room 318. Charles Tucker had been pronounced well enough for a more vigorous physical therapy regimen in preparation for his anticipated discharge in less than a week, and had been moved to the rehab floor. His Vulcan hearing picked up his foster-father’s distinctive accent long before he rounded the corner and caught sight of his destination.

“What’re ya’ll tryin’ ta do? Kill me or somethin’?” the older man demanded.

“Now, Mister Tucker...” replied a soothing professional baritone, “...You know very well that this is for your own good!”

“Yeah, Dad...” chimed in Trip Tucker’s recognizable voice. “... besides, if ya don’t do it now, ya know Mom’ll make ya do it twice as many times later on.”

“She’ll probably make me do it twice as many times anyway,” replied Charles grumpily. When Kov walked into the room, Trip and a handsome young man in a white nurse’s uniform stood on either side of Charles’ bed watching him blow forcefully and repetitively into a small hand-held device to exercise his lungs while he held a pillow against his right side, wincing with every repetition.

“There... are ya happy now?” he asked them as he handed the device to the nurse. The nurse smiled approvingly at him.

“Very good, Mister Tucker! You did a wonderful job. I’ll see you again in two hours. Don’t go anywhere now!” He grinned conspiratorially at Trip and then left the room. Charles Tucker glared after him.

“That boy enjoys his work too damn much!” he growled. Then his face lit up into a welcoming smile as he noticed Kov standing just inside the doorway.

“Hey, Kov... c’mon in, boy!” called Charles enthusiastically. “I didn’t see ya yesterday. Whatcha been up to?” Trip grinned as well, and sat on one end of the visitor’s day bed in the corner of the room, motioning for Kov to come and join him. He’d seen Kov at work that day, but the Vulcan had seemed unusually quiet and withdrawn, even for a Vulcan. Kov sat down gingerly on the other end of the day bed facing both Tucker men. He appeared hesitant.

“I spent the evening with Janie yesterday,” he admitted, “... and I am in need of some advice,” he told them.

Charles and Trip exchanged grins. “Woman trouble!” they said in unison.

“You were mopin’ around all day today at work,” said Trip in realization. “I shoulda known what the problem was.” He looked sympathetically at Kov. “What’s the matter, did ya not do somethin’ she thought ya should do, or did ya do somethin’ she thought ya shouldn’t?”

Kov looked back at him in puzzlement and mulled over his question for a moment, trying to make sense of it. Finally, he gave up and just came right out and told them.

“Janie wishes to get married,” he said. Both Tuckers stared at him for a moment, and then got identically delighted grins on their faces.

“She’s got it bad if she’s proposin’ ta you, boy,” said Charles with a laugh. “What did ya tell her?”

He looked down at his hands, and then back up at Trip and Charles. Their smiles faded as they recognized his genuine distress. “I told her that I felt that she was not yet ready for marriage.”

Trip winced. To a woman like Janie, Kov might as well have just thrown down a gauntlet with those words. She’d consider them a challenge of her ability to make independent decisions.

“What did she say after that?” Trip asked reluctantly.

Kov sighed. “She pointed out to me that she was a legal adult, financially responsible and capable of making her own decisions. When I pointed out to her that there were also certain... physical... aspects of marriage for which I felt she was not fully prepared, she proceeded to demonstrate to me that she is much better prepared for that aspect of our relationship than I initially suspected.”

Both Trip and Charles looked very surprised, and not a little embarrassed by Kov’s revelation. Trip cleared his throat. “So you two... I mean y’all had...”

“No!” Kov interjected hastily, “Of course not!” He paused. “We might have, though, had we not been interrupted by Mr. Turnbull’s arrival.”

Charles grinned. He couldn’t help it. It reminded him too much of getting caught on the porch swing by Catherine’s father nearly forty years before. “Busted!” he whispered. Both Trip and Kov gave him a quelling look. He gazed back at them innocently.

“What?” he asked Trip. “That’s never happened to ya, I suppose?” Trip rolled his eyes and turned back to Kov.

“So let me get this straight... She wants ta get married and you don’t?” he asked Kov. Kov shook his head.

“She is my chosen mate, Trip. Of course I want to marry her. We simply disagree on the proper timing,” he replied.

“Why does she wanna get married now?” asked Charles. Kov gazed back at him with an uncomfortable look on his face.

“Her reasons are quite logical. I have taken a job with the university, and will be moving to College Station with her in the fall. We plan to share accommodations to save on living expenses, and she wishes to avoid the scandal that could ensue should the administration believe that one of its professors is in an inappropriate relationship with a student,” he admitted.

Trip looked puzzled. “So why is there a problem? Why don’t ya just marry the girl? If you were plannin’ ta marry her anyway, what difference would a few months make?”

Kov straightened and looked him in the eye. “My plan was to wait until she’d completed college and was established in her career before marriage. That is how it is done on Vulcan,” he said stubbornly. Both Trip and Charles looked back at him in disbelief.

“You expected her ta wait for probably five years before y’all got married... all the while havin’ ta keep the relationship secret so you didn’t get in trouble with your bosses at the university?” Trip asked him in amusement. “Kov... You’re nuts!” he said with a laugh. “There’s no Human woman alive that would put up with that unless there was no other choice.” He shook his head and sighed. “Take it from me, havin’ ta hide the way ya feel about the one ya love is not somethin’ ya wanna put either of you through, Kov. Just marry the girl!”

Kov nodded in acknowledgement of Trip’s recommendation, and then turned to Charles. “Would you also advise me to marry her now, sir?” he asked. The older Tucker smiled at the young Vulcan and gave him some fatherly advice.

“You’re damn right I would, son. She sounds like a keeper ta me!... Now let me tell ya about how I proposed ta Catherine...”

So many of the crew had expressed an interest in watching the basketball game that the captain had authorized the construction of bleachers in Cargo Bay Two for the alpha shift crew, who would be off duty during the game, and a video hookup for the beta shift so that they could watch the game from the nearest console, if they so desired. Archer had deliberately refrained from making a general announcement to the crew concerning the situation on Second Chance. No one on board had family or friends on the colony world, and he saw no reason to spoil the game by prematurely revealing such distressing news. The command crew was aware of the situation, of course... and so was Doctor Phlox, for the captain had placed him in charge of rescue operations. He had spent the past several days optimistically producing large batches of medication for radiation sickness... hoping despite his fears that there would be survivors who would require it.

Skon and Hess had independently decided not to reveal the tragedy to the members of the Engineering department’s basketball team... who’d decided to call themselves the “Motley Crew”. Security’s team, composed of Mitchell, Morris, Baker, Sanders, and Stevenson... all members of Lieutenant Commander Malcolm Reed’s elite and personally trained security unit... were calling themselves “Reed’s Rangers”. Although he knew nothing to speak of about basketball, the Lieutenant Commander was, of course, present to cheer on his men.

Lieutenant Commander Reed and Lieutenant Hoshi Sato, who had until recently been enjoying a rather idyllic “honeymoon” period in their relationship thanks to an uneventful journey with lots of free time on their hands, were having a bit of a disagreement over her loyalties. For reasons Malcolm was unable to fathom, she had chosen to place money on the opposing team. Malcolm would soon find out exactly why she had chosen to bet in that manner. No one but the members of the team, a few selected members of the Engineering staff, and the Chief Communications Officer, who’d just happened to overhear a conversation on the bridge between Mr. Skon and an Engineering crewman who’d come to do maintenance on his work station, knew about the Motley Crew’s secret weapon... at least, no one besides the secret weapon himself.

Hoshi sat in the bleachers a few crewmembers away from Malcolm. Now that they were no longer of equivalent rank, they made an effort not to be seen too often together in public while off duty. She watched his face instead of the court as he observed the members of “his” team doing calisthenics and ball drills in center court. Reed’s Rangers wore Starfleet regulation blue sweat suits and identically fierce expressions on their faces. A murmur ran through the crowd as the Motley Crew took the floor and began to run laps around the court to warm up. In deference to the wardrobe challenges faced by one of the members of their team, they all wore matching duty jumpsuits. Hoshi suppressed a giggle when she saw the incredulous look on Malcolm’s face. He stared at her accusingly.

“You knew!” he mouthed in the pandemonium that ensued as the entire crew complement present at the game began talking at once about the Motley Crew’s surprise team member.

She grinned happily back at him. “Inside information!” she mouthed back. They both turned back to the court as an emergency meeting was called between the coaches of both teams and the referees... who were impartial volunteers. Ensign Travis Mayweather was one of them. Crewman Elizabeth Cutler... a closet basketball fanatic who’d been temporarily released from duty by Dr. Phlox to fulfill her role as referee despite the upcoming medical crisis... was the other. After several minutes of deliberation, it was determined that no limits had been officially set on who could be recruited for each team. Any member of the crew was eligible, and so, to the dismay of everyone in the room who’d expected an easy victory by the battle-hardened graduates of Lieutenant Commander Reed’s legendarily difficult training regimen, the teams were allowed to stand.

Ensign Mayweather stood in center court with the basketball poised in his right hand. When he called for the teams to send a player for the tip off, no one was surprised when Mitchell ended up face to face...well... upper chest, anyway... with Skon across the circle. Mayweather tossed the ball high into the air as he blew the whistle. Just as the ball began to fall to the ground from the highest point in its arc, but while it was easily still at least ten feet from the ground and well out of reach for any Human in the room, Skon’s fingertips tapped it forcefully, sending it unerringly toward Nordstrom, who caught it and dribbled toward the goal for only a few yards before being cornered by Morris against the sideline. Unable to break free of Morris, Nordstrom passed the ball to Ndele. Skon began to run directly toward the goal then, with amazing gracefulness for someone with such long, gawky-looking limbs at rest. Ndele dribbled in place for a moment, pressed heavily by Stevenson, and then executed a bounce pass to Gomez, who was in the clear. Gomez threw the ball directly at Skon’s head as he stood under the basket. The ball traveled over Mitchell’s head as he valiantly attempted to guard a man nearly a foot taller than he was. Skon caught the ball at his own eye level and coolly executed a jump shot, depositing the ball into the basket... nothing but net. It had taken all of twenty seconds. Malcolm sighed as he gazed at Hoshi’s delighted expression. This was going to be a very embarrassing... and rather expensive... recreational activity. At least Hoshi would have money to spend on their next leave.

Captain Jonathan Archer had not been able to bring himself to attend the basketball game that evening. He’d spent the entire day in closed conferences with various members of his command staff... going over various possible contact scenarios and rescue plans, and preparing for both friendly and hostile reactions on the part of the remaining inhabitants of the colony... and was as prepared as he thought possible for what he would be facing when they arrived at Second Chance in only forty-eight hours. The memories of the mushroom cloud and the distraught face of the dilithium mine director were still fresh in his mind.

He did have the game playing on the console in his quarters as he sat propped up in his bunk and puzzled over yet another attempt at a message to Elena on the PADD he had propped in his lap. He looked up at the sound of another cheer coming from the console. It appeared that the underdogs were well on their way to a resounding victory, thanks to a most unexpected development. He chuckled and shook his head. When he’d agreed to the posting of another Vulcan on the Enterprise, he’d had no idea how well the man would fit in. Although he missed T’Pol considerably, it was going to be difficult for everyone when Skon left the ship. Archer had no doubt that the Vulcan had a great future ahead of him in diplomacy.

He sighed over the final result of several hours of effort over the past two days, and decided that it would just have to do. He felt rather guilty over spending so much of his time agonizing over a personal message when such tragedy awaited them at their destination, but the reminder he’d recently been given of his mortality made him appreciate what Elena meant to him even more than before, and he had no intention of letting her get away from him now. He got up from the bed, downloaded his message, and pressed send before he had the chance to change his mind. Then he sat at his desk and got down to the business of composing a general announcement to the crew about the very dangerous situation they were about to be in. He planned to make the announcement the following day at 0800 hours. It was time for everyone to become involved.

When Kov arrived that evening at the Turnbull house, he had his hands full. After transferring the wrapped package in his right hand to beneath his left arm, he checked his shirt pocket again to make certain that the box was still there, got a better grip on the bouquet of red roses in his left hand, and rang the door buzzer. Sam answered the door.

Kov cleared his throat and straightened his shoulders. “Is Janie at home? I have come to dinner,” he said. Sam’s jaw dropped when he saw the flowers.

“Janie! Kov’s here!” he yelled over his shoulder as he kept a cautious eye on this man who looked like Kov, but wasn’t acting very much like him. He stood in the doorway, blocking the Vulcan’s way in. Kov retrieved the package from beneath his left arm and handed it to the boy.

“These are for you,” he said. Sam’s eyes grew wide. He reached for the box with both hands and tore into the wrapper, revealing a large economy-sized box of chocolate covered caramels... his favorite candy. A grin split his face.

“Thanks, Kov!” he said happily, and turned to run up the stairs and hide in his room to eat them all before supper. The threshold was now unbarred, and Kov stepped into the entrance hall. Janie passed a thrilled-looking Sam on her way down the stairs. She greeted Kov with a smile.

“What was that all about?” she asked with a mystified expression. She was beautiful that evening in the sleeveless green dress and sandals that he liked so much. He stared at her as he replied distractedly.

“A bribe,” he told her matter-of-factly. “I was advised to do so to avoid interruptions this evening.”

She laughed lightly as if she thought he was joking, and before he could inform her of her misperception, she noticed the bouquet of flowers in his left hand. Her smile of wonder rivaled Sam’s response to the candy. Kov felt gratified that his attempts to follow his instructions precisely were not in vain. He extended the blooms toward her.

“Beautiful flowers for a beautiful woman,” he told her softly, holding her eyes with his. She blushed as she took the flowers from him.

“Kov!” she protested with a laugh. “What’s got inta you tonight?” He simply gave her a subtle smile, making her blush even more furiously. She gave him a puzzled look.

“I’ll just go put these in water,” she told him. “Mr. Turnbull is in the living room if you’d like to go and visit while I put the rolls in the oven. Do ya want somethin’ ta drink?” He shook his head wordlessly and stood watching her as she walked toward the kitchen. The contrast of the blood-red roses against her Kelly green dress and waist-length auburn hair was quite aesthetically pleasing. She looked back at him with a befuddled expression as he remained motionless in the entrance hall, and then she entered the kitchen, breaking the spell. He blinked... and then turned briskly to join Ralph Turnbull in the living room. Mr. Turnbull stood and extended his hand as Kov entered.

“Welcome, Kov. I’m so happy you could come this evening!” he said with a forthright smile. Kov gripped his hand firmly and made eye contact, as per his instructions.

“Thank you for having me, sir. You have a beautiful home,” he said.

Ralph Turnbull chuckled. “You’ve been here before, Kov... why the social pleasantries now? It’s not required, ya know... I know that Vulcans don’t usually do small talk.”

“This is an unusual evening, Mr. Turnbull,” replied Kov honestly. “Tonight, I plan to ask Janie to marry me. I realize that you are not her father, sir... but he is not available, and I would like your opinion on the matter.”

Ralph Turnbull’s brows shot up in surprise. He sat back down in his easy chair, motioning for Kov to sit beside him on the couch, and stared at the young Vulcan in a puzzled fashion.

“You want my approval, son? Why? Janie’s my housekeeper, not my daughter.”

Kov nodded. “I realize that, sir... but I have come to realize that you have her best interests at heart, and I would not wish to do anything that would hurt her in any way. If you were her father, sir... would you approve of my proposal?”

Ralph Turnbull cocked his head to the side and considered Kov’s statement for a moment with a smile on his face. Then he sat back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest. If Kov needed a sounding board... he was willing.

“Janie’s awful young ta get married son... Convince me,” he said.

Janie led Kov by the hand out onto the porch. The night was quiet, with only the sound of crickets to keep them company. They sat together on the porch swing with Kov’s arm resting along the back of the swing. Janie snuggled close and started the swing moving. They kicked along together for a minute or two in silence.

“I could tell you liked the supper, Kov... you had two helpings,” Janie said softly with a smile on her face.

“I enjoy rice and beans,” he replied. “These were very well-seasoned.”

She laughed softly. “Red beans and rice are supposed to be peppery, Kov... they wouldn’t really be red beans and rice otherwise.”

“Vulcans enjoy well-seasoned food,” he told her.

“So is that why ya had four glasses of ice water with dinner?” she teased. She turned her head to look at his face, and reached up to lace her fingers in his as they draped over her shoulder. He looked down at her and smiled... a rather more obvious smile than usual. She could sense a feeling of anticipation welling up inside of him.

“You’re doin’ it again!” she said in an admonishing tone. His eyes widened in mock innocence, but she felt his anticipation transform itself into a feeling of joyful expectation. “Kov! Tell me!” she chided him. He cocked his head at her as if he were deciding whether to accede to her request, and then dragged his feet to stop the swing. When it had come to a halt, he turned to face her.

“You made a suggestion two days ago, the merits of which I have spent a considerable amount of time discussing with persons whom I trust and respect. All of them have given me the same advice,” he told her. Janie looked at him in puzzlement, as if he were being deliberately obtuse. Kov got up from the swing, and got down on one knee on the wooden boards of the porch. When he pulled the small box from his shirt pocket, Janie finally figured out what he was up to. He handed her the box. As she opened it, he asked the question she’d been waiting for.

“Miss Janie Rafter, would you do me the honor of becoming my wife?” He gazed into her eyes. She smiled wetly at him through welling tears and then looked at the dainty gold band with a small diamond solitaire that reflected the light shining through the living room window. Then she burst into sobs and threw both arms around his neck. He wrapped his arms around her and gently stroked her back as she cried. On his face was a look of genuine puzzlement.

“Is that a yes or a no?” he asked her in a bewildered voice. She pulled back, wiping her eyes and laughing, and handed him the ring box. She offered him her left hand. He cocked his head at her briefly, and then realized what she wanted him to do. Taking the delicate ring from its resting place on black velvet, he placed it on the third finger of her left hand... since that was the finger she held up.

She smiled at him. “It’s a yes, you silly man... what did ya expect? I asked you first!”

Elena Sanchez threw down the PADD containing her newest client’s deposition and turned to the console to check her message-waiting indicator for the sixth time in three hours... still nothing. She felt tremendously guilty over the time she’d been wasting checking and rechecking her messages. Her defense client, a Mr. Jack Gardner, whose mother had sought her out and engaged her services specifically because she had the reputation for never giving up on a case, deserved more of her attention than she was currently giving him. She picked up the PADD again, but found it so difficult to concentrate that she turned on the vid screen instead. The evening news had just begun. The video footage on the screen caught her eye. Then she read the caption, and her blood ran cold. She turned up the volume.

“The EBC brings you a world exclusive. Anonymous sources within Starfleet Command have confirmed that this is actual footage from a message sent by subspace transmission from the colony at Second Chance only a few days ago. Starfleet official sources have denied responsibility for the attack, and no official confirmation of the authenticity of the footage has been given. Stay tuned to this network for breaking stories as they occur.”

During the announcer’s message, footage of a mushroom cloud above pristine forest followed by a devastating shock wave repeated itself several times. Elena’s gut twisted. She did a feverish mental calculation. When would the Enterprise arrive at Second Chance based on its departure date from Earth and a travel time of... what? Twenty days? Twenty-one days? She couldn’t remember. Was he there now? Or worse... had he been there at the time of the attack?

She returned to her console, intending to send him a message and confirm that he was well. Instead, she found a message waiting for her. The transmission date and time was that very evening. She opened it, and closed her eyes in relief. It was from Jon.

“Dear Elena,

I’m sorry I’ve taken so long to return your message... again. Things are getting busier around here, but that’s not the reason why I’ve taken so long. I was thinking about your last message, and your very handsome and smart little nephew. You’re right, you know. Those of us who delay marriage and children to pursue our careers miss a lot of things that other people take for granted. Recently, I’ve come face to face with my own mortality, and it’s made me realize that I’ve been too focused on my career. I need to pay much more attention to the things that are most important in life. My relationship with you is one of those things, Elena. After all this business is over and I’m back on Earth... and I do intend to come back... don’t ever doubt that, my love, no matter what happens... I’m looking forward to spending a lot more time enjoying the important things. I love you.


Her eyes filled with tears as she re-read the words “no matter what happens...” She could read between the lines. He knew there was a chance that he would not return to her.

“I love you, too, mi querido,” she whispered. “May God protect you.”

The Enterprise came out of warp at the periphery of the Galorndon system. The principal M-class planet in the system, the one surveyors had named the “core” due to its position within the center of a several hundred-thousand kilometer wide asteroid field, was an unstable, barely habitable place prone to freak electromagnetic storms that interfered with sensors and effectively prevented the use of transporter technology. Fortunately for the exiled members of Terra Prime, the other M-class planet in the system, initially named “Galorndon Fringe” for its position outside the field of huge asteroids, was a veritable paradise, and had been officially renamed “Second Chance” with the arrival of the first batch of colonists. Captain Jonathan Archer doubted that it was much of a paradise anymore. Nuclear bombardment tended to do that to a planet.

“Long range sensors show no ships in the vicinity, Captain,” volunteered Skon in a deadpan voice. His demeanor was no different from the way he’d been two days before, except perhaps for the slightest straightening of his posture, as if his height were no longer the stigma it once had been. Despite the fact that Archer’s announcement had put a definite dampener on the crew’s festivities, Skon had nevertheless been treated as a celebrity by the entire ship’s crew since the basketball game. He thus far seemed to be taking the extra attention in stride. In typical Vulcan fashion, he was not allowing it to interfere with his duties in the slightest... but he had spent at least a few moments of his off-duty time each day for the past two days signing autographs in the dining hall. It had been Lieutenant Commander Hess’ idea. Archer would have found the entire situation very amusing had they not been in the middle of potentially life-threatening circumstances.

“All ahead, full impulse, Mr. Mayweather,” said Archer. “Tactical alert, Mr. Reed... but silence the siren, if you please.”

Lieutenant Commander Reed gave the captain a rather disappointed look, but complied with his orders.

“Weapons are on-line and hull-plating is polarized, Captain,” he replied.

The Enterprise negotiated the asteroid field without incident, because of Ensign Mayweather’s near-psychic piloting skills, and passed by Galorndon Core on the way to their destination.

“I am picking up weapons’ fire and the presence of four ships in the vicinity of Galorndon Core, Captain,” said Skon calmly.

“Can you identify the ships?” asked Archer.

“The planet’s atmosphere is interfering with the sensors, but I may be able to get a visual in a moment,” replied Skon as he rapidly made adjustments on his console. The image on the view screen suddenly changed from a long-range view of the planet to a closer-range image of a graceful, bird-like vessel with what appeared to be feathered wings painted on its hull being chased and fired upon by three larger ships. The ships looked vaguely familiar.

“That’s a Romulan ship!” exclaimed Ensign Mayweather.

“And one of the ships chasing it is the missing transport that was commandeered by the colonists,” put in Reed. His eyes narrowed as he checked his sensor readings. The four ships streaked past the Enterprise, traveling toward the periphery of the system. The Romulan ship entered warp and then simply vanished. The other three ships entered warp in hot pursuit. The transport was supposed to have a maximum speed of warp three, but the lead pursuit ship was going much faster than that. Reed blinked as he rechecked his sensor readings. All three ships had left the system traveling in excess of warp six in pursuit of the Romulan. Reed studied the recording again.

“Captain, the other two ships have an unfamiliar hull design, but they’re definitely Earth technology, sir. Should we pursue and assist?”

Archer raised an ironic brow. “I doubt we could keep up with them, Mr. Reed... and it looks like they have the situation under control. We’d be better off going to Second Chance and beginning rescue operations. When those ships return, if their captains see that we’re making an attempt at rescue, perhaps we won’t end up like the Romulan,” he replied.

Both shuttle bays were a bustle of activity as crews prepared the shuttles for the transportation of personnel to the surface to begin rescue attempts. It was decided to make an initial attempt at the one site where it was certain colonists had survived the initial bombardment... the dilithium mine in the foothills of Mount Empire State, the largest peak in the Skyscraper range just east of the colony. Equipment and supplies would be transported later, once the number of survivors and their needs had been determined. All crewmembers participating in the away mission were volunteers, and were dressed in full EV suits for radiation protection. Although Archer had tried his best to convince Phlox to remain on board, citing his importance both to the ship and to the survivors, and reminding him of the rampant xenophobia amongst the inhabitants of Second Chance, Phlox had been adamant that he could not treat patients from orbit, and had insisted on being included in the rescue team. Crewman Elizabeth Cutler likewise insisted on accompanying him. Archer compromised, and split the two of them up on separate shuttles. The remainder of the away teams on both shuttles were volunteer security personnel... armed to the teeth and trained in search and rescue. The medics and nurses in Sickbay were on full alert for casualties, with extra beds placed in the decon chamber and radiation sickness meds at the ready.

“Phlox to Captain Archer... We are ready for departure,” announced the doctor over his helmet comm from his seat, riding shotgun in Shuttlepod One.

“Acknowledged, Doctor,” replied Archer from the bridge. “Shuttlepod One, you are cleared for launch.”

The shuttlepod bearing the doctor and his team left its docking arm after riding it through the shuttlebay doors. Shortly after it was released, Shuttlepod Two followed in its wake.

During a sensor survey of the vicinity of the mine, no life signs had been detected. Since the subterranean passageways extended over two kilometers into the rock at the foot of Mount Empire State, and the sensors were unable to penetrate so deeply into solid rock, Archer and Phlox had made the decision to mount a rescue attempt anyway. It was by no means guaranteed to be a success, but considering that a transmission had been received from that location from a living survivor of the attack, and the fact that the protected location of the passageways should have provided some shielding from the radiation, if there were survivors, they would hopefully not be in the final stages of radiation poisoning by the time the rescue party located them.

Unfortunately, as the Enterprise continued its orbital scans, it became increasingly obvious that unless there were other protected locations of which the searchers were not aware, any survivors found in the dilithium mine were very likely to be the only living colonists remaining on the planet. The original colony site, home to over four hundred men, women, and children, had taken a direct hit. There were no life signs there at all, and the radiation levels remaining at the site of impact would have been fatal even to an EV suit protected Human in a matter of hours. A ground based rescue attempt in that location was too high-risk... and doomed to certain failure. As the Enterprise continued its orbital scans, the site of the shipyard’s orbital facility came into view. It had been severely damaged by what sensors determined was disruptor fire. The habitat was breached, and debris, including several bodies, orbited with the station. There were five docking bays. Two of them contained the wreckage of starships, obviously of Earth origin but of an unfamiliar design, and apparently only partially completed at the time of their destruction. The other three were empty. On the surface of the planet, in a geosynchronous position with the orbital facility, were the remains of the parts production facility, also a radioactive ruin with no detectable life signs. The attackers had done an extremely thorough job.

“I am detecting no life signs anywhere, Captain,” pronounced Skon. His face was somber... as if even he were affected by the grim reality before them. The bridge crew sat silently... still in shock over what they were witnessing. Archer exhaled shakily with his jaw clenched. He remained dry-eyed only with great effort.

“Contact the rescue party concerning their progress, Lieutenant,” he said to Hoshi softly. Hoshi hurriedly wiped the tears from her face and placed her earpiece in her ear.

“Yes, sir... right away, sir,” she said.

When Medic Crewman Liz Cutler stepped out of Shuttlepod Two onto the surface of Second Chance for the first time, the landing site looked like something out of an old sci-fi “B” movie. Rescue workers in bright orange EV suits, their faceplates opaqued to minimize radiation exposure, labored purposefully to repair the mineshaft elevator that would allow them access to the lower levels of the mine. They worked in a grey, dust-filled twilight, despite the fact that the Galorndon system’s sun was clearly visible directly overhead in the murky atmosphere. The massive trunks of thousands of trees felled by the shockwave of the nuclear explosion were laid out on the hills as far as the eye could see, their crowns all pointed in the same direction. Not a single living thing remained standing except the workers in their bright fluorescent suits.

Cutler pulled out her tricorder. At their current location, the fallout from the explosion was the primary source of radiation. Fallout dust lay in a fine powdery layer over everything, and was suspended in the atmosphere so thickly that none of the rescue party dared to remove their helmets. Her tricorder recorded radiation levels high enough to make an unprotected person ill, but not enough to kill without prolonged exposure. With proper treatment afterwards, it would be possible to transfer any survivors that they found to the shuttlepods without protective equipment. Now all they had to do was find someone to rescue.

The medic hoisted her medical kit in her right hand and approached a thickset figure who stood watching the group of rescue workers who were repairing the mineshaft elevator. The man who stood within the cage gave the generator operator a thumb’s up, and the cage disappeared down the shaft, empty except for a single brave volunteer.

“Any sign of survivors, Doctor?” she asked the portly fellow beside her. She couldn’t see his face in the suit, but his silhouette was unmistakable. She found his familiar bulk comforting in the midst of the destruction around her. Phlox turned his body toward her and cleared his faceplate.

“Crewman Morris was communicating with someone down below a few moments ago,” he told her with a smile. “One of the workers was apparently familiar with Starfleet security broadcast codes, because she sent our security team a coded message. We didn’t pick up anything from the surface because she didn’t want to attract attention... with good reason, in my opinion,” he added wryly. Cutler tongued the control that cleared her faceplate, and then smiled at him in relief. They both turned their heads as the elevator cage came back up with the first batch of survivors. They appeared tired and hungry, but otherwise seemed well. Cutler and Phlox exchanged glances, and then opaqued their face plates again. It would only traumatize these men more to learn that their doctor was not Human. Then both of them stepped forward with med kits in hand to render assistance.

“Phlox here,” came the doctor’s voice over the comm in response to Lieutenant Sato’s hail.

“How are things going down there, doctor?” asked Archer briskly. The utter destruction he’d just witnessed had filled him with a fierce desire to salvage what he could from the wreckage of the colony. He wanted to do something.

“The first group of five survivors has received prophylactic radiation sickness treatment and can be transported directly to decon, Captain. We should have the second group ready in about thirty minutes... and I have some wonderful news!” announced Phlox. His enthusiasm was contagious. Archer smiled despite himself at Phlox’s boundless optimism in the face of disaster. He shook his head in wonder. The Denobulan’s glass, it seemed, was always half-full.

“It’s about time we got some good news, Doctor,” replied Archer.

“A woman by the name of Marianne Jackson... she says she’s the dilithium mine director... has a map of this area with over a dozen other mines on it... each potentially with at least five survivors. The other mines were mostly automated... for things like iron ore, copper and the like, but they did have some staff. I’d like to take one shuttle and a few of the men and search the areas she’s indicated on the map. Crewman Cutler can continue here,” said Phlox.

“Go ahead, Phlox... just be careful,” warned Archer in a concerned tone. The doctor had been a friend to him over these past very difficult months, and he had no desire to see a good friend die at the hands of xenophobes.

“I will, Jon,” Phlox replied reassuringly. “My faceplate will remain opaque, never fear.”

“It better,” replied Archer with a smile. “You still owe me money from our last bet on the Pacific coast regional finals.”

Phlox laughed. “I intend to win the next time we wager on water polo, and then I’ll owe you nothing!” There was a pause as he spoke with someone beyond the reach of his microphone. “The team’s ready to leave now, Captain,” he said in a serious voice... all business now that there was a job to do. “I’ll contact you when we locate more survivors.”

“Acknowledged, Doctor,” replied Archer as he eyed the amused faces of the bridge crew. “Enterprise out.”

Captain James Stiles sighed in frustration. Not even the experimental engine and the phase cannons that the colonists had installed in his ship had made it possible for him to destroy an enemy that he couldn’t see. The bastards responsible for the murder of half of his crew were still at large. He was beginning to wonder if he’d done the right thing when he’d agreed to help the rebel colonists by commanding the newly armed and refitted Perseus in a battle not of his making. The alien’s destruction of the space station during a trial of Perseus’ new engine had forced his hand. The rebels had forced him to come aboard as an advisor, and once everything was destroyed, Stiles had seen no good reason not to join them in their mission.

To be completely fair to the colonists, the battle hadn’t been of their making, either. The nuclear attack had been hideously thorough and completely unprovoked... and he’d probably be dead with the rest of his crew on the orbital station if he hadn’t agreed to help... but now that Rafter was beside himself with grief over the total destruction of the colony, Stiles wasn’t sure of the man’s stability. During his last communication with Rafter in his role as captain of the Avenger, one of the newly produced battleship prototypes that the Second Chance shipyard had apparently been gearing up to mass-produce prior to its destruction, Rafter had been so single-minded in his desire for revenge that he’d refused to listen to reason. The new ships were untried. They hadn’t even had engines in them before Rafter and his fellow engineers had arrived three weeks previously and proceeded to take over the orbital station and the shipyard. It was extremely unwise, in Stiles’ opinion, to rely on them in a combat situation. Rafter and his counterpart on the other ship, the one the colonists had christened the Punisher, disagreed. Jackson, the other fellow who was nominally in command... apparently by virtue of the fact that he’d held a position of authority in the colony, and so the men who actually knew how to operate the ship... but not how to give orders... were willing to listen to him... was just as hell-bent on revenge as Rafter was. Stiles really couldn’t blame them. The aliens had murdered everyone. There wasn’t a single Human life sign left on the whole planet. Their three ships, each with skeleton crews of twenty volunteers, held all that was left of over four hundred colonists.

“Sensors show an Earth ship in orbit around the planet,” said the Perseus’ comm officer. “Should I hail them, sir?”

Stiles nodded. “On screen,” he said.

The image of the USS Enterprise.... so famous since the Xindi war that it was easily identifiable even by the colonists who were manning the stations left empty by the deaths of his regular crew... filled the screen. Before he had a chance to open hailing frequencies to begin negotiations with the new arrival, the Punisher streaked past him directly toward the Enterprise.

“Captain... the Punisher has weapons online and is targeting the Enterprise,” said his comm officer in disbelief. The young man was a colonist, but by the sound of his voice and the expression on his face, he was horrified by what Jackson and his crew apparently intended to do.

“Open a channel to the Punisher and activate phase cannons,” said Stiles grimly. If he couldn’t do any damage to the sick freaks who’d murdered nearly four hundred people in cold blood, the least he could do was to prevent more killing for no good reason.

Enterprise... This is the Second Chance ship Punisher,” said Jackson in a distinctive southern drawl. “If yer here ta teach us a lesson, the Romulans already beat ya to the punch,” the man continued bitterly. “There’s nothin’ left, so ya might as well get the hell outta here and let us finish what they started.” His face on the view screen held a look of desperation and hopeless anger. “I appreciate what ya did for us on the way out here a couple months back... but if ya get in our way we’re gonna shoot. We’ve got nothin’ left ta live for, so you’d best be believin’ me.”

“You’re wrong Mr. Jackson,” replied Archer in a calm, reassuring tone. “I just spoke to your wife myself. She’s in our sickbay. She survived the attack.”

Jackson’s face twisted in anger. “Yer lying, ya sick sonofabitch! We did orbital scans for four days! There’s nobody left!” He turned to an unseen crewman... presumably the weapons officer. “Target their engines!” Then he turned back to Archer.

“If ya don’t go away now and leave us be, I’m gonna make sure ya can’t interfere. Those Romulans’ll be comin’ back soon with reinforcements since that last ship got away, and nothin’s gonna stop me from blowin’ ‘em outta the sky. I don’t need no pussyfootin’ alien lovers stickin’ their noses in where they don’t belong,” shouted Jackson in fury.

“Captain...” reported Skon calmly. “The other two ships are moving into position between us and the Punisher.

Archer turned to Lieutenant Reed in alarm. “Can we take on all three, Mr. Reed? How are they armed?”

Reed studied the sensor readings. “Each of them appears to be a match for us in armaments, Captain... but I don’t think we’ll have to fight all three of them. The Perseus and the Avenger both have a weapons lock on the Punisher.” He looked up at the captain in surprise. “They’re protecting us, sir,” he said in disbelief. Archer’s brows went up. Then he had an idea.

“Archer to sickbay.”

“Yes, sir... how can I help you?” The voice of the medic who answered the comm was raspy with fatigue.

“Send Marianne Jackson to the bridge immediately... It’s an emergency, crewman!”

“Yes sir!” replied the medic in a suddenly stronger voice...his energy seemingly revitalized by Archer’s urgent tone. “I’ll escort her myself, sir. Sickbay out.” Archer sighed and rubbed his forehead, closing his eyes wearily. If the man’s own wife couldn’t convince him to back down, then they were fresh out of non-violent options.

“Captain!” cried Lieutenant Commander Reed. “The Punisher is being fired upon!”

Archer’s head came up. “By which ship?” he asked in disbelief. “All of these ships are allies!”

“Not all of them... look,” replied Malcolm. A close-up view of the newcomers that had materialized seemingly out of thin air to surround the three Second Chance ships appeared on the screen. There were four of them. All of them had a distinctive feathered wing design painted on their hulls that the entire bridge crew recognized. Apparently, the Avenger and the Perseus recognized the attackers as well. They both came about and immediately returned fire... their disagreement with Jackson forgotten in the presence of a common enemy. The Punisher had come about as well, and had joined her sister ships in the counter attack, leaving Enterprise momentarily unthreatened by either side. Archer quickly considered his options. No officially sanctioned Starfleet vessel had yet engaged these Romulans. If Enterprise stayed out of the fight, it was conceivable that negotiations would still be possible which would prevent an interplanetary war. He watched disruptor fire raked the Punisher’s port nacelle, disintegrating it in the process. Without warp drive, the ship was a sitting duck. Avenger and Perseus harried the four Romulan vessels, and managed to disable one of them with a direct hit by plasma cannon to the Romulan’s primitive warp engine... but the odds were still in the Romulans’ favor, and the Second Chance ships were taking damage.

“Tactical alert, Mr. Reed,” announced Archer grimly. These men were rebels, but he’d be damned if he would just sit and watch as three ships full of Human beings were slaughtered without trying to help. The tactical alert siren blared, as red lights flashed where they’d been installed high on one bulkhead at eye level. Archer raised a brow. That was a new touch.

“Plasma cannons locked and ready, sir,” said Malcolm. He sounded positively eager. The destruction they’d witnessed on the surface of Second Chance had affected all of them.

“Target the Romulans’ weapons and engines, Mr. Reed... Fire at will.”

A flare of Enterprise’s plasma cannon hit the nearest Romulan ship’s disruptor array. Before it had a chance to change course and bring torpedoes to bear on this new combatant, a second direct hit by Perseus’ plasma cannon struck its engine. The poorly shielded, easily destabilized warp core exploded, incinerating the entire ship and everyone on board. The Enterprise was now irrevocably committed to battle. There was no turning back. The Avenger finished off the immobilized Romulan ship in the same way. Enterprise exchanged fire with another of the Romulan vessels. This time, disruptor fire scored an indirect hit on Enterprise’s impulse engine as Ensign Mayweather strained the ship’s artificial gravity with his creative evasive maneuvers. The return volley from Enterprise’s phase cannons missed its mark as the smaller Romulan ship weaved and dodged. Suddenly, the two remaining Romulan ships came about and headed for Galorndon Core, seemingly in retreat. Perseus and Avenger followed in rapid pursuit. Archer hailed Captain Stiles and Thomas Rafter. There was no response, but he sent a message regardless.

Enterprise to Perseus and Avenger... I would recommend that you not pursue... I repeat... do not pursue. A Romulan in retreat would cloak. If you can see them then they are leading you into a trap!”

There was still no response from either Perseus or Avenger.

“Archer to Engineering...Damage report!”

Lieutenant Commander Hess’ voice came over the comm. “The impulse engine is offline, Captain. I can give you maybe half-impulse in about fifteen minutes, but it will be several hours before we can repair the problem.”

Archer sighed. The Enterprise relied on its impulse engines for travel within the system. Warp drive did them no good this close to an asteroid field. They’d never catch up with the Perseus and Avenger now.

“Open a channel to the Punisher,” he said in a frustrated tone of voice.

Hoshi nodded to him as Jake Jackson’s face appeared on the screen. There were flames on the bridge behind him. A crewman with a bleeding head laceration and a fire extinguisher battled the blaze.

“Mr. Jackson, do you require assistance?” asked Archer. “We can take your crew aboard if your ship is too badly damaged.”

Jackson stared back at Archer in proud resignation, then his eyes widened and his face took on an incongruously childlike expression of pure joy. “Marianne?” he asked incredulously.

Archer swiveled in the command chair to find Marianne Jackson, who’d been delivered to the bridge as promised but overlooked in the initial battle, standing behind him.

She smiled at her husband with tears in her eyes. “I’m really happy you’re alive, Jake,” she told him. She looked at him questioningly. “What about Jayjay... and Sophie?” Jake’s eyes filled with tears as well, and he shook his head. Marianne’s eyes closed as tears began to run freely down her cheeks. Their twenty-five year old son Jake Junior and his very pregnant wife had worked together in the colony’s small medical clinic. Jayjay wasn’t a member of Terra Prime, but he’d decided to relocate with his parents after he’d graduated from medical school and found out that the colony needed doctors. He and Sophie were both physicians. Sophie had been due to deliver their first grandchild in less than a month. The loss was devastating.

Jake Jackson turned to Archer. “My crew an’ I will come aboard on one condition... that after we get on board you follow Avenger and Perseus... no matter what happens. I don’t wanna turn tail and run... not after what those Romulan bastards did to us!”

Archer nodded. “That was always my intention, Mr. Jackson, but I couldn’t leave all of you here to be picked off later. Prepare to be transported aboard. Once our impulse engines are back on line, we’ll go investigate Galorndon Core.”

Enterprise limped along at half impulse through the asteroid field surrounding Galorndon Core. Emerging unscathed yet again, they set a course for the unstable planet itself. As they approached orbit, a horrifying scene met their eyes. Perseus was without power or propulsion... a burned out, breached hulk with a huge, gaping disruptor defect in its hull. Surrounding it, smaller clouds of debris marked the sites where at least four Romulan ships had been defeated and subsequently either destroyed... or perhaps self-destructed. A few hundred kilometers from the remains of Perseus, Avenger was completely surrounded by not two, but seven Romulan ships. The Avenger’s weapons array had been destroyed by disruptor fire... and her starboard warp nacelle was simply gone. As Archer had suspected, there had been more Romulans waiting at Galorndon Core. The retreat had been a ruse to separate the ships in order to pick them off one by one.

“Captain... we’re being hailed by one of the Romulan ships!” said Lieutenant Sato in surprise.

“Engage the universal translator,” said Archer. Since their contact with the Romulans at Betazed, Hoshi had been working on a Romulan translation program for the universal translator. It was time to put it to the test. The transmission was audio only.

“This is Subcommander Terak of the Bird of Prey Akhdhael. You are known to us, Enterprise. This is not your concern. Keep your distance and you will be allowed to carry a message to Earth. Say this to your so-called warriors of Starfleet.
The Romulan Empire has claimed the rights to this system. No further military installations will be permitted here. Any military presence will be swiftly dealt with. The Romulan Senate considers the presence of a military shipyard in a system so near our home world to be an act of war. Earth has begun this war, but we will finish it.”

“Subcommander, this is Captain Jonathan Archer. There was a shipyard on Second Chance, that’s true... but most of your warheads were aimed at civilian targets. You and your so-called warriors have murdered nearly four hundred innocent men, women, and children. That is an act of war! Release the ship you are holding or we will be forced to attack.”

Archer heard dry laughter over the comm. “You are no match for seven of our ships, Captain, but I would enjoy witnessing a Human die with honor for a change.”

The Romulan’s mention of honor gave Archer an idea.

“If honor is so important to you, Subcommander... then why are you holding an already defeated opponent?” he asked. “Where is the honor in destroying a ship that is completely unable to defend itself?”

There was silence over the comm for several moments. Then the bridge crew witnessed an amazing sight. One by one, the Romulan ships broke formation and disappeared, re-cloaking and presumably heading back the way they had come. The Romulans had succeeded in their mission. No installation of any sort would be practical on Second Chance for many decades... until the radiation levels reached tolerable levels. They’d delivered their warning and won this battle. Archer wondered where they would strike next. Earth had lost this battle, but he was certain that there would be more to come... and now they were warned.

“Open a channel to the Avenger,” said Archer to Hoshi. He faced the screen.

Avenger, this is Captain Jonathan Archer of the starship Enterprise. We have over sixty Second Chance survivors already on board. We are not hostile, and will not fire upon you. Please prepare your crew for immediate evacuation.”

Thomas Rafter’s freckled face, familiar to Archer from the news photos in his research materials, appeared on the screen. His mouth twisted in anger.

“So that’s it, then... we turn tail and run?” he asked bitterly. “I thought you were the ‘great hero of the Xindi war’, Captain Archer? Or was all that propaganda too, like how wonderful our lives would be if we just trust the Vulcans to know what’s best for us... since they’re so much older and wiser?...” he added sarcastically.

Archer smiled sympathetically at the man. “Believe me, Mr. Rafter... I grew up aggravated by the Vulcans ‘spoon-feeding’ us technology myself... my father’s career was nearly ruined by that policy... but this situation has nothing to do with Vulcans and their irritating ways. We’re in a no-win situation here. We’re tremendously outnumbered and outgunned at the moment, and no reinforcements are scheduled to arrive for another five days. I’ve got a ship full of civilians with mild radiation sickness and an only partially functioning impulse drive. About the only thing we can do is go back to Earth and warn them about what’s coming. I doubt that this will be the only attack. Any colony or allied planet with any military or para-military presence within what the Romulans perceive to be ‘their zone’ may be at risk ... and I’m not sure we’re entirely sure where that is. We need to get that information to the military analysts in Starfleet right away.” He looked at Rafter’s doubtful expression. “By the way...” he added, “I don’t think you need to worry too much about jail time. They’re going to need your expertise. Anyone who can refit engines the way you did with these three needs to be in a shipyard, not a jail cell.”

Rafter regarded him suspiciously. “You know an awful lot about me for someone I’ve never met before, Captain Archer.”

Archer shrugged. “I just did my homework, Mr. Rafter. When the Enterprise set out on this mission, I was told that you were the man to talk to. I just wanted to make sure we had something to say to each other.”

Rafter nodded in grudging respect. “I suppose there’s not much of a choice, Captain,” he said. “It’s not like we’ve got any spare warp nacelles hanging around. I suppose you’ll want me to blow the ship?” he asked glumly.

“We’ll take care of that, Mr. Rafter,“ replied Archer. “Just get your crew ready for transport.”

The Enterprise changed its heading and made slow and painful progress toward the disabled vessel to retrieve the survivors. Afterwards, the grisly clean up would begin. No bodies… and no evidence of the warp six engines or the new battleships… could be left in Romulan hands. At least Malcolm will get some satisfaction from this, thought Archer grimly. Malcolm always so enjoyed blowing things up.

The announcement played on every news channel on the planet. Business as usual came to a halt. An entire generation of Humans would remember exactly where they were and what they were doing at the beginning of the Earth/Romulan War. Trip Tucker sat in the mechanic’s workroom with Kov. They were both covered with lubricating fluid and other toxic substances as a result of their efforts to fine-tune the full-scale warp six engine prototype, which was the Warp Six Project’s final responsibility before the official disbandment of the research and development arm. It was coffee break time, but Trip’s coffee sat on the table, rapidly cooling and ignored as he fixed his entire attention on the vid screen in the break room. The newscaster was solemn... and seemingly near tears as she read the official announcement.

“Official Earthgov sources have now confirmed that on July 17th at 0900 hours local time, military forces claiming to represent the Romulan Empire mounted an unprovoked attack on the civilian colony at Second Chance, completely destroying the colony and rendering the planet temporarily unsuitable for further settlement. The Earthgov congress met in special session when the news was released to the government late yesterday. The following is an official announcement issued by the president of Earthgov .” The image cut to the familiar face of President Akershus with her white-blond hair pulled back into a severe bun and her face even more pale than usual.

“Citizens of Earth... five days ago, in the Galorndon system, a civilian Earth colony was attacked without provocation and completely destroyed. Rescue workers acting under the auspices of Starfleet command have located only eighty-seven survivors out of four hundred and thirty six colonists at last count. Only twenty of these are women. None of the seventy-seven children present amongst the colonists at the time of the attack survived.” The President swallowed thickly, and then continued.

“We have received confirmation that military forces from the Romulan Empire have claimed responsibility for the attack, and also claim to be the victors in a battle at Galorndon Core with four unidentified Earth vessels who attempted to mount a defense. In response to this act of blatant and unprovoked aggression, the Earthgov congress officially declared war on the Romulan Empire at 0900 Greenwich mean time today. Further investigation will be done into this heinous act, and the colonists will be remanded into the custody of Starfleet until a suitable new colony site can be found. Rest assured that Starfleet and Earthgov are ready to defend Earth and her colonies from our enemies. We will not allow our people to be subjugated or slaughtered. We will win this war.” The president’s pale, angular face was grim and determined as she gazed directly into the camera. The announcer came back on the screen with commentary as Trip turned to Kov in shock.

“The Enterprise was there, Kov... I’ve gotta talk to T’Pol!”

Kov stared at the screen as the announcer continued her commentary.

“I believe we should suspend work on the engine for a few hours, if that is agreeable to you. Our workers should be allowed to contact the members of their families affected by this announcement,” he said in a distracted voice. His eyes met Trip’s.

“I must call Janie. If her father was not one of survivors, then she will need my support... and if he survived and is on his way back to Earth...” He sighed and gave his friend a small, wry smile. “... Janie will have to tell him about us. He might wish then that he hadn’t lived to see his daughter marry a non-Human.” Trip shook his head, smiling back at Kov, and laid a hand reassuringly on his shoulder before he rushed out the door to find T’Pol.

“Any man who wouldn’t want ya for a son-in-law should have his head examined, m’friend,” Trip said loudly over his shoulder. “If he makes it back, just give him some time. He’s gonna like you just fine!” Kov was left staring at his retreating back, and sighed heavily. Sometimes it seemed to him that his friend was rather illogically optimistic. Kov, however, had no illusions about his future father-in-law “liking him”. He would actually be rather surprised if the man refrained from threatening his life when he discovered that a Vulcan was about to marry his daughter.

Trip walked briskly down the main corridor of the administrative wing. He’d tried to contact T’Pol telepathically, but she was blocking him in an obvious attempt to protect him from her distress. He entered her office waiting room without knocking, and found young Ensign Heier staring with morbid fascination at the vid screen on her desk while political analysts discussed the war and its potential effects on Earth and its colonies. Trip cleared his throat. The young woman looked up, startled. Her eyes filled with tears when she saw his concerned and friendly face.

“Is she in there, Beth?” Trip asked gently.

Beth Heier smiled wetly and nodded. “She hasn’t come out since the initial announcement. I think she’s meditating,” replied the young woman. She dabbed at her eyes with a tissue and sniffed. Trip smiled at her... a smile of reassurance... and placed a hand on her shoulder.

“Thank you, Ensign,” he said, and then walked past her desk to enter his wife’s office. Ensign Heier’s eyes followed him. She had a grateful... and regretful... smile on her face.

As he entered the dim stillness of the room, Trip found T’Pol seated on the floor in the center of the room. A single candle burned on the floor in front of her. He stood gazing at her deceptively calm face for a moment, and then lowered himself to sit facing her and extended two fingers to touch her right hand where it grasped her knee in a white-knuckled grip. Her eyes flew open, and the distant turmoil he’d felt from her when he’d entered the room... the feeling that had told him that she was not, in fact, in the meditative state she appeared to be in... was transformed into an inundating wave of worry, grief, and guilt. He closed his eyes and drew it all inward, dealing with it in the Human fashion. He felt her reach a state of sufficient calmness for meditation, and joined her in the white space.

They sat face-to-face in featureless shining whiteness. He raised his hand from hers to stroke the side of her face as she stared at him with a stricken expression.

Guilt, T’Pol?he asked gently.Why?

She looked away, unable to meet his eyes, even in this most intimate of places.

My people have known of the danger posed by the Romulans for centuries. It is not logical... but I cannot help but feel a certain amount of responsibility for keeping that information from our allies,she told him.

He smiled at her.You take too much on yourself, darlin’. A Vulcan High Command policy established before you were born is not your fault. You did all you could to warn us.

Trip sensed her guilt lessen with his reassurance, leaving worry as the predominant emotion in the bond.

Have you heard?he asked hesitantly.Did they survive?

T’Pol nodded. Trip breathed a sigh of relief.

I spoke with Admiral Gardner only a few moments ago,replied T’Pol.The survival statistics which were just announced to the public came from the Enterprise. The ship is functional and heading back toward Earth at maximal warp with the survivors on board... but I don’t know if there were any casualties amongst the Enterprise crew,she admitted. Trip smiled encouragingly.

If Enterprise is on her way, I’m sure everybody’s fine,he told her optimistically. She reached out and grasped both of his hands. He felt her gratitude.

Want some company?he asked her. She nodded wordlessly, and closed her eyes again, exhaling... still gripping both of his hands in hers. He felt her agitated emotions calm as she entered a deep meditative state, soothed by his presence. Trip closed his eyes as well, and joined her. All they could do now was wait for news.

Elena Sanchez sat in her office that morning attempting to construct a coherent narrative of events for her latest client’s defense. When she’d initially been approached by Virginia Gardner, she’d been reluctant to take the case. Defending Jack Gardner seemed at first to run counter to everything she’d been trying to accomplish in her fight against Terra Prime. As the details of the case became clear to her, however, she’d realized that the man had a very good argument for coercion, and that, with proper representation, a case could be made for placing most of the blame for his actions upon the shoulders of the man truly responsible for the incident on the John Glenn... Bill Buchanan. Jack Gardner was a scapegoat... a terrified son forced into a desperate act to save his mother. If Elena could convince a judge and jury of that, she had at least a chance of getting Gardner’s charges reduced from attempted first-degree murder to attempted manslaughter... an offense carrying a much shorter sentence. The principal problem she was having that morning was the fact that no one seemed to be able to explain exactly how Virginia Gardner had managed to escape from the clutches of Terra Prime. Elena frowned in concentration as she read Mrs. Gardner’s sworn statement, given to the Houston P.D. on the day of her miraculous rescue by a small group of anonymous benefactors, who’d also delivered Austin Hogg and several muscular security types... all hog-tied and gagged... and then disappeared before they could be questioned. Suddenly, Elena smiled. Then she started to chuckle.

Well... at least I know who to call to find out the answer to this mystery, she thought in amusement. In her statement to the police, Virginia Gardner had said that she’d heard one of her rescuers being called by the name “Norfleet”.

“Elena... I think you need to come and see this...,” came Miranda’s voice over the office intercom. Elena got up from her chair with a puzzled look on her face. There were no appointments on the book for this morning... it was a desk day, and Miranda never interrupted her at her desk unless it was an emergency. She opened the door and poked her head around the doorjamb.

The entire waiting room was full of lawyers, paralegals and secretaries, drawn from their offices to watch the vid screen in the waiting room with looks of disbelief. At first, Elena thought the announcement was simply the official confirmation of the attack on Second Chance... but when she heard the words “Battle” and then “War”... she stopped listening, shut the door to her office, and went straight back to her desk to call Jonathan Archer. She needed to hear his voice telling her that he was alive and well. It was a necessary thing... like food or water. She’d never felt such an urgent desire to speak with someone in her entire life.

As Elena reached her desk, the attention tone sounded, signaling an incoming call. She sighed in frustration and activated the screen, intending to tell the caller to try back later, and found herself looking at the face of a subspace operator in her distinctive uniform.

“Maria Elena Sanchez?” asked the operator politely.

“Yes... that’s me,” answered Elena eagerly. She knew who was calling. There was no one else it could possibly be.

“Please remain on the line for a subspace call,” replied the operator. Abruptly, Jonathan Archer’s face appeared on the screen. His eyes were shadowed with fatigue, and he looked like he’d lost some weight, but he had a smile on his face... a face that was the answer to the prayers she’d been saying continuously since news of the nuclear attack had reached Earth.

“Hi...” she said with a shy smile, suddenly tongue-tied at the reality of his image on the screen. “I was worried about you.”

He gave her an apologetic look. “I’ve been trying to call you since yesterday when I found out the president was scheduled to make her announcement. There were so many high priority calls going out it took the comm officer fourteen hours to get a private call through,” he told her. His brow wrinkled in concern as the shadows beneath her eyes caught his attention. “You look tired, Elena...Are you all right?”

She laughed briefly... a soft, rueful chuckle. “I am now,” she told him. He returned her smile. There was an awkward silence as they gazed at each other fondly, but found it impossible to say the things that they’d been writing for so many weeks.

“When are you coming home?” Elena asked wistfully, breaking the silence.

“We’ll be in Earth orbit in less than three weeks,” Archer reassured her. “But I’m not sure when the debriefings will end,” he warned. “I may not have very much free time.”

“Call me when you get in-system,” she replied. “I’ll find a way to see you, Jon. We have a lot to talk about.”

Archer’s grin turned rather mischievous. “I was sort of hoping we’d get the chance to do more than just talk this time,” he told her jokingly.

Elena laughed. “Well... at least you’re honest!” she told him. Her expression sobered as she regarded him intently. Their eyes locked. He swallowed.

“ was I,” she told him seriously. Her voice promised him love... and a home... and everything he’d been longing for. “Just call me,” she said. “I’ll be waiting for you.”

END (for now)


You need to be logged in to the forum to leave a review!