Miracle Worker

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Title: Miracle Worker
Category: Spiritual, Drama, Angst
Rating: PG-13
Sequel to: True Believer
Summary: Three days after "True Believer", Malcolm Reed and Philip O'Malley find themselves caught up in a religious whirlwind that will prove more than simply deadly.
Author's Note: This was more than 14 months in the writing, but I think it was more than worth the emotional drainage to see it finally complete.
Contains religious introspection, not to mention a certain amount of cyncism towards religious beliefs in the 22nd century. I strongly suggest you don't read this if you think you're likely to be offended in any way by this.
Thanks to: Sita Z for beta reading and sticking with me through this from the very beginning, and Exploded Pen, for the many late night talks on the meaning of life and all that jazz ;).

o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o

Chapter 1: Genesis

"I'm going to get out of here," Malcolm said, rocking slightly on the biobed. He caught Philip's eye for a second, and impossibly his grin grew wider. "I'm going to get out of here," he repeated. "Come hell, high water or sedative-bearing Denobulans, I will get out of here."

Philip grinned back.

"Although," Malcolm mused, his smile fading slightly, "come to think of it, come high water and I'm screwed anyway."

Philip nodded, vaguely remembering a conversation in the armoury when Reed hadn't been there... news of Reed's aquaphobia had taken some time to hit the rounds in Reed's teams, but it was something that nobody liked to acknowledge out loud, even to each other. It had been more of a hurried statement inbetween assignments rather than anything drawn out, and personally, Philip wasn't entirely sure as to how much his commanding officer knew about how much they the armoury teams knew about him. It was all complicated like that. "You're feeling better then, sir?" he asked innocently, the smirk on his face belying his intentions.

Reed nodded, a little more soberly this time. "Three bruised ribs, cracked tibia and fibula, bruising in more places than I care to imagine or even look for, and an arm that plays up if I crank it all the way around my neck," he recited, doing an uncanny imitation of Doctor Phlox as he listed his injuries. "All in all, not too bad."

At this Philip laughed out loud, drawing the attention of the good doctor himself, who at the moment was talking with Commander Tucker, Lieutenant Hess and Ensign Maritas. Almost immediately Phlox came bustling over to where Philip and Reed were sitting on adjacent biobeds and then straight back to where his animals were kept, Tucker following behind him and going straight for the two patients, and the two women leaving Sickbay altogether.

Four days on from the explosion that had all but gutted Enterprise's armoury, and of all the people who had been in to visit the two injured crewmembers, Tucker had been the most frequent visitor; it had been the job of his department to go through the wreckage down on F-deck (thankfully, the damage was only limited to the armoury, although how much of a blessing this was was open to debate), and he had been in to update Reed three or four times every day on how things were going. From what Tucker had told both Reed and Philip, engineering and armoury teams were again working together to get the gutted torpedo launcher replaced with what little materials and supplies they had, or could get their hands on (lighting on E-deck had apparently been erratic for about four hours as a result of rerouting some power away from there). In fact, the first time that Tucker had come (burst) into the medical bay, he was openly surprised to find the lieutenant alive, let alone up, walking and sarcastic as ever. What was it Reed had said back to him? "Rumours of my untimely death are greatly exaggerated," he had informed the chief engineer, "but much to the good doctor's dismay - I still require treatment."

This time, though, Tucker looked a little more cheerful than the carefully controlled stress and exhaustion of the past few days as he came over to where Reed and Philip were on their respective biobeds. "Mornin' gentlemen," he said brightly.

"Sir," Philip nodded, while Reed settled just for the nod.

Tucker's good mood seemed to be growing. "Got good news for ya," he said to the two patients, swinging himself up onto Reed's bed and sitting next to him. "Doc's lettin' ya both back on light duty, startin' today."

At that, Philip smiled, suddenly glad for a chance to get out from under the doctor's watchful eye and actually do something - maybe to help with the repairs in the armoury. Anything, really, as long as he got out of Sickbay once and hopefully for all.

Reed, on the other hand, seemed to be catching Tucker's mood, but the engineer held up a hand to silence him. "He talked to the cap'n, and they're both sayin' that neither of ya should get in with repairin' the armoury."

"What?" Reed asked him. Silently, Philip concurred. "Why not?"

Tucker shrugged. "Don't ask me, I'm just the messenger," he replied. "Cap'n says the two of you're to be down by Shuttlepod Two in two hours, ready for a coupla nights campin'."

"Camping?" Reed repeated sceptically.

"Yep," Tucker said brightly. "Survey mission on the prewarp planet we're orbitin'. Uninhabited continent to the north, Cap'n and T'Pol reckon you're all over it."

Reed shot Philip a dark look before asking, "Who else is going?"

"You're takin' Phil, Matt an' Clara from your team," Tucker told him.

"I haven't even made it out of Sickbay yet," Reed complained after less than a second's hesitation. "The point is not to come back any time soon. And if I'm anywhere near damned Rose and a damned hill, that's exactly where I'll end up! Hang on a second," he added, "does that mean his knee's no longer buggered up, then?"

"Guess so." Tucker shrugged. "Hess says she saw him pullin' cover down in Engineerin' for people doin' stuff up in your department."

"Well, it's alright for some," Reed mumbled, but not so quietly that Philip and Tucker couldn't hear him; the Irishman smiled while Tucker merely looked abashed.

"Send him off somewhere you're not gonna be, sir," Philip suggested. "That way there'll be no... accidents."

Reed stared at him for a moment. "You're a genius, Philip," he said, grinning. Then, "Okay, I'll do the bloody survey mission. But I swear, Commander," - turning around to face Tucker - "I swear, if you do anything to my armoury while I'm away, I -"

Tucker held up a hand. "Okay," he said, getting off the biobed, "I understand you don't wanna be sent rollin' down any more hills, but Loo-tenant - and I mean this with every fibre of my bein' - Loo-tenant, will ya quit bein' so damned paternal about the cannons!"

"Torpedo launcher," Reed corrected, smiling dryly. "It was the torpedo launcher that went boom. Say it with me, Trip: tor-PEE-do..."

Tucker looked sideways at Philip, who was trying not to laugh out loud. "S'this what you've got to work with?" he asked.

Philip grinned slightly but said nothing. After all, it wouldn't be appropriate to answer that kind of question with the CO sitting not three feet away from him - even if popular opinion was that he had saved said CO's life.

o o o o o

A couple of hours later, though, and there was a motley little collection assembled in front of Shuttlepod Two. It wasn't bad at all, Malcolm mused, looking around. Nothing but Starfleet's best for this little mission - and then, of course, there were the crew themselves; Ensign Matthew Rose, Crewman Clara Kopleck and Crewman Philip O'Malley. Alongside them, various packages and bundles containing camping and scanning equipment, plus ration packs and (allegedly) a small package of real food courtesy of Chef - merely a rumour, but by all means one worth investigating once they reached the planet.

And the planet itself, once they got there, wasn't all that bad. More a matter of opinion though - it tended to depend on whether or not one preferred vast expanses of purple-blue grassland framed with the occasional lumps in the ground that were - according to one hastily grabbed scanner - dens built by one of the many indigenous animal species on this particular continent, although the away team had not yet seen one of them (they lived underground).

"Right then," Malcolm said, shielding his eyes from the bright sun. "Matthew, Clara, you two go that way." He pointed to an outcropping of rocks off to the west. "See what you can get from out there. And Philip," he added, "you're with me."

As Matthew and Clara began to get their survey equipment together, Malcolm noticed from out of the corner of his eye that as well as a scanner, Philip had also pocketed one of the hyposprays that Phlox had presented them with before they left Enterprise. Malcolm couldn't blame him for doing so - the younger man's leg had taken a pretty nasty beating in the explosion. After a few minutes Matthew and Clara began walking in the direction Malcolm had pointed out to them; now he and Philip finished packing up their own equipment. The Away Team were to spend three nights down here mapping various flora, fauna and pretty little stones - whether this was a thinly veiled ploy to keep the recovering armoury officer out of the armoury or actually a genuine survey mission, Malcolm couldn't tell - and it had been decided on the way down that the two groups of two would take separate scans and have separate camps for the first two nights before reconvening on the final night and comparing notes, then returning to Enterprise the following morning. T'Pol's sensor array had already determined that the northernmost continent was quite safe, supporting Malcolm's original theory of a set-up. After all, this was a group of tacticians supposedly taking scans here; surely it would be more logical for scientists to do it... assuming they hadn't already - back to the set-up again. But then again, he also quite liked the idea of a few days under an alien sun with the minimal amount of "work" to do, so he wouldn't be complaining to anybody any time soon.

He and Philip pitched their tents on the edge of woodland that stretched out for an easy five or six miles in either direction, and in keeping with the grass' colour scheme, so it seemed, the majority of the trees had purple-blue leaves, with the odd splash of orange blossom here and there. Combined with the periwinkle blue sky, the whole effect was rather disconcerting.

Grunting as the pressure on his ribs increased, Malcolm eased himself downwards so that he was sitting on the ground and leaning against a somewhat large tree trunk (at least the tree bark was the "right" colour). There was a hypospray in one pocket - and digging into his arse at the same time - that was specifically geared for the muscles in his left arm, another spray in a different pocket to clear out his lungs if it got too bad and a third that was for any general aches and pains that cropped up. All told, Malcolm felt like a walking apothecary. He toyed with the idea of taking samples of a few bits of grass and presenting that and only that to T'Pol when they got back, but it probably wouldn't be worth the hassle - the last time he had tried skimping on something involving T'Pol and science things, the results just hadn't been pretty. Leaning his head back against the tree trunk as well, Malcolm could just make out the shape of Crewman O'Malley emerging from his own tent and coming over to where the lieutenant was. He patted the grass next to him, and mirroring Malcolm's previous actions, Philip too eased himself carefully down onto the ground, letting out an audible sigh of relief as presumably the pressure on his injured leg eased.

Philip pulled up a few blades of the alien grass and started playing with it inbetween his fingers. "Purple grass," he said, almost disbelievingly. He broke some of the blades apart and let them drop back down to the ground before beginning the whole routine over again. "That's one for the boys back home."

"Brothers?" Malcolm enquired idly, turning his head around and looking at him.

Philip shook his head. "No," he said. "Well, not biologically, but a couple of them I would consider to be like brothers." He smiled ruefully. "I mean the other boys from the orphanage, Lieutenant. Well, they'll most of them be men by now, but they were boys when I left."

Malcolm frowned, vaguely remembering something about an evaluation report mentioning an orphanage. "Stop me if I'm crossing any lines here, Philip, but orphanage?"

"Yep." Quietly and efficiently, Philip filled his CO in on the basic facts of his childhood and upbringing. When he was finished, Malcolm didn't say anything, and Philip smiled. "Thank you."

"What for?" Malcolm asked, mystified.

"For not saying you're sorry about my parents," Philip explained.

"But I wasn't there," Malcolm replied. "I couldn't have done anything about what happened, and I certainly don't feel as though it's my fault that what happened happened."

Philip nodded. "I know that, but it still doesn't stop people apologising profusely to me when they do find out about my parents."

Now Malcolm understood. Then, "How long's it been since you've seen anyone from there?" he asked.

"From the orphanage?" Philip asked, and Malcolm nodded. "Um, it's the beginning of fifty-three now... I joined Starfleet at the end of fifty... an even three years," he said eventually. "Six months' training before I got the uniform... yeah, sounds about right. Just under three years."

"That's a long time."

"Yeah, t'is," Philip admitted. "But at the same time I still keep in contact with Rolly and Kai, send 'em letters every now and again, so it's not all bad."

"I guess not," Malcolm replied, and the pair fell silent again, Philip still playing with loose bits of purple grass.

o o o o o

Matthew Rose and Clara Kopleck had set up their own camp next to one of the rock formations they had found, maybe a kilometre or so away from the outcroppings. The area that they were in had some nice enough views of a nearby lake, and back over towards the shuttlepod there were the beginnings of a long line of trees, but other than that there wasn't really a lot to write home about. Having done this kind of routine survey before, both armourers were of the opinion that once you'd scanned one usually uninhabited alien meadow, you'd pretty much scanned them all.

So firmly, in fact, did Matthew hold this particular opinion, that when Clara found him a few minutes after dumping equipment in her tent, he was lying sprawled forwards on the grass and reading a book.

"There you are," she said, flopping down next to him. She tried to get a look at what Matthew was reading, but failed. "Having fun?" she asked instead.

Matthew didn't look up. Neither did he answer the question. "He doesn't trust me."

"Who doesn't?"

"Lieutenant Reed."

Clara was unfazed. "Of course he doesn't feckin' trust you," she told him, making him jerk up from whatever he was reading. "I mean, think about it. The last time he took you to go scan rocks, you tripped over one and he spent three days in Sickbay because of it. He's just got out of a four day stint in there this morning. You really think he wants to make a repeat experience of it?"

"You're supposed to be on my side," Matthew grumbled, rolling onto his back.

Clara raised an eyebrow. "Just 'cos you're an ensign, I'm supposed to be all 'Yes sir, of course sir, three bags full sir'?" she asked. He grunted in acquiescence. "Coming from you, Matt, that's just stupid. You're being stupid. Reed probably took Phil with him so's he can keep an eye on him. Quit reading into things that aren't there." She kicked her legs out and limbered down from her seated position onto her back with a grunt that sounded suspiciously like, "Men!" but Matthew ignored it, and her.

He wasn't even sure what he was reading, either.

o o o o o

Philip had taken to pacing up and down a small patch of field, along a roughly straight line of fuchsia blossoms in the grass that was maybe eight or ten metres long. In the few minutes that he had been walking up and down, the slight limp in his leg had receded to a point where it could barely be noticed at all. The repetitiveness must have been soothing as well, or at least it was to Malcolm; a gentle left, right, left, right motion with his head was suspiciously relaxing, but whatever worked.

One thing he had noticed on the planet was a lack of any real kind of background noise; there was literally nothing except for the sounds of the two men breathing a little heavier than normal and Philip's soft footfalls in the springy purple grass, and an odd, low-pitched rumbling kind of noise that could have been almost anything, but it was most likely nothing.

After a while, though, Philip broke from the pacing. "Can you hear that?" he asked Malcolm, a suddenly worried look on his face. He started looking around him.

"Hear what?" Malcolm asked. He couldn't hear anything except for the background rumbling. "Philip, what is it?"

"You can't hear it?" Philip stopped moving altogether. He was beginning to get agitated, and it was definitely beginning to show. Slowly he turned around on the spot, as if trying to take in as much around him as possible. Finally he stopped. He was staring straight into the woodland behind Malcolm, and he raised a hand and pointed. "In there, Lieutenant," he said, sounding a little shaken. He looked down at Malcolm. "S'in there."

He sounded genuine - as quickly as his back would allow, Malcolm got up and tried to peer through the trees to where Philip was pointing. But all he could see were trees, more trees, a couple of strewn twigs and leaves on the ground here and there... "Where?" he asked.

Instead of answering, the Irishman started moving forward into the edge of the forest. It was almost as if he hadn't heard Malcolm's last question. Philip moved deftly through the undergrowth, and after just a second's hesitation Malcolm followed him, albeit a little slower; he had the clear disadvantage of definitely not knowing where he was going. The idea of stopping Philip, or at the very least trying to get his attention in some way had already occurred to Malcolm, but a) he still wasn't entirely sure whether this was some kind of joke or wind up, or b) whether or not Philip was entirely, well... himself - right now he was acting completely out of character, which was in itself a little worrying. But for the moment, Malcolm did nothing; for the moment it was enough to be able to keep up with the Irishman, and in any case, he should still be able to retake control of the situation at any given time.

After maybe three or four minutes of this follow-the-leader, Philip stopped abruptly, Malcolm just a few steps behind him. He caught up to Philip easily, but when he pulled him round to face him there were no signs of recognition on the younger man's face or in his eyes. Unnerved, Malcolm risked a look around them, breaking eye contact. They were pretty deep into the forest; there was no sign of the meadow area they had come from, and in here the trees were denser than was perhaps comfortable. And...

Even Malcolm could hear it here. Voices. Alien voices. Alien voices in a language that Malcolm could neither make head nor tail of, although maybe Hoshi could, given time. Malcolm nodded wordlessly to Philip, who seemed to know what he meant. Gently, he put a hand on Malcolm's arm and pulled him the last remaining few metres to one side of a large blue-leafed bush, the sound of the voices growing louder the closer they got to the bush.

Malcolm pulled some of the branches to one side and peered through; next to him, Philip did the same, and the both of them looked onto the view on the other side. They couldn't see much through the leaves and shrubbery, but suddenly the voices became a hell of a lot louder.

At almost the same time Philip drew back from the bush. Malcolm turned around. "What is it?" he asked, not entirely sure if he was even going to get an answer or not.

But he did.

"Them." Philip pointed through the bush. "Can't you hear them?"

"Yes," Malcolm said slowly.

Philip looked at him for a second, like the lieutenant was crazy. "Can't you hear them?" he repeated. "They're speaking English."

o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o

Chapter 2: Revelation, part I

"English?" Malcolm took a step away from the bush, pulling Philip with him. "What are you talking about?" he hissed. "They can't be speaking English - Philip, they're not speaking English."

"Then why do I know what they're saying?" Philip asked him, a quiet note of desperation in his voice. Lieutenant, you have to believe me. I... I can hear them," he said urgently. "Something about setting up camp for the night, something - or someone - that they were waiting for..." Philip cocked his head to one side as he tried to remember. "It's late, they know that much... they're waiting for this other person to get back."

Chills ran down Malcolm's spine, but he ignored them. He knew that Philip was telling the truth - he had never been anything than honest in the past, and this was no time or place to start lying now. But at the same time none of it made sense. "This is crazy," he said finally, running a hand through his hair. "God, it sounds too much like a cheesy horror to be true." He looked at Philip again. "Be honest with me, Crewman," he said, emphasising the rank rather than the name. "Tell me you're being honest."

"I am, sir," was the sincerely reply. "I - I don't get it either, Lieutenant, but I swear to you that I can hear them."

Malcolm nodded, and he pushed the branches in the bush away again, trying to look for signs of life. With his other hand he felt around his different pockets. Three hyposprays, a badly-concealed phase pistol, a scanner. No communicator, no UT.


And it wasn't even as if he could see much through the bush, either. There was definitely a clearing through there, with a burned patch of grass off to the left of Malcolm's line of vision - the remains of a campfire, then. The people, aliens - whoever they were, they must have been way off to either side of Malcolm's view point; he could still hear them saying whatever they were saying.

After a couple of tense, silent minutes Malcolm heard the sounds of cracking twigs and footfalls in the grass behind him, but he didn't turn around. "Are you alright, Philip?" he asked, still trying to get a clear view of something - anything - through the blue and purple leaves.

There was no reply. Almost reluctantly, Malcolm pulled himself away from the non-event on the other side of the bush and craned his neck around. And then turned the whole of his body around. "Who are you?" he asked, immediately feeling foolish.

The alien was maybe an inch or two taller than Philip. Pale grey skin with a blue mottled pattern running down one side of his face, neck and down beneath folds and folds of plain black material that he wore like a robe; it went all the way down to the grass. Silently, Malcolm took in the rest of the details. Close set, beady black eyes. No discernible nose that he could make out, although there were a couple of slits running perpendicular to his mouth, one on either side. Thin, wide mouth. Completely bald with more of the blue mottle around the crown of his head. Long arms, hands with four elongated, bony digits; the digits of one hand were wrapped tightly around the end of the other arm, just below the elbow.

The expression on his face was something akin to quiet amusement, and when he finally spoke, the words sent shivers down Lieutenant Reed's spine. "My name is Raouni. I am one of the Messengers."

Perfect English.

o o o o o

On the Enterprise, repairs were well underway on the remaining computer consoles in the armoury - the last and most tedious job on the list. Trip was pretty much happy with how things were getting on. Sure, there had been a few hitches with getting some of the targeting scanners in the reconstructed torpedo launcher back online and in alignment again, but then again there was only so much you could do with the armoury officer confined to Sickbay with multiple injuries, and nobody really wanted (or dared) to challenge Phlox's jurisdiction over something so "trivial" as a few targeting scanners (although nobody had yet told said armoury officer that part).

But hey. The afternoon looked as though it was going to pan out like it was supposed to, nothing was going wrong anywhere that hadn't been fixed, or had already been looked at - and, rumour had it, there was a fresh pecan pie in Chef's galley, just ready and waiting to be eaten...

Trip swung into the armoury with about six padds in tow, expecting to see... well, what he was expecting to see. Two remaining people from Malcolm's armoury teams, six engineers, a few misplaced work schedules, and maybe even a partridge in a pear tree (damn Phlox and his damn humming - Christmas had been and gone already! Couldn't some people just let it go!). He sighed. Too many other things demanding his attention. Including the aforementioned computer consoles.

He spent some time hunched underneath one set of circuits with Lieutenant Hess, the both of them trying to figure out why this wasn't connecting with whatever meaning that something else wasn't working at all. In fact, after about half an hour they'd pretty much solved the problem between them, which was certainly one for the books by anybody's standards.

Pulling himself out from underneath the console, Trip crossed the room and reached for the comm panel. "Tucker to Engineering."

"Go ahead, Commander." It was Rostov.

"How're things goin' down there?" Trip asked.

"Not too bad, sir." Rostov sounded tired. "We've still got a couple of people to arrive at the moment - prob'ly still in bed. Other than that, pretty good."

Trip nodded. "When Hermes turns up, Mike, go get some shut eye. That's an order."


"Tucker out."

Just then something fizzed and sputtered behind him; further inspection revealed Hess looking sheepishly at some short-circuited wires in her hand. "Back to square one, I think," she said, equally bashfully.

They were from something to do with the targeting scanners.

Trip sighed and got back to work. He should have known things wouldn't be quite that simple. And come to think of it, it was a wonder Malcolm ever got anything done down here if things broke quite this easily. Huh. Maybe that was something to ask him when he got back from scanning rocks.

o o o o o

After a brief but thoroughly disconcerting round of introductions, Raouni took Malcolm and Philip around the bushes to the "camp site", leading them around the patches in the grass that were indeed remains of small fires. Adding to Malcolm's uneasiness was that now that he was closer to the source of the other voices, it seemed, he was somehow able to understand what they were saying - or at least, recognise what they were saying as being English, albeit with a bit of an odd accent. Sounded German. And although he could hear them, he still couldn't see them - for all Malcolm knew, they could have been anywhere in the near vicinity. Not a comforting thought. And then there was the possibility of something he privately had nicknamed the "Sato Syndrome" - anglicising alien words when they sounded familiar enough to his own native language - English. Going by that then, they could have been speaking anything. And again, not at all comforting a thought.

They all three sat down on a felled log - this time an off-shade of orange, worryingly enough - facing into one of the burned patches of grass. Instinctively Malcolm's fingers itched for the phase pistol that he now knew was in a rather uncomfortably placed pocket on his right thigh, but in what he thought was a superb display of self-restraint he did nothing. Which was probably just as well, because he still had no idea what Raouni and his fellow hermit-wannabes were actually capable of, other than apparently speaking flawless English.

But there were ways of finding out. "Why can we understand you?" Malcolm asked out loud, drawing a quiet nod of agreement from Philip.

"I wish I could answer that for you," the alien answered, "but I am afraid that it is something that we ourselves do not fully understand."

Malcolm's reply was terse. "What do you mean?"

"As I said," Raouni replied, facing the lieutenant, "I am one of the Messengers. As with any Messenger among our people, we have the ability to understand and be understood by others. It is not our place to know why, merely to be the Messengers."

"And what's that mean?" Philip asked quietly and looking at him, Malcolm realised that he had gone pale.

Raouni shifted on the log, clearly uncomfortable. "Perhaps I had better explain a little about my people," he said. "It may help in some way." Both Starfleet officers nodded in response, and he continued. "In our society, everybody has a role. Whether they are watchers, protectors, messengers like myself, foretellers and so on, they all have some role to play. We do not choose the role, nor is it something that is thrust upon us from an early age. We simply become the different characters in the world, and with each character comes the gift. Watchers have the sharpest senses. Protectors are skilled fighters and tacticians. And the messengers... we have the ability to speak to people, although we alone of our people are independent of the need for technology to communicate with outsiders."

"Like speaking in tongues," Philip said quietly, mostly to himself, but not so quietly that the others didn't hear him.

Raouni watched him with something akin to curiosity. "Is that how you would describe it?"

Philip nodded, not taking his eyes off the grass inbetween his spread legs. "Yes."

Raouni seemed about to say something, but apparently thought differently, for his next words were, "And what of the two of you? What do you do?"

Ever the professional, Malcolm hesitated before answering, but only for a split second. "We're both tactical crewmen," he said vaguely. "Our ship's in orbit at the moment."

"What brings you down here?" Raouni asked him. "The planet's indigenous humanoids seem to avoid this continent where they can; certainly there are only a few plants and trees."

"All of which seems to be a perfect excuse for our scientists," Malcolm said smoothly. "There are half a dozen teams scouring this continent because they get excited over cataloguing new and undiscovered flora and fauna."

Raouni considered this. "It is curiosity that drives you?"


"As it is with us," the alien acquiesced. Again he looked at Philip, who himself was still looking down at the ground between his legs, head resting in his hands.

"So what brings you down here?" Malcolm asked, deliberately mirroring the alien's question.

With a bony hand, Raouni pointed through more trees to their left. "Further on through there is another clearing, similar to this one," he said slowly. "In there is where it is believed that the spirits of sentient beings return when they die."

Malcolm raised an eyebrow. He said nothing. He didn't need to.

"We come here to honour the dead and to remember the living." The slightly odd choice of wording there caught Malcolm's attention, but he thought little of it. "Little more than dated sentiment, perhaps, given the technology we possess, but still we make the journey."

"You're not from around here, are you?" Malcolm asked him. When he received an answer in the negative, he went on. "Where do you come from, then?"

"There is a small binary star system several days away from here," Raouni said. "It is where our people originated from, although many of us now live on ships independent of the planet. And yourselves?" he then asked, neatly side-stepping any more questions in his direction.

"There's a small star system over a hundred light-years from here," Malcolm answered, suddenly unwilling to give out more information than was absolutely necessary. "It's where we come from, and we're one of the few ships to have made it out this far. And as far as I know, there's at least one more within about fifteen light-years." Briefly Malcolm wondered how the small lies were coming out so easily, but he refused to think about it for more than a few seconds. Philip must have been thinking along the same lines as well; he shot the lieutenant a mildly questioning look before going back to staring at the grass.

Before Raouni could say or do anything else, two more figures emerged from the woods - from roughly the direction that apparently led to the second clearing. They were both in conversation, and as they came into this clearing, one of them looked around sharply - and saw the three men on the log. Quickly and silently, Raouni got up and went over to where they were. Instantly the one who had already clocked him started spieling off - and here, Malcolm noticed, he was speaking the same indecipherable alien language that he had heard earlier. The other thing he noticed was that when Raouni was apparently finally able to get a word in edgeways, he too was not speaking English, but the same language as the person who had addressed him. That part of his story seemed to hold true, at least.

Beside him, though, Philip chuckled quietly. Malcolm looked across at him. "What's so funny?"

Philip jerked his head up at the three aliens. "You see the one with the scuff on his robe?" he asked. Malcolm recognised him as the one who had originally glared in their direction (and the one doing most of the talking at the moment). "He's just told our little friend there that you don't look anything like a tactical crewman. More suited to bein' a steward," he said, chuckling at his own joke. "Didn't you hear it?"

"No," Malcolm replied. "It's all gibberish to me."

Suddenly Philip sat up straight. "Oh shit," was all he said. He watched the three aliens for a second or two. "This doesn't make any sense," he muttered. "This shouldn't be happening."

Silently, Malcolm concurred. Again his fingers twitched for the phase pistol, and again he did nothing. And then something occurred to him. "What have you got with you?"


"What have you got with you?" Malcolm repeated. "Scanner, communicator, whatever - do you have anything with you?"

"Erm..." Philip groped around his pockets for a few seconds. "I've got a UT and a communicator," he reported back. "And uh, sir, the UT's not switched on."

Malcolm ignored the most disturbing part of that announcement. "We've got a full set between us, then," he said darkly, still watching the three hermit-wannabes at the other end of the clearing. "Could be useful."

"S'there something wrong, Lieutenant?" Philip asked, beginning to sound really nervous. He too was now watching the conversation between Raouni and the other two aliens.

"I don't know yet," Malcolm replied. "But something definitely doesn't feel right here."

"You mean besides the purple grass?" Philip replied facetiously.

Malcolm shot him a humourless grin before raising an eyebrow. "You feel like doing a runner anytime soon?"

"I might, but my legs probably don't."

"Same here," Malcolm admitted. "But I just don't know what's bugging me."

"One step at a time, sir," Philip said as the three aliens started to head towards their log. He nodded towards them. "See how this goes first. Then we make a move."

They both got up as Raouni and his two companions reached them, and for a few seconds there was a freakish kind of quiet amongst the five of them before Malcolm finally spoke up. "I, erm, it was nice meeting you," he began, feeling somewhat idiotic, "but we should really get going now."

Definitely idiotic. He'd been part of how many first contacts, and this was the best he could come up with? Bloody hell. Note to self: find copy of "An Idiot's Guide to Ambassadry". Then read the damn thing.

Raouni nodded. "Of course. It was inappropriate of me to keep you for this long." With a sweeping gesture he indicated the part of the forest they had emerged from. "You should return to your people."

And that, it seemed, was that. Both Starfleet officers left the small clearing and headed pretty much back the way they had come, Philip leading the way - whatever navigation abilities he had mysteriously acquired the first time around were apparently still there, because Malcolm still didn't have the foggiest where they were going after the third layer of trees. However, he was still sufficiently aware of their surroundings to be able to tell when things started to seem, well...

"Philip! Philip! Philip, aren't we going back the way we came?"



However, as with the first time Malcolm had been led through the forest by Philip, there was no response of any kind from the Irishman, and this time Malcolm was beginning to get very worried indeed. He wasn't sure whether or not to be reassured by the fact that yet again, Philip seemed to know exactly where they were going, and as Philip kept moving through the undergrowth, Malcolm's worry only intensified. It was a feeling that only really abated when the pair emerged into a clearing, not too unlike the area by the edge of the forest where they had set up camp. With just one small, really quite insignificant difference.

There was no campsite. And Shuttlepod Two was nowhere in sight.

This wasn't where they had started out from.

In which case, where the hell were they?

Malcolm tried again. "Philip," he called, reaching out and lightly touching the other man's shoulder.

The effect was almost instantaneous. Slowly Philip turned around to face the lieutenant. There was a far-off, almost dazed look in his eyes, and the click of recognition was definitely slower than it should have been in coming. "Where are we?" he asked, sounding confused, looking around at the new set of woodland surrounding them.

Malcolm was instantly on edge. Again. "I - I was kind of hoping you could tell me that."

Philip shook his head. "No, sir, I - weren't we back with that Raouni guy?" He looked around again. "Not again... This is really messed up. Doesn't make any sense."

"Come on," Malcolm told him, "we've got to get you out of here." Whatever it was, something on this planet was affecting Philip, and as his CO Malcolm knew he would be damned if he didn't at least try to do something to stop it.

However, it still had yet to be determined exactly where they were, and even how far back into the forest they actually were, as well. Malcolm was about to pull out his scanner and put it to some proper use when...

A voice from behind him. "We expected we would find you here." It was Raouni, and in that instant Malcolm realised where it was that Philip had led him to. It was the only logical place they could have been, although the how still defied any kind of sense or indeed logic.

Philip turned white instantly, all the blood draining from his face. Malcolm started to turn around, and was met with the sight of Raouni as well as two of the hermit fellows who had been with him back at their campsite. Both the unknown aliens were holding some kind of projectile-based weapon.

As one, they fired. There was a split second difference in which Malcolm saw Philip beside him crumple down to the ground before his own legs gave way beneath him and everything went black.

o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o

Chapter 3: Chronicles

He woke up. There was no way of knowing how long he had been asleep, only that he had just woken up. There was an endless expanse of grey around him. He knew instinctively that something was wrong, although he had no way of knowing what it was that was wrong, or even why there was something wrong at all. Eventually, he moved, and with the movement came both the immediate protest of his muscles and the realisation that the sea of grey was in fact only limited to a small area of the place he was in.

A small room with no visible exit or windows. The grey he had thought was everywhere had only reached as far as the edges of the ceiling - the walls were the colour of rust, and the floor underneath him was the same shade of grey as its opposite number. He had been lying on his back but now, sitting up, more things began to occur to him.

Whoever was responsible for bringing him here, to this place, had found his phase pistol and scanner, and taken both away from him, although he did not know why this piece of information was in any way relevant. It was just there. Much more disconcerting, however, was the small mechanical device lying on the floor less than six feet away from him. He sat there and watched it, silently challenging it to reveal its secrets to him. Enough time passed that he was eventually able to identify it as being a Starfleet-issue universal translator, a name that was often abbreviated to "UT". Longer still until he understood that it was part of the equipment that his colleague had been carrying up to a point.

It was only than that he noticed the absence of the colleague, although the only reaction he had to this latest piece of knowledge was a vaguely unsettled feeling, accompanied by a strange sensation that he could neither put name to nor get rid of. Eternity (or at least a suitable equivalent, since there was no way of measuring time) passed, and finally he began to remember things.

He began to remember specific things, instead of the disconnected vagaries he knew already. He remembered that his leg ached against sudden movement because he had been caught in an explosion and he was still in the later stages of recovery. He remembered that the loss of the phase pistol was significant as he now had no means of defending himself if a threat decided to present itself to him. He remembered who he was, then, and with it came understanding about for the need for a weapon.

He remembered that he did not belong here and therefore that he needed to find a way out, although he still did not know what he would find on the other side of the door - if indeed there was one in this place.

He remembered Philip, the colleague he had been with, and snippets of what had happened before waking up in this place. And he remembered the name of the unsettling sensation that had haunted him earlier.


Fear gripped Malcolm Reed in that instant, and with the fear came everything else as well. Forget the idea that when you die your whole life flashes before your eyes - right now Malcolm Reed was far from dying, but the barrage of memories assaulting him was no less intense than perhaps if he had been dying. In the space of a few short seconds everything came flooding back to him. The fear, though, didn't abate.

The fear stayed there, a constant presence in the chaos of everything else, and eventually Malcolm was stirred into action. Slowly, carefully, to ease the pressure on his leg, Malcolm stood up, wavering unsteadily when he couldn't reach the wall behind him for support. And standing up, the room he was in seemed even smaller than before - it couldn't have been more than a few metres square in floor space.

Malcolm took a few steps forward and picked up the UT. He wasn't surprised to note it was switched off. He could only suppose that it had been left there by Raouni or one of his hermit-esque companions. A thought then occurred to him - he really had to find some kind of name for their species, because his mind was starting to run out of different ways to say "hermit-like". Despite the situation, the thought made him smile a little, and his spirits lifted for all of half a second. If that.

He pocketed the translator and slowly stepped backwards until his back was pressed up against the wall. He straightened up and rested his head against the wall as well, and hands either side of him he began to take slow, hesitant steps to the right. All the while keeping silent and listening as hard as he could.

Malcolm kept this up as he reached the first corner of the wall and proceeded down the next. He wasn't sure exactly what it was that he was looking for - the sounds of other people, maybe, or movement of some kind; vibrations could well mean warp engines or the like, although that last thought did nothing whatsoever to calm Malcolm's rapidly growing nerves.

It was on the third wall that he finally heard something. Two, certainly no more than three voices speaking very quietly, and in a language that Malcolm couldn't understand or even really make out through the wall. But no matter. He unzipped the pocket where the UT was, and without taking it out switched it to the "record" mode. The machine beeped twice - the sound was muffled by the pocket, which had been the intention. Malcolm then set it to "sensitive" and quickly and quietly left it at the base of the wall before retreating to the other side of the room. Mindful of his leg, Malcolm sat down and hunched himself up. And waited.

He kept watching the UT.

And waited.

As much as he hated to admit it to himself, until he knew more Malcolm knew he could do nothing.

o o o o o

The circumstances in which Philip found himself when he woke up could not have been more different then those of his commanding officer, although, of course, he had no way of knowing this. But whether or not awareness of the differences was there, they themselves were. He woke up lying on his side on something that was obviously intended to serve as some kind of mattress. His arms and legs ached, his neck was uncomfortably stiff and his head was beginning to pound.

But, so it seemed, he was alive. For now.

There was a build-up of feelings like fear and worry and panic threatening to overtake him completely, but instead of letting them do so, Philip tried to focus on the situation at hand. There was no doubt in his mind that Raouni and the other aliens were responsible for this - they had shot him and Reed, after all, although he couldn't remember anything after that and before this place. Wherever it was. So. As quickly as he could - without moving too much - Philip tried to assess his surroundings. Bare grey ceiling off to the far left if his vision, although the wall directly ahead of him was the colour of rust - it made for an odd combination, and Philip sincerely hoped that he never got the chance to meet the decorator personally. He could at least guess the width of the room from what he could see of the point where "his" wall and the ceiling met, although without turning around he had no idea of how long the room actually was.

Philip strained his ears, and willed his body to keep as quiet as it could - it felt like his heart was going to pack in any second now at the rate it was going. Not a thought process he wanted to pursue, particularly.

But, on the upside, he couldn't hear anything. That didn't necessarily mean that there was nothing behind him, but it was an encouraging enough start. At least, it was for him. Now all he had to do was turn over, just roll onto his back and then onto the other side. Roll. Just roll over. It was as simple as that when he thought about it. Just roll over onto his other side, and maybe he'd get more of a clue about what was going on. So he did. Slowly, now that he was uncomfortably aware of the fact that the small of his back was beginning to throb as well. He also didn't want to attract too much attention to himself, but he also knew from experience that the slower he rolled then, logically, the more attention he would get from whoever was watching him - they didn't need to be in the same room as him in order to do something like watch him. In an attempt to feign sleep, Philip closed his eyes and braced himself.

He rolled over, and automatically rolled himself up a little, like an elongated version of the foetal position. And after a couple of tensely silent and uneventful minutes, as if it was the most natural thing in the universe for him to be doing at that precise moment in time, he opened hi eyes. Slowly at first, then fully.

Philip was almost disappointed. After all the inner disagreements about turning himself over, and there was absolutely nothing there. Well, he amended silently, not quite nothing. For one, he now knew that the room he was in wasn't large by any standards, but it wasn't exactly cramped, either. Medium-sized, somewhere in the middle.

Lieutenant Reed wasn't anywhere to be seen. That was the second thought he registered as he took another look around the room before slowly pushing himself up to a sitting position - this time he ignored the pain in his arms. And sitting upright, things suddenly seemed to make a lot more sense. The rust colour he had seen on the wall now behind him also extended around the other three walls as well, and oddly enough the floor was the same colour as the ceiling. He was sat on - well, it could only have been meant to be some kind of bed structure. No windows, but there was a faint door-shaped outline in the wall opposite him, which for the moment was good enough for him.

He felt in his pockets, but found nothing. His UT and communicator had been taken away from him, and Philip knew exactly who had removed them from his pockets. Not for the first time since waking up here, he wondered where Reed was - that last memory he had of him was... standing in that second clearing with him, although as much as Philip tried to rack his brains, he couldn't recall how they had got there, or why the aliens would have opened fire on them. Then there was the idea that Philip could apparently understand the aliens' language, although Raouni was the only one Reed could understand, and Philip still had no idea if this... ability... went both ways or if it was just the one direction. Either way, it wasn't a hypothesis he wanted to test any time soon. Right now, all he wanted more than anything was to just crawl back into his bunk on Enterprise and forget about this whole sorry affair. But he couldn't do that. It was a nice idea, sure enough, but it just wasn't feasible. Not here, not now, not until he could find Reed, find out what was going on and then get the heck out of here - and those last two could come in any order, as far as he was concerned.

And he wasn't going to get any answers at all just sitting here like a lemon. Philip refused to let himself think about what could possibly be on the other side of the door, and instead steeled himself for getting up and actually finding out for himself. Which he did, taking steps that became a little less painful as his legs grew used to the movement. Philip wondered how long he had been out cold, but again refused to let himself think about it in any great measure of detail. He reached the door, which appeared to be little more than a slight indent running in a vaguely oval shape, big enough for Philip - or, for that matter, one of the aliens - to be able to get through without having to stoop. The area inside the indent was the same colour as the rest of the wall, and there was no visible opening mechanism that he could see. Philip traced part of the indent with his finger, not surprised when nothing happened. He was surprised when he pressed the palm of his hand against the door itself, and without so much as a rumble it opened silently, sliding off to one side underneath his hand. There was a corridor beyond the doorway, and once again Philip could hear nothing except for a distant rumbling that could have been an engine of some kind, something which only made him feel even more isolated right then. He wasn't supposed to be in a situation like this, for crying out loud - this was something the senior staff were supposed to rush blindly into and then mess up. He'd never volunteered to be Kidnappee Of The Week! And there was no way in God's... great big screwed-up universe that he was going to just let himself be caught up in anything crazy like this - well, not if he could help it, at any rate.

But at the same time he still owed it to himself and his sense of duty to at least try and find out what was going on in this place. Philip steeled himself again, and it was with a renewed (but not much stronger) sense of determination that he finally took his first step out into the corridor and looked both ways. And promptly wished he had a scanner with him.

On the strength that looking left wasn't quite as painful, Philip chose to go in that direction. He kept close to one of the walls, despite there being sufficient light coming from... somewhere. He reached the first corner, where "his" corridor split off into three new ones. Along a couple of them he could just about make out the vague indents that he now knew represented more doors, and again he opted to go left, this time on the basis that if he had to suddenly turn around and go back to where he had started from, for whatever reason, then reversing "left, left, left..." would be a heck of a lot simpler to remember at a split-second's notice.

Philip had gone maybe five or ten metres down this new corridor when he heard something - and it definitely wasn't the engines this time. Voices. There were voices. Low, rumbly and some way off, but certainly there were voices.

Should he go after them or not? For the life of him Philip couldn't decide, although he could think of plenty of reasons for and against the idea. His head told him he could possibly find out answers that way - after all, even without the UT he had somehow been able to understand the other aliens in that forest clearing, so could the same not apply here? On the other hand, his gut told him to back away as quickly and as quietly as he could in the direction he had just come from, maybe try and find Reed in the process, and hope like mad that this whole sorry mess would just sort itself out - it didn't particularly matter how, just that it would sort itself out and things would be fine and dandy once again.

Unsurprisingly, his head won.

Onwards down the corridor - and in the gradual direction of the voices too, as they started little by little to get louder until they could no longer be classified under "rumble", but now qualified as "low-pitched noise with the same grating consistency as a regurgitating cat". Anything to get him through the moment. Either way, though, the corridor he was in had an opening at the end of it, which was maybe ten or twelve metres ahead of him. Philip inched closer, still trying to keep as quiet as he could - something which wasn't easy when his heart was hammering away like a runaway shuttlepod and his breathing felt harsh and ragged in the mostly silent environment.

The closer he got to the opening, the more distinct the voices became. It didn't come as a surprise to Philip that once again he could understand what was being said, and the knowledge did absolutely nothing to settle what little was left of his stomach. It was kind of like the time he and Rolly had tried to sneak into Antony's room at the orphanage to leave him the "gift" of an apple-pie bed after Antony himself had played a practical joke on the two of them. The situations were worlds apart, of course, but still Philip couldn't help but smile at the memory, although the smile quickly vanished as he got nearer and nearer to the opening, until...

The corridor simply opened out into a much larger room, still keeping the same rust walls and grey floor and ceiling combination as before. There were no corners or anything like that; the corridor and room simply merged together seamlessly, like there was never meant to be any distinction or separation between the two.

Inside the room there were clusters of rust-coloured tables and chairs strewn about in no really obvious pattern - it looked as though it could have been some kind of communal dining room or mess hall. Just around the corner from Philip, away from his view, was the source of the voices; he didn't dare peek around the corner for fear of being discovered. But then again, for all he knew he could be registering on every scanner on this ship, but every little helps. Something like that. But anyway. Main priority - voices. And not the little ones in his head who were still trying to tell him to get away from there, either.

Philip flattened himself against the wall the voices were behind, just like the bald guy with the commander's pips had taught him and about fifteen others during basic training. He cranked his head towards the very edge of the wall - or as close to it as he dared - and listened. There were two, certainly no more than three people talking quietly, but they were loud enough that Philip could still hear - and understand - every single little word.

It took him less than ten seconds to figure out what was going on around the corner.

They - whoever they were - were bargaining for Reed's life.

o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o

Chapter 4: Numbers

Trip took one last look around the armoury. It had been a little under forty-eight hours since Malcolm and the other armoury guys had gone down to the planet's surface, and in that short time something little short of a miracle had happened. Without "Mother Malcolm" around to oversee events - even from the confines of Sickbay - things had moved a lot faster in terms of getting the armoury functioning to near-normal levels. And Trip was also beginning to have a greater respect for Malcolm's bitching and complaining about the little things in here - the targeting scanners had proved a nightmare to realign within the rebuilt torpedo launcher. Well, maybe respect wasn't quite the right word for what he was thinking; come to think of it, he couldn't really find a word for it, but respect kinda mirrored what he was thinking, so...

"Engineering to Commander Tucker." The hail cut through the unsteady line of thought, and Trip crossed the armoury to the comm panel. He grinned at the ensign who poked her head out from behind a workstation to see what going on. Reaching the wall, he thumbed the button.


"We need you to get back down here quickly, sir," the voice at the other end said. Someone Trip didn't recognise immediately. "Something's happened to Rostov."

"What?" Trip demanded. "What kinda somethin'?"

"We don't know exactly," the voice replied. "But he's out cold on the floor."

Trip considered this for a second. "Well, why the hell are you callin' me?" he cried. "Get the damned doc down there!"

"We have," the voice replied sniffily, clearly offended by this comment. "And he said to get you down here. Now," it added pointedly.

Trip backed as far away from the comm as he could without disabling the connection. "Okay, okay," he said. "No need ta get snarky with me, mister. I'm comin'. Tucker out." He turned around and caught the eye of the same ensign from earlier. He shrugged theatrically, much to her amusement. Trip then shot one last dirty look at the comm panel before leaving the armoury and heading down to Engineering. When he got down there it was to a scene of chaos and general confusion. The walkway down one side of the huge engine was almost completely blocked by a mass of navy-blue jumpsuits on the floor, hanging off ladders trying to get clear views and even a couple of people leaning over the railing on the upper walkways.

"Come on, people, move!" In his haste to get through and actually see for himself what was going on, Trip probably, and most inadvertently, pushed some of the engineering team quite rudely out of the way, but either he didn't notice or they didn't particularly care, given the circumstances. Which were, as Trip eventually saw from himself, Crewman Michael Rostov lying on his back on the bare grey decking. The chances were that he had been deliberately rolled into that position for analysis and treatment purposes, but those were small potatoes. Larger ones were Doctor Phlox with an open medkit next to him, a medical scanner held perfectly poised over Michael's head and one of the emergency nurses standing just behind the good doctor himself. "Well, Doc," Trip said, startling the nurse and a good three or four of the assembled engineers, "what's goin' on?"

Phlox looked up. "Ah, Commander," he said, sounding oddly jovial - his equivalent of concerned, then. "I thought you were up in the armoury, hmm?"

"I was," Trip replied. "But then I was told to get down here." He indicated Michael's unconscious form. "Mind tellin' me exactly what's happened?"

Phlox sighed, and replaced the medical scanner in the kit next to him. "It would appear that Mister Rostov had what humans would term a 'fainting spell'," he said. He didn't stand up, just stayed kneeling. "There doesn't seem to be any permanent damage, and he should revive of his own volition."

"An' that would be... when?" Trip asked, trying to prompt the doctor. He shot another, quicker look at the unconscious crewman, relieved when he saw the slow up-down breathing movements in his chest.

Phlox cocked his head to one side for the moment, clearly considering what he knew. "The next few minutes are the most likely possibility," he told Trip. He then got up. He picked up his medkit, and handed it to the nurse behind him. "Just one thing, Commander," he added. "You said that you had been summoned down here by someone. Who was that?"

Trip shook his head. "I don't know, not off the top of my head," he said. "Guy, maybe from one of my teams or your nursin' entourage." With this he cocked a peek at the (male) nurse still holding onto the medkit.

The doctor made an odd clucking noise, and nodded. He said nothing. He didn't need to, really - just then there was a faint groaning noise from behind the two men. Phlox turned around almost instantly and began tending to a groggy, mumbly and somewhat confused Michael. Trip, meanwhile, looked around at the gaggle of engineers. "Okay folks, nothin' to see here." He made wide sweeping motions with his arms. "C'mon, scram!"

And scram they did, amongst quiet mutterings of: "Never get to have any fun around here," and: "Wonder what made him drop anyway." Trip ignored them, and instead knelt down next to the doctor and his patient. "How're you doin', Mike?"

Partly sat up and mostly supported by the side of the engine behind him, Michael looked around blearily for a second before latching onto his CO's position and proximity. "Feel like I've been hit by a shuttlepod, sir," he announced, rubbing the side of his head slowly. "What happened?"

Trip raised his eyebrows. "Kinda hopin' you could tell us that, Mike," he replied.

"Nope." Michael shook his head with the same lethargy the rest of him appeared to have. "Last thing I knew I was... checking the power transfer readings over there -" he pointed at the computer console just behind the nurse, "- and the next I'm down here. No dizzy feelings, no weird stomach things, no nothing. Like there was nothin' inbetween 'em."

Phlox had his medkit on the decking and open again, and he had a hypospray in one hand and one of the little modules in the other. "Not to worry, Crewman," he said amiably, letting the concoction in the module hiss into the spray. "This -" the spray was held to Michael's neck, "- should take care of any side effects of the fainting spell." The contents of the spray entered Michael's bloodstream with a second, slightly longer hiss. Michael rubbed his neck briefly, covering the injection spot, and smiled weakly at both Phlox and Trip. "Really sorry about that, sir," he said, the look staying with the commander. "Doesn't usually happen like that unless I'm drunk or somethin'."

Trip reached down and pulled Michael up easily. "Listen, you go back to your quarters, get some rest, an' I don't want to see you back down here for at least three or four hours. Got it?"

"Yes, sir."

Trip peered closer in at the younger man's face. "You been gettin' enough sleep, Mike? You look tired."

"Nah, just a few extra shifts in here," Michael replied, now rubbing the side of his face as well. "Or maybe I'm too used to Phil snorin'," he added quietly, but not so quietly that Trip didn't hear him.

"O'Malley's your bunkmate?" There were only two Philip's on the Enterprise, and one of them was a science-based lieutenant with his own quarters.

"Yeah," Michael said.

"Huh." Trip filed that piece of information away in his brain. He wasn't entirely sure why he would want to remember that particular piece of information, or even need to, but he guessed it was just something else to take note of. "Well, Phil should be back some time later this afternoon - ya never know, he might even be there to wake you up." Trip left the final part of the sentence unsaid, but that was okay. Michael got the hint, and duly departed from Engineering. The nurse left with him; likely he would accompany Michael to his quarters to make sure he got there alright before disappearing off somewhere else.

As the door closed behind him, Trip and Phlox shared a "Look". It was not the kind of Look that implied someone was in deep excrement, either of their own doing or someone else's. Neither was it the Look that meant that a certain lieutenant (no names, please) was being particularly stubborn with his two least favourite words of the English language (doctor's orders). No; this was the kind of Look that meant that something was going on that both Trip and Phlox knew about, but either they could not put a name to it, or they did not want to do so out loud.

As it was, neither of them said anything, and after a couple of seconds they both left Engineering. One deck up from there, they went their separate ways. Phlox, presumably, back to Sickbay and his latest addition to the weird 'n' wacky menagerie (a Soliyyaki blood slug), and Trip meanwhile meandered around C-deck for a while before heading up to the bridge.

Jonathan was deep in conversation with whoever was manning tactical when he got up there, and the captain looked up. "Hey Trip," he said. "Come over here for a second."

"Sure." Trip crossed the outer edge of the bridge, nodding to T'Pol, Hoshi and Travis as he did so. He then saw that Helen Maritas was sat in Malcolm's usual spot, and he winked at her. "What can I do you for, Cap'n?"

"Take a look at this," Jonathan said, indicating the screen directly in front of Helen. Trip moved around behind her, and took a closer look at the information displayed there. Trip skimmed through most of it quickly, then looked back up at Jonathan. "Are you -"

Jonathan cut him off with a shh-ing motion. "Just see what you think, Commander," was all he would say.

So Trip took a closer look, leaning right in over Helen's shoulder in order to be able to read the smaller print. It was a list. More precisely than that, it was a list sorted into a table with three columns and three separate headers: "Action on Return" at the far left, with "Reaction" in the middle and "Name and wager" on the far right. The two left hand columns were the most comprehensive, had the most in them, and the "Name and wager" section had intermittent data down it.

Not trusting himself to look back up at either the captain or Helen, Trip instead allowed himself to read the list in more detail. According to it, both Hoshi and Travis had wagered their turn to pick for Movie Night for Malcolm returning to the Enterprise, and promptly declaring his undying love for T'Pol; Hoshi had bet on T'Pol dumping Malcolm on his ass, while Travis had gone for the hot sex and ensuing relationship between the two (and the only person to choose anything remotely like that particular option). Ensign Tanner had wagered on Malcolm returning to the Enterprise and forcing the crew (in small rotations, of course) to sit through a highly detailed three hour lecture on the finer points of alien flora and fauna. Tanner had been joined by several members of the geologists and biologists, as well as Jonathan himself, although each of them had of course taken different reactions to this action (ranging from mutiny below decks to little "accidents" during the next target practice sessions that the lieutenant would run).

Farther down the list was a single option that nobody had gone for, and with a fatalistic feeling in his stomach, Trip pointed at the screen. "That - that one seems a good idea, Cap'n." He leaned in over Helen a little further and hit in his own name and the wager he was willing to place. The betting system in this particular case was winner takes all, and Trip's wager was simple. A shift off duty for the winner in question, to be taken at their own discretion - he was the line officer, after all, and within reasonable limits he could authorise this sort of thing without having to go to either the captain or sub-commander first.

He had selected: "Lieutenant does not return to Enterprise, and rescue mission is launched to save said Lieutenant's sorry ass". Again, maybe a little fatalistic, but it was definitely better than: "Lieutenant returns to Enterprise, declares undying love for Phlox". And those were pretty much the only two options left that he could pick: there were maybe fifty or sixty names down on the list - as long as Malcolm never found out about it, then this was actually a pretty good idea. Just as long as Malcolm never found out about it, of course.

Trip straightened up. He shot Jonathan a mildly questioning look, but the captain had already turned around and looked as though he was going to start pacing around the sunken area of the bridge. As it happened, he didn't, although he did meander over to the other side of the command chair. He looked at T'Pol and said, maybe a little too casually: "Shuttlepod Two's due back from the planet's surface pretty soon."

T'Pol arched an eyebrow. "The shuttlepod is scheduled to re-enter the launch bay in precisely one hour and twelve minutes, Captain," she said calmly, only the barest fleck of disdain in her voice. "Lieutenant Reed is due to confirm with the Enterprise departure from the planet in thirty-seven minutes."

"Right, okay." Jonathan nodded briskly then looked back over at tactical. "Ensign," he said, "could I see you in my ready room?" Helen nodded quickly, and followed the captain off the bridge.

For lack of anything else to do, Trip slipped into Helen's empty seat, and took a good look around the bridge. He resisted the urge to stretch his arms out above and behind him, although he did limber out his legs underneath the station itself. "So," he said to nobody in particular, looking round at the other senior officers, "good day for anyone?"

For the second time in as many minutes, T'Pol gave off her equivalent of a dirty look. "There is little to be gained from unproductive communication, Commander," she then said, not looking at him but instead at the computer readouts - or whatever they were - in front of her. She then looked up, and quirked an eyebrow at him. "Although by human standards, my day so far has been perfectly satisfactory, in response to your enquiry." She then redirected her attention to whatever it was that she was doing at her little set of consoles.

Dumbfounded, Trip stared at her for a few seconds (had she just made a joke?) before turning to Hoshi and Travis. "You two?"

They both nodded in unison. "There were a couple of sensor glitches the other day," Hoshi said. "You know, after we got rid of Lieutenant Reed. Mostly they showed some flying pigs in the cargo bays and fresh food in the galley, and you know how unlikely those are to happen!"

Trip grinned and nodded. "Flyin' pigs in the cargo bay," he repeated mostly to himself. "Are ya sure the gravity wasn't just switched off?" he asked in a louder voice.

"Well, if it was, then we know you're to blame," Hoshi said, with a smile.

Trip held up a hand to his chest, as if to say: "Moi?"

"Yeah, you," she laughed. "Or whoever it was rerouting power through that deck." She feigned offence. "Some of us have quarters on that deck, you know."

Trip grinned devilishly. "Aw, someone not get their beauty sleep that night?" he asked, winking at her.

Hoshi eyeballed him. "Commander, it's very difficult to get sleep when the lights keep going on and off at three in the morning," she said, although she was still joking. Well, just about. Trip was going to say something back to her again when a beeping sound from the comm station stopped him.

Instead of answering it, Hoshi instead studied the data available to her. "That's strange," she said, largely under her breath and to herself - but on the other hand she was sitting less than six feet away from a Vulcan with particularly sensitive hearing.

"What is strange, Ensign?"

Hoshi looked around at her. "It's Shuttlepod Two. But they're early. Early by..." She tried to do the maths.

"Twenty eight minutes, Ensign," T'Pol said. "Perhaps you should answer the hail."

Hoshi nodded, activated Enterprise's end of the communication. "This is Enterprise," she said with a smile. "Go ahead, Lieutenant."

"It's Ensign Rose," Matthew's slightly crackly voice told the quiet, almost expectant bridge. "And, uh, there's a problem." At those last three words, just about everybody on the bridge snapped to attention, and all eyes were either on Hoshi or the comm panel in front of her.

"And what would that be?" she asked, trying to keep her voice light.

"Lieutenant Reed and Phil O'Malley are missing."

o o o o o

At around the same time that Trip was leaving the armoury due to the call from Engineering, Malcolm Reed was still hunched up in that small room in nowhere he knew, waiting for something to happen In front and some way out in front of him, the UT had yet to begin translating the alien words he could hear into English. He could only suppose that the delay was due to the quiet pitch of the voices; there had to be limits to this little machine, after all.

The fear that had previously threatened to engulf him had mostly abated, leaving in its wake a certain kind of nervousness that could at any moment turn back into its parent emotion; this much he knew about his feelings then, and that was about it.

He had no idea of what he was going do to - or could do - when or even if something did decide it was going to happen. In fact, it was while his mind was constantly turning itself over and over in as many directions as it could handle at one time when he nearly missed it. "It" was the UT finally beeping, signalling that it had received enough data and that it could now begin an instantaneous translation.

As quickly as he could manage, Malcolm crawled across the floor, still mindful of the damage to his leg, and it wasn't until he had reached the UT that the final piece of the metaphorical jigsaw puzzle slipped into place, hitting him on the head as it slotted in. Sprays. He was supposed to have sprays. He was supposed to have sprays containing some kind of pain relief with him. He glanced towards the UT, and the fleeting memory was lost again as the urgency of the present began to reassert itself again. The UT was now spewing out English translations of the voices it had been recording. A lot of it, however, was very sketchy - it looked as though the language was a tough cookie for the UT to get its teeth into, because maybe every tenth word was coming out in English that actually made any sense: the rest sounded like the mechanical grammar of someone who has learned English as a second language - the sentences were disjointed and out of synch, and there were any number of other things dodgy as well. But, for the moment, it was the best that Malcolm was going to get, and he damn well knew it. So he had to make do. And improvise as quickly as he sodding could.

Malcolm listened intently to the UT for a few minutes, struggling to make sense of the distorted words and sentence structures. In the end, he gave up, heavily disappointed with both himself and, to a much lesser extent, the UT itself. He could hardly blame the translator, though: the circumstances he was trying to get to operate in at the moment were definitely a long, long way from ideal. Eventually, though, something came out of the UT that made all the difference - and the sense - in the universe.

"O'Malley... corner... just around... still there..."

Shocked and stunned into stillness, Malcolm tried to think what to do next.

o o o o o

In his just-about-a-hiding-place, Philip had kept on listening to the two-way conversation around the corner from him. Had no choice in the matter really, since he had had no luck in persuading his legs to move or silencing the jabbering little voice in the back of his head that was really starting to get annoying.

It was the voice that kept throwing bits and pieces of the conversation back at him. Repeating them over and over. The parts where the two people - aliens - had debated whether or not Reed should be kept alive, as well as something about Reed having no real purpose here. The unwillingness of one of them to even contemplate terminating another sentient life (ie: Reed). The part about complications because of the presence of the Commandant. Just what or even who this... "Commandant"... was, Philip had absolutely no idea, and he wasn't entirely sure that he wanted to find out. And then, finally - in a way he supposed is was inevitable, really - the conversation turned to him.

Not directly, mind. Nor was it sudden, or seem like it was in any way planned. It was more as if conversation had just drifted naturally around to the topic of him (and still in his state of half-terrified nervousness, he was probably reading far too much into things). First there were brief exchanges of dialogue about Philip's health - the prognosis for him was apparently very good, for the moment (and in a perversely ironic kind of way that was actually relieving to know). More words thrown back and forth, still in the same quiet, low-pitched voices, and still Philip stood there, unable or perhaps unwilling to move away from that spot. Something had frozen him in place, be it sheer fear, shock or some other force altogether... and for the moment there he was stuck. And still, more words back and forth, back and forth between the two aliens, until...

"Perhaps... perhaps it is impatient to think such, but things should start moving more quickly now."

"No, not impatient. Apprehensive, perhaps. One of us should find the O'Malley person."

Quiet laughter. "Not worth the effort. He is still there, just around the corner."

A brief pause. "Ah, yes. Shall I go, or you?"

There was no response to that question, and Philip only had time to form the words: Oh... shit, in his mind before the first waves of unconsciousness came over him - again - and he knew no more.

o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o

"Then the Devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of fire and sulphur, where the beast and the false prophet had already been thrown; and they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever."
- Revelation 20:10

o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o

Chapter 5: Revelation, part II

Less than a few seconds, and Malcolm was finally galvanised into action. He was now completely ignorant of the dwindling pain in his leg as he scrambled to his feet. He turned to face the wall from behind which he had heard the voices, and tested the wall with his hands, quickly putting pressure on the smooth surface before taking a step back. With one eye half-closed, he took aim.

THUMP! THUMP! "Hey!" Malcolm cried out, hitting the wall as hard as he could with his fists. "Hey, come on! Someone in here!" THUMP! "Hey! Anybody hear me?" There was a part of him that was acutely aware that if he continued down along this route for much longer then there was the distinct possibility that he could very easily wind up dead. However, there was another part of him (the pessimistic part, but also the realist at the same time) that recognised that this was in fact the only way that Malcolm was going to get anything done, at least on his end of the grand scale of things.

"Come on!" THUMP! The exertion was starting to get to him now. Taking breaths that were getting deeper and deeper, harsher and more ragged, Malcolm finally stopped hitting the wall. He leaned against it with his arms creating a circular outline around his head, and pressed his forehead to the smooth surface. He closed his eyes. There were only maybe one or two times before in his life that he could ever remember feeling so damned helpless. Beginning to feel a little light-headed, Malcolm opened his eyes again. Just off to the far right of his limited line of vision was the UT still sitting on the floor where he had left it, and Malcolm suddenly had the very strong urge to stamp on the translator as hard as he could and then kick it off somewhere for all the good it was doing him right here, right now.

More than anything, though, he was worried about Philip. Sure, the young Irishman had been on his share of away missions before, but this time... well, this time was the first time a mission he'd been on had gone balls-up, and even that was putting it quite mildly. And the only reason that Malcolm thought Philip was still alive was because of those last few garbled words courtesy of the UT.

Malcolm sighed, closed his eyes again. Nothing else registered on his internal radar for several seconds until he became acutely aware of a slight breeze of cool air blowing past and around his left side. Instantly he froze in place. He couldn't see anything to the left of him because his arm was right in the way. After a few seconds he let out the breath he didn't realise he'd been keeping in, and... moved his head back from the wall.

Standing there, just inside a door (where had that come from!) in the side of the wall, was Raouni. In all his smug, hermit-like smugness... oh, whatever.

Malcolm gulped.

o o o o o

It took precisely thirty-four minutes and seventeen seconds for Shuttlepod Two to get back from the planet's surface. During those thirty-four minutes and seventeen seconds approximately eight dozen scans were run from Enterprise's bridge of both the 'pod and the planet to pick up on any human biosigns. And exactly thirty-five minutes after leaving the planet's surface, Ensign Matthew Rose and Crewman Clara Kopleck exited the docked Shuttlepod Two and reported to the bridge.

Jonathan and Maritas had come back out of the ready room; had done almost immediately after the little conversation between Hoshi on the Enterprise and Matthew down on the planet: dazed, Trip had yet to give Helen her chair back, but right now she didn't seem to mind, and he couldn't give a flying monkey's either way.

And it soon transpired from rapid-fire questions at the two recently-returned armoury personnel that neither of them had heard hide nor hair of the missing Malcolm and Philip since splitting up shortly after arrival in the clearing. Arguments were flung back and forth, then ripped apart by someone else. Differing conspiracy theories were bandied around, from the morbidly plausible to the almost desperate and thus severely unlikely to be true.

And finally, someone - looking back on it, nobody could quite recall who - suggested that they went through the sensor logs. T'Pol and Trip both did this at the science and tactical stations respectively, and finally...

Trip's console beeped. As one, everybody snapped around to face him (their attentions had been divided between him and the subcommander), and waited impatiently while Trip made sense of what the computer was telling him. "This doesn't make any sense," he said eventually, quietly, almost to himself.

But the others had heard him, and Helen leaned in over his shoulder while T'Pol stood up over at her end, and Jonathan, Hoshi, Travis and Matthew came to attention even more sharply than before. From her vantage point, Helen had a look at what Trip was pointing to. She too was obviously bewildered, because she then said: "How can there be evidence of warp travel with no warp signature?" Trip, the engineer, only shook his head in response, and the two of them resumed staring at the data on their screen. However, a series of hard glares (ineffective) and a loud cough or three (much more effective) brought the pair to some semblance of attention: they looked up.

"Oh." Helen.

Trip looked over at the Travis. "Travis, you know your ships, right?"

"Sure," the helmsman replied with a nod. "Why?"

"Gotta question for you," Trip said slowly. "Have y'ever come across a ship that can go faster than light without actually usin' warp technology?"

"Theoretically, that's impossible."


Jonathan coughed again, much louder this time. Trip took the hint. "One of the sensor ghosts Hoshi was talkin' about wasn't so much a flyin' pig in the cargo bay as it was a flyin' pig in the planet's orbit," he explained. "We've got somethin' here movin' too damn quickly to be anythin' but warp velocity, but there's no sign of a warp trail."

T'Pol. "As Ensign Mayweather stated, the likelihood of that being possible is extremely low."

Travis again. "Commander, are you absolutely sure there's no sign of a warp trail?"

Helen. "And while we're at it, what the hell is that thing, anyway?"

Trip studied the data intently. "S'far as I can tell, it's got engines where engines usually are, and there's a bit stickin' out of the front that looks like it could be some kinda ship, but sensors keep sayin' that there's no warp signature, and even T'Pol can't find a warp trail, otherwise she woulda said." As much as he hated to admit it, even to himself, there was a definite note of finality in his voice.

Jonathan considered the information. "Is there any chance that cloaking could have been used?" he asked, almost hopefully.

As one, Trip and Helen shook their heads. Trip elaborated. "It's illogical to cloak a warp signature and then leave the ship on display for anyone lookin' in the right direction."

"And Lieutenant Reed and Crewman O'Malley are on this... ship?" For lack of any better word, Jonathan settled for that.

Again, Trip shook his head. "They're not on the planet, they're not registerin' anywhere else. That thing's gotta be our best bet." A jerk of the head towards the information on the console in front of him.

"How fast is it moving?" Travis asked. He sounded more curious than anything else.

Trip checked. And swallowed. "Equivalent to warp factor seven," he said, throat dry. "And I still can't tell how the hell they're movin' at all, let alone that damn quick."

"Trajectory?" Jonathan again.

Helen peered in over Trip's shoulder again. "Star system a few days away from here," she said. "It's the only one within fifty light-years. Has to be where they're headed."

"The ass of deep space," Trip muttered to himself. Then, louder: "If we chase 'em as fast as we can push the engine," he said, doing the mental arithmetic, "then we'll end up bein' maybe a couple of days behind them at the most."

"You heard him, Travis," Jonathan said, slipping right back into "captain" mode. "Fast as you can." Travis nodded his acknowledgement, and the Enterprise began to shudder before sliding into warp speed.

With the rest of the bridge busy again - or at least no longer paying attention to the tactical station, Helen and Trip shared a dark look. "That's just wrong," Trip said.

She nodded. "I'm still trying to get my head around the whole no warp thing," she replied.

"Yeah." Trip paused for a few moments. "Maybe they're movin' that thing through sheer force o' will," he said mirthlessly, meaning nothing whatsoever by the comment.

Helen eyeballed him. "Now that really would be some kind of miracle," she told him before standing up straight. "Can I have my seat back now?"

Trip got up, letting the armoury officer (for now) take her seat, and as he stood there, two thoughts - at the same time both disconcerting but also sickeningly amusing.

One, that he had won the pool.

Two, that now the engineers could no longer complain about having nothing to do in the engine room today.

But neither he nor Helen had any idea of just how close they had come to the truth about the alien ship's method of propulsion.

o o o o o

Had he known about the ship's apparent lack of warp capacity yet still-being-able-to-outrun-the-Enterprise-ness, then there was little doubt that this would have interested Malcolm Reed greatly. As it was, however, he did not know this morsel of information and anyway, he happened to have his hands rather full with other things entirely right at the moment.

Slowly Malcolm stood up straight. He didn't once take his eyes off the alien. For his part, Raouni took another step into the room - behind him, the "door" closed without so much as a hiss or mechanical, and the movement made Malcolm turn sharply. He could have sworn that there wasn't a door there before. He turned back to face Raouni. For several seconds there was an expectant silence before finally Malcolm managed to speak.

"What the hell is going on here?" His voice came out almost as a growl.

Raouni seemed unperturbed. "At the moment, nothing, but I imagine that things will start happening soon enough."

Without warning, Malcolm doubled over, coughing violently into the sleeve of his uniform. He righted himself almost as quickly, just as Raouni took a step closer, evidently concerned. "I'm sorry," Malcolm told him, not sounding the least bit sincere. "I'm allergic to bullshit." Then: "Where's Philip? What have you done to him?"

"What reason do we have to harm him?" Raouni asked rhetorically. Malcolm had to admit it, he was stumped there, although he bit back some of the more... caustic answers that came immediately to mind. After all, he was weaponless here, and he still didn't know the full capabilities of these aliens.

"You tell me," he settled for instead. "And while we're on the subject, you could tell me why you kidnapped us and why you're taking us... I don't know, we could be anywhere by now."

Raouni considered this for a moment without replying. And when he spoke again it was with the same calmly measured tones he had used throughout the... encounter. "What is it you would like to know, Lieutenant?"

I get a choice here! Okay... "Where's my colleague, and what have you done to him?"

"He is safe," Raouni assured him. "Of that I can promise you."

Malcolm raised an eyebrow, but let the matter drop. For now. "How is it that I can understand what you're saying, but my translator cannot?"

Raouni shook his head. "That is something I do not know the answer to," he said. He sounded genuine enough. "The use of technology has always been... proficient in the past, when dealing with outsiders."

And now for the million pound question. "What are you planning to do with us?"

"Ah, Lieutenant, that is more delicate a matter than others," Raouni said. "And it is something that is not yet fully understood, less much by ourselves."

They've got us here on a wing and a sodding prayer, the little voice in Malcolm's head whispered to him, and with ease born of long practice, he ignored it. "Well," Malcolm said out loud, "it would seem that you have the upper hand here, so to speak. I'd try a little intimidation practice, but you've taken my weapon. I'd try and locate my colleague for myself, but you've also taken away my scanner. All that you've left me with is, essentially, a piece of technological junk." He held his hands wide. "Looks like we're at your mercy here."

When Raouni's answer came, it stunned the armoury officer. "No, Lieutenant, it would seem that we are at the mercy of you."

o o o o o

Early afternoon on the Enterprise, not yet late enough to be classified evening. The morning shift crew were still up and about; the evening and graveyards were catching their last few hours of sleep until their work began at their posts onboard ship. Lights were dimmed in some sections of crew decks; in others they were in "daylight" mode.

Down on D-deck, there was only a single engineer not in Main Engineering as the ship's course altered to the nearest (and only) star system from them. In his bunk on the Enterprise, Michael Rostov rolled over, unable to sleep. He lay on his back and stared at the bed above him. It was empty, and the silence was unnerving. Usually Michael was able to hear Philip sleeping, hear him breathing and tossing and turning as he slept.

Today, though, there was only silence.

And in the darkness of his quarters, Michael shivered.

o o o o o

"What?" Malcolm took a step backward, involuntarily. "Is - is this some kind of trick?"

No response. Raouni simply stood there, as if waiting for something.

"This - this..." Malcolm shook his head. "I don't understand any of it."

"And so it will be until the moment of reckoning," Raouni quoted softly, a far-off look - if the expression could be described thus - on his face.

"What?" Malcolm demanded - again. "What's that?"

Instead of answering him directly, Raouni instead said: "My people value understanding above all else, Lieutenant. It is the requisite to our being. What of your people? Do you value something above all else?"

Slowly Malcolm nodded once. "Knowledge," he answered warily. "My people seek knowledge."

"And through the knowledge, one gains a deeper understanding." Raouni nodded.

Malcolm was rapidly becoming confused. Even more so than already. "But we've already had this conversation... haven't we?"

"Yes." Raouni nodded again. "But still you do not understand. When understanding comes, there will be no need to repeat the words to you." He then turned back to the wall where the door supposedly was and, as Malcolm watched, pushed lightly against a section of the wall roughly two-thirds of the way up from the floor; a door shaped hole appeared in the wall, just high enough for Raouni himself to walk through unhindered. The alien turned back to Malcolm. "This way."

Suspicious, Malcolm didn't move an inch. "Why?"

"You did not believe me when I told you that your colleague was safe," Raouni told him. "This way you will be able to see and understand this for yourself."

Malcolm took a step forwards, and then followed Raouni out of "his" room. As he went he didn't notice that the pain in his leg and chest was gone, although he had still not taken any form of medication. He didn't notice anything about the corridors he was moving through, except that the grey walls/rust floor and ceiling was a combination that continued past the confines of the room he had been in. In fact, the only thing he did notice on the little journey was the direction that Raouni was taking him; right, right, right...

Abruptly the pair stopped in the middle of another nondescript corridor. There were no distinguishable features on any of the walls, except that when Malcolm looked a little more closely he could see very faint indents in the walls, roughly the size and shape of...


A small rustling sound caught the armoury officer's attention, and he turned back to look at Raouni, who was now standing in front of one of the indents. Malcolm watched him press a hand against the area inside the indent, and the door duly "opened" again, leaving little more than another hole in the wall through which one could walk. However, Raouni did not go inside; he instead motioned with a bony hand to Malcolm; first to him himself and then to the door. Malcolm took the unspoken... hint?... request?... order?... and stepped inside.

It was a room much similar to the one that he had been in, although in the corner of this one there was an oblong extension of the wall that looked as though it could have been some kind of bed. Other than that, the room was bare. And aside from the blue huddle in another corner, further away from the door, the room was completely empty.

The fear and worry inside Malcolm's gut grew again. Blue huddle...

He quickly crossed the room, all the while quite unaware that Raouni had stepped inside the room and was standing near enough to the door that it did not close again. Malcolm reached the blue mound in a few steps, and knelt down next to it - him, for it was Philip. Undeniably, unmistakably, without a doubt, it was Philip. The younger man's head was buried almost completely in his arms, and all that could be seen of him aside from the uniform were the tufts of scruffy blonde hair and flashes of pink skin around his ankles and wrists.

"Philip?" Malcolm asked, gently touching Philip's shoulder. There was no response, so he tried again: "Philip?" Again, no response, no sign at all that Philip had heard him, or was even aware of his presence. Behind Malcolm there was nothing but silence, but for some reason he knew that he and Philip weren't alone. "I thought you said he was okay," he accused, not turning around.

"I said that your colleague was safe," Raouni countered, then fell silent again.

Malcolm exhaled sharply, but before he could do anything else: "What are you doing here?" It was Philip.

Malcolm frowned. "Come on, Philip," he said, removing his hand from the shoulder. "We've got to get you out of here."

"Why bother?" Philip's voice retorted from inside the huddle.

"Philip?" Malcolm was genuinely concerned now. "What's going on? I - I don't understand -"

He was cut off by Philip, whose head all but snapped up from the huddle. He met Malcolm's gaze with a kind of fierce intensity that the lieutenant had never seen there before. "You don't understand?" he repeated coldly, even his voice sounding different as well. "Let me tell you something: you've never understood. You didn't understand what the hell you were doing when the torpedo launcher exploded. You didn't understand about my parents. You don't understand how damn lucky you are, Lieutenant Reed."

"What are you talking about?" Malcolm asked, completely confused.

"You've got a family!" Philip exploded. "You've got two parents and a little sister who care about you, and yet you go around in a cloud of self-pity because they're not exactly like you always wanted them to be." He shook his head. "You really have no idea, do you?" He stared at Malcolm a few seconds longer, not blinking, not wavering, until he rested his head back on his arms - not back inside the huddle, but simply resting on top of his arms, face down. The intention was clear, even if the words were unspoken.

Go away.

Malcolm stood up. He felt oddly hollow inside, like he wasn't really here, like this was some kind of freaky, really awful nightmare. But it wasn't. He also felt like he should be doing something proactive right about now, like finding Raouni... someone... anyone... who would give him a straight answer for a change. Find someone and threaten to rip their head off if he didn't get any sense out of them. Sure, Mal, the voice in his head said suddenly. Kill all the bastards on this ship. Sure you're one against however many, and you've no weapon, but you'll get through it. Just leave a note telling Charlie-boy you don't want any flowers at the funeral. Again he ignored it. He stared down at Philip's huddled form for a few seconds in abject silence before leaving the room as fast as he could go. In the corridor he didn't pause for an instant, just retraced the steps he had taken from the room he had been in, and a part of him trying to memorise as much as the ship's layout as he could along the way. All the way he was ignorant to whether or not anyone was following him, and he didn't care either way. Finally Malcolm reached the indent that represented the door to "his" room, and mimicking the actions he had seen earlier, pressed his hand against the wall and watched as the door opened in front of him.

He went inside, and began panting and taking deep breaths, although he was not out of breath. In his head, thoughts and emotions and various expletives were endlessly rolling in and around each other, and he no longer knew what he was doing. Too many things were out of his control. Too many variables, each with their own cause and effect, action and reaction, before and after. Too many things he didn't know, didn't understand, didn't... Philip's behaviour, so out of character... He knew there was a bigger picture here somewhere, but damned if he could see it.

And more and more increasingly, his jumbled thoughts kept returning to what Philip had said to him back in the other room. "You really have no idea, do you?"

That sentence began to repeat itself again and again in his mind until Malcolm couldn't think of anything else, until all he could think of in reply to it was yes, he didn't understand some things. Yes, he did... he did know how lucky he was to have a family, but that wasn't the whole story.

And somewhere in the deeper recesses of his mind, Malcolm could only hope that the Enterprise was on her way, wherever the hell they were now.

o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o

Chapter 6: Leviticus

"You really have no idea, do you?"

Still the words echoed around and around in Malcolm's head. He didn't know what to do with them - certainly they wouldn't just go the hell away, which would be a good thing. He did, however, know this: he did have an idea. Okay, so he didn't know what it was like to grow up without a blood-related family around him, but he knew other things.

Like what it was to grow up surrounded by religion. Like what it was to grow up surrounded by religion in a world that had now all but ridiculed and scorned those people who were still religious, with all the space-travel and whatnot that humanity was now embarking on.

Yep... he knew all too well about that...

o o o o o

"For goodness's sake, Malcolm, just stand still for two minutes while I -"

Underneath his mother's hard fingers, Malcolm squirmed, trying to get away from her grip. This action was made all the more difficult by the clothes he was wearing: a stiff-collared white shirt and heavily starched grey trousers with a matching jacket. His hair had been combed back too, resembling something out of a bad nineteen-fifties or eighties movie, like the ones his cousin had hidden away behind her large collection of Britannica encyclopaedias. The reflection of himself that he had caught in the mirror on the way downstairs had reminded him of Damien Thorn from The Omen, and he had perked up a little at that, and even let his mother continue prodding and poking him until she got the result she wanted from him. Or at least, his appearance.

Mary Reed sighed, loosening her grip on him. "Come on, honey," she said softly, her hands now a lot less urgent in their effort to straighten out creases and find the tiniest of dust specks. "Got to get you ready for church."

And therein lay the reason for this early morning torture: it was Sunday. Time for the Reed family to go to church. Malcolm nodded soberly and looked up at his mum. She, as she did every Sunday, looked very pretty indeed in her flowery skirt and pale-coloured blouse. She also looked very well groomed. "Mum," Malcolm said. "Can I go to the toilet before we leave?" It was the same question he always asked at this point in the proceedings. He knew that very well, and from... experience that his mum didn't want him to spoil the perfect sheen that she had given him, but at the same time she was also well aware that Malcolm suddenly leaping out of the bench in the middle of the vicar's sermon and dashing for the loos was not something that Stuart Reed wanted to be associated with. That was another part of the whole attaining perfection-thing that they did every Sunday: Captain and petty officer Stuart Reed was a stickler for perfection. If it could be achieved, then that was what he demanded, and nothing less.

"Okay, but be quick," she warned, and within a second Malcolm was out of the hallway and halfway back up the stairs, his polished black shoes clattering loudly on the wooden steps. When she heard the slam of the bathroom door, Mary herself left the doorway and went into the living room. The large analogue clock on the wall above the mantelpiece told her that it was thirteen minutes before ten o'clock: this meant she had exactly eight minutes before she had to gather Malcolm up and get him into the car to go to church. Stuart would be meeting his wife and son at the church itself, as something important had come up with one of the other Naval officers. Malcolm's younger sister Madeleine was staying with Nanna and Granddad - Mary's parents - for the weekend, and had therefore got out of going to church altogether.

After a couple of minutes, Malcolm came clattering back down the stairs and reappeared in the living room. "I'm ready to go," he announced, although he sounded a lot less than enthusiastic about the prospect of going than Mary knew her husband would have preferred to hear. Appearances, after all, were everything.

The car ride to Steyne Road Methodist Church was mostly silent, except for Malcolm occasionally poking the hole in the seat between his legs, pulling out bits of stuffing. Mary noted this activity out of the corner of her eye, but said nothing. This was her car. Sure, it was old and more than a little banged-up from her university days, but as far as she was concerned, Malcolm and indeed Madeleine were allowed a fairly free reign in what they did in this car. They were children, and if Malcolm wanted to pull part of the already crumbly seat apart, then she was going to let him, whatever Stuart thought of a similar activity being carried out in his own (pristine) car.

They arrived at the church just before five past ten, and even as they rounded the corner and approached the mostly plain brick building itself, Mary could see Stuart stood outside the main door in his Navy uniform. He was not a man who was given to visible signs of irritation, but if he had been then Mary knew that he would be tapping his foot impatiently and repeatedly looking at his watch, despite the fact that there was still another twenty five minutes to go before the service actually started. Mary parked the car in the street across from the church, and held Malcolm's hand while they crossed the road, although the traffic at that time was minimal to say the least. Stuart smiled slightly at Mary as they got closer, and she echoed the sentiment, although her loose grip on Malcolm's hand never wavered. She gave his hand a brief squeeze, and was reassured to feel Malcolm respond in kind. It meant that he was in a good mood today, and was unlikely to cause what Stuart would describe as a "scene". The three Reeds went inside the church, all three of them looking as though they were happy enough to be there, although for two of them it was more of a chore than anything else.

o o o o o

"Come on, Malcolm, you can't hide in your room forever, you know!"

After maybe three or four minutes of shouts and entreaties like this, Malcolm Reed emerged from his bedroom with a deeply entrenched scowl on his face. It was a Sunday morning, yet for all intents and purposes he was wearing his school uniform, albeit without the motifed jumper that itched in all the wrong places. Smoothly ironed black trousers with a small turn-up at the heel and near-perfect creases down each side of the legs that gave the impression that this was the first time that the trousers had ever been worn. The shirt was in a similar state of perfection, apart from the sleeves, which had been folded back to the elbow and actually showed signs of human usage before that precise moment in time. His hair was an unruly mess, with stray hairs sticking up all over the place, but it was the only part of him that looked, well, messy.

He stopped at the top of the stairs and looked down them: his mum was standing at the bottom, standing there in the same kind of outfit she wore every Sunday, and she sighed. "Please, Malcolm," she said. "You know I don't ask much of you, and this is one of the few things I do ask. Just..." She sighed again. "One hour. One hour, and then you can go bury yourself in a book again."

Malcolm's scowl eased. "You promise?" he asked her, and even he could feel his resolve breaking. It wasn't that he didn't want to do this, necessarily - okay, that was most of the reason there and then - but he didn't like disappointing his mum. She was one of the very few people that Malcolm could not say, "No," to. In fact, she was probably the only person he couldn’t do that to. Malcolm respected her all the more for that, and she him in return.

Mary nodded. "I promise," she replied, knowing that he would do this for her. "Now go and get your shoes on, otherwise we'll be late." Malcolm nodded quickly and disappeared back into his bedroom, and downstairs where he couldn't see her, Mary let out a quiet sigh of relief. The hardest part was over with, for the moment.

The two of them had about ten minutes to get to church before the service started. Under normal circumstances the entire Reed family would be there by now - would have been there for fifteen minutes or so, in fact, but these were not exactly normal circumstances. Mostly out of exasperation, and in an attempt to teach his son a thing or two about punctuality, Stuart had gone ahead to the church in his car, taking Madeleine with him. His parting words to Mary on the way out had been along the lines of: "Get that boy out of bed and get him to the church!" For her part, Mary knew perfectly well that Malcolm was not only awake, but up and dressed, as she had slipped in there at about eight with a mug of tea for him and had found him sat at his desk, thoroughly engrossed in a battered paperback copy of Stephen King's The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. The book was most likely something that a friend at school had leant to him over the extended weekend - there had been an inset day on the Friday - and she had quietly left the mug on the desk, earning a smile from the young boy, and had then left him to it. But now it was gone ten o'clock, and certain things had to be done before Malcolm could return to the last few chapters of the book and finish it in peace.

Mary left her spot at the bottom of the stairs and went outside to stand beside the car, leaving the front door open a little. It was early autumn now, with some of the leaves in the trees starting to wither and fall to the ground, and the weather was still warm enough to pass as late spring or early summer. It was one of the nice things about this area, although they had only lived here for just under six months. Another bonus of subscribing to the Stuart Reed Philosophy of Crappy Naval Routines and Constant Upheaval, although Mary would never make this kind of comment to her husband's face: it was more likely to be something she would share with Malcolm on the way to church: he would certainly find it amusing.

A few minutes of watching the neighbours' cat's latest kamikaze attempt to catch a low-flying sparrow, and Malcolm finally emerged from the house, carefully shutting the front door behind him. Mary unlocked the car doors, noting as she did so that while Malcolm's shirt sleeves were still folded neatly around his elbows, the shirt somehow appeared a little less creased than it did before, and his hair was neater as well, although not by much. He shot her a wry grin as he planted himself in the passenger seat. "You look nice, Mum."

Coming from Malcolm, this was extremely high praise indeed, and it was all Mary could do not to laugh out loud, although she settled for a small smile of her own. "If you think complimenting your mother is going to get you out of going to church, you're sadly mistaken," she told him, pulling out of the small cul-de-sac where they lived and driving out onto the main road - or what passed as the main road in this particular area.

"Well, you can't say I didn't try," Malcolm replied with a bright grin, and Mary's smile widened.

"True," she said to him as they got closer to the church building, "but don't say that to your father, will you?" Malcolm smiled again, shaking his head at the same time, and after a couple of minutes of companionable silence, Mary shared her observations about the Reeds moving house so often. She was right: Malcolm found it extremely funny, and laughed out loud at it, which was something Mary was not very used to hearing, although she tried to encourage it as much as she could when and where she could.

Stuart Reed, along with Madeleine, was waiting for them outside the church, and abruptly their smiles and good moods faded.

o o o o o

"I think I'm drowning, asphyxiated, I wanna break the spell you've created..."


"You're something beautiful, a contradiction, I wanna play the game, I want the friction..."


"You will be the death of me, yeah you will be the death of me..."


"Bugger." Malcolm got up from his desk, crossed his bedroom and switched off the stereo. Abruptly the music stopped, and in the sudden silence, he heard the last part of his father's yell from two floors down. He grinned a little less than guiltily to himself and went down the two flights of stairs to the living room, successfully managing to wipe the smile off his face on the way down. Passing the first floor landing, he caught sight of himself in the full-length mirror that Mum had insisted on putting there, and the image stuck in his mind. It was the image of someone a little short for his age, with unruly, scruffy hair and a series of faded black ink smudges down one side of his face. He had on faded blue jeans, this time with green stains down the front and side of the left leg, and the sleeves of his favourite knatty jumper were rolled up past his elbows: he had worn it so much in the past three months or so that holes were starting to show in the hem and chest, and the colour had gradually mutated from a pristine white to a murky grey that absolutely nothing could shift.

All in all, it was not standard fare for someone about to go to church, and Malcolm knew it. And in a few seconds, so would...

"What in the blazes do you think you're wearing!"

...his father.

Malcolm paused in the doorway to the living room, and he spread his arms wide. "Clothes. It would hardly do for me to wander around in the buff, after all." Behind Stuart's rapidly reddening face, he could see both his mum and sister smiling at the comment, Madeleine struggling to hold back the beginnings of peals of laughter, and he winked slightly at them before returning his attention to the main event. He knew better than to grin at his father, but the sentiment was more than echoed in his demeanour. "I told you already Father, I'm not going to church today. I can't. I've got those exams to study for, remember? I told you yesterday that I wasn't coming with you this morning. I thought you heard me?" This last comment-slash-question coupled with a look of complete innocence had two very different outcomes. The first was that at the back of the room, Madeleine's resolve finally broke and she began to laugh, although she successfully hid it behind a hand and a faked coughing fit. The second was that Stuart Reed was well and truly stumped. There was nothing immediate that he could come back with, and in that split second of paternal hesitation, Malcolm knew fully well that he had won this small battle.

He motioned back in the direction of the stairs. "If you want me, I'll be balls-deep in Shakespeare," he said blithely, ignoring Stuart's reaction to the small vulgarity, and he quickly disappeared out of the living room and went back upstairs. In the relative safety of his bedroom, he heard the front door open and close followed by the sounds of the car starting. Smiling to himself, he switched the stereo back on.

"Bury it, I won't let you bury it, I won't let you smother it, I won't let you murder it..."

Returning to his desk, Malcolm picked up the tatty paperback school copy of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which had been heavily annotated, and was covered in pencilled scribbles, different coloured highlighter pens and a few random question marks next to some of Theseus' speeches in the opening scene. He absolutely hated Shakespeare, deadly stuff, especially when it had been covered about fifty times in class from every angle conceivable before Shears deciding to make them go back over the whole damn play over the weekend as part of their revision programme. But such things were beyond his power and control. Malcolm sighed in resignation, threw one last dirty look at the window where the sun was shining brightly in the early morning March mists, and threw his attention wholly into the play.

He still didn't understand fully why Father had tried to make such a ruckus about him not going to church, although he had considerably more than just a vague idea. The only problem, as he saw it, lay in the communication between father and son, or rather distinct lack, thereof. Malcolm was not willing to voice out loud what was going on inside his head, especially at the moment, and he also knew full well that Stuart Reed was not the kind of man who liked to get touchy-feely about this sort of thing. Malcolm felt awkward about bridging the gap between them, and Stuart wasn't willing to try either way. It was a shame, really, because Stuart was probably the only person who actually needed to hear what Malcolm had to say.

Namely, that he was beginning to give up on God - had already begun, to be precise - and he wasn't entirely sure as to why.

o o o o o


The sound of a voice breaking into a hitherto peaceful and quite undisturbed oblivion, and with the sound came a slight but persistent rocking motion that was harsh for a couple of seconds, then stopped altogether, leaving behind it a strange sense of expectant apprehension.


The same voice, a little louder this time, and as if to match it the rocking motion became instantly harsher, more urgent than before. Okay. Oblivion wasn't going to come back any time soon - what the hell was going on around here? Was someone trying to... get his attention?

And if so, who?

"Mal! You useless sack of bones, wake up!"

One last shove and...

"Mmmph!" A mouthful of hairy angora carpet. Dazed, Malcolm rolled onto his back and opened his eyes, squinting and closing them again immediately when bright lights assaulted his senses, threatening to burst his irises altogether. A couple of seconds later he chanced another peek. The lights had been considerably dimmed - he had the suspicion that the sharp, sudden brightness was just a low, dirty trick to wake him up.

Something which apparently included pushing him out of the bed altogether and rolling him onto the floor. It wasn't that he was against doing that sort of thing of course - well, usually only when he did it to other people - but in this particular instance, he just couldn't understand why it was being done to him now. Eyes opened fully, he took a proper look at the environment around him.

The large quilt he was partially wrapped up in was most of a double-sized one, and it covered most him from the hips down; the rest was clutched in an awkward position over his chest, and threatened to reveal that particular area at any given moment. When he tried to stretch his legs out to regain some feeling, some of the material brushed up against him, and he realised - remembered - that he was naked. He blinked again, and somewhere above his face, another face slowly swam into focus. Female features, and if he remembered rightly, then her thick dark-blonde hair would be scraped back into a bun, although the last real memory he had of it was clenched in one of his hands, with the hair's owner underneath him on the bed...

The woman above him raised an eyebrow. "Finally rejoined the real world, I see," she said, little knowing her dry humour was wasted on Malcolm before he had had either two strong doses of tea or a very hot coffee. Her eyes flicked down the rest of his body. "You might want to get dressed, though. Go outside like that and you'll scare the neighbours."

Malcolm nodded, his head still foggy as he tried to remember what had happened last night. Bits and pieces of the evening were starting to come back to him, although he still had one hell of a headache. By the time that he had nodded for the second time she had already moved back from right in his face and was now rummaging somewhere else in the room: this meant that he had to sit up to be able to see her from behind the bedposts. When he moved the quilt did in fact start to slip away from his chest, and it was more out of hungover modesty than anything else that he hurriedly grabbed it to him again. He smiled sheepishly when she caught his eye, and after a couple of minutes, she stood up again. She had a thick winter coat in her arms, and she began to put it on. "Listen, I've got to go soon, they'll be expecting me at the church."

Malcolm blinked at her for a moment before another memory of the previous evening chose to surface just then: she was something like the lead female chorister in the church choir, something she did "mostly for kicks" and because it boosted her self-confidence. Something like that. "I take it you're not coming, then?" she asked, spinning around to face him just as her hand came to rest on the doorknob. When he made no move to respond, she continued. "It's not as bad as the media make out, you know," she told him. "We're not all wackos just because we go to church on a Sunday."

Malcolm wanted to nod then, wanted to nod and tell her no, that as far as he was concerned, it had nothing whatsoever to do with that, and everything imaginable to do with something else entirely. But he did nothing, and instead she just smiled sadly and began to open the bedroom door. "Listen, there's stuff in the cupboards in the kitchen, make yourself something before you go, okay?"

He nodded very slightly at that - it was more of a general flopping of his upper body than an actual nod. She obviously took it as a yes, because she then said, "Bye, Mal," and left the room and then the small apartment, and through the bedroom door which she had left open, Malcolm could hear her footsteps getting fainter and fainter the farther away she got.

"Shit." His first word of the day, and what an articulate one at that. He buried his face in his hands for a few minutes, and when he finally looked up and around him again, he decided it was high time he got moving as well. He started by getting dressed, locating his clothes which were strewn all over the room, from one of the bedposts to a haphazard pile of clothes and other unidentifiable things at the other end of the bedroom. When he was fully dressed, he surveyed himself in the full-length mirror that was directly opposite the foot of the bed. Eyes still a little glazed from the drinking and... other activities last night, but on the whole they now looked fairly attentive, which was probably a good thing. Nondescript shirt and trousers, the kind of things that would allow him to blend in almost anywhere yet at the same time stand out from the crowd when that was what he wanted. Standard fare for his life at the moment: except for the women, and occasionally men he shared the night and a bed with, nobody would miss him if, but most likely when he moved on. And that was the way he liked it. Nomadic. Sporadic.


He was more than ready to go now, but there was just one thing that Malcolm Reed needed to do now: without any pervading sense of guilt or apprehension, he began to rummage around in sock drawers, underwear drawers and other kinds of drawers until he found what he was looking for.

An ID. A small piece of laminated card that pronounced his night time companion to be, "Carling, Brenda," and a certified member - and judging by the card's condition, a regular user of her local library. Brenda was quite lucky, really, he thought, when he was about half a mile away from the apartment block and walking down by the river. Most of the time he didn't even stop to check what their names were before he left. He could remember things like that maybe once in every five or six encounters. It usually depended on how much either of them had had to drink during the evening before deciding to hit the sack together. Off in the distance he heard the sound of bells ringing out, and he stopped where he was for a moment, down by the banks of a river he didn't know the name of, and thought about things - really began to think about things as they stood. Brenda's immediate assumption that because he didn't want to accompany her to church he was just another of it's many, many critics. His own hesitation in telling her the real reason why he didn't want to go with her. The real reason for him not wanting to go to church with her.

Even now, at this particular stage of his life, Malcolm didn't know the exact word for the mess of thoughts and opinions and feelings that swirled around and around inside him. He knew that he didn't believe in the God that his father had insisted he and the rest of the family believe in. He knew that he didn't believe in the gods that Sumara's heritage told her about, and that a few people still believed in. He also knew full well that believing in a God like James' was just asking for trouble, although, like Sumara, there were still a few people - like James - who believed in that sort of deity.

No. In truth, he didn't know what he believed any more, didn't know whether or not there was a Big Guy sitting around up there somewhere, laughing his cotton socks off at humanity's slow progress through the cosmos and taking bets with the angels on how long it would be until the Warp 5 project finally came through. He didn't know whether or not the God he had believed in as a very small child was as real as He had seemed way back then, or whether it was just another bunch of fairytales force-fed to him by Daddy dearest, because of whatever circumstances had kept the Reeds firm believers in supposedly all-powerful deities. He didn't know whether or not James, lovely man that he was, was sincere in his spiritual beliefs, a little naïve or simply unable to see any other way of existing.

And he didn't know whether or not religion was still up and around because of something so simple as humanity still needing that one last card to lay at the table, one crutch they could rely on when everything else went to pot, or whether it was still around because there was a Big Guy rattling around Upstairs somewhere, and the bible-bashers who sometimes wandered around in small groups were actually offering the real deal to anybody who would listen.

In layman's terms, Malcolm Reed was now officially an agnostic.

o o o o o

"Lieutenant, please listen to me. This is very, very important." In place of the traditional shuffling of papers there was instead a clattering of an assortment of padds, and the sound was incredibly distracting. "This is a list of the people who have applied for the armoury and security rotations on Enterprise." He knew this, of course he damn well knew this, this was why he'd been called into the office in the first place, but of course Lieutenant Malcolm Reed said nothing. Saying something would accomplish nothing, and as far as this particular senior officer was concerned, saying something while he was in mid-flow was akin to poking a hibernating bear with a very pointy stick. Hey, of course it could be done, but there was every chance of you pulling back half a stick. Or half an arm. He snickered inside himself, but gave no outward indication of his thoughts. That was the best plan of action.

"You have to conduct any interviews or trials as you see fit and make your decisions by the end of the month for bureaucratic purposes." Hey, he knew that as well - the deadline gave him less than three weeks, which was just plain ridiculous in his estimation: he knew that in an ideal situation, something like this would take him at least two months if he wanted to make at least a satisfactory job of it. Thirty-nine names, and he had to cut them down to fourteen.

"Thirty-nine names," the senior officer droned on, "and you've got to present Command with a list of fourteen on the thirty-first." On and on he went, doing precious little more than regurgitating facts and figures that Malcolm was already fully aware of. Procedure, procedure, procedure.

Finally, the meeting drew to a close. Malcolm took the padd from the desk, bid the commander farewell and left the office. He fingered it idly in one hand as he criss-crossed his way through the building's ground floor, and finally he emerged into one of the internal grassy courtyards. A Sunday morning, which meant that there weren't so many people around as normal. It was quite nice out here: the sun was shining, the gardeny-bits were well kept, and despite his allergies, there was a nice smell coming from the flowerbeds.

He sat on one of the benches that dotted the courtyard's perimeter, and in doing so he caught a reflection of himself in the reflective glass that had been incorporated into the building's design. Complete military officer. His hair was cut short, shorter than he had had it in the years before he had joined Starfleet, and as befitted someone of his... reputation... there was not a single hair or thread out of place anywhere. The navy blue Starfleet overall left just about everything to the imagination - every day there were women complaining that the uniform was too unisex, that they wanted something more form-fitting, something that didn't just make them look like blue sticks with heads. Although Malcolm never gave much thought to their grumblings, the allusion of being a blue stick with a head was certainly something he could identify with, and it was that mental image that stayed with him as he finally switched the padd on to reveal the list of applicants. Thirty-nine names down to fourteen - a cut of twenty-five, and as Malcolm scanned down the list for the first time, he began to get a clearer understanding of just what was going on here.

He had learned just nine days ago that he had been assigned as Enterprise's armoury officer, and with the apparent kudos that came with a definite job on the near-fabled starship, there was also a lot of information that Average Joe Starfleet Guy wasn't aware of at all. Like the pressure that had been put on Starfleet by the heavily US-dominated United Earth Council because of the "snot-nosed little bastards representing the religious groups" (a direct quote from Commander Morgan) who were demanding a more PC approach to personnel selection and selection methods, and a greater representation of "all facets of humanity" on Enterprise's maiden voyage.

Malcolm had seen it when he was filling out the applications for Starfleet - a small, almost deliberately insignificant box at the bottom of the automated form, asking if the applicant followed any particular religious orthodoxy, and if so which one? It had stumped him for a few minutes before he regained his senses and hit in "None" without any more thought on the matter. Thankfully for him, there hadn't been anybody watching him fill out the forms (he had done this in a morning café in 'Frisco where Sam had insisted on buying him something to eat), and there had never been any discussion on the matter - not that there was anything to discuss, exactly. Malcolm Reed had just gone through training, the promotion to ensign, more training, a shift to a more weapons-based environment following the jg pips, and to where he was now with little or no emphasis on religion. Nobody looking over his shoulder every Sunday to make him go to church, nobody to send him on those annoying little guilt-trips every time he deliberately piled work up on Sundays. Nothing at all like that, and for whatever reason, religion had never been a real focus of the largely atheistic Starfleet organisation. Sure, there were allowances made for "holy days" and the like, but only because the UERC (United Earth Religious Collaboration) packed a mean left hook when it didn't get what it wanted.

And it was here on this list right in front of him. Of the thirty-nine names, seventeen of them had asterisks beside the names, or the entries had otherwise been highlighted, making them stand out. And in entering the information file for "Arbuckle, Jeremy, Ensign", Malcolm understood what the asterisks meant. Mister Arbuckle, it seemed, was a practising member of the Anglican Church, and a former clergyman before deciding that a career in Starfleet Weapons Division was the way for him to go. Likewise, "Aweda, Nadia, Crewman" right below him was a Hindu, and going down the list completely, Malcolm noted (from the very top) Anglican, Hindu, Mormon, Mormon, Roman Catholic, Scottish Presbyterian, Evangelical, Lutheran, Russian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Methodist, Roman Catholic, Evangelical, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Methodist, Roman Catholic.

Of all the religions in there, none of them particularly worried him, except for the footnotes on some of the files that had clearly been added at a later date by the good old commander back there. Words like "Fanatic" and "Zealous" littered the crewmen's files, and Malcolm wasn't entirely sure as to what he was supposed to do with them, except for the blindingly obvious way to go – ignore Commander Bigot back there and instead do things his own way in terms of selecting team members, and see how many of the highlighted names were good enough for Enterprise. That seemed fair enough, didn't it?

Malcolm sighed and began to flick through the rest of the information on the padd. In a file completely separate to the lists and applicant information, there was a small note addressed to him that had been added by the commander who had given him the padd: "For the love of crap, Reed, get five people on that list. Five or it'll be our necks and Archer's ship on the line!"

In one way, Malcolm supposed he could see the need for a little diversity in terms of the crew's spiritual beliefs: he had already noticed the extent of the political correctness that had apparently gone into the selection of the senior staff that had already been appointed. All American captain (and being Henry Archer's son was a bonus in the eyes of some), Yankee chief engineer, an English tactical officer, and a helmsman of African-American origin. Malcolm had known Ensign Travis Mayweather for some time now, and personally believed the young "boomer" to be the best person for the job on Enterprise - that was why he had recommended him for the post, after all. However, with all the PC nonsense being flung around at the moment, Malcolm hated to think that the only reason Travis was helmsman was because of the colour of his skin rather than his piloting skills. It almost reminded him of his childhood, a little. The whole "keeping up appearances" thing struck him as something Stuart would agree with - somewhat ironic, this, considering that the man seemingly hated Starfleet with every essence of his being.

On the other hand, however, he was not going to simply hand a security post on Enterprise to someone just because of where they went on a Sunday morning. Among other things, it was completely ludicrous, and more than totally undermined the skills and talents of other, less religious but nonetheless equally suitable people who had applied for the same position. No. He would have to take things here as they came, and then decide on who got the posts.

Regardless of whether or not he met that irrelevant quota.

o o o o o

Political correctness in the upper echelons of Starfleet or not, three weeks later Malcolm Reed submitted a list of the names of the fourteen people he had selected for the security and armoury rotations. And whether or not religion had been a conscious consideration in the selection, it didn't appear to have been a problem: six of the fourteen names were of some kind of religious persuasion, which would more than satisfy the folks at the UERC when the final crew manifest would be made public. Jeremy Arbuckle had made it onto security, as had Nadia Aweda. The other names on the list that had been highlighted were Evangelical (with years of civilian security experience), both Russian Orthodox (two brothers, and both crack shots) and a single Roman Catholic, also the only one of the six to have made it onto the armoury rotations.

Crewman Philip Bartholomew O'Malley.

o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o

"The one thing about religion is that you never know what people believe."
- Richard Chamberlain

o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o

Chapter 7: Jude

there are no warp signatures because there is no warp engine that means we could be almost anywhere by now we're not that far away there is no sense of time because there is no real time to measure they don't measure time like other species do there is no need to measure time everything happens in its own time there is no need to measure it because just because

Philip woke up. This was a strange sensation, because it didn't feel as though he had gone to sleep in the first place. But somewhere in his mind there were echoes of - whatever it was, it felt like a dream, at least it felt like the ones he had had in the past: a gradual trickling back of memories that felt real, but at the same time were clearly, well, not. It was like he couldn't find the words to even explain to himself what was going on. He knew things. Like when Reed had come and talked to him. Philip had known it was him even before Reed had said a word to him. He remembered talking with Reed, although a lot of the conversation had felt hazy and dream-like, as though it was someone else talking and not him, but it was.

He knew things. He knew things he couldn't possibly know, couldn't possibly be expected to know, for crying out loud! He knew the name of the species who had taken them from that forest clearing - something which seemed to have been an eternity or more ago. He knew, to some extent, what he would find when they reached their destination - he had seen the planet, hanging in a vacuum of nothingness in the orbit of a drying star and its healthier companion. He had seen the blackness and the death that surrounded the planet, permeated it to its core, and still he did not know how, or why he knew this. It was simply there. He knew that whatever had happened to the planet, to make it become like this, that it had something to do with what was happening to him right here and now, and even with what was happening to Reed - the changes in him were so tiny, but they were still there. Philip could see them. The armoury officer was becoming passive, much less aggressive than perhaps his job description demanded. It was still there, under the surface, there in the recesses of his mind, but it somehow never translated into actions. Again this was something that Philip knew but did not understand, could not even begin to try and understand.

He knew that this alien species, this ship they were travelling on, was like nothing that had ever been encountered before. There had been no sense of time when he had woken up here for the first time because there was no time. He was not hungry because here, no time had passed for him since he had been shot in the forest clearing, although time was passing by outside. Much the same way that he did not need to go to the toilet (if there was one) because time was not something that happened here. He knew that this was not achieved by any alien-made technology, it was simply another fact. On Earth, the sun rises in the east; on this ship there is no passage of time.

Philip did not know why he had lashed out at his commanding officer - even by now, it felt like the last remaining remnant of a nightmare, as though some other version of him had done the dirty deed and not himself. He could only remember thinking that it wasn't fair somehow - he could not think of anybody, any kind of family who would miss him if he died, or never made it back from this... this... this whatever it was. And he could only recall thinking about Reed's family, after the gossip in the armoury about such matters - and that, too, seemed like it had happened an eternity ago, or in a different lifetime, to a different Philip O'Malley. Not to him.

Some part of him knew that he himself was changing as well; he must have been, else he would never have lashed out at Reed, would never have done anything to defy his commanding officer. And he knew that this... this... this duty, almost, was the only reason that Reed was still alive. If the aliens couldn't control Philip themselves, then they would use Reed to do it. And Reed, unable, although willing, to do anything, would be forced to give the orders, be forced to make Philip do whatever it was that was going to be expected of him, whatever it was that he was going to have to do.

That was something he did not know yet. And the thought was something dark and terrifying inside his very soul. He had seen the dead planet with his mind's eye. He had made the connection between the planet, himself, Reed and these aliens. He knew that something was going to happen.

And worse than all of that, he knew people were going to die.

The very worst part of it was that he did not know who it was that would die, and who would survive.

o o o o o

It had begun more than a hundred thousand years before any of the Enterprise crew had been born. A small planet, seventh in its lazy elliptical orbit around two small but healthy suns, had given birth to life. Intelligent life. The species had started out modestly enough, spreading out across the planet's barren surface in hunter-gatherer groups, all trying to find a way to survive. Hunting the "lesser" animal species, who were eventually able to outsmart their hunters by burrowing into the harsh earth or climbing the few trees that nature had not yet beaten.

As the hunters developed, so did their culture. Languages were developed as they learned to communicate with each other between the individual tribe societies; enough years passed that eventually the need for separate societies was gone, as there were no longer enough hunting grounds to sustain the different groupings of people. And so a singular society had formed. Culture: rules about right and wrong were created and enforced.

The people began worshipping gods. A deity who granted good hunting, and was responsible for providing the people with the means to eat. A sun deity who brought light and then took it away again. Another deity who governed the harsh Dead Deserts in the northern hemisphere, and killed anybody who dared to venture that far north.

Then something happened. In galactic terms, it was little more than a shift in the magnitude of one of the two suns that held the whole system together. This shift sent out ripples among the twelve planets in orbit, creating changes, some subtle, some devastating in their effects.

The first three planets were destroyed altogether, eventually pulled in by the gravity of the suns and incinerated. The next three were scorched and left forever dead in their orbits. But the seventh planet, however, it suffered a different fate. The shift in magnitude that had all but killed the fourth, fifth and sixth planets simply tilted the seventh planet on its axis. 29 degrees. That was all it took. From the eighth planet outwards, little change of any import occurred; the most that happened were the tiniest of chemical changes in the atmospherical makeup of the planets, nothing that made any difference to the existing status quo.

In the terms of the struggling population on the seventh planet, a miracle occurred. Although they had no concept of a world outside their own pitiful struggle for day-to-day survival, they could nevertheless see that the world around them was, quite literally, changing. Within just three generations grass, plants and vegetation were in abundance, and the indigenous animal populations were thriving. The hunter-gatherer society first prospered, then grew substantially. The singular society that had evolved began to evolve further. Science grew and developed, as did technology - a whole civilisation grew as the tools used for hunting, construction and the like began to develop and evolve as their creators did.

And with the technological growth, spirituality grew as well. The old, bitter gods of destruction disappeared, were thrown away into obscurity and were eventually forgotten by a people who had outgrown them, outgrown the need to pray for good hunting or wet weather. But still the spirituality grew. Mysticism. A small offshoot of the growing civilisation began developing spells and charms to keep the planet green and alive. It began as little more than superstition, carried on by the memory of their ancestors' struggles on a barren world.

The spells and charms began to intertwine with science and technology, and eventually, as had happened with countless other species and societies and civilisations throughout the galaxy, religion was welcomed back with relatively open arms, although this time around some small amount of scepticism was maintained.

By this point in the planet's history, there were clearly defined roles for different people to take up, should they have chosen to do so, or had they had the natural talents. People with keen physical senses became watchers, who guarded officials and the like against attacks, although occurrences of this were next to non-existent. Carers helped in the bringing up of children who did not have families of their own. There were scientists and healers in more numbers than could have been counted. Speakers and scribes for those who wished to share and accumulate knowledge. There were even storytellers in abundance, who could entertain whole crowds with the vast realms of their imaginations.

Of this original offshoot that had concerned itself with spirituality, there was a small sect that had come to the belief that the planet's greenness was not meant to last. They called themselves the Messengers, and prophesised a return to the time when the earth underneath the cities and countryside was brown and dead once again, and life once more became a day-to-day struggle for survival. Naturally, predictably, they were ignored. But still they kept telling of a person, an off-worlder, who would mark the return to the death of the old world.

Eventually, they were banished from the planet by the controlling government of the time. With only the rudimentary space-travel capabilities that their people possessed at that time, they left their star system and properly began their search for the off-worlder who would bring about the cataclysm, the one they had christened the Commandant.

Years, even decades passed and their search was still fruitless. But the Messengers believed in something far more powerful than their own abilities, their own being, so still they searched, certain that one day they would find the Commandant.

But of course, assuming that they ever found the alien they believed to be the Commandant, based on more than eight centuries of study and spiritualism, none of this inherent belief in their cause would ever prevent a Messenger from lying, or at least twisting the truth if they thought it could possibly achieve their ends.

o o o o o

Looking back on events, Commander Charles "Trip" Tucker would never be able to remember a more tense period of time on the Enterprise. Everybody's efforts were pooled into keeping the engine as close to maximum as possible, or carrying out more and more scans and simulations with the weapons, or carry out more and more sensor sweeps on what was outside the ship, depending on the person's particular field of expertise. The knowledge that Lieutenant Reed (armoury officer) and Philip O'Malley (nice guy) had, for all intents and purposes, been kidnapped had spurred the crew's efforts even further than if, say... probably better not to follow that line of thought.

It had been just over two days since Rose and Kopleck had returned from the away mission, which made it an even four days since the abduction of the two crewmen. And in four days, just about anything could happen, and damn did people know it. And personally speaking, Trip could only hope that wherever Malcolm and Philip were, that they were okay. Trip was too damn worried about the both of them - Malcolm especially - to really do anything else, and that sense of helplessness was playing on not only his fears and anxieties, but those of most of the rest of the ship as well. Just about everyone liked or got on with Philip, just about everyone had a healthy respect for Lieutenant Reed, and yeah Trip was afraid for his friend. Anything could have happened to him by now...

The information that Science had gathered about the ship they were pursuing was far too limited for comfort, and - surprise, surprise - it matched nothing in the Vulcan database or even Enterprise's slowly growing equivalent. There was a brief reference in the Vulcan database to the star system they were approaching, but the T'Lera, which had chartered this particular region, had effectively dismissed the system as populous with little but prewarp species and dead space. That had been more than a hundred years previously, and no mention of the system since. Nobody had any idea of what they were going to find once they finally caught up with the alien ship, nobody really wanted to think about it, and down in the "below decks" area of the ship, where the engine was constantly being tweaked to get anything and everything out of her, the combination of a comm. hail from the bridge and the constant reminder of the constant work on the engine told the chief engineer one thing.

Whatever they were going to find, it would be within the next few hours.

o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o

Chapter 8: Revelation, part III

There was a storm building in the sky. Most of the people who were outside that day ignored it - a storm meant rain and wind, rain and wind meant a small, limited impediment to any activities of the day, but little more than that. In the normally clear, golden yellow sky, there were purple and black clouds beginning to form; a sure sign, then, that it would rain for most of the latter part of the day.

And if anybody had been watching the skies to the north, then they would have seen a faint grey speck in the sky that would eventually turn out to be a ship, the design of which was more than a hundred years old, although it was hardly outdated.

And if anybody had been paying really close attention to this ship, then they would have seen that there was no provision for a warp engine; this level of technology had only very recently been attained by the scientists here, and for many it was seen as a step backwards from what they had always used. Warp technology relied on the physical. Their old method of stellar propulsion had used a technique much more ambiguous in its origin.

Unseen by anyone on the planet's surface, the ship grew closer.

And all the while, the storm kept building, and the clouds grew.

o o o o o

It felt as though two days had passed since he had woken up here for the first time, although as far as Malcolm's body was concerned it could have been mere minutes since he had stood in the forest clearing with a dazed Philip - and even that now seemed as though it had happened a lifetime ago. He felt no exhaustion, no hunger, no urges to... well. In short, he felt perfectly normal, physically speaking. As for the mental part... well, that one went without saying, really. He had not spoken to, nor seen, nor heard anything about Philip since the encounter when Philip had told him fairly... forcefully that he did not have a clue about anything. Neither had Malcolm heard from or seen of Raouni or any of the other hermit folk, although during the few hours here and there that he had been able to get some fitful sleep, he had fancied that there was someone watching him, judging him. So far he had mostly chalked this up to a combination of helplessness and nightmares, both of which he could do nothing about.

Malcolm had been mostly alone for what felt like two days. Isolation, he knew from history as well as tactical training, did things like that to a person, and now he supposed he was no exception. Controlling sudden bouts of paranoia had never really been his strong suit - granted, this had actually helped him at points in the past, but still he could not get over the idea that a) something... or someone was watching him, and that b) something big was going to happen. He just didn't know what. And that was the part that got to him the most. He was used to being at least partially in control of almost any given situation, and that this was a clear exception did nothing for his mood - or his paranoia - whatsoever.

As it was, he was so deeply entrenched in these thoughts of doom, gloom, more doom and yet more gloom that he barely noticed when the "door" to his room opened, and Raouni came in, along with another person, similarly robe-clad. It took Malcolm nearly a minute to finally register the presence of the two aliens, and even then all he did was raise his head from the huddle he had drawn himself into - a position eerily reminiscent of Philip's the last time he had seen him - and regard them with a guarded, carefully blank expression. "Oh. It's you. What do you want?"

With a curt nod, Raouni dismissed his companion from the room, and when the door had closed again, he came over and knelt down next to Malcolm. "There is no more time for pleasantries, Lieutenant," he said. "Too many things are happening now."

Malcolm met the alien's black gaze properly this time. "Either speak in terms I can understand or don't bother at all," he retorted. He had no more time for mind games, or word games, or any other kind of games any more.

Raouni sighed and stood up, moving further away, letting his robes flow out around him again. "It is the time of reckoning, Lieutenant." It sounded more like a plea than a statement. "You must understand."

"You've mentioned that before," Malcolm replied, not moving. "This... time of reckoning. What is it?"

Instead of answering, Raouni shook his head. "It is not something that I can explain, Lieutenant. I can only tell you that you and your crewman will be in great danger if we do not act now."

Stubbornness set in. "Not until you tell me what the bloody hell you want from us!"

Raouni took a sharp step closer to Malcolm, as if he was going to do something, but he just stopped. He watched Malcolm for a second with a strange look on his face, and then held out a hand. "Come with me. I'll show you."

Malcolm hesitated for only a second before allowing the alien to pull him upright. Raouni then led him out of the room, but instead of going right - which Malcolm had expected - he took the lieutenant around the corner to the left. Without warning the corridor opened up into an impossibly large room. The rust coloured walls and grey floor/ceiling combination carried through here as well; there were also tables and chairs dotted around the room, and right at the far end, furthest away from Malcolm and Raouni, there was a viewport that stretched from floor to ceiling, and covered most of the width of the wall as well. But it was the view out of the window that truly captured Malcolm's attention. The closer he got to the viewport, the better he could see it: a large brown and yellow planet hanging in the nothingness of space, framed by an endless sea of black, and filling up most of the view. It looked as though the planet itself was brown and yellow, with black and purple clouds - or maybe they were reflections of something. Either way Malcolm couldn't tell for certain, but there was one thing he knew for sure: the purple and black streaks were growing, moving around over the planet's surface.

Like a storm.

The breath caught in Malcolm's throat, and beside him he realised that he could hear Raouni's calm breathing. Then the hermit spoke. "This is the place where life began, Lieutenant," he began. "And it is where life will end."

"What do you mean?" Malcolm asked him, finally able to break away from the vista outside to turn around.

Raouni shook his head. "I regret that I was not entirely forthcoming with you on the forest planet." It came out as little more than a whisper. "But liberties had to be taken, and for that I am truly apologetic." His voice hardened again. "But risks could not be taken!"

The forcefulness of his voice stunned the lieutenant, and it took a second for him to regain his composure. And his voice. "What does that mean - 'life will end'?" he demanded. He started taking deeper breaths. "You talked about the moment of reckoning. That - and this - it all has something to do with my crewman." Malcolm's voice began to rise. "Tell me what's going on!"

However, once again, Raouni ignored him. All of his attention seemed to be focused on the planet outside. "Down there are the souls of the living, all going about their lives, so wrapped up inside themselves that they cannot see what they are doing to themselves. Centuries ago my people had a peace amongst themselves... it was perhaps only peace in the rough sense, but still it was there. And now it is gone."

"What happened?" Malcolm asked him, already beginning to guess where this was going.

"The suns flared," Raouni told him. "And there was life in the planet, not just on it. And the people began to live a more... materialistic life. The blessings of the earth and of Father Tyk were abandoned in favour of more worldly pursuits."

He turned around to face the human fully. "We are the Messengers," Raouni said. "That has little to do with out ability to communicate with outsiders, although it is a talent some of us possess. And for that, I apologise for the deception when we met for the first time. But I assure you it was necessary."

Malcolm's throat went dry. "What are you people?"

"As I said, we are the Messengers. For centuries we have safeguarded the scripts of the followers of Father Tyk and Mother Kea. And for centuries we have studied the scripts. Centuries now we have been searching for the Commandant. He and only he will mark the change back to the way things were, back to the time before the suns flared, before there was life in the planet."

Malcolm had to literally force his next words out, and he felt sick to his stomach. "You think that it's Philip, don't you?"

Raouni hesitated, then nodded. "Yes. He is the Commandant. All the signs to prove it are there."

"What signs?"

"He can understand the words of our people without the need for technology," Raouni replied. "He did not have a reaction anything like anybody we have encountered from before the forest planet - he awakened sooner, and remembered immediately."

At this, Malcolm remembered his own sense of fear and disorientation upon waking up here for the first time, and his heart skipped a beat. But before he could say - or do - anything, Raouni had already begun to continue.

"You saw it in his eyes, Lieutenant. He knows. He knows what is to come. That single fact, if nothing else, makes him the Commandant."

Finally Malcolm seized the opportunity to speak. "This is crazy!" he cried out, lunging out at the viewport with his left arm. He stopped suddenly, his arm hovering, shaking, in the air, still pointing out of the window, and he looked around at the brown and yellow planet, which was looming ever closer. "Crazy..."

"Am I, Lieutenant?" Raouni seemed oddly calm. "Or perhaps you still do not understand."

"How the hell am I supposed to understand?" Malcolm asked. His arm dropped limply to his side, and as much as he wanted to reach out and throttle the alien by his neck, there was still something stopping him from translating thoughts into actual actions. It was really beginning to get annoying, whatever it was. "None of it makes any sense." He shook his head. "Just give it to me in plain English - or whatever language you're using at the moment."

Raouni nodded, as if accepting defeat. At least, that's what Malcolm hoped it was. "You see the storm building, Lieutenant?" he asked, indicating the swirls of black and purple over the planet. "The storm is building because the Commandant - your Philip O'Malley is close by. Do you understand yet?"

Malcolm simply stared at him.

And underneath them, down on the planet's surface, the black and purple storm clouds grew.

o o o o o

luck? there is no luck that i'm still alive i'm only alive because they need me not me they need reed to need me because of what they want to happen death death is all around me can stop it i know i can i'm not dead because i'm not meant to be dead reed isn't dead because they need us for something death is waiting for someone something somehow somewhen i don't know anymore i'm meant to be here know that much what does that mean does that mean there is such a thing as... fate? no fate denies the existence of free will i have free will i know i have free will i never chose for any of this to happen i have no responsibility therefore none of this is my fault

Philip closed his eyes tightly, trying to block out the images he was seeing, but he could not. Everywhere he looked around him, all he could see were the ravages of a storm attacking the planet's surface again and again and again, never relenting, never letting go until it had wrecked as much damage as it could.

Unaffected by the howling winds and the carnage, with an odd sense of detachment from everything else that was going on around him, Philip O'Malley stood in the eye of the hurricane, knowing that there was something he could do to stop it, but had no idea of what that was.

And underneath him, underneath his feet, the alien earth shook one final time before coming to a deathly stillness that had not existed in centuries.

And all around him, people kept dying.

o o o o o

Would it seem terribly cliché to imagine that things were progressing at rather a breakneck speed at the moment? It certainly seemed that way to Malcolm. All roads lead to Rome - or was it that all roads led to the storm? He had no memory of the journey from the ship to terra firma on the planet - if indeed there was one - and he doubted he would be able to recall details even under intense psychological examination.

But, throughout, he had somehow managed to retain enough detachment from what was going on around him to be able to make sense of things. Well, some things. It was quite a strange sensation, really. Almost as if there was a second little Malcolm loitering somewhere in the back of his mind, occasionally deigning to make snide remarks and sarcastic comments about events that were taking place "outside", so to speak.

But this mental digression, so to speak, had very little point at all. As it was, the very next event that registered in Malcolm's mind following the... conversation... by the viewport was seeing the storm on the planet - this time from way underneath it, standing on ground that seemed to ever so slightly shudder and vibrate in synch with the storm clouds overhead.

All told, the effect was damned unsettling.

It was evening - that is, the sun had disappeared. Maybe because of the storm, maybe because of other randomly occurring natural phenomenon, maybe because it was in fact night time - Malcolm didn't know, but even in the semi-darkness, he had already taken stock of his surroundings. Green vegetation, despite the allusion of yellow and brown from up in orbit (maybe something to do with chemicals or whatever in the air?). Lush green vegetation at that; trees, bushes, thick grass. Like the Thai rainforests but without the rain. Few signs of civilisation here, although there were a few primitive-looking huts with pointed woven roofs dotted randomly around. From what he could remember of Raouni's impromptu history lesson back on the ship, the idea of the abandoned village didn't make any sense. Civilisation meant cities, right? Certainly the kind of civilisation the alien was talking about. Meaning what, then? Did this place represent some kind of isolation? Isolated from the rest of this world... the rest of the galaxy? Well, Malcolm definitely felt very much alone at the moment, thank you very much for asking.

The storm had intensified. He could not hear anything save for the howling wind that swirled around his ankles and legs, leaving goose pimples and involuntary shivers in its wake. The noise the wind made was something akin to the banshees from Irish myths - high, shrieky and hollow, as if there were a beast in the air itself trying to get out of the wind and into the world of the living. Occasionally he fancied he could hear the more conventional sounds of thunder rumbling, but in reality it could have been anything if not a product of his own fevered imagination.

The wind whipped around and against his face as he turned on the spot, not daring to move, fearful of losing his already precarious balance. Malcolm could not see Philip anywhere, just an impossible number of people the same species as Raouni, who was the closest to Malcolm, and staring up at the storm clouds through the howling winds with an expression of - wait for it - rapture on his face.

The alien pointed upwards. "You see that, Lieutenant?" he half-bellowed, most of his voice lost to the wind. "That will mark a new era for my people!"

Malcolm could think of nothing to reply to this - did not want to reply, knowing the effort to speak over the wind would cost him more energy than he felt he had. And besides, if he spoke, he knew full well that he would only have more questions. And now did not seem a fitting time for polite (or not-so-polite) conversation.

He had, however, already begun to piece things together in his mind, although the logic and reasoning thus would probably send a Vulcan into cardiac arrest. These people - whoever the hell they were - were doing what they were doing because they were religious. More specifically, they were religious the way the likes of Isaac Newton in the sixteenth century and South Koreans at the end of the twentieth century had been religious. Religious as in waiting for the ultimate sign of their beliefs. The end of the world as believers and unbelievers alike knew it.


The Apocalypse.

Whatever you wanted to call it, it had to be what was going to happen here - what Raouni and his fellow crazy people thought was going to happen here. In their minds there was going to be an apocalypse, some kind of Armageddon, and they believed - apparently truly believed - that Philip was going to bring it about. It was ridiculous to say the least. Philip Bartholomew O'Malley was a young, occasionally naive Irishman who had been handpicked by Malcolm for the armoury rotation. Barely an adult - he'd only been twenty when Enterprise had left Spacedock. Since this farce, this... this hell of an Away Mission had begun, Malcolm had been scared for his crewman, his colleague, his... yes, his friend more times than Trip Tucker had gaudy Hawaiian shirts hidden away (and Trip Tucker had a lot of tasteless shirts).

But back to this allegedly impending apocalypse. It made for quite the revelation, really. These people were a bunch of religious nuts, and he and an innocent had had the bad luck to be caught up in all of it. Malcolm's mind was quite capable of supplying an endless number of lateral, logical, reasonable explanations for what was happening here. Freak storm. Freak natives. And so on and so forth, etcetera, etcetera, thank you very much, I'll be pissing off back home now.

It had been more than twelve years since Malcolm had believed even the tiniest little bit in supposedly all-powerful deities and even though there were a fair amount of people on the Enterprise who subscribed to various human religions that were still floating around, he had never been inclined in the two years that they'd been in open space to do any more than ask those who worked under him to leave their beliefs in their quarters for the duration of their shift.

Malcolm Reed's brain embraced the scientific. No room in there for God and his celestial groupies. Not any more.

The raging winds had by now completely numbed his face and his other exposed skin as well, and probably the rest underneath his uniform as well. A vague shout from behind Malcolm tore him out of his train of thought, and he slowly managed to turn around.

It was Raouni again, now standing in the centre of a long line of hermits just like him. "I asked you once if you understood!" he called over the howls around them. "I told you once that when the time came, you would understand!"

Something clicked. Malcolm strained to be heard. "Not everything!" he shouted back. "What's going on?"

Instead of answering, as Malcolm had hoped (wished?), Raouni shook his head. He pointed to a spot somewhere back on the other side of the lieutenant. Malcolm took the hint.

He turned back around, careful not to lose balance.

The eye of the hurricane. That was what it had once been called. The eye of the hurricane, the calm in the centre of the storm.

Philip Bartholomew O'Malley stood alone in the centre of a clearing surrounded by battered and rapidly disintegrating wooden huts, a strangely calm expression on his face. Despite the ferocity of the storm, it was as if he were untouched by the wind. Malcolm could only see part of Philip's face, the rest turned away from him. The whole of Philip's attention was directed at the storm clouds above him, which were still growing larger and larger, becoming blacker and more ominous by the nanosecond.

Then, as if following some unspoken cue, Philip turned around. His eyes widened upon seeing Malcolm, as if he had not been expecting to see anybody else at all. Then there was a flicker of something completely unidentifiable in his eyes before the calmness again. His lips moved - speech - but the words were far too quiet.

Malcolm, however, could read lips.

"I can do this, Lieutenant... I can stop it."

And in the few seconds after that (it could not have been any more than two or three), it felt as though several dozen torpedoes were being thrown at Malcolm from every conceivable angle. He could no longer hear anything, not ever the wind, and all he could see was Philip asking... asking for his CO's permission to do something said CO still didn't understand.

Malcolm slowly turned to face the aliens again; they had moved as well, forming a much looser half-circle with Philip as the point of origin.

"Now do you understand?" It was Raouni.

And finally things began to make so much more sense. He had to decide? He had to make the decision?

Just then there was a particularly threatening clap of thunder up above them in the black sky, followed straight after by a bolt of lightning.

Feeling numb inside, Malcolm faced the half-circle of aliens, his mind made up. Of course it was made up. In some ways it had been made up since his childhood. He face the row of aliens as defiantly as he could.

"No," he whispered, so damn quietly at first. Then louder, much louder, to be heard so clearly over the raging, buffeting winds. "No! I won't let you do this!"

It took only a second. The storm, which up until then had been holding back, leapt forwards and outwards. And then the monstrosities unleashed.

o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o

Chapter 9: Amos

Lightning struck out, hitting first one of the huts, then another, another... another. Each time the electricity made contact with a dwelling, flames erupted from what little remained of it. Each hut burned like a beacon in the wind, forming a loose circle around the clearing. Quite an eerie effect.

Malcolm felt an urgent tug on his sleeve - a person this time, not the wind - and he turned. It was Raouni. Next to him, and outraged. "You fool!" he shouted. Angrily he pointed up at the sky. "Do you realise what you have done?"

As if to answer him, there was another rumble of thunder up above them. For the briefest instant the wind dropped completely, and there was an audible groan from the collection of hermit lookalikes. Across from them, and still on his own, Philip stared up at the sky. Not moving. Not doing anything. And now that Malcolm was actually looking at him, he could see that... well, that Philip seemed to be entirely unaffected by the storm; that is, the wind didn't appear to be hitting him, and he looked blissfully unaware of the rumbles of thunder.

And all of a sudden, Philip turned around, and locked gaze with Malcolm. Not blinking. Not moving. And in those few moments (although it felt a lot longer), Malcolm felt a deathly silence come down around him. The wind appeared to still, and he could no longer hear the thunder. He stared into Philip's eyes for what seemed like the longest time, although in reality it was no more than a few seconds. Could not have been more than a few seconds.

Then the spell was broken. The thunder sounded again, and lightning began to strike, closer and closer to the clearing, close and closer to the assembled group of people. One blast temporarily blinded Malcolm, a testament to how near a miss to him it was. Raouni's death grip on Malcolm's arm loosened. He turned around, only to see the alien stumbling backwards before falling limply to the ground. And although Malcolm could not make out anything through the darkness, he knew that the lightning had struck the hermit, and that he was dead.

That fact did not sadden him in the slightest.

Lightning darted down from the sky again and again, and as Malcolm watched, one by one the other aliens were killed, picked off one at a time and burned by the charge from the lightning bolts. As they fell, Malcolm's own fear began to increase. Lightning strikes were - supposedly - random. He could feel the back of his neck begin to prickle, even under the wind.

Lightning began to tear huge long streaks and gashes in the ground, marking two circles in the muddy, swept grass. Two circles. One around Malcolm, with at least a six metre gap between him and the edge.

Another, smaller circle cut around Philip O'Malley.

Two circles. Marking out the two humans in the clearing.

Like targets, or... Malcolm struggled to think of the comparison in the few seconds' respite he'd found he'd had. Like targets, or... like the circles marked out for magical spells. The ones that supposedly provided protection from whatever was going to happen outside the circle.

But before he could think any further along that line, the clouds in the sky above began to gather together again, as if for one last attack. The dark mounds of grey, navy blue and purple swirled together one last time before lightning struck one last time.

A single bolt of lightning streaked down towards the planet's surface, headed for the circle its predecessors had marked out, reaching forwards towards its target.

All of this happened in less than a tenth of a second.

And as Malcolm watched, Philip was struck by the lightning, crumpling to the ground, his limp body buffeted anew by the winds.


And finally the rain began to fall.

Malcolm stood inside his protective little circle, silent and alone on an alien world more than a hundred light-years from home, slowly getting drenched to the skin by the thick waves of bitterly cold rain.

And although he did not see it, did not notice, the storm began to spread around the rest of the planet.

o o o o o

The bridge of the Enterprise was silent, staring at the vista on the viewscreen in front of them. Everyone assembled watched in awed quiet as the storm - which had begun as a small splodge of greyish purple and localised to a small region on one of the three southern continents - began to grow and grow, finally encircling the rest of the planet.

Nobody liked to think about what was happening on the surface. But their sensors and scanners knew.

"The storm is a natural phenomenon," T'Pol reported, stating the facts as dryly and concisely as one would deliver a dull and not-very-exciting report. "It appears to have the same properties as an Earth Asiatic monsoon, although the basis for comparison is... sketchy."

Fixated as he was on the storm on the screen, Trip couldn't help but raise his eyebrows. The precise articulation of science people was never going to stop surprising him.

Meanwhile, T'Pol was in full weather girl mode. "Sensors cannot detect any physical catalyst for the growth."

Hey, maybe it's just rainy season down there, Trip's mind offered, but he remained silent. Probably a good thing.

"However, the sensors are detecting extreme levels of electrical activity in the atmosphere."

There was a short, almost dramatic pause. Well, if that was possible for a Vulcan. "The amount of registered biosigns on the planet are rapidly depleting."

That caught everyone's attention. "Rapidly depleting how?" someone asked. It could have been anyone.

"Before Enterprise's arrival, the population of this planet was approximately 7.8945 billion," T'Pol answered. "The current number is half that, and still decreasing."

"Are our people down there?" someone else asked.

The longest pause. But not dramatic this time. Far, far from that.

"I do not know," T'Pol admitted. "It is unlikely that we will be able to determine that until after the storm has reduced."

Right. The electrical interference. Too much for specific analysis, but not too much that the basic horrors couldn't be determined.

They would have to wait.

It was times like this that Trip hated waiting.

o o o o o

It was some time before the constant beating of the rain against his neck finally registered in Malcolm's brain. Droplets of the icy cold water ran down his neck and underneath his collar, making him shake and shiver without realising.

He raised his head upwards, and looked at the sky. Couldn't see anything beyond the dark clouds and the constant onslaught of rain. Had no way of knowing if Enterprise was out there somewhere, or on their way, or even knew where to look for them.

Him. Just him. Because Philip was over there, and he was...

Malcolm let his head fall forwards until it was hanging limply over his chest. Closed his eyes, and wrapped his arms around him in a self-hug. Rocked backwards and forwards slightly, trying to get the images out of his head. Trying to... to forget.

Not that easy, though, especially since all he had to do was open his eyes and look somewhere off to his right (about a 12 degree angle) to see the first of the dead bodies lying in the mud and grass. But he did nothing. Didn't want to see it again, didn't want to risk any of this becoming even more firmly entrenched in his short term memory banks than was already there.

It was only then that he noticed his breathing. It had become shallow and rapid, and even sounded faintly panicked to his own ears, although it could just have been because of the cold. Malcolm didn't know for sure which it was. Wasn't even sure he wanted to know anything any more.

After a while - he didn't know how long - he finally looked back up. Without doing anything that could cause him to see the bodies, Malcolm slowly stepped out of the scorched circle in the grass and step by step made his way across the clearing. Either side of him the huts were still burning, as if lighting a path for him to follow until he reached the line of trees. Some of them felled from lightning strikes, some felled through cause of the howling winds which had by now begun to abate.

Acutely aware that it was still pouring with rain, Malcolm retreated about six feet inside the forest, and took shelter underneath two trees that had fallen against each other, creating a sort of alcove just big enough for a grown man to crouch under.

And hidden like this, hidden away from the destruction out there, hidden away from the storm and even hidden away from the rest of the universe, Malcolm Reed began to cry silent tears.

o o o o o

It had begun more than a hundred thousand years before any of the Enterprise crew had been born. A small planet, seventh in its lazy elliptical orbit around two small but healthy suns, had given birth to life. Intelligent life.

An intelligent life that for generations had struggled from day to day for a pitiful kind of existence, where to simply survive the night was more than many could hope for. An intelligent life that had rightly rejoiced when a stellar accident had given their world life.

And... an intelligent life that now did not understand why their civilisation was falling down around them, or how the sturdy buildings and constructions that had been an architectural marvel for generations could topple and collapse like so many houses of cards. An intelligent life that was no reduced to its most primal instincts as people died either from lightning strikes in the storm-filled sky or from rubble and parts of buildings covering them.

An intelligent life that was now reduced to the spectator stands in the back row as their planet died before their very eyes, as healthy grey skin on the person next to them became fiery red became charred black became burned away altogether became death.

As death came from the sky for the hundreds of thousands of millions of... of billions of people who were helpless against the sheer power of the storm, the utter destruction that the purple and grey clouds carried within them.

Eventually, the storm would apex, then recede, and eventually dissipate completely. Not yet, but not for a while, either. When that happened, even a starship waiting helplessly in a tightly locked orbit would be able to see the true destruction and havoc wrecked therein. Would be able to see the true force of nature... assuming that it was nature's actions that had caused this storm. The people who would have claimed and attempted to prove that this was a natural phenomenon were dead, killed by lightning or rubble and debris. And the people who would have said no, that this was something that had been predestined from the moment that life had begun to grow inside this world were dead as well, dead because they had brought an alien to this world. An alien who for reasons unknown even to them could have prevented the storm from reaching even a hundredth of its apex.

An alien now dead, dead like so many on this planet.

"We come here to honour the dead and to remember the living."

The words of a member of a banished religious order. And so, with a single ship in orbit, and a relative handful of people left alive on the planet's surface, either through luck, accident or design.

The storm grew, but eventually it would reverse. If the dead are honoured in such a way as this, then who would be left to remember the living?

o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o

Chapter 10: Exodus

"Lieutenant?" Travis swung his flashlight round in a large, wide circle. "Lieutenant?"

There was no answer.

Travis stepped a little closer into the undergrowth, all the while sweeping the flashlight around in ever increasing circles. He was more than a little unnerved to note that the sunlight from outside didn't really make it all the way down through the trees to ground level in here, creating long green shadows in several directions.

It was the metaphorical morning after the night before. The storm had finally passed, leaving behind a fairly shell-shocked planet. More than three quarters of the seven-plus billion population had died during or as a consequence of the storm. And the prospects for the survivors were not so good. Scans from Enterprise had proven conclusively that somehow, the storm was responsible for destroying three key elements in the atmosphere. These elements were responsible for maintaining a very fragile balance in the chemical makeup of the atmosphere as well as somehow keeping check of acidic/alkali levels in the topmost layers of soil and earth. The destruction of the chemicals meant that the planet was, effectively, now dying. Before the storm, the aliens had relied on the high percentage of carbon nitrates in the atmosphere in order to breathe easily, but these nitrates had now been replaced with inordinately high amounts of oxygen and nitrogen, neither of which were compatible with their respiratory systems.

Enterprise had made contact with a hastily cobbled together provisional planetary government, and they had come to an agreement. would be allowed to send two Away Teams to the planet's surface to search for their two missing crewmen, and in return they were helping with the more gruesome process of counting the numbers of dead and injured.

Shuttlepods One and Two had gone down to the continent where maybe-human-maybe-something-else biosigns had been located, and they were now searching by hand: one of the after-effects of the storm was that the Starfleet scanners only had a two metre radius in atmosphere. It had taken some time, much longer than anyone would have preferred, or was used to, but the two search parties had finally come across what they were looking for.

A small ship, maybe a quarter the size of Enterprise, sat quietly and almost unobtrusively off to one side of the clearing. It was oval shaped with no obvious points of entry, coloured an odd combination of pale grey and dark rust, and sat on three fragile-looking legs, with about a metre between the underside of the ship and the grass. Commander Tucker, who had been leading the search planetside, had been all for figuring out a way to either hijack the ship or find a way to get it up off the planet, until he had been reminded firmly by the captain that they were there for the sole purpose of finding their missing crewmembers, not to figure out how they got there in the first place.

Trip had then interpreted this statement as meaning that he could poke and prod the ship from the outside all he wanted, as long as he didn't actually try and break into it. When Travis had last seen the commander, he'd gotten one of the security ensigns to help him take scans and generally poke and prod in the hopes of finding some clues.

Of the other seven down on the planet (besides himself), Travis knew that Ensign Arbuckle was about a hundred feet off to his right, also getting down and dirty in the line of trees and undergrowth. Every so often the helmsman could spot the flash of navy blue inbetween the trees. The both of them were scouting this section of the forest, but much to Travis' surprise the trees only continued for maybe ten metres before stopping abruptly on a new clearing. Looking off to his right, Travis spotted Arbuckle, and jerked his head towards the new clearing. The security ensign pushed his way across to where Travis was, and seconds later they both emerged on the other side.

"Oh my God..." Jeremy exhaled, and Travis silently agreed.

The scene that lay before them was made all the more real by the bright sunlight from the two suns in the clear golden sky: seven burned-out huts in the centre of this new clearing, smouldering, some still letting off wafts of thick grey smoke. The huts formed a rough, uneven circle, and inside the boundaries of the circle...

Bodies. More than half a dozen of them, maybe eight or nine. Had to be unconscious, none of them were moving. Couldn't be alive, either, and the thought sent shivers racing down Travis' spine. He shared a look with Arbuckle, and together they moved towards the closest of the bodies. Jeremy pulled out a scanner as they got closer, and dropped down onto his knees next to the body. One hand shaking slightly, with Travis watching, Jeremy reached out and turned the body over. It was one of the aliens, with the pale grey skin and blue mottled pattern that distinguished their species, although it was hard to tell under the burns and blisters that covered the exposed skin.

"He's dead," Jeremy announced, a wavering note in his voice. "Must've died during the storm." He snapped his scanner shut and put it in a pocket - it was obvious he wasn't going to need it.

Travis stared down at the burned alien for a few moments before looking around the rest of the clearing. Although he couldn't quite put his finger on it, there was something just a little wrong with this place, something that didn't seem right. It felt as it he and Arbuckle were intruding on something, the likes of which the helmsman wasn't sure he wanted to understand.

And then he saw something that made his blood run cold. In amongst the piles of scorched black on the green, green grass, there was an all-too familiar navy blue. Too far away to make out anything specific, but there was that feeling again. Travis took off at a run, ignoring Jeremy's yell behind him. Within seconds he had crossed the clearing, Arbuckle a few strides behind him. Travis stopped by one of the huts. An audible moan escaped his lips, and from beside him he heard a strangled sound come from Arbuckle. On the grass in front of them, his Starfleet uniform burned, in shreds and revealing angry red skin contusions...

"Oh God, Phil..." Jeremy sank to his knees again, and as with the alien, pulled Philip's body around so that he was lying on his back. The young man's face was calm, almost peaceful, a stark contrast to the rest of him, parts of which had been burned almost beyond recognition. Almost frantically, he felt around the wrists and neck for a pulse. "Come on... come on..."

Something in Travis's stomach lurched, and again, and he turned around and threw up onto the grass. It took him a couple of seconds to recover, and still with the taste of vomit in his mouth, he said, "He's dead, Jeremy."

"No!" The security ensign's shout surprised him. "No, he can't be! He..."

Travis turned around, and with a sudden sense of self-revulsion, reached out to touch Jeremy's shoulder. "Come on, Ensign!" he barked. "We've still got a job to do." He hated this, hated having to be the bastard here, but it needed to be done.

Slowly, Jeremy looked upwards, and two pairs of brown eyes locked onto each other.

"We have to find Lieutenant Reed," Travis told him, trying to stay as dispassionate as possible. It was the only way they were going to get through this... through this horror. Because that was what it was. He couldn't, however, keep the shaking out of his voice as he continued. "Right now, he could need our help."

Still staring at Travis, Jeremy nodded once. He stood up, reluctantly, not looking at Philip's body. "If..." Voice hoarse, scratchy, he broke off. Tried again. "If they were together when... when... when," he began, "and the lieutenant survived, then he'll be nearby - won't have gone too far. We start with the trees."

Travis nodded. He reached out for Jeremy's shoulder again, and gave it a reassuring squeeze. "The trees," he repeated, nodding again.

"Yeah." Jeremy offered up the barest of smiles. He pulled out his communicator. "Now we gotta get the reinforcements in."

o o o o o

"Tucker to Enterprise."

The sentence echoed around the bridge, which had grown as silent as a morgue. It took Jonathan a few seconds to figure out he was the one who would be dealing with this call. "Go ahead, Commander," he said, sounding almost as tense as he felt.

"The ship we found earlier, we're pretty sure it's what brought Malcolm and Phil here. Scans we've got confirm human dermal residue in parts of the interior, an' there's a dead give-away by the bow of the ship. Purple grass." Despite his grim tone, Trip's voice sounded a chuckle. "Exact match for the lil' tactical expedition."

"Keep going, Commander," Jonathan ordered, not liking where this was going. No, siree.

"Yessir. Ensigns Arbuckle and Mayweather found..." Here Trip paused for a moment, and even through the comm link his voice sounded ragged. "They've found more bodies. The aliens, maybe the ones that kidnapped our people in the first place, although we got no way of knowin' that for sure."

Another, more strained pause.

"They've also found another body." Trip's voice was almost a whisper now.

In the few seconds' silence that followed, nobody on the bridge looked at each other, each and every person dreading what would be coming next.

"Crewman O'Malley, Cap'n," Trip said. "He's dead."

At the tactical station, Helen Maritas' stomach clenched, and she closed her eyes, feeling the tears threatening to well up in her eyes, and doing her damnedest to ignore them, to make them go away.

"Arbuckle's outlined a search plan for Loo-tenant Reed. We... we'll let you know what happens as... as we, uh, get there." Trip definitely sounded strained, and nobody in their right mind could blame him. Malcolm Reed was one of his best friends, and vice versa.

Finally Jonathan remembered how to open his mouth. "Understood, Commander." It was a struggle to form the words in his mouth, let alone say them out loud.

"Yeah... Tucker out." And the link went dead.

Helen looked around the bridge. Everyone, including the two crewmen in the situation room, looked shocked, and even T'Pol had a sombre expression on her face. It was almost unbelievable... up until now, nobody had died on Enterprise. Near-death scares, hell yeah, that seemed to come with the territory, but never... not this. Nobody on Enterprise's crew had died. Until now. Helen swallowed. "Captain, I..."

She couldn't finish the sentence, could barely start it, but somehow the captain understood. "Do what you have to," he reassured her.

Helen nodded. She bit her lip, and reached for the comm panel that was within easy reach of her seat. A last look at Captain Archer, and the others on the bridge, then she hit the comm button. "Security teams one, two and three, all armoury personnel, please report to the armoury immediately," she ordered, her voice sounding small and distant and despondent to her ears. There was a stinging sensation in her eyes, but she had, until now, ignored it.

Crying, and without a look back, Helen left the bridge.

o o o o o

Two bright suns in the cloudless sky, and Charles "Trip" Tucker could literally feel the beads of sweat forming on the back of his neck and slowly rolling down underneath his collar. It was the local equivalent of midday at the moment, given the suns' position in the sky, and it only seemed to be getting hotter and hotter.

He and the other seven people in the search parties had covered what felt like acres and acres of damn forest in the last couple of hours, although in reality it was probably less than half an acre in total, and that same woodland over and over again. Arbuckle's theory that Malcolm couldn't have gotten far from the scene of death back there seemed to be holding - here and there were odd traces of human DNA - skin cells, hairs and the like. They were not a match for Phil, and one of the security crewmen who was also a self-admitted geology geek - Janey Something-or-other - had determined that they were recent deposits. Recent as in the last twelve hours or so.

Hence the repetitiveness of the search.

"Come on, Malcolm," Trip muttered to himself, scanning the line of trees in front of him, one hand shading his eyes. "Where the hell are ya?"

He turned around to get another look at the clearing again. Certain there was some kind of a clue hidden in there somewhere. The circle of burned-out huts. Trip stared at them for a moment, and in his mind he could suddenly see them standing tall and whole again, engulfed by bright red and orange flames in the darkness, creating the illusion of beacons in a storm, and he wondered if that was what they had looked like.

Then the spell was broken, and it was daylight again. Walking over to the closest of the huts, Trip put a hand out against it to steady himself for a moment, and glanced around the rest of the circle. Eyes flicked from body to body, never lingering for long enough for emotions to form. And then he saw it - them, technically. Two jerky, roughly etched circles in the grass. Curiosity drew the engineer in closer, and soon he could see that the two new circles were some distance apart, and one much larger than the other. They looked as if they had literally been burned into the grass. Chills ran down Trip's spine when he realised that Philip's body partially covered the smaller of the two circles, and he wondered idly how they had missed noticing it - and its companion - before.

Trip stared at the two circles for some time before an idea occurred to him. Slowly, tentatively, he stepped around the aliens' bodies and stood inside the larger circle. He took a good look around him, quietly relieved when nothing untoward either happened to him or made itself known suddenly. Trip turned to face in the direction of the smaller circle, and then at the trees and woodland directly beyond that. In amongst the green and brown of the vegetation, Trip could have sworn that for a split second he had seen a flash of blue, hidden again when he blinked.

Trip again glanced at the remnants of the huts. From his position, standing here, they formed almost a pathway to the trees at the other end of the clearing. for a split second, Trip could again mentally see the huts burning and rain falling from the sky, and he shuddered. Just his imagination playing tricks on him, he told himself firmly. Then, with a calmness he did not truly feel, Trip walked forwards, stepped out of the circle and began to walk in a very straight line towards the line of trees. He crossed the clearing in less than a minute, and he stopped by the first tree he came to, and had another good look around him, taking stock of his surroundings. Trees, trees, the odd bush, and way off to his right, the flash of blue that was one of the search party, unidentifiable from this distance. Off to his left, though...

A particularly large tree that had clearly been struck by lightning or else knocked over somehow by the effects of the storm. It was not uprooted - it had been snapped in two about six feet off the ground, and had fallen back against another tree some distance behind it. Combined with other debris and broken branches and vegetation, it formed almost a sort of shelter.

Trip went over to it, around to the side of it, where the upside-down "V" shape was most apparent. He had to bend down and move some of the branches aside - a surprisingly difficult job - in order to reach the miniature little alcove inside.

And inside?

Lieutenant Malcolm Reed was curled up in a foetal position, head tucked in, and arms invisible inside the little bundle he had created of himself. There was a brief war of wills inside Trip's head before one little voice won, and he reached out to the unconscious armoury officer, feeling tentatively for a pulse, mentally pleading for his friend to be alive, to be okay. Although for the moment, alive would do.

It was there, in his neck. Weak, erratic, and the skin felt icy cold to Trip's touch, but hot damn, there was a pulse. Trip felt like crowing with delight. Instead, however, he pulled out his communicator, and took a step backwards, back out into the forest.

"Tucker to Ensign Mayweather."

Pause. "Go ahead, Commander," Travis answered. The helmsman still sounded shaken from earlier, something for which Trip could not blame him.

"Round up the troops, will ya?" Trip asked him, not taking his eyes off the unconscious lieutenant, not wanting to tempt this miracle.

"Sir?" Travis asked.

Trip almost smiled. "Malcolm's alive, Ensign. An' the sooner we're away from here, the better."

o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o

Chapter 11: Revelation, part IV

Much later that evening, Travis wandered into the mess hall, unable to sleep. The mess was dark, except for illumination from the alien constellations outside, mostly empty, except for the single occupied chair in the far corner. Travis got a glass of pineapple juice from the drinks dispenser, and went over to the table.

"Hey, Jeremy."

Arbuckle saluted him with a padd. "Evening."

Travis indicated the seat. "Mind if I join you?"

"Not at all," Jeremy replied, waving the padd at the chairs. "Be my guest."

Travis sat down. Set his glass in front of him, and pushed it around slightly before looking back up. "You been sitting in the dark long?"

Jeremy inclined his head to one side. "A while," he said vaguely. "Lost count after the first couple of hours. People come and go, I've been on my own at least thirty minutes."

"What are you reading?"

"Ah..." Jeremy tossed the padd onto the table. "Reading material. A few history lessons thrown into the exchange that got us the search parties. I hear Captain Archer can be quite the diplomat when the mood so takes him."

"Oh... anything interesting?"

Jeremy shrugged. "Page after page of rhetorical bullshit which I imagine is what they give out to any passing alien. Technological achievements this, peaceful society that... Then when you get through all of that, you reach the really juicy stuff."

Travis raised his eyebrows. "What sort of stuff?" he asked.

"Religion, politics, customs, rituals, that kind of thing," Jeremy replied. "All in historical context of course. For example, did you know that they have an inherent sense of hierarchy and structure? A particular favourite of mine is that you can't wander up to a person on the street and ask them to do you such and such a favour, you instead have to go to their superior - employer, father, whoever - and get their permission for the first person to do what you want."

"How did you get it?" Travis indicated the padd, the question born more out of curiosity than anything else.

Instantly the humour disappeared from Jeremy's eyes. He shook his head. "Hoshi... Ensign Sato got the information during the whole diplomatic exchange thing, made copies for the captain, T'Pol and Commander Tucker. As acting armoury officer, Helen got this -" with a wave of the hand towards the padd. "She passed it onto Matt Rose, he passed it onto me a few hours ago." He shook his head again. "Len's s'posed to be helping the command staff figure out what the hell happened down there, but..." He exhaled sharply. "Well."

"How is she?" Travis asked. He hadn't seen Helen since returning to Enterprise.

"Not good. I haven't seen her myself, you realise, but last I heard the doc gave her something to take the edge off, and she won't wake up 'til morning - at the earliest."

"She has been taking on a lot, lately," Travis hedged. All of a sudden he didn't like where this was going.

"She's been taking on one heck of a lot more than that," Jeremy retorted forcefully. "Personally, I'm surprised it's taken her this long to keel over. But like I said," his tone considerably softer now, "Matt gave the padd to me. Figured it'd make more sense for me to read it."

Travis frowned. "And not him?"

"Nuh-uh." Jeremy shook his head. Hoping that the younger man would get the implication behind the grunt, and the words that had come before, but... he took another look at Travis' incomprehension, and sighed.

"You mean because of what you were before Enterprise?" Travis asked, and Jeremy nodded, absurdly grateful for not having to spell it out. "Does it... you know, make any more sense from your point of view?"

"A little more insight, I guess," Jeremy replied. "But at the moment, not much of anything's making a lot of sense... Listen," he said suddenly, "I - back down on the planet... thank you."

"For what?" Travis asked facetiously. "I was panicking, same as you. Just did what - what needed to be done."


There was an uncomfortable silence between the pair for some minutes, the only sound the distant rumbling of the warp engine, when finally, almost nervously, Travis spoke up. "Jeremy?"


"What do you believe?"

Jeremy cocked an eyebrow at Travis. He picked up the padd again, and twirled it around in his hands a few times, clearly taking a little time before replying. "I believe," he began, "that this chair will continue to hold my weight as long as I don't do something stupid like attack it with phase pistols at dawn. But that belief won't harm or kill anyone because this is just a chair, and the phase pistols are securely locked up in the armoury. I also believe in God. And two hundred, or even a hundred and fifty years ago, that simple statement spoken out loud could well have been enough to kill countless numbers of people, and maybe even myself into the bargain. And even today I will shout to the universe that I believe in the structural integrity of this chair, whereas I would much rather keep my trap shut about my religious beliefs, although neither of them would kill anyone. But both - spoken out loud - could well make people think twice about what kind of person I am, and my state of mind."

He looked over at Travis. "I believe in God because I come from a long line of Anglican churchmen in North-west Oregon. Lieutenant Reed, on the other hand, believed, because his father made him."

"How do you know that?" Travis asked, surprised and not a little disbelieving.

The security ensign shrugged his shoulders. "It came up not long after we left Spacedock," he explained. "Lieutenant gathered a bunch of us in the gym one evening, and explained his stance on religion and the armoury: basically leave it at the door on the way in, and don't voice disagreements unless it was really urgent that we do so." Jeremy shrugged again. "It was all fair enough as far as we were concerned, there's never been any trouble because of it. He reiterated the point that he wasn't going to be treating us any differently, so on and so forth. You read between the lines, you could figure out he used to be whatever. And whatever he did believe, I'm pretty sure he doesn't any more."


"But like I said," Jeremy told him, "never been any problems because of it."

"But you think religion could have something to do with what happened down on the planet?"

Jeremy nodded. "Think about it," he said. "And think about what we know - and what's on this." He held up the padd. "Group of unknown aliens kidnap two people off some planet. Take 'em back to their homeworld, something happens, that's the unknown quantity. But whatever happens ends up with almost everybody killed."

"So what do you make of it?" Travis asked him, leaning forwards in his seat a little.

"Two plus two equals five here," Jeremy quipped. "But we gotta be looking at either something to do with politics or something to do with religion. And I don't think it's anything to do with political dissidents or whatever here," he finished.

Travis blew out a long breath. "But we don't know anything for sure."

"No." Jeremy sounded almost angry. "And we're not gonna know what happened to Phil until the lieutenant wakes up. He's the only one left who can give up any answers to this mess." A sudden look of frustration crossed his face, then he looked up at Travis. "Have you ever lost a kid brother, Travis?"

"I... I'm the youngest," the helmsman replied, a little uncertain. "Older brother and sister, but -"

"No," Jeremy interrupted. "Not quite what I meant. Ah, let me explain," he said, running a hand through tousled hair. "I've figured there are two kinds of people in the world - those with kid brothers, or those that are the kid brother. Doesn't necessarily need to be your actual brother, but someone, y'know, younger..."

Comprehension dawned. "Yeah," Travis nodded. "Nora's little brother, Luke. Back on the Horizon. He was always hanging around with me and Nora and Paul when we were younger. I..."

"What happened to him?"

"Nora and I were supposed to be babysitting - we were twelve at the time, Luke was seven. Their mom was tactical plus science, so to speak, and their dad was always busy down in the engine room. Anyway, we were playing hide and seek in one of the cargo bays about three weeks into a fresh supply run. Luke had managed to wedge himself inbetween a couple of cases of some construction kit, quiet as anything. I found Nora almost immediately, but neither of us could find Luke. We figured he'd snuck back up to the habitat quarters, so we went back up there to try and find him. No luck. Then the alarm sounded - the one that meant all the kids had to get back to quarters, something bad was going on. Nora and I got back to her parents' room, no Luke. Went and found Paul, he hadn't seen him either. We tried to get hold of my dad, we even tried my mom, then both Nora's parents. Nora's dad told us he'd keep an eye out for Luke, but basically not to worry."

Travis fell silent for a moment, remembering, and Jeremy reached out to touch him lightly on the arm. "Go on," he encouraged quietly.

"It... it wasn't until later that we realised that the alarm hadn't just meant trouble, it also meant that a couple of the bays had been exposed to vacuum," Travis said, his voice nearly a whisper now. "One of them... one of them was the bay we'd been playing hide and seek in."

"Oh God..." Jeremy whispered. He closed his eyes, still listening.

"We had to go back around to haul in the cargo that'd been sucked out. We never found his body. There probably wasn't one left to find." Travis looked up, and when the other man met his eyes, he kept eye contact. "It took Mom ages to finally convince me it wasn't my fault."

"But you had no way of knowing where Luke was," Jeremy replied.

"I know that now," Travis said, "but it didn't stop me blaming myself when I was twelve years old. I was there, I could have done something, and for whatever reason I didn't. And Luke was killed. But he was, though, he was like a little brother to me."

"Yeah... Phil was kind of our kid brother," Jeremy said wistfully. "You should have seen what happened when Matt and Helen tried to stop him seeing those Frankenstein movies."

"But he loved all the old horror movies," the helmsman replied.

"True, but as far as we were concerned, he was too... I don't know... I guess we thought he was too young for them," Jeremy replied. "We were so damn protective of him and a couple of the others at times, it was almost unbelievable."

Then his expression hardened somewhat. "Nadia said that Helen's last words to the people in the armoury earlier were that no matter what happened, we were going to find out what the hell happened that Phil ended up dead, and that we were gonna do him this one last justice," he stated calmly. "And I for one will go to Hell long before I see this left unresolved."

He looked up at Travis again, something unidentifiable in his eyes. "Tell Captain Archer when you see him that we'll get to the bottom of this. One way or another, we're gonna get some answers."

o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o

Chapter 12: Psalms

As the chronometer blinked 0300 hours on the starship Enterprise, there was a near silence in the dimly lit sickbay; the only noises were coming from the medical equipment hooked up to one particular biobed, the only one occupied at that time. In the chair next to the bed, someone was fast asleep, legs sprawled out and upper body slightly hunched over on itself. The sound of their quiet snoring was just about drowned out by the constant humming of the computers.

The only light came from a computer console at the other end of the room, masked from view by a large curtain which had been drawn out and around the station. Through the curtain two fuzzy shadows were just about visible, one next to the source of the light - the computer - and hunched over, the other person slightly off to one side and upright.

Unbeknownst to those two people, the occupant of the biobed was wide-awake. Indeed, Malcolm Reed had woken up some time ago, but since the only physical changes when that occurred were slight increases in pulse and temperature - something perfectly normal - nobody had as yet realised. Malcolm had not made any attempt to move or get out of the bed, nor had he made any kind of sound. He was simply lying there, partially covered by the thin sheets, staring up at the ceiling. Had anybody been watching him, it would have seemed only that he was lost in his own thoughts.

At that precise moment in time, Malcolm knew several things. He knew that the person asleep in the chair next to him was Charles Tucker, a name often bastardised to "Trip". He knew that the people behind the white curtain at the other end of the room were Doctor Phlox and Captain Archer. He knew that just around a corner and out of sight - his sight, and anybody else's - Philip O'Malley's body lay in a cadaver drawer until it was decided what to do with it - him.

Malcolm also knew that he should be feeling some kind of... something at this knowledge, but he only knew that right now he felt nothing inside. He did not feel the warmth afforded him by the sickbay blanket. He did not feel the annoyance he usually experienced whenever he spent a night in this place. He did not feel the regret and guilt he knew he should have felt that a crewman under his command had been killed. And he did not feel surprised to watch Charles suddenly bound out of his chair, all tiredness and exhaustion gone from his eyes and face.

After all, Malcolm knew these things, and more.

o o o o o

Trip was up and out of his chair the instant he had realised that Malcolm had stopped making any noises. He'd only kept up his own act of sleeping because he was relaxed and it was oddly soothing to be in Sickbay at "night" when it was calm.

But Malcolm had been making odd, snuffly noises since he'd been brought in here, and once they'd stopped he'd gotten worried. As he'd jumped up, he'd seen Malcolm's eyes tracking him in the relative gloom of this place before returning the stare blankly at the ceiling. As quietly as he could, Trip crossed over to the partition curtain and pulled it to one side. Jonathan and Phlox were still there, debating in whispers, and both of them looked surprised at the commander's intrusion.

"Malcolm's awake," Trip said urgently. "I think somethin's wrong with him."

In what seemed like an instant, Phlox was by Malcolm's bedside. Sickbay lights increased just enough for everyone to make out everyone else out without the need for squinting or close proximity. The doctor picked up the chart with Malcolm's readings on it, and frowned. He checked the machines that were monitoring the lieutenant, and then turned around, and bent over the bed slightly to get a good look at the patient himself.

In the brightened sickbay lights, Malcolm now looked pale and haggard, and there was something about his expression that Trip didn't want to think too much about - the memories of the post-storm planet were still too fresh in his own mind for him to want to think about what had happened during the actual storm itself. Pale, haggard... and Malcolm no longer seemed to be aware that there was anybody else in his normally guarded personal space. He lay on the bed, staring up at the ceiling, immobile and unnoticing as Phlox checked his eyes and pulse manually, the old-fashioned way, before waving a medical scanner up and down from head to lower chest. Probably for a second opinion, Trip thought, although he wasn't sure.

"There's no change, Captain," Phlox reported. "Just as when he was brought up from the planet, Lieutenant Reed appears to be just fine."

"Then why wasn't he awake earlier?" Trip demanded.

Phlox shook his head, setting the scanner down behind the biobed. "Without knowing the specific course of events that Lieutenant Reed undoubtedly witnessed, there is no way to know what kind of impact has been left on his mind," he explained.

Trip couldn't believe this. He took half a step forward, only to be blocked by Jonathan putting a warning hand on his arm. "You're talkin' about him as if he's not here!" he said angrily.

"Commander." Phlox sounded a little irritated. "I am simply giving the facts as I know them at this current time. I cannot treat something that is not there. Now, to the best of my knowledge, Malcolm Reed is suffering from severe exhaustion, and at worst, he could have repressed post traumatic stress disorder, although it's still too close to know for certain. He needs rest," he finished, with a long, hard look at Trip. "In his current condition I doubt we will be experiencing any great revelations before morning."

"Is there anything you can do for him at the moment, Doctor?" Jonathan asked, his voice full of concern.

Phlox sighed, and looked sadly down at the unresponsive Malcolm. "Until he chooses to tell us what happened, all I can do is keep an eye on him."

Jonathan nodded. "We'll be out of your way, Doctor," he replied stiffly, and gently but firmly guided Trip out of Sickbay and back up the corridor. After the first couple of intersections Trip stopped struggling, and silently Jonathan led the way to the commander's quarters. The unspoken message came through loud and clear, although when Trip went inside, he found he wasn't tired any more.

He stripped down to his boxers, turned the lighting right down and crawled into bed, bringing the quilt up around him. He positioned himself so that he was bundled up in one corner, staring out of the small window at the stars beyond. Enterprise was still in geosynchronous orbit with the storm-ravaged planet, but Trip didn't know what good that was going to do them. It was all they'd been able to do just to get a couple of search parties down there, and the people now had enough on their plates with over four billion dead to begin worrying about an insignificantly tiny group of aliens trying to investigate a single death of their own.

No matter how hard he tried, Trip couldn't get the images of the burning huts out of his head. Rationally speaking, he knew that it was only some kind of hallucination, brought on by seeing first hand the aftermath of the storm, but try telling his vivid imagination that. He also couldn't shake off the feeling that he'd been standing in the exact spot Malcolm had when... No. Trip shook his head. Going to dark places in his head wouldn't do him any good, not here, not now, and especially not when it was pure mental speculation on his part.

Trip knew the facts... well, he knew them as best anyone on Enterprise could. Four billion people had died on that planet, for cryin' out loud! Four billion people, and somehow it was connected with Malcolm and Philip's presence down in that clearing. It had to be, and anyway, Trip no longer believed in pure dumb luck or coincidence. The last time he'd pleaded one of those, it had been when he was pregnant. And Trip had also seen, for the briefest moment, something in Malcolm's eyes when he'd been back in Sickbay. He didn't know what it was, and there was something about it that scared the living daylights out of Trip... he didn't know what Malcolm knew about the storm, or what had happened underneath it all, on the planet's surface, or even in that clearing. But he'd been there. The dermal residue picked up by the hand scanners confirmed that one. Dermal residue belonging to both Malcolm and Philip. Trip had been there for the post-mortem on Philip's body - he'd had little choice, procedure required that two senior officers be there, and one way or another T'Pol had excused herself from proceedings, remaining on the bridge with the skeleton crew all day and evening.

Philip O'Malley had died from severe trauma, and - according to Phlox - the burns that had covered him were the result of a relatively small lightning strike. Although, in Trip's experience, he couldn't see how something like that could ever be called "small". Either the lightning bolt killed you, or it left you wishing you'd died.

Trip stayed like that for more than three hours, mostly lost in his own thoughts, occasionally dozing off, but never for more than a few minutes at a time. Eventually his alarm sounded automatically. It took nearly a minute for Trip's stiff joints to work again, and he shut the alarm off, increasing the lights at the same time. Sat on the edge of the bed, arms tightly crossed over his chest. He was genuinely at a loss as to what to do next. He knew that Phlox had basically warned off against any visits to Sickbay for the time being, as much for his living patient's sake as the dead one's. As Philip's commanding officer, Malcolm would have been the one to contact any family or listed next of kin to inform them of what had happened, and if they had any last wishes, but it had already been agreed that Jonathan would be the one to make the call, although he would tell the person or people at the other end to expect a communiqué from the crewman's CO at an unspecified point in the future. It was a call Trip did not envy the captain making.

He got dressed again, not bothering to shower, and putting the same dirtied uniform on from the previous night. It saved him having to think about where he'd put the clean one. On the floor, next to a dirty grey sock, was the padd that Hoshi had given him the day before; it must have fallen out of his pocket when he'd got undressed. Trip regarded it for a moment. He was pretty sure Hoshi had said something about it being part of the information exchange that had gotten them permission to send the search parties down to the planet. Trip ignored the padd, leaving it on the floor. He also decided to skip breakfast. He didn't want to have to go in the mess and face everyone asking after Malcolm, asking about Philip. Instead, he went straight back to Sickbay. He just wanted to be there.

Trip avoided as many people as he could on the way down - not that that was difficult. Unusually for this time of the morning, there was hardly anybody about, and the atmosphere in the corridors bordered on melancholic. He reached Sickbay, and went inside.

Phlox was sat at a computer just inside the door. The partition curtains had been drawn around Malcolm's bed. The doctor looked up at Trip's entrance. "Ah, Commander," he greeted cheerfully. "Did you get any sleep?"

"Uh, no," Trip admitted, rubbing the back of his neck. "Got back to my quarters, an' I wasn't tired any more."

"Well, that's hardly surprising," Phlox admonished gently, getting up and opening one of the cabinets in the corner of the medical bay. "You all had quite a traumatic experience yesterday, the effects won't just go away overnight."

"Yeah, I know," Trip muttered.

Phlox pulled out a hypospray and offered it to Trip. "This contains a mild sedative," he explained. "If you have any more trouble sleeping, I trust you to be responsible enough to use it in small enough doses."

"Thanks, Doc," Trip said gratefully, pocketing the spray. "Uh, how's Malcolm?"

"As of five minutes after you left, he was sound asleep, without any medical intervention," Phlox replied, leading Trip over to the covered bed. He pulled the curtains aside. "See for yourself."

Trip cautiously circled the bed and sat down next to it, his chair from just a few hours ago still there. "Has anyone else been in to see him at all?" he asked.

"Several people from his department have tried to sneak in," Phlox answered quietly, "and one or two of them have tried to insist that one of them be here at all times."

"But you said no, right?" Trip guessed, looking back up.

The doctor simply smiled, although it was a subdued affair. "I believed that to have Lieutenant Reed's team see him like this, especially with a fallen team member's body so close by, would only serve to cause them greater distress," he said solemnly.

Trip regarded the Denobulan for a moment. There really were times when Phlox managed to perfectly understand the human psyche, despite all claims otherwise. He smiled at the doctor, then turned back to watch Malcolm. After a few seconds he got up and commed Engineering, just to tell them to get on without him, before returning to his friend's side. He'd already decided he would be there when Malcolm woke up.

o o o o o

In his ready room, just off the bridge, Captain Jonathan Archer stared at the blank screen of his computer. He'd found the address in the database easily enough, and had put it into the computer with equal ease. Now all he had to do was press the final button and wait for the transmission to connect, and a few seconds after that he would be imparting news that nobody wanted to hear.

He'd been sitting there for about ten minutes now, still trying to work up the courage to open the transmission, when the door chime rang. "Come in!" he called out, mentally grateful for the diversion.

The door opened, and Travis Mayweather came in, looking nervous. Jonathan indicated the chair on the other side of his desk. "Take a seat, Ensign."

Mayweather shook his head. "No, thank you, sir," he replied stiffly. "I'll only be a minute."

"Go on," Jonathan encouraged.

Mayweather didn't look at the captain. "Sir, permission to be relieved of duty?"

That was unexpected. "What do you mean?"

The ensign's next words came out at a rush. "You see, Malcolm - Lieutenant Reed's still in Sickbay - and I wanted check how he was doing. We're only doing an orbit at the moment, and Kim - Ensign Tanner - doesn't mind taking part of my shift for me, if I ask him now, and -"

"Travis, just go," Jonathan said gently. "Make sure you've got a replacement at the helm, and if it'll set your mind at ease, go to Sickbay."

Mayweather nodded, mumbled a quick thanks, and then left the ready room. Which just left the issue of the transmission. Jonathan sighed. Better to do it sooner, before everything stirred up again. He reached out and hit the final command in on the computer. It duly beeped, and for a few seconds Jonathan was left staring at a revolving Starfleet logo before the other end of the connection opened.

Jonathan found himself looking at a middle-aged man, probably in his forties, with receding brown hair and bright brown eyes. Black shirt, and it looked as though he was sat in an office. The man frowned. "Yes. Can I help you?" The voice had an Irish lilt to it.

Jonathan sat up straight, and brought his hands in front of him on the desk. "I'm Captain Jonathan Archer, on the Enterprise," he began.

"Ah, yes!" the man smiled. "I do apologise for not recognising you, Captain. It's a bit early in the morning here, I'm not much use without a few coffees inside me." The smile broadened. "What can I do you for, Captain?"

Jonathan took a deep breath. "I need to speak to a Roland Donoghue," he replied.

The man nodded. "I'll go and get him for you, Captain," he said, a twinkle in his eye, and he duly got up and disappeared from Jonathan's view. From off the side of the screen, he heard the man yell, "Rolly! Get yourself in here, there's someone wants to speak with you!"

Slightly bemused, despite the gravity of the situation, Jonathan allowed himself a very small mental smile as a younger man duly appeared on screen. "You must be Roland," he began, sounding serious.

The man nodded. "That I am," he hedged, his voice too with an Irish accent. "And you're Captain Archer. Phil's commanding officer, am I right?" He grinned. "If you don't mind my asking, Captain, how is it that you're calling me? Surely you've more important things to be doing?"

Jonathan held up a hand to quieten Roland. "Mr Donoghue, you're listed in our database as Crewman O'Malley's next of kin."

"Of course," Roland replied, nodding. "We're the closest thing to family each other has."

"Right. Of course," Jonathan said.

There must have been something palpable in his voice, because all the colour suddenly drained from Roland's face. "Something's happened to Phil, hasn't it?" he asked.

Here it was. Jonathan swallowed slightly, and nodded. "Mr Donoghue - Roland," he amended quickly, "I'm sorry to inform you that Philip O'Malley has died."

Roland leaned forwards, and buried his face in his hands. When he re-emerged, he was deathly pale and looked sick. "What - what happened?"

Jonathan shook his head. "Unfortunately, we don't know at the moment," he said sincerely, "it's something we're still trying to determine. From what we know, Crewman O'Malley and his immediate commanding officer, Lieutenant Malcolm Reed, were kidnapped during a survey mission a little under a week ago. We still don't know who was directly responsible for the kidnapping, although we managed to track their ship and locate our crewmembers."

Roland looked back up. "And the lieutenant?" he asked.

"Alive, but in what the doctor says is a critical condition," Jonathan replied tightly. "It's hoped that as soon as he's able, Lieutenant Reed can give us some more answers about what happened to Philip O'Malley."

Roland nodded slowly, apparently digesting all the new information. "When that happens, could you have someone let us know?" he asked.

"Of course," Jonathan promised. "And... we'll be conducting a memorial service for Philip O'Malley once Lieutenant Reed is capable of attending. Do you..." He swallowed again. "Do you have any particular wishes concerning his body?"

Roland thought about it for a minute. "Do you know when you'll next be coming near Earth?" he asked suddenly, nervous now.

"If you want, I can organise for the body to be shipped back to Earth as soon as possible," Jonathan offered.

There was a small pause. "If that's not too much trouble, thank you, Captain," Roland replied, smiling tightly. "It would be greatly appreciated. I - I'll not be keeping you any longer, Captain. I'm sure you've other things to be getting on with. Thank you for letting me... thank you for telling me, Captain."

Jonathan knew a dismissal when he heard one. "I'll ask Lieutenant Reed to contact you as soon as possible as well," he added. "He'll doubtlessly have more to say about Philip's record on this ship."

"Thank you, Captain," Roland said again. He reached forwards and terminated the connection.

In the silence of his ready room, Jonathan let out a sickened groan and leaned forwards into his hands, trying to resist the urge to throw up. It really was times like this he hated being captain.

o o o o o

Trip's morning went quite slowly. A few times Phlox arranged for one of the temp nurses to bring him something to eat from the mess, with the proviso that as long as he ate something he could stay in Sickbay. At one point Lieutenant Bathurst had shown up with some progress reports for him to read at his own leisure, plus a few proposals needing his seal of approval before they could be put into effect.

And all the time Malcolm had remained asleep. Around twenty minutes into the Alpha shift, Travis had shown up. He'd not said a word to either Trip or the doctor, but had simply pulled out another chair and placed it the opposite side to Malcolm's bed. Sat down and, like Trip, seemed perfectly content to watch Malcolm sleep and wait for him to wake up.

Trip had watched Travis out of the corner of his eye a few times. They'd both observed the unspoken vow of silence, but Trip had made sure that the ensign got the message - Trip more than approved of him being here. Although Trip could claim without contest that he was Malcolm's closest friend, the Englishman had been friends with Travis for longer. Both commander and ensign knew different things about what had happened on the planet during the storm, and both of them somehow knew that once he woke up, Malcolm was going to need all the help he could get, even if he wasn't willing to admit that need. Probably he wouldn't, but that was the kind of man both officers knew him to be, and to some extent respected him for.

But now wasn't a time for propriety, or respect. In the past Malcolm had denied the help of his friends, adamant that he could get through whatever was troubling him on his own. This time it was different. The magnitude was too great, the losses far too personal.

Trip caught Travis' eye one more time before settling down to read the Engineering reports. The younger man nodded slightly, and Trip tipped his own head in return. This was one time that Malcolm wasn't going to be alone.

o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o

Chapter 13: Kings

A few hours into the reports, Trip felt someone poke him on the arm. It was Travis. Wordlessly the helmsman stared at him, then with the smallest movement jerked his head towards the head of the biobed. Following his gaze, Trip swallowed; Malcolm was awake, and watching the two of them silently.

"Hey!" Trip said, relief flooding through his body. He put the padd he had been reading down and leaned in a little closer to the bed. "How're you feelin'?"

Malcolm said nothing.

"Yeah, okay, you're probably tired," Trip continued, rushing to fill the gap. Then he stopped. He genuinely did not know what to say next. He had no idea of what had happened to Malcolm, and no idea if anything he said would make things better, or worse. And for the first time he felt really frustrated!

Travis' hand was still on Trip's arm. "Just... let the doc..." he began. Turning around, Trip saw Phlox coming up to the biobed, and wisely got up from his chair and took a step backwards to let the doctor do his thing. Silently, both he and Travis watched as Phlox proceeded to carry out his examination, also quietly. Without a single word or other sign of complaint, Malcolm submitted to each and every scan that Phlox could apparently think to do on him.

And that would be why Trip felt so unnerved, then. There was no way in Hell that Malcolm would let the doctor within three metres of him without either a writ from Captain Archer or unless he was practically on Death's door (and even then he took some persuading). Malcolm was being unusually passive at the moment, and despite everything else that was going on, that was the single thing that terrified Trip the most, told him that something was very wrong here. A quick glance to his left told him that Travis was thinking along the same lines as well, had to be, from that look on his face. Trip swallowed again, taking in Malcolm's emotionless expression, before focusing all of his attention on the Denobulan doctor. Willing him to find something.

Finally, Phlox turned around, catching sight of the two men. "Commander," he said quietly. "A word in private."

Surprised, although not at the same time, Trip followed Phlox to the other end of the medical bay, where the doctor's collection of weird and wonderful creatures was. Phlox came to a stop behind the engineer and pulled a curtain around them, enclosing them in a relatively small area.

"What is it, Doc?" Trip asked. He really did not like the look on Phlox's face.

Phlox sighed. He looked agitated. "Commander, under normal circumstances I would be making this kind of report directly to Captain Archer, but I think you appreciate the fact that these are hardly normal circumstances."

Trip nodded.

"As I stated last night, there is nothing physically wrong with Lieutenant Reed."

"Meanin'... what?" Trip asked. "There's somethin' wrong mentally?"

Phlox pulled a face, and avoided looking directly at the commander. "As I told you last night, Commander, it is beyond doubt that the lieutenant witnessed something far beyond his ability to deal with. I say that only because of his obvious lack of presence of mind in Sickbay."

Well, of course the doc would have picked up on Malcolm's passivity. Trip mentally scored one for Phlox, nodded, and let the man continue.

"However, I am a doctor, not a psychiatrist," Phlox iterated firmly, "although I have had some experience with the theoretical side of the subject."

"So, what are you sayin'?" Trip wasn't sure he wanted to hear the answer, though.

Phlox inclined his head a little to one side. "What I am saying, Commander, is that somehow, we need to find out exactly what Lieutenant Reed witnessed, and experienced, in order to begin a process of recovery."

Something occurred to Trip. "And what if he doesn't want to talk about it?" he asked, sounding little more than a monotone.

Phlox was undeterred. "Than we do everything in our power to show him that he needs to do this in order to deal with what has happened to him."

"Alright," Trip replied slowly, nodding his head. The next instant his head shot back up. "How, uh, how do we do that?"

Phlox sighed, and smiled, although it looked more like a smirk. "You and Lieutenant Reed are close friends, Commander," he replied. "I would suggest you start from there and see how things progress."

"Right... right!" Trip repeated as realisation finally whacked him around the head. He turned and left the tiny enclave, and rejoined Malcolm and Travis. Travis was still standing at the foot of the bed, visibly uncertain as to whether he could or - should get any closer to the bed or not. It was a kind of awkwardness that quickly echoed inside Trip as well. For all his knowledge of the usually reticent armoury officer, it was times like this that only served to show Trip just how little he truly knew about Malcolm. The man really was a mystery. But he was a mystery that this time Trip was determined to solve.

"Hey, Malcolm!" Trip began as brightly as he could. Malcolm made no acknowledgement of Trip's words other than sliding his eyes across to meet Trip's. That was a good sign, right? "Doc's given y'a clean bill of health," he continued, a little more subdued now, "but there's still a few things that -"

"I don't want to talk about it," Malcolm interrupted him, his own voice sounding hoarse and little more than a whisper. Slowly, and with the appearance of great effort, he attempted to move himself up into a seated position on the biobed. Refused any advances from either Trip or Travis, and after a couple of minutes he had successfully managed to sit himself up, leaning very heavily indeed back against the headboard.

Trip shot a surprised look at Travis before redirecting his attention back to Malcolm. "E - Excuse me?"

Malcolm stared at him, his face devoid of all emotions - devoid of anything. "I said, I don't want to talk about it," he repeated, now simply sounding tired.

"It's not as simple as that, Malcolm," Travis interjected, trying not to sound too harsh or exasperated. "We need to know what happened down there."

Malcolm shifted his gaze to him. All it took was a couple of seconds of the quiet scrutiny, and Travis began to look distinctly uncomfortable, although he did not back down. "I was there, Malcolm," he said, sounding almost desperate to form some kind of a connection with his friend. "After the storm, I was there, I saw what happened. So did Trip," he added with a significant look at both Malcolm and the commander.

Malcolm's eyes lowered to the thin sheets covering the tops of his legs. "You didn't see everything," he murmured. He picked up a corner of the sheets and began to fidget with it, twisting the material around his fingers.

Trip took a step closer to the bed. "Well, why don't you start by tellin' us what you saw?" he asked gently, placing a hand next to Malcolm's left leg. "Maybe we can... fill in the gaps a little."

Watching him with empty grey eyes, Malcolm gave him only a parody of his usual trademark smirk. "I told you I didn't want to talk about it, Charles," he said, either ignoring or unaware of the reaction the salutation earned. "Not going to change at the moment." His last sentence was followed by a stunned silence, neither Trip nor Travis saying anything. Blithely, almost, Malcolm continued. "Somebody needs to call Philip's next of kin," he stated, still fidgeting with the sheet but now staring evenly at Trip, who was closer to the bed, and him.

"The uh, cap'n's s'posed to be makin' the call sometime this mornin'," Trip replied slowly. A look at Travis confirmed this statement.

The helmsman nodded. "He was about to do it when I went to speak with him," he offered.

Malcolm nodded, apparently satisfied, although his expression was still completely emotionless. He finally put the thin sheet back down on top of his legs, and rested his hands on top of it. "I know what the two of you are trying to do," he told them, making a point of not looking at either man as he spoke, "and I appreciate the gesture. But there's nothing you can do." His voice held none of the hint of sincerity that it usually did, and the lack of anything thoroughly unnerved Trip. Malcolm sounded like a robot, monotonously reeling off whatever lines entered into his head.

Before Trip could say anything else, an announcement came over the comm: "Commander Tucker, report to Engineering - immediately!"

o o o o o

Helen woke up. She rolled onto her back and stared up at the ceiling. And it was right there that her plans for the day ended. Doctor Phlox had basically told her that she was relieved of duty "until further notice", which as far as the alien was concerned, until he told her otherwise. The sleeping shot he'd given her yesterday had done its job; she no longer felt so tired or haggard, although the sedative had not done enough to kill off the worries and fears as well as the exhaustion.

Ever since she'd got the call from Zabel telling her about the explosion - over a week ago, now - Helen had literally not stopped, except for a couple of hours sleep here and there, occasionally with medical assistance - intervention, in other words. First the armoury repairs, then the realisation that Phil and Lieutenant Reed had gone missing on some stupid excuse to give them a couple of days to recuperate from their injuries. And now Phil was dead, and possibly the worst part of that was that the last Helen had heard, nobody had any real clue as to what had happened.

The last thing Helen remembered before Phlox giving her the shot was looking around at the people assembled in the armoury. Matt, Clara and Jowan from what was left of the armoury rotation. And all nine people from the security teams - it always seemed like a small number, but in a pinch (or emergency, come to think of it) armoury staff doubled up as security. She'd been standing there, separate and apart from the twelve of them in her role as temporary head of department, standing inbetween the newly rebuilt torpedo launcher and its counterpart (the one that had survived the explosion), and telling them all that Phil was dead. Helen could still see the looks on their faces, the expressions ranging from shock to disbelief, grief to utter devastation. And Helen wasn't sure if she was ever going to be able to forget the look on Clara Kopleck's face at the news - she and Phil had been close friends, about as close as you could get without having a relationship.

The door to Helen's quarters chimed. For a second she wondered whether she should get out of bed and answer it herself or call out and let the person in that way. Sense of propriety won out, and Helen rolled off the bed and padded towards the door, ignoring the headache threatening to build up inside her skull. She opened the door. "Matthew," she said, bemused. Stood to one side of the door. "Come in."

Matt followed her over to the bed, but instead of perching at one end of it, his usual seat whenever he came in here, he pulled the chair over from the small desk and straddled it, folding his arms over his chest. He didn't say anything.

Having the bed to herself, Helen stretched out a little, and tucked some of her hair behind an ear. "Are you going to tell me what you're doing here?" she teased, struggling even to find the energy for humour.

Matt smiled, although with him, too, the motion was strained. "Came to see how you were doing," he replied, bringing his crossed arms up to rest on the back of the chair. He held Helen's gaze for a moment, and finally raised an eyebrow. For some reason, that caused Helen to start laughing, and soon enough he joined in, the two of them giggling like teenagers for no real reason - none that they could figure out, anyway. Eventually, though, the laughter subsided, and a renewed sense of seriousness filled the air.

"Any news on the lieutenant?" Helen asked.

Matt shook his head. "Last any of us heard, he was asleep. Drugs or otherwise, we didn't dare ask, and the doc wouldn't have told even if we had asked."

"But he's going to make it, right?"

"Yeah. He should do."

"Good," Helen said with conviction.

Matt nodded in response, then perked up suddenly. "Oh!" he declared, reaching into a pocket. He withdrew a padd and tossed it to Helen. Still too tired to have proper reflexes, she missed it and the padd clattered on the floor. Embarrassed, Matt leaned down, picked it up and handed it to her properly. She took it, but didn't switch it on. "Present from Jeremy," Matt added, for clarification. "The, uh, information Sato got for you came to me, went to Jeremy. He did the hard slog, figured you'd want to have a look at what he found. And don't ask what it was, because he wouldn't tell me."

Helen frowned as she digested all the information, then nodded and left the padd on top of the bed. Maybe that would be something she could get round to later. Matt blinked a couple of times, suddenly looking awkward. "I'll, uh, I'll leave you to it," he said, getting up and returning the chair to it's original position.

"Um... okay," Helen said. The something occurred to her. "If Reed's still out of commission, who's taking care of the armoury?"

Matt hesitated before answering. "I am," he told her. "I've, uh, left Jowan running diagnostics, I'd better get back soon. It's not as though we're doing much," he continued. He was beginning to babble now. "Still in orbit around that planet, it's not like I'm going to mess anything up, I -"

"Matt," Helen interrupted firmly. "No-one thinks you're incapable."

"They don't say it to my face, you mean," Matt shot back, sounding sullen.

"Look!" With all the effort she could muster, Helen got to her feet and grabbed Matt's shoulder, turning him around to face her. "There are more important things going on right now than your co-ordination."

"Like you?" Matthew challenged, flaring up.

"No!" Helen nearly shouted. "Like Phil!"

Matthew sagged against the wall, and Helen struggled to keep him from collapsing to the deck altogether. "Listen to me, Rose," she said forcefully. "When I let go of you, you are going to go back down to that armoury and get the duty shift finished. Then you come straight back up here, and we will talk things through. Nobody on this ship thinks any less of you because you trip and fall on occasion. We all screw up sometimes. Hell, most of us on this ship are human. And you are too. You got this assignment because you're one of the best. Look," she added, calmer now, her voice quieter and softer. "Go back down, keep an eye on Jowan, and I'll look in on Clara if I can. We've already lost Phil, nothing's going to change that. It's now our job to make sure we don't lose anyone else, either. You and Reed included. Get it?"

"Yeah," Matt replied, nodding. "Yeah."

"Good," Helen said, letting him stand up properly again. "Go on, bugger off," she told him, doing a fair impression of their CO. "One step at a time," she added with a small smile.

Matt nodded; he didn't say anything else, just left Helen's quarters with a little smile of his own. Standing next to her bed, Helen watched the door close and let out a breath she didn't know she'd been holding in. She sat down heavily on the bed and picked up the padd Matt had left with her. Switched it on, made herself a little more comfortable under the bedclothes and began reading.

o o o o o

In the end, Trip decided, he hadn't even been needed in Engineering. It wasn't that serious. Just a couple of busted relays, and under the circumstances Hess had thought it best if he deal with them rather than some junior engineer. It made sense, he thought to himself on the way back to Sickbay. Although he hadn't realised just how affected the rest of the crew had been by the events of the last week to ten days. Sure, everyone was covertly keeping an eye on the armoury and security teams - the people who had worked with and knew Philip the best - but everyone was on edge at the moment, and something Helen Maritas had said during the "address" to the other members of Malcolm's teams came back to Trip at that moment: "Phil was the first person on this ship to be killed in action, to be killed at all. I know it may not sound easy to hear it right now, but we have to pull our acts together and make it through this. Together. As a team and as a crew."

Only half paying attention to what was going on around him, Trip was duly surprised - and a little knocked off balance - when, on exiting the turbolift just down the corridor from Sickbay, he bumped right into Travis. "What's goin' on?"

Instead of answering right away, Travis motioned the commander back into the turbolift. The doors shut, and Travis hit in the button for F-deck. "Malcolm made a break from Sickbay when our backs were turned," he said in a rush, sounding out of breath. He took another couple of deep breaths before continuing. "He managed to screw up sickbay sensors from the controls behind the biobed. Phlox has gone to find the subcommander about full internal scans, and -"

"- we're goin' to the armoury," Trip finished for him, clarity dawning.

Travis nodded. "Yeah."

There were no other words exchanged between the two officers, and when the lift doors opened onto F-deck, both of them took off at a sprint. Within seconds, they'd reached the armoury, and after some unspoken deliberation, Trip went in first, followed closely by Travis.

Over in the corner of the armoury, Matthew Rose and the other armoury guy whose name Trip could never remember looked up at their entrance. "Something we can do for you, Commander?" Matthew asked, taking a step forward.

Trip blinked a couple of times, aware that at this point he probably looked more than just a little stupid, especially with another member of the senior staff in tow. Now. How to phrase the question correctly so that he got the right answers, and without scaring Malcolm's subordinates unnecessarily at the same time. He cleared his throat. "You, uh, seen Loo-tenant Reed today?"

Matthew looked puzzled. "No, sir," he replied. He shared a look with the guy behind him. "We were under the impression Doctor Phlox was keeping visitors to the bare minimum. Why? Has something happened?"

"What? No, no!" Trip replied quickly, holding his hands up in front of him. "Uh... don't mind me," he added with what he hoped was a real winning smile (did they even work on the same sex?). "I'll just be goin' now. Come on, Ensign," he continued, now addressing a very bewildered looking Travis. "Let's be goin' now." He backed out of the armoury as smoothly as he could, trying not to notice the concern growing on the faces of the two armoury personnel in front of him.

Once the armoury doors shut behind them, Trip leaned heavily against them, rubbing the side of his face with his hand. He looked back up at Travis. "He's not hidin' in there. Hell, he's not in there at all."

"Commander?" Travis asked.

Trip sighed. "Ensign Rose is practically incapable of lyin'. Sounds convincin' enough, but you can see it all over his face when he's not givin' ya the whole truth. So back there, he was bein' honest."

"Oh." Travis nodded. "So, what do we do now?"

Trip held up a single finger to forestall any further comment. He went down the corridor to the nearest comm. unit, Travis right behind him. "Tucker to T'Pol."

A second later she answered. "Go ahead, Commander."

Trip took a couple of shallow breaths and looked over at Travis before replying. "Is, uh, Phlox with you?" he asked, hoping like Hell she got the unspoken question at the end there. Even now Trip didn't want to scare any other members of the crew unnecessarily.

And, it seemed, she did. "He is," she said shortly. "Although it will take several minutes before we can begin to initialise a thorough deck-to-deck scan. Any intermediary action on your part would be... welcomed."

"Understood. Tucker out," Trip replied, closing the connection. Well, he didn't need to be told twice. Intermediary action it was, then. "C'mon," he said to Travis, rubbing his hands together at the thought of finally, actually being able to do something. "Now we do things the old-fashioned way," he declared, stretching his arms right out in front of him and taking Travis through the rest of the deck to one of the cargo bays. Just inside the door there was a small storage locker. Trip pulled the lid off and took out two hand scanners, giving one to the helmsman. He shut the locker again, and escorted Travis back out into the corridor. "Six decks," he began. "We can either take three decks each, or go through them all together," he said, leaving the option open.

"Three each," Travis answered confidently. "Quicker chance of success."

"Okay then," Trip decided. "You stay here an' work your way up, I'll come from the top down. Comm each other if we find him."


And so Trip began methodically working his way through the top half of the starship Enterprise, looking for his errant friend. The habitat quarters were the most difficult, really, as there were some people on different shifts either sleeping or else just hanging around in their rooms, and Trip had the unenviable task of knocking on each door to see if Malcolm was in there. The scanners just weren't made to differentiate between different kinds of humans, although Trip supposed he should be grateful that they could differentiate species at all. But since Malcolm was, in fact, human, the level of calibration the scanners were capable of was basically useless. But slowly but surely Trip was working his way through crew quarters - all three decks of them.

Another deck below that one brought Trip to the small observation lounge at the rear port side of the ship. Just one person in there, and since this was the last one Trip had to search before rejoining Travis, and also having had no luck himself, and there having been no word from the helmsman - or anyone else at all, for that matter, Trip found himself holding out hopes that Malcolm was in here. The other options that he'd thought of regarding Malcolm's location just weren't worth thinking about at all.

Trip stopped outside the door and checked the hand scanner one last time. Yup, definitely the one person in there. He pocketed the scanner, and tried to open the door.


It was locked.

Grunting, Trip, moved his focus to the control panel to the right of the door, and pulled off the covering. He started fiddling around with the different wires and connections, and within seconds he heard the locking mechanism disable. Satisfied with the outcome of that little task, Trip tried the control again. The door opened in a slightly jerky manner, and Trip stepped inside the lounge. The lights had been turned right down, if not off completely. The only light came from the field of stars outside, bathing the small room in a pale, eerie light.

Something hitched in Trip's throat. Still wearing the sickbay overalls he'd been in earlier, Malcolm Reed was standing right by the view port, staring down at the scene beneath him. As quietly as he could, Trip went over to join him. When he got to the window, he could see what was keeping a hold on Malcolm's attention: right beneath them the planet was still visible, although they probably weren't over the place where the storm had started from.

"Hey," Trip said softly, hoping to catch Malcolm's attention that way, rather than maybe startling him through physical contact.

Malcolm didn't look up from the scene below him. "Hello," he replied equally quietly, and somewhere inside Trip, hope suddenly bloomed.

"You, uh, had us worried for a bit there, Malcolm," he joked, trying to keep his tone light. "Breakin' out from Sickbay, I mean."

There was a small pause. "It's become far too easy to escape from that place, you know," Malcolm said conversationally, and his tone of voice was such that for a moment he nearly sounded like the old Malcolm - the Malcolm who worked relentlessly on his cannons and torpedoes with an obvious passion for what he did, and who did anything and usually everything in his power to minimise time spent in Sickbay (except not actually getting injured in the first place). But then the moment passed, and once more Trip found himself looking at a virtual stranger beside him. "Yeah," he managed weakly. Desperate for a distraction, he nodded down at the planet. "Looks better than when it did before," he said suddenly, then kicked himself for the lack of tact in that statement. But to his surprise Malcolm actually looked up and looked at Trip with a guardedly blank expression.

"What did it look like?"

Trip floundered. He struggled to remember what T'Pol had said during her weather report back on the bridge. "Uh... the storm you'd have... experienced down on the planet pretty much covered the whole of the planet's surface area," he began, albeit a little uncertainly. "Started from one epicentral point and kinda just grew from there. Covered most of the surface in thick clouds."

"Do you know the cause of it?" Malcolm asked him.

Doing his damnedest to ignore the alarm bells that were going off in his head at the tone of Malcolm's question, Trip shrugged. "Our best guess was natural occurrence," he allowed, letting his gaze drift back to the barren planet.

Malcolm's attention soon drifted back there as well. But soon, he spoke up again. "It wasn't natural, you know."

"Hmm?" Trip returned, deliberately absent-mindedly.

"The storm," Malcolm replied quietly. "Unnatural. Not a 'natural occurrence', as you put it. No, no. Other factors entirely." Maybe without knowing it, he'd started babbling, and once again his gaze was rooted firmly on the planet they were orbiting.

And this was where Trip had to tread carefully. Very, very carefully indeed. "D'you know what other factors?" he asked, making sure to keep his voice at the exact same pitch as Malcolm's. He didn't attempt to make eye contact this time, either, and in a sudden wave of self-consciousness, Trip folded his arms over his chest and wrapped them tightly around himself.

"I didn't used to believe, you know," Malcolm replied, not answering the question. Hell, he didn't come anywhere close to answering the question, but despite himself Trip kept silent, wondering just where this conversation was headed. "Quite happy in my ignorance. I suppose that's the best way to live, isn't it? Ignorance being bliss, or however the old cliché goes. Did you ever study philosophy, Charles?"

Again, the use of his given rather than common name, and once again Trip ignored it. "Not me personally, but my sister's husband got a doctorate in it," he said. "Guess I know a fair amount on the subject."

"Oh. Okay," Malcolm nodded. "That could be good."

"Good how?" Trip asked. He looked up, and to his surprise saw Malcolm watching him with the same expressionless face. Shivers ran down Trip's spine again. He was missing something here, he knew it. He made as if to say something, but Malcolm beat him to the punch.

"Sickbay," he said simply, staring intently into Trip's eyes. "I suppose they'll be getting worried about me by now, even if they know where I am."

And just like that the spell was broken. Malcolm calmly left the small observation lounge without once looking back, looking rather incongruous himself in the sickbay overalls. Trip watched him leave and the door close behind him. And then, right then, something occurred to him. Well, it didn't so much occur to him as appear in swirling neon lights in front of his eyes and whack him around the head with a shuttlepod. Trip ran for the door, and all but burst into the corridor, looking wildly this way and that. To his left he could just about make out a flash of pale blue turning the corner. Seconds later, he caught up with Malcolm. "Hey!" he called out. He put a hand out on Malcolm's shoulder, and as gently as he could, pulled the other man around to face him. "Don't rush out on a guy like that."

"Is something the matter, Charles?" Malcolm asked. Completely serious and even a touch of concern there in his voice as well.

Trip shook his head. "Not really, just wanted to show you somethin'."

Malcolm frowned. "Show me what?"

Trip made sweeping motions with his hands - back in the opposite direction towards one of the other turbolifts. "Jus'... come with me?"

Stubbornly, just like he used to, Malcolm stood his ground. "Where?"

Trip was already moving, trying to pull the reticent lieutenant along with him. "Armoury."

All of a sudden Malcolm jerked back, practically yanking Trip's arm off in the process. "I'm not going back there!" he hissed.

Trip stopped, pulled his arm back from Malcolm's suddenly iron grip, and stared at him. "S'the armoury, Malcolm," he said placatingly. "C'mon, might cheer the guys up ta -"

"No!" Malcolm interrupted him, pulling back even further. "Not going back there!"

"Why not?" Trip demanded, suddenly trying to keep from shouting.

"I won't go back there! I can't!"

Shocked into silence, Trip could only stare at Malcolm.

o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o

Chapter 14: Revelation, part V

Starfleet bureaucrats were a load of time-wasting gits.

This was the conclusion that Jonathan had come to less than ten seconds after finally getting through to a person and not a computer at Starfleet HQ back on Earth, and around the same time that Trip had found Malcolm in the observation lounge (although the captain wasn't aware of that, of course). Well, to be fair, he'd thought that long before the construction of Enterprise had been completed, but right here and right now was where it held the greatest ring of truth. And it wasn't even as if he was trying to do anything completely out of left field here: all he wanted to do was get hold of the Admiral and discuss possibilities of shipping Philip O'Malley's body back to Earth - according to the memo he'd made himself write earlier that morning. Jonathan didn't want to think about the specifics for too long - at all, if he thought there was a chance he could get away with it. Just get the body back to somewhere in Ireland, give O'Malley's close friends the closure they needed and deserved, and try and get Enterprise back on track.

Put like that, it almost sounded easy.

Right then a beep from the computer jerked him out of his thoughts, and Jonathan looked up at the screen. Instantly put on what he hoped was a winning-yet-wholly-professional smile, and tried to look as though he hadn't spent the last couple of days thinking too much and getting nowhere as a result. "Admiral," he began brightly, much to his own surprise. "I've been trying to get through to you for some time now."

"So I've heard, Jonathan," Forrest replied, amicably enough. He raised his eyebrows expectantly. "So what brings you to call me at just after oh-one-hundred hours?"

Was it that early where the admiral was? Or maybe Jonathan had just lost track of time in the relative isolation of his ready room. It had been early morning when he'd called Donoghue in Ireland, and they were six to seven hours ahead of mainland America so... yeah that made some sense to him... Where was he? Oh yeah...

"Actually," Jonathan began, clearing his throat a couple of times, "actually, I wanted to talk to you about Crewman O'Malley."

Forrest frowned. It looked almost comical. "It's a shame that the young man died, Jonathan," he said carefully. "But there's very little we can do for his family in the light that he has no blood relations, and -"

Jonathan held up a hand to interrupt him. "I've spoken with the listed next of kin, and I promised him I would do my best to... to get the body shipped back to Earth for funerary arrangements," he told the admiral, the words sounding stilted and distant to his own ears.

"Jonathan," Forrest frowned, "you're not due to be anywhere near this solar system for at least another three years."

"Yes, Admiral, I'm well aware of that," Jonathan replied, trying not to get frustrated. "But surely there has to be some other possibility, some other way of getting Crewman O'Malley's body back to his family," he stressed the word there, "regardless of whether or not they're related to him by blood," he added pointedly.

If Forrest appeared in any way... affected by that last comment, he did not show it. In fact, all he did was clasp his hands very tightly in front of him on his desk, and lean a little closer into the computer screen. "Do you have a point that you're trying to make here, Captain?" he asked.

"Yes," the captain replied tightly, briefly allowing himself to wonder if Forrest had always come over this highly strung or whether it was just a here and now thing. Jonathan took a deep breath and ploughed straight into what he had to say next. "Is there any way we could find out if there was a Vulcan ship near our location who would be willing to -"

"No, Jonathan," Forrest interrupted him, and he sounded tired now. "Believe me, we've already checked and double checked with the Vulcan Consulate here on Earth. There are no ships on a course within fifty light years of you for another eight months barring unforeseen circumstances."

What? Jonathan stared at his senior officer for a moment before his mouth leapt into gear and overtook his brain. "And the death of one of my crewmembers isn't an unforeseen circumstance?" he asked, his voice rising with each word - he was beginning to shout. "Might I remind you, Admiral, that not only has this ship just lost one of her own, but my armoury officer is still in a critical condition in Sickbay, too traumatised to even talk about what the hell happened to them both!"

Forrest waited patiently enough for Jonathan's tirade to peter out, although he had raised an eyebrow at hearing the rushed version of Malcolm's condition. "Captain Archer, you have a responsibility to the surviving members of your crew, which does not involve acting as some kind of undertaker for the kin of the dead!"

He stopped there, took a deep breath. "I'm sorry about that, Jonathan, I really am. I didn't mean for things to get out of hand like that. It's regretted that we can't do anything at our end to ship O'Malley's body home, but we truly cannot spare any of our resources to try and play catch up with you while the body lies in some cadaver drawer waiting to be collected. You'll simply have to express your condolences to whomever you spoke to last time and explain the situation. Forrest out." And before anything else could be said, the admiral reached forward and terminated the communication.

Left once alone in his ready room for the second time that morning, Jonathan could only stare at the computer screen.

o o o o o

A few decks below the ready room where the... conversation with the admiral had just taken place, in the corridor outside the observation lounge, Trip took a step closer to Malcolm; the armoury officer was beginning to hyperventilate.

"C'mon Malcolm, calm down," Trip said quickly, placing his hands on Malcolm's shoulders in some attempt to try and get him to stop panicking. He tightened his grip to stop his friend from shaking. "C'mon..."

Malcolm had his eyes shut tightly, and although he wasn't shaking any more his breathing was audibly shallow and ragged. It was some time before he at least appeared calm again, and slightly longer before he opened his eyes to stare at Trip.

"It's okay Malcolm," Trip told him, deliberately speaking slower and clearer than normal. He didn't loosen his grip on his friend's shoulders. "Don't have to go back to Sickbay if you don't want to."

Not replying with words, Malcolm instead just stared at him, searching Trip's face like he was looking for something that would tell him Trip couldn't be trusted. It was like Malcolm didn't know him any more, and that was something else that scared the commander as well. Malcolm was changing - had been changing, had already changed... and this man standing in front of him, the only thing he had in common with Lieutenant Malcolm Reed was the same face and nearly the same voice.

Not a nice thought.

Trip took advantage of the silence to do something that under different - more normal - circumstances, he'd never even consider doing. But this wasn't normal, and the man standing opposite him wasn't the normal Malcolm Reed - if such a person truly existed, a mean part of Trip's mind whispered to him, but he ignored it.

He took a step closer to Malcolm, closing the last few inches of space between the two of them. "I'm not takin' ya to the armoury," he said quickly, catching the sheer panic reappearing on Malcolm's face again. "Okay?...We're not goin' there."

Slowly Malcolm nodded, never once taking his eyes off Trip's.

Trip slid his hands down Malcolm's shoulders until they were resting just above either elbow. "Gonna take you back to your quarters," he told Malcolm, "away from the doctor and the cap'n an' everyone else, but on one condition."

Malcolm frowned slightly. "One condition?" he repeated, still sounding a little panicky and out of breath, although he was visibly calmer. "What do you mean, one condition?"

"I jus' want ya to talk to me," Trip replied, looking directly into his friend's eyes. "Tell me what happened down on that planet, so we can do somethin' about fixin' things up here."

"On the Enterprise?" Malcolm asked.

Trip nodded. "Fix things on the Enterprise, and a few things back on Earth as well," he clarified. Then added: "Phil's family are gonna want to know what happened to him."

Malcolm shook his head, already trying to pull away from Trip's hold. "Philip doesn't have any family. He told me - it's in his records," he said quickly, beginning to babble again.

"They were family to him, else they wouldn't've been listed as next of kin," Trip replied firmly, trying to remember exactly what the captain had said about contacting O'Malley's family.

The message seemed to have gotten through to Malcolm; he nodded, and relaxed again.

"Now." Trip needed to be absolutely sure about this - he knew Phlox was going to skin him alive if he found about this rather more... unorthodox measure of establishing a pattern of events, not to mention keeping an escaped patient away from the medical bay for longer than was absolutely, completely, utterly necessary. But it as also something that... it had to be done. "If I take you back to your quarters, away from everyone else, will you talk to me there?"

It was a long, tense pause before Malcolm finally nodded once more.

o o o o o

On the bridge, the computer in front of her beeped, and T'Pol frowned slightly. "Curious," she said out loud. She did not need to look up to know that the doctor was standing directly behind her right shoulder; he had been hovering there ever since he had arrived on the bridge, anxious to have her begin a deck-by-deck scan for his errant patient.

"What is?" Phlox asked.

All around the rest of the bridge, T'Pol was faintly aware that the rest of the interim bridge crew - Ensigns Sato and Tanner at communications and helm, also Crewman Kopleck at tactical - were now listening to every word that passed between herself and the chief medical officer; again she did not have to look up to become aware of this.

"It would appear that Commander Tucker has found your missing patient," she explained to Phlox, indicating for his benefit the small part of the computer display that showed the chief engineer's little used command code being employed to access Lieutenant Reed's quarters, where there were now two human biosigns. "Do you require assistance to retrieve him?"

"No, no," Phlox replied, staring at the line of code on T'Pol's computer screen. There was a particular tone in his voice that T'Pol had learned meant that the doctor was in fact smiling. "I believe Commander Tucker is doing exactly what I suggested he do."

"And what would that be, Doctor?" T'Pol asked, turning around on her seat to look up at the Denobulan, all the while aware that the Starfleet personnel on the bridge were still paying her station more attention than their own individual work and tasks; however indirectly, she could understand their motives for doing so.

Phlox grinned down at her, just as, behind them, Ensign Mayweather arrived on the bridge and relieved Tanner of the helm station. "He is helping his friend," the doctor explained.

o o o o o

There was a small part of Trip feeling inordinately guilty as he cut off the comm line with Travis. What kind of friend was he to say thanks but no thanks, you head back to the bridge and I'll keep an eye on Malcolm now? But just as quickly, the feeling was gone, and Trip followed Malcolm inside his quarters.

A couple of minutes ahead of him, Malcolm would have had time to settle himself in before Trip got in there - or at least, the old Malcolm would have had time to settle himself in before Trip got in there, and in all honesty Trip didn't know what to expect as he stepped through the door into the dimly lit room.

He found Malcolm curled up in the far corner of his bed, in much the same position Trip himself had spent much of the previous night in, and he fought the urge to shudder. Malcolm was bundled in so tightly inside layers of blanket it was difficult to see any of him aside from his head and a single hand, holding the folds of material together. He was staring out of the small window at the stars, and made no sign that he had heard or seen Trip's entrance.

Unsure of what else to do, Trip sat down on the edge of Malcolm's bed, at the far end from the man himself. He watched Malcolm watching the stars for a few moments, trying to figure out what to say - and trying to work up the courage to actually say it.

Eventually - and not a little ironically - it was Malcolm who spoke first. He turned his head away from the dormant field of stars outside and looked directly at Trip. "So, what did you want to ask me?"

Startled, Trip blinked a couple of times, all coherent thought gone from his head, at least for the moment. "I don't know," he admitted. "Is there anyplace in particular you wanted to begin?"

Malcolm raised an eyebrow, eerily reminiscent of himself before the planet. "We've already begun," he replied. "As I recall, we got to the stage of the storm being an unnatural occurrence." His tone of voice was distant, detached, like he'd managed to separate himself entirely from everything that had apparently happened to him.

We got a little further than that, Trip thought, but instead he said out loud. "So what were you goin' to say about it bein' unnatural?"

"There were other factors," Malcolm replied, his voice now a complete monotone, and Trip couldn't - didn't want to - decide whether that was better or worse than the near panic attack. Ability to communicate or overwhelming emotions.

"Such as...?" Trip gently prodded.


Trip blinked. "Excuse me?" he asked.

"Me," Malcolm repeated. "I'm the other factors. At least two of them that I've been able to count."

Okay... "Which other factors?" Trip asked, realising it was probably better to keep the questions short, simple and uncomplicated in their possible answers; the risk of Malcolm getting like he had before with the fear and panic was lessened this way.

"Raouni was one of the only aliens who would actually talk to me," Malcolm told Trip, speaking softly but crisply all the while. "But then again he was the only one of them I actually saw during the time we were on their ship. He told me something..." he trailed off, frowning.

"What did he say?" Trip asked, scooting a little closer to Malcolm on the bed, but at the same time keeping his distance.

Malcolm kept frowning. He opened his mouth as if to speak, but no sound came out. Instead he formed several words with his mouth, narrowing his eyes to slits at the same time. Trip couldn't make out the words, they were forming that slowly and out of sync even down to the individual syllables.

Eventually Malcolm looked back up at him. "No, Lieutenant, it would seem that we are... at your mercy..." he said, taking on a completely different timbre as he spoke. He even looked dazed, like he wasn't really seeing Trip as he spoke, but rather staring through him and looking at somebody else in another place from his quarters on Enterprise. "...Only he will change things back to the way they were before, before there was life on this planet."

Trip swallowed; Malcolm still looked a little out of it, he wasn't sure whether to say anything or not or whether to let Malcolm keep the thread running. In the end, that decision was taken away from him. "And it wasn't a storm, either."

Trip frowned. "Looked like a storm from where we were scannin'," he shot back before he could stop himself.

Malcolm shook his head, and - for the first time since leaving for the fated Away Mission - he was smiling. Okay, it was only a little smile, barely one at all, but it was there. "It was a storm in the technical sense, yes, I'll give you that one," he said, the smile quickly fading again, "but it wasn't a storm in the sense that storms are products of nature."

"An unnatural occurrence," Trip said slowly, beginning to see a very faint light at the end of the metaphorical tunnel.

Malcolm nodded. "They thought - no, they believed that Philip was a catalyst," he explained slowly, obviously trying to get the words right in his head before speaking them out loud. "That... that there was something about him, or in him - something to do with him that would being about these changes they'd been... hoping for."

Trip wondered what the first choice of word at the end of that little speech was. "The storm killed more than half the planet," he said slowly, trying - and failing - to remember the numbers and statistics T'Pol had reeled off from the sensors during the event itself.

Malcolm regarded him seriously, his expression guardedly blank and his eyes unreadable. "That's what they wanted," he told Trip. Then, "Have you ever read the Bible?"

Trip frowned.

Nodding, Malcolm took a deep breath before continuing. "Silly question, I know. Let me explain to you?"

Trip nodded, although he did wonder briefly just what Malcolm meant by the first question being silly.

"Okay." Malcolm rearranged himself inside the blanket before looking back at Trip. "The last book of the Christian New Testament is a book called Revelation. It tells of the end of the world and the second coming of God and his Order - loosely speaking. Parts of Revelation are dedicated to describing in a fair amount of detail exactly what will happen when the end comes and the Apocalypse spreads out across the world, destroying the unbelievers in its wake and leaving the world to those chosen by God."

Malcolm's eyebrow quirked. "Does that remind you of anything?" he asked.

It did. It sounded exactly like how T'Pol had described the slow chemical destruction of the planet as the storm had covered more and more of the planet's surface. And the answer must have shown on Trip's face, because just along the bed from him, Malcolm was nodding like the look on Trip's face was all the answer he needed.

It wasn't enough for Trip, though. "So, what are you sayin'?" he asked, frowning. "That... this is all to do with religion?"

Malcolm nodded. "Most, although not all of it," he replied.


"Meaning that there are still the other factors," Malcolm said, as if he was explaining something to a small child - which, Trip reasoned, could well have been the case as far as he was concerned right now, because none of this was making a whole lot of sense.

Trip didn't have to try very hard to recall the details of the conversation so far. "You?"

Malcolm nodded.

"Hang on a second," Trip began, "if these aliens believed that Phil O'Malley was this catalyst for the end of their world..." he looked up as he spoke; Malcolm nodded again, silently encouraging him on, "...then why were you down there as well? Woulda made more sense to keep you on the ship, away from..." He trailed off once more.

"I was supposed to stop it," Malcolm whispered, his eyes closed.

The images of the huts burning in the midst of lightning strikes came unbidden into Trip's mind - it was a few seconds before he could shake the feeling, and the pictures from his head.

When he looked over at Malcolm, his friend's eyes were still closed, and his breathing had become much more ragged, more shallow and erratic, although he didn't seem as panicked as he had been outside the observation lounge.

"I didn't believe before," Malcolm whispered, his voice barely audible despite the stark silence.

There was a horrible feeling growing in his gut, but Trip needed to be certain here. "But... but ya do now?"

Malcolm simply looked at him. "I don't know," he admitted. "But they believed, they believed in Philip, and they believed that I could stop it - that Philip could stop it if I let him."

Staring at him, Trip wondered if he was finally beginning to understand what had happened down on the planet on the night of the storm.

o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o

Chapter 15: Judges

It felt like an eternity had passed since Jonathan had been on the bridge. Okay, so in reality, it was probably a lot closer to three or four hours, but time being relative and all that. He felt immensely tired, despite it being nearly the middle of the day. More than just a little emotionally drained as well - and he knew why.

Since he'd been promoted to Captain, Jonathan Archer had never had to do the dreaded duty of informing someone that a loved one or family member had died or been killed away from home - and having now done it, he found that he didn't like it one little bit. Roland Donoghue looked no older than some of the younger ensigns on Enterprise. No older, but there had been something about the man that had amazed Jonathan, and it was only during the conversation with Forrest that he'd figured out what it was.


Jonathan could remember the look on Stuart Reed's face that time when he'd called Malcolm's parents to enquire about his favourite food. Reed's first comment - well it had been more of a question. "What's he done this time?" Expecting Malcolm to be in trouble, or to have done something unforgivably wrong.

Roland's initial reaction couldn't have been more different. Excitement mixed with an open curiosity about how his friend was getting along on the Enterprise.

Far be it for him to judge people he barely knew, but Jonathan now found himself envying that sense of innocence.

He made his way to the command chair, dimly aware of Kopleck, Travis - wondering at the same time how long it had been since the helmsman had reclaimed his post - and Hoshi at the tactical, helm and communications stations respectively. He spotted T'Pol staring down at him from her seat at science, and for the first time, the captain realised that someone else was standing just behind her right shoulder.

"Phlox," Jonathan said stupidly. "What are you doing up here?"

The chief medical and science officers shared a - conspiratorial? - look with each other before both looking back at the captain.

"There was an... incident... in Sickbay," Phlox explained, sounding as affably cheerful as he almost always did.

"An incident?" Jonathan repeated. He didn't like where this could be going.

The doctor nodded. "Lieutenant Reed managed to perform a quite remarkable feat of technical engineering, and made his own way out of Sickbay." Catching the incredulous look on the captain's face, Phlox was quick to continue. "He has, however, been located, and is currently... under supervision."

Jonathan thought he detected some hesitation at the end of that last sentence, but he let it slide... "Why wasn't I informed of any of this?" he asked, staring pointedly at both officers on the other side of the science station.

To his surprise, it was T'Pol who answered. "You were preoccupied with other matters, Captain," she said calmly, "and Doctor Phlox was... adamant in his reassurances that the situation was under control."

"So... where's Malcolm now?"

"In his quarters," Phlox replied with missing a beat, "where Commander Tucker is 'keeping an eye on him', so as to prevent any more escape attempts."

Had the circumstances been any different, Jonathan would have found himself raising his eyebrows, or finding some other way of subtly getting across his own scepticism regarding the validity of that last statement. Either way, the circumstances weren't different, so there was no point wondering what he would have done... Jonathan settled for a sigh. "Is everything under control?" he asked.

Both Phlox and T'Pol nodded.

"Right..." Jonathan trailed of slightly, suddenly wondering why he seemed to be the person least in control - of himself, of everything going on around him - when he was the captain, dammit. He started to turn right around on the spot, but the sight of the tactical station stopped him dead in his tracks.

Malcolm's station. Malcolm should have been there. But he wasn't. Jonathan knew from medical and armoury reports that Ensign Maritas still had yet to be formally cleared for light duty, and Ensign Rose had taken over the armoury duties in her absence. This left the enlisted crewmen manning the tactical station outside of any absolute emergencies.

To Jonathan's eyes, Crewman Clara Kopleck looked haggard, pale, beyond tired, and as if she wanted to be anywhere than doing duty on the bridge - much like the other guy she'd been trading shifts with, the one Jonathan could never mentally pronounce, and always hesitated on out loud.

The man in him knew that Malcolm's team would resent his suggesting a replacement be found for O'Malley before the man had been properly "buried", but the captain in him knew the necessity of eventually making that type of suggestion. The armoury was currently stumbling along on a crew of three. It needed five just to manage, and six was the ideal number in a normal situation; at the point of leaving Spacedock in fifty-one, Malcolm's armoury rotation had stood at six full-time staff, the others coming from the security teams as and when needed. But the sixth was now dead, and however much of a bastard he knew he was risking beginning to sound like with regard to Philip O'Malley, Jonathan knew that something would have to be done about it - and soon.

Jonathan finally made it to the command chair, sinking onto it, rather than just sitting. Stared blankly at the back of Travis' head for a few seconds.

And when the call did come through to the bridge, Jonathan found that he wasn't very surprised at all.

"Tucker to Doctor Phlox."

The comm system on T'Pol's console beeped. "Go ahead, Commander," the doctor replied.

"You, uh, might wanna get down here, Doc." Trip sounded short of breath, and a little panicky to the captain's ears. "It's Malcolm." He said nothing more. Nothing more needed to be said, not under these kinds of circumstances.

Jonathan got up from his chair. "Where are you, Trip?"

"Sickbay, Cap'n," Trip replied immediately. "An' we barely made it here," he added breathlessly.

Well aware that everyone else on the bridge - Kopleck and Travis most of all - were now as visibly nervous and shaken as Trip most certainly sounded, Jonathan glanced quickly at Phlox. The doctor nodded back, and in the next instant both men headed for the turbolift. Jonathan barely had time to bark out, "You have the bridge, Sub-commander!" before the lift doors closed behind them.

When they opened again just down the corridor from the entrance to Sickbay, the first thing to hit Jonathan was the sound of someone shouting. He stopped Phlox just outside the actual doors into Sickbay, holding a finger to his lips to indicate the doctor should keep quiet. There was a momentary lull in the shouting, and when it started up again, it quickly became clear that it was Malcolm doing most of the shouting, before another period of quiet again; through the frosted glass of the doors, Jonathan could see two figures, although they weren't moving around very much.

He opened the door and went in first, Phlox right behind him.

Trip was standing in the middle of the medical bay, his back to the entrance. He'd assumed an almost protective stance, his hands out in front of him like he was trying to calm a wild animal.

And for his part, Malcolm didn't seem to have noticed the newcomers, either. "It's a flaw!" he shouted, catching Trip off guard with the yell. "Just say it for what it is!"

Malcolm was circling around the edge of Sickbay, moving around obstacles like cages and beds with ease, Trip tracking his movements and effectively keeping Malcolm from getting within two metres of any possible exit.

"It's a flaw," Malcolm continued. He sounded hoarse, and the question flicked across the captain's conscious mind - how long had the two of them been at this?

"It's a flaw, there's a dichotomy, a ghost in the machine." He sounded more and more spent with every word.

"It's my weakness...!"

A couple feet closer to Malcolm than either the captain or doctor, Trip took his chance - he stepped closer still. "C'mon, Malcolm," he tried. "Please... you can't keep doin' this to yourself, I -"

Malcolm looked up at him. "I'm the weakness, Trip, can't you see that?" he asked, in the same quiet tone of voice Trip was using. "It was my choice, it's a part of me, don't you see that...?"

From behind him Jonathan heard the sickbay doors slide open, and in the same moment that he turned around to tell the intruder to get out of here, he saw movement out of the far corner of his eye. Unlike Captain Archer, Doctor Phlox had not remained still during Malcolm's... well, it was a rant, really. No... Phlox had obviously gone for one of the drawers and taken something out...

...looked like a hypospray...

...because in the same instant that Jonathan turned around to see who had just come into Sickbay, Phlox had taken advantage of Malcolm temporarily concentrating solely on Trip, had snuck up behind the lieutenant and pressed something against his neck.

Malcolm's eyes slid shut and he crumpled to the floor just as Jonathan realised that the "intruder" was none other than one of Malcolm's armoury staff, now with an expression of something akin to shock and fear as she watched her immediate commanding officer be sedated.

o o o o o

Just after fourteen hundred, Matt commed Helen from the armoury to let her know he and Jowan were going to stick it out down there for the rest of the day. Clara was apparently good to man tactical for the rest of the day shifts, which would be when one of the men would relieve her and let her get some sleep.

It was days like this Helen hated being relieved of duty, even for something so petty as medical grounds. And she knew better than anyone - although maybe not so much as her immediate CO - that disobeying doctor's orders incurred more wrath than it was worth bothering about. Helen could only sigh and accept the inevitable - she'd be sticking it out in jeans and a shirt today.

She made through an entire half hour of staring up at the ceiling from the flat of her back before her thoughts started to wander again. Out of instinct she reached up for the small shelf above her head, fumbled around for a second before she could pick up the padd from the awkward angle.

Helen dropped the padd onto her chest, propping herself a little further up on the two thin pillows. She didn't want the doc accusing her of over-exerting herself, after all. The thought made her smile. She rubbed her hands over her eyes, picked up the padd and switched it on.

It was no longer the translated reports Hoshi Sato had been given from the planet's surface that Helen was now reading. She'd gotten past all that, and was now part of the way through some cobbled together footnotes and general narration Jeremy had put together for her to save her having to go through every single translated byte of data.

I've gone through this with someone else already, it makes sense. Try and picture this in your head. Paragraphs Three-A and Four-C both detail what a person has to go through in order to get something from someone else. You gotta go ask their superior in order to get what you want outta Joe Whoever.

Case Scenario: I want Nadia to cover my shift at the end of next week. I can't ask her straight out because of this rule, this tradition, this... this way that it's done. So I go to her immediate superior to ask for Nadia to cover my shift next week. This is Lieutenant Reed. I go to him, ask his permission to have Nadia to this favour for me. He says yes, she does me the favour.

Yeah. You got that?

Helen smiled to nobody and nodded. She kept on reading.

So let's put this theory into practice. The aliens who Lieutenant Reed and Phil encountered on the Away Mission Planet belong to the same species as the population of the Storm Planet. The same rules and traditions apply to both these group of people. From historical context, we can call the AMP aliens the Messengers. They want something. Off the bat, we don't know what.

Now this is where it gets interesting. The clearing on the SP had two clearly marked circles more-or-less in the centre of it, one significantly larger than the other. Phil was found on top of the smaller of these. Since there were no AMP aliens near the other circle, the larger of the two, I think it's a safe bet that that was where Lieutenant Reed was standing at the same time Phil was in the smaller one.

I think they wanted something from Phil. I still don't know what that something is/was. Look back at Three-A and Four-C, look at where they've been highlighted. They wanted something from Phil, and because of all this stuff about having to ask a superior for permission to ask the person you want the whatever from...

I think that's why Reed was there. The AMP aliens had him there because they wanted/needed to ask him for something from Phil. That may be the only reason Reed wasn't killed before they got to the SP.

Helen's blood ran cold at that moment... but she couldn't help herself. She kept reading.

Details are kind of sketchy - but apparently with good reason. I had a look through the historical archives you were given, and cross-referenced them with the SP's main religion. Not only is this where I got the name "Messenger" from, it's also where I got the following. (This is slightly more reader friendly, by the way.)

"After being cast away from their home by the blind and the sinful, the Messengers of Life will scatter themselves across the stars, searching for the Commandant. He will not be of the Messengers' kind, nor will he share the forefathers of the blind and sinful. The Commandant alone will have the power to work the miracle and end life on this world. By performing this miracle he will force the blind to see, and the sinful to turn their lives away from the false pursuits to which they have committed themselves, and instead live their lives as Father Tyk and Mother Kea intended them to be lived."

End chapter. Pretty heavy-handed, eh?

Helen couldn't help but agree, although she also wondered if all Jeremy's reports used this same kind of writing style. Hopefully not!

Fit this in with everything else. Phil's got to be this Commandant person, and therefore the storm on the SP was connected to him; by this, Reed was also involved more than we may have originally thought.

I saw the clearing. I saw what it looked like. It matched some of the pictures from the results of the cross-reference searches I carried out. Come on, Helen, help me out here. I can't do anything else, but you are in a position to do something to help Lieutenant Reed and lay Phil's soul to rest.

Hope this all helped.

End of narration. That was it.

The padd fell from Helen's hand, probably landed somewhere on the bed next to her, but she couldn't say she'd noticed, or been aware of it falling at all.

The exhaustion was forgotten, the lingering pain in a couple of her joints and muscles no longer important. It took less than a minute of staring at imaginary spiders on the ceiling of her quarters to decide what to do next.

Helen all but rolled off the bed, just about landing on her feet, and went over to the computer. She deliberated for about a tenth of a second before deciding Captain Archer would be the ideal person to talk to. She didn't know about Commander Tucker, but it seemed likely the man would have had enough on his plate with managing his own department as well as keeping an eye on the armoury and security rotations. Helen smiled slightly; she was no fool, and Trip was no expert in covert surveillance. Besides which, she was the one off-duty. Everyone else on the teams probably had the commander pegged as well, although it was unlikely anyone would have said so to his face. Let the man keep his own (false) sense of doing something to help the crew of the Enterprise, even though they were doing a good enough job of that on their own. But it was obviously making the commander feel better about things, so...

But no matter. She switched the computer's monitor back on, and input a search for the current location of the captain. A second later the computer came back at her with - he's in motion, but most the likely destination is Sickbay. 78.53% probability.

Okay, then. Helen nodded and stood back up straight, working out some of the cricks in her back. She grabbed the padd off the bed, and stuffed it into one of the front pockets of her jeans as she went.

She was due to see Phlox for the ubiquitous check-up in the next couple hours anyway, she reasoned with herself in the turbolift. It was just fortunate that the captain would be there at the same time. Although... how she would explain showing up for a medical check-up somewhere like the captain's ready room, or the back corridors of C-deck where Porthos usually got his evening walk... well, Helen guessed she was just lucky she didn't have to come up with an excuse for one of those options.

A couple of corners away from Sickbay, and damned if the shouts Helen was hearing didn't belong to Lieutenant Reed. She could recognise that tone of yelling anywhere, having been on the receiving end of it a couple of times in the armoury when things had been grim. Automatically, she quickened her pace.

When she opened the door to Sickbay, she wasn't entirely sure what she was going to find, but most definitely was surprised by what she did... Helen arrived literally just in time to see her commanding officer be sneaked up on by Doctor Phlox, who promptly sedated him - sedated him! - in full view of Captain Archer and Commander Tucker, neither of whom said or did a damned thing against the doctor!

Archer turned around just as the lieutenant crumpled to the floor, and saw Helen standing there.

Briefly she wondered if the exhaustion was getting to her as much as Phlox had been suspecting, and this was all just a nasty hallucination brought on by not enough caffeine in her system or whatever.

"What... what was that for?" she asked quietly, staring down at the lieutenant.

She was mutely aware of Archer slowly stepping closer to her, and a voice from the other end of the medical bay. "Helen... didn't expect ta... what're you doin' down here?"

Followed soon after by another, equally sober and slightly saddened voice. "She's due another medical examination in just under an hour, Commander. Ensign Maritas is simply early."

There was nothing "simply" about any of this. And all Helen could see still was the unconscious form of Lieutenant Reed, now being picked up from the decking and carefully laid flat out on one of the biobeds. Sedated. He'd been sedated. It was practically the only word registering in Helen's mind right then. Reed had been sedated. People are only sedated if they're ill, or...

If they were dangerous.

If sedating them was in the best interest not only of the person being sedated, but also everyone else around them as well.

Helen was no fool. She knew the protocol.

"Ensign?" someone asked her, and dimly Helen registered the voice as belonging to Captain Archer. "Are you alright, Ensign?"

"I was... I was just coming down to talk to you, Captain." Her voice sounded distant to her ears, like it was her voice on a recording, or even someone else altogether. "I... I've got some information you need to be informed of."

"Yes?" the captain gently encouraged.

It wasn't until the privacy curtains had been drawn all the way around Reed's bed, with both Phlox and Trip behind them as well, that Helen was finally able to look away from him and at Captain Archer, though she still wasn't really paying much attention to anything. She pulled the padd out of her pocket and held it in the general direction of the captain. He got the idea, and took it. Helen heard the thing beep as it was switched on.

"Captain," she began after a couple seconds' pause. "What's going on here?"

In front of her Archer frowned.

Helen took a deep breath, steeled herself. "With all due respect, sir, I'm still technically ranking armoury officer on the Enterprise. I have a right to know what's happening when it concerns someone in that department."

Archer shook his head, but he was smiling at the same time. "You've been relieved of duty," he reminded her.

"Only due to exhaustion, sir," she replied. "And there was never any formal passing of temporary command to anyone else on the armoury rotation. I'm the armoury officer at the moment, Captain. Please... what have I missed?"

"Okay," Archer nodded. He handed the padd back to her, at least for the moment. He adopted a formal stance, and despite the fact she was wearing jeans, Helen followed suit. "Doctor Phlox is still trying to ascertain exactly what happened to Lieutenant Reed and Crewman O'Malley down on the planet the night of the storm. The doctor believes that Commander Tucker may have some information from the lieutenant, but that that information would at best be sketchy and incomplete."

"And whatever did happen down there..." Helen began.

Archer sighed. "Whatever did happen down there," he began, mimicking her words, "is why Lieutenant Reed is currently... acting out of character. According to the limited medical reports Phlox has sent my way, I can only determine that he's suffering some kind of post traumatic effect."

Helen nodded. "But why was he forcibly sedated?" she asked, thinking about it. Unless... "He was the one shouting, wasn't he? Lieutenant Reed."

Sombrely, Archer nodded. At the same moment, Trip came out from behind the privacy curtain, and crossed the bay to where Archer and Helen were. "Hey, Ensign," he greeted. "I, uh, sorry you had ta see that."

Helen shook her head very slightly, and the commander got the message.

"I managed ta talk ta Malcolm while we were in his quarters," Trip continued, acting - thankfully - as though the brief moment of awkwardness had not just happened. "He... he started tellin' me about the night of the storm."

It was interesting, some small part of Helen's mind noted. "The night of the storm" was now becoming synonymous with "The night Philip O'Malley died" for all the implied meaning behind the five words. Say the first one to avoid having to say the second out loud.

"And...?" Archer prompted.

Trip shrugged, chewed his lip for a second. "He kept sayin' how he was the other factors in the storm bein' an unnatural occurrence," he told the other two. "An'..."

"What?" Archer asked. "Trip, what is it?"

Trip stared at him for a second, glancing briefly at Helen before he spoke again. "He said that Phil coulda stopped it if he'da let him," he said quietly.

Oh God... a sudden wave of nausea and a light-headed feeling left Helen very unsteady on her feet, and quickly, Trip grabbed hold of her before she fell over. Helen barely noticed any of this, however... inside her mind was racing. That was what the Messenger aliens had wanted, she realised, remembering virtually word for word what Jeremy had written on that padd.

"Ensign... you said there was some information I needed to be aware of?" Archer asked her, speaking slowly and stepping in a little closer to Helen.

She nodded - thought she nodded. It's on the padd, she wanted to say, but nothing seemed to be working at the moment. Her legs felt like jelly, and if Commander Tucker hadn't been holding her up, she fancied she would probably have collapsed altogether.

It took her a good couple minutes to get a hold of herself again. Helen forced herself to raise her head and look directly at the captain. "It's on the padd," she told him, speaking just as slowly and clearly as he just had; she just wanted to make sure she could get the words out.

"You okay now?" Trip asked her, obviously reluctant to let her go.

Helen looked at him. "No," she replied, shaking her head. "I'm not okay. But I can stand up, if that's what you mean."

Slowly he nodded, then let go of her arms, finally taking his hands away altogether when it became obvious that Helen could indeed remain standing of her own accord now. "It's on the padd, Captain," she repeated, not a little breathless now. "It's there, all of it."

"All of what?" Archer asked.

"The information Ensign Sato translated from the provisional government on the planet's surface, sir," Helen replied. "Everything we needed to know about what happened to Lieutenant Reed is in that information -"

"You just gotta know where t'look," Trip muttered.

Helen nodded at him.

Archer closed his eyes briefly.

"How bad is it?" Trip asked.

Helen frowned. "What do you mean?" she asked, though she had a fair idea already...

"What Malcolm had ta do down there..." Trip explained. "I mean, I think he was tryin' to tell me, but none of it was makin' a whole lotta sense."

She nodded. "Permission to speak freely, Captain," she said suddenly.

"You're still relived of duty, Ensign, armoury officer or not," Archer replied - smiling. "Speak as freely as you want."

Helen nodded, though much more uncertainly now. "The AMP aliens - Away Mission Planet," she added quickly when both senior officers in front of her looked confused, "the AMP aliens called themselves the Messengers. It's a fairly key role in the Storm Planet's main religion."

In front of her, both Archer and Commander Tucker frowned.

"Historical database says that this particular group of Messengers were expelled from the Storm Planet years and years ago, on account of heresy and religious extremism," Helen continued. "Religious database says that was when they began their search."

"Search for what?" the captain asked her, and next to him, Trip nodded his assent to the question.

Helen mentally sighed; she wondered if she and Jeremy were the only people who had read the information Hoshi Sato had distributed among the senior officers... Probably. "An off-worlder who would being about the end of the world back on the Storm Planet," she said bluntly.

"Malcolm?" Archer asked.

"Phil..." Trip said at exactly the same time. "Tha's what Malcolm was tryin' to tell me," he said quickly, looking at the captain. "He kept sayin' Phil was the one the aliens believed could... do somethin' down there."

Helen nodded soberly when Archer looked to her for confirmation of the statement.

"But they only kept Malcolm around because... 'cause they needed him to get this from Phil," Trip continued.

Helen swallowed. "Exactly what I've got on the padd," she added quietly. A thought then occurred to her, and she laughed bitterly. "Christ, the UERC would have a field day with this one."

Trip snickered equally as dryly. "Yeah," he said, sounding hollow.

Archer, on the other hand. "UERC?" he asked.

Helen and Trip shared a look. "The UERC," Helen repeated, frowning. "United Earth Religious Council?"

"Doesn't really ring a bell," Archer replied. "But why would they have a field day with this?"

Helen glanced behind the captain and commander, to where Reed's biobed was still hidden behind the white privacy curtains. "Maybe we should take this somewhere else," she said quietly.

Trip followed her gaze. "Yeah," he agreed.

Archer glanced between the both of them. "My ready room," he said. "Now."

Both Helen and Trip nodded, and made as if to leave Sickbay. A sound of... something... from behind the privacy curtain stopped them. They looked at each other.

Archer, on the other hand. "Phlox?" he called out.

"Everything is under control, Captain!" the doctor called back. "Please - if you don't mind, I'd rather you took Ensign Maritas away from here before she suffers any more distress!"

"Just as well we were leavin' anyway," Trip muttered to Helen, though he sounded far from humorous.

Not trusting herself to say anything out loud, Helen simply nodded, and followed the commander's lead when he made for the Sickbay doors.

Seconds later Archer joined them in the corridor outside the medical bay; he strode ahead of Trip and Helen without saying a word; the two of them shared one more look before quickening their own paces to keep up with the captain. The walk up to A-deck and the ready room was carried out in silence; Helen found herself concentrating on just two things - the padd in her right hand, and not falling over again. The dizzy feeling in Sickbay may have gone away, Helen still didn't trust her body - or herself - not to behave.

She remembered coming out of the turbolift onto the bridge. There was a four second time gap between the door of the turbolift and the door to the captain's ready room, and the instant the lift doors opened, Helen was all too aware of suddenly being stared at by everyone on the bridge, from the subcommander at Science all the way around to Clara at the tactical station.

And instead of going straight for his ready room, like he had decided back down outside Sickbay, Archer instead swung into the far end of the situation room, dismissing one of the technicians there at the same time; she scarpered out of the 'back door', and Archer stared expectantly up at Trip and Helen.

They got the message, the unspoken order, and joined the captain in the small alcove off the rest of the bridge, the two of them on the other side of the open top computer console from Archer.

"Where were we?" Archer asked Trip and Helen, although it sounded as though he hadn't forgotten in the few minutes it had taken the three of them to get up here.

"The UERC, Cap'n," Trip replied smoothly, covering Helen's momentary confusion about being here and not in the ready room.

Archer sighed a little. "Either of you mind telling me why they would have a field day with what's going on here?" he asked.

"You wanna take this one?" Trip asked, looking over at Helen; she shrugged, then nodded. Why not?

Why not, indeed. "Captain," Helen began. Best to get this off on a formal footing, she thought. "If word gets out back on Earth that Phil - Crewman O'Malley died due to the heavy involvement of an alien religious conflict, the United Earth Religious Council... will..." She hesitated briefly. "They'll react," she finished, hoping that would explain everything.

"Ensign," Archer replied, frowning. "The UERC represents approximately twelve percent of Earth's total population."

"Yeah, an' they fought tooth an' nail ta get their own way about Enterprise's crew manifest," Trip blurted, though still quietly enough not to attract too much attention from the others on the bridge.

The captain turned to look at him. "Trip, what on earth does that have to do with what's going on now?"

"Are you tellin' me you don’t know what the UERC were up to back home, Cap'n?" Trip stressed the last word with an almost unholy fierceness.

"Look, I didn't pay much attention to the politics leading up to Klaang landing in Earth's back yard," Archer retorted, with so much vehemence in his voice that Helen was taken aback. "I was more preoccupied with getting this ship out of Spacedock before the Vulcans grounded the project altogether."

"You can't just... ignore what's goin' on when it's to do with your ship!" Trip responded quietly though fiercely, and Archer glared right back at him.

"Sirs!" Helen interrupted as loudly as she dared. Both men turned to look at her. She took a deep breath, and tried to remember what her flatmate back in San Francisco had told her. "Yes, the UERC only represents a small proportion of the human population on Earth, but even that small percentage is enough. Their argument was that as Earth's first fully functioning Warp Five starship, Enterprise needed to be staffed by a full cross-section of humanity. Which not only meant the best and brightest from all walks of life, but -"

"The best and brightest from all religious persuasions as well," Trip finished, staring pointedly at the captain. "Cap'n, we've got a pair of Muslims down in the engine room, one of the geologists is Buddhist, an' I'm fairly certain one of the guys on Malcolm's security teams used ta be a vicar."

"Jeremy Arbuckle," Helen added, instantly realising just who Trip was talking about at the end there. "Came from a long line of Anglican ministers."

Trip raised his eyebrows at that, but said nothing other than, "An' tha's not to mention all the others."

Archer frowned, obviously trying to take all of this information in at once - and not doing too great, by the look of it. "But what does this have to do with - with the night of the storm?" he asked.

"Because I left someone outta that list, Cap'n," Trip butted in before Helen could reply. "Philip O'Malley. Practisin' Roman Catholic."

"Because... the main argument Starfleet used to try and get the UERC to give even an inch in their demands was that belief in supernatural, all powerful deities was a solely human construct," Helen finally replied, "and that in interstellar context it was an outdated and potentially dangerous belief at that. The UERC finds out the details surrounding Phil's death, something much bigger could start up back home."

The captain stared at her for a moment. "Where do you stand with all of this, Ensign?" he asked.

Helen shrugged. "I'm pretty much neutral," she replied. "My dad's Spanish, his family were staunch Catholics up until First Contact. Other than that... yeah, I try to keep objective, sir."

There was silence in the briefing room for a few seconds.

"There's somethin' else as well," Trip said slowly, drawing the attention of both Archer and Helen. "Somethin' else Malcolm told me before I took him back t'Sickbay an'... all that. He..." he frowned, "...he said he never used to believe, but..."

"But... what?" Archer asked, gently prompting the commander.

Trip looked up at him. "He doesn't know whether or not he believes now," he said simply. "Said he doesn't know what to believe."

Helen frowned. Put that in with everything else, and the trained tactician in her could only come up with one answer. "Like a crisis of faith?" she asked quietly.

The look on Trip's face told her he was thinking the same thing now as well. "It - it might not go as far as that, though," he said out loud. "Might just be he's havin' trouble.. dealin' with - or reconcilin' what happened down on the planet. That could explain all his behaviour since he woke up."

"When was that?" Helen asked.

"Around oh-three hundred this mornin'," Trip replied. He smiled, though it didn't reach his eyes. "Been one helluva day so far."

That was putting it mildly, to say the least.

"That's a lot to happen in one day," Archer said slowly, evidently following along the same thought processes as Helen.

"Yeah," Trip replied. "Most of the people who book appointments with my brother would be dealin' with this kinda mental stuff over weeks if not longer than that. But," he added, staring pointedly at the captain, "since when's Malcolm been like most people?"

Helen couldn't help but grin, covering it with a faked coughing fit and a hand over her mouth. "I'm fine, sir," she said hurriedly, when Archer turned to look at her. "Really."

Archer nodded. "I have to admit, my only real concern at the moment to do with Malcolm is Admiral Forrest."


The captain sighed. "When I talked to him earlier today, I touched upon Malcolm's condition," he admitted to Trip. "The admiral... didn't look too thrilled with what was going on."

"Neither are the people down on that planet with half their population dead," Trip retorted. "What was the admiral's point?" He stared at the captain for a moment, and suddenly Trip blanched. "No. No... he wouldn't... not to Malcolm."

"It's a possibility, Commander," Archer replied. "Nothing more than a hunch."

"No way." Trip stood his ground. "There is no way they're gettin' Malcolm off the Enterprise!"

The last statement - however inadvertently - was loud enough to get the attention of each and every person in the main section of the bridge, and Helen could feel four pairs of eyes boring into her back. And she knew - and could tell - that from his position standing next to her, Trip could see them staring back at the three officers in the situation room.

"If that's the decision he comes to, then there's very little I can to do stop the admiral," Archer replied through gritted teeth. "He's my commanding officer as much as I am Malcolm's."

"Well, then," Trip replied fiercely. "You'd better hope Malcolm's made of stronger stuff than you and brass appear to be givin' him credit for. If you want me, Cap'n, I'll be in Sickbay, keepin' an eye on my friend."

And with that, he stormed off the bridge.

o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o

Chapter 16: Ecclesiastes

Malcolm was standing in the middle of a very, very, very, very, very big field. Big, big. So big he couldn't see anything in any direction except for grass, more grass, the odd tree here and there in the distance and hey - even more grass beyond that as well. The sun was shining in a mostly cloudless and brilliantly blue sky, and there was no wind that he could feel, either. Malcolm turned around again. And again. And again. In fact, he kept doing this until something stopped him.

"Hey, Malcolm." Or should that be someone?

Malcolm came to an abrupt halt. And stared. Because standing there, about three metres away from him was Philip O'Malley. Wearing his duty uniform, and looking whole, healthy and very much alive.

"I'm not going to beat around the bush," Philip said casually, grinning slightly and shielding his eyes from the sun. "I'm not going to have you believe something grandiose like I'm the Ghost of Christmas Past or whatever - you and I both know you stopped believing in ghosts when you were three."

It took Malcolm a few seconds before he could open his mouth, let alone actually say anything. "You're dead," was all he could manage.

"And you're up and away with the fairies strapped to a bed in Sickbay," Philip shot back, "so in terms of general consciousness, right about now we're even." He paused for a moment, and appeared to reconsider. "Well, technically, you're not away with the fairies, per se. Not unless somehow you've shrunk to a few inches high, and I've got gossamer wings and a fairy wand stashed away in one of these pockets somewhere." Another grin. "So no."

"So... if you're not a ghost," Malcolm said faintly, trying and mostly failing to keep up with this little speech of Philip's, "then what are you?"

Philip shrugged again. He then sat down on the grass and spread his legs either side of him, hitching his knees up and leaning on them. "I think the most likely option is that I'm a figment of your imagination," he said, looking up at the now dumbfounded Malcolm. He indicated the patch of grass in front of him with a jerk of his head.

Slowly, Malcolm sat down, crossing his legs. He didn't say anything.

He didn't really need to.

"Look," Philip said patiently, with the air of a parent speaking to their very young and somewhat immature child. "I don't wanna mess with your mind any more than it's been messed with already. I died. I won't deny that. But at the same time, I'm not really here, either. You see, you may think that Phlox has tried and tested all his different happy juices on you over the last couple of years, but trust me - what you've had before is nothing compared to what he's got you on now."

"How do you know this?" Malcolm asked.

Again, another shrug. "Like I said, I'm just a figment of your imagination," Philip said, holding his hands up in front of him in mock surrender. "I only know what you know, and I can only tell you what you know already. And right now, it makes sense that the doc's got you sedated on something that he's never cracked open before. Think of it as another miracle of medical science - you're obviously out like a light, since we're both here and not on the Enterprise, but at the same time you've obviously still got enough subconsciousness left intact to detach yourself completely from what's going on up there."

"Up where?" Malcolm asked, deciding to ignore the easier questions in that last little speech.

"Up there." Philip pointed.

Looking upward, all Malcolm could see was the now fully cloudless sky. "You can even hear them if you try hard enough," Philip continued.

And sure enough, Malcolm could. Very faint noises, like comm static that could just about be interpreted as voices. Different voices, at that, although the words themselves were still indistinguishable - and that was the point Malcolm found himself picking up on. "If I can't make them out, then it means that you can't either, doesn't it?" he challenged.

"Hey, you're catching onto this," Philip said with approval, nodding. "But once again, you gotta think about it logically. One of those voices is going to be Phlox. And since we both know there are people on this ship who care about you and consider you a friend, then it's a reasonable bet that Commander Tucker's going to be there as well."

Malcolm screwed his nose up, trying to remember what had last happened on the Enterprise - he couldn't. Most of it was a blur of blue and grey and black and white and... "Trip," he said slowly. "Trip was there almost all the time."

Philip nodded, but said nothing.

Malcolm chuckled - actually chuckled as some of the memories became clearer and less hazy. "I went crazy on him, and he still kept by me," he said.

"That's what friends do," Philip said. "Gotta remember - you're not having to go through things on your own any more, however much you think that may be the case. You've got help waiting for you up there, boss. If I were you - which is a paradox worth saving to think about another time - then I'd take that help while I was still around to be able to take it."

"And what do you mean by that?" Malcolm asked, although deep down inside him he was already dreading what the answer could be.

Philip sighed. "Can't think of any other comparative examples right now, but chances are if you keep acting the way you are, your days on Enterprise could be numbered. After all," he added pointedly, "whoever heard of an armoury officer who refused to go in the armoury?"

"I could be forced to transfer off Enterprise," Malcolm quickly realised.

Philip nodded. "I really do hate to say it, boss, but it's true. Unless you can prove to Phlox, and Captain Archer and everyone else that you really aren't going wacko, then brass'll have your commission off you quicker than Matt falls down hills."

Malcolm did the mental calculations. "That's quick."

Again Philip nodded, but this time the movement was a lot more sober. "Which means you've got to get your ass in gear, Lieutenant. If things come to that, there're only so many excuses the captain can give his superiors for keeping you on board Enterprise without you actually going anywhere near the centre of your professional being. And," he continued, holding up a hand in front of him to forestall any kind of retort, "I don't care how hard it is for you to go back down there. Either your ass gets inside those armoury doors of your own free will and volition, or I will come back as a ghost and haunt you until your dying day."

"But you told me that was impossible," Malcolm replied, feeling oddly smug.

The feeling quickly disappeared. "No, I told you that I was a figment of your imagination, likely brought on by the stronger hallucinogens in Phlox's current batch of happy juice," Philip told him. "Just because I'm not a ghost now doesn't mean I can't come back and annoy you out of your ass every time you get even slightly high on painkillers or meds." He grinned. "We hallucinations can be mighty persistent, you know."

Malcolm raised an eyebrow. "For someone who's dead, you do seem to say 'ass' a lot, Crewman," he said.

Philip snorted. "For all the times we've heard you threaten various people with gross injuries in their arrrr-ses, Mister, I think I'm entitled to a little payback now."

"And for a figment of my imagination, you're pretty annoying, you know," Malcolm commented. He stretched his legs out, suddenly acutely aware that for whatever reason - most likely sitting on them - he'd lost almost all feeling from the knees downwards.

Philip simply smirked. Then, "Like I said, I can only tell you what you know already. Like a tape recorder, but with a prettier face," he added dryly. "The only real question here, though, is whether you heed my advice and, when the doc lets you out of Fairyland, you go and save your sorry arse and its Starfleet career. Then again, you could just ignore me and spend a significant portion of the rest of your life strapped to various hospital beds, singing your days away with me, the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus and Barney the Dinosaur."

"It'd never come to that," Malcolm argued.

"Worst case scenario," Philip instantly argued back, "and the one most likely to spur you into action. And I don't know about you - well, actually I do - but I know which of those options I'd go for."

"And by that logic," Malcolm shot back humourlessly, "then that's what I'm going to go for, regardless of whether I get any say in the matter or not."

"You see?" Philip asked him. "You really are catching onto this." He clapped a couple of times, and looked around him, where the endless expanses of grass still were. "I'm quite surprised, you know," he said, shooting a look back at the lieutenant. "You've had so much of Phlox's concoctions over the last two years, I was holding out for you having a higher tolerance of the happy juice than this."

Something in Malcolm's stomach clenched. "How long do you think we've been here?"

Philip shrugged. "No idea. Minutes... hours... days... it's all relative somewhere like here." He smirked. "But I still thought you might have got one up on the sedative by now... and yet, you're still high as a lark, and we're still here."

"I suppose I should just count myself lucky I haven't got one of those leeches crawling around my insides again," Malcolm mused, staring up at the sky.

"Could be worse, you know," Philip told him.

Tearing his eyes away from the peaceful vista, Malcolm shot him a long look. "How much worse, and why do I not want to know?" he asked caustically.

Philip simply grinned. He then kicked out his legs from underneath him and lay back down on the grass completely, hands crossed behind his head; he stared up at the sky. "You could have brought us somewhere else for this macho little heart-to-heart." He paused, apparently in thought. "That dead planet, for one."

Malcolm shut his eyes, trying to block out the sudden onslaught of images in his mind; the huts burning in the high wind, watching the lightning strike closer and closer to Philip before finally killing him. An aftermath so total in its destruction that it made scenes from the Eugenics and Third World Wars look like playground scuffles.

Eventually he felt able to open his eyes again, and when he did he saw Philip watching him quietly, looking both worried and concerned. "Sorry about that, boss," he said, sounding genuine enough. "Didn't mean to do that to ya."

"No." Malcolm shook his head dully. "I probably deserved it," he said. "Kicks in the proverbial, and all that, really... whatever you want to call it. Yeah... definitely deserved that one."

Philip smiled weakly. "I can only wonder about how much of me is actually from what you know about me, and how much is you projecting something onto an image of me, you know."

Malcolm held up a hand. "Don't even go there," he said as forcefully as he could manage. "I'm out cold on sorely powerful sedatives with a few hallucinogens thrown in for good measure, and instead of drifting in and out of consciousness strapped to a biobed somewhere - and actually being aware of doing that, I'm somehow sat in the middle of some field somewhere having a conversation with someone who died from a decision that I made." He smiled, although it didn't reach his eyes. "Let's not throw the psychology in there as well, shall we?"

"Okay," Philip replied. "You're the boss."

And with that the pair lapsed into a comfortable and surprisingly companionable silence, Philip back to staring up at the sky, and Malcolm back to looking down at the ground in between his legs.

"Someone who died from a decision I made..."

And put like that, it sounded so much simpler than everything else. Forget all the other aspects surrounding the events of the days leading up to Philip dying. Crewman O'Malley died from a decision Malcolm made. It's no less difficult to deal with than if the man had died in the explosion in the armoury, or any other instance over the last two years, but it makes it easier to deal with if the someone who made the decision is looking to move forwards and keep going.

Malcolm knew he was never going to really know for certain why the storm had come about, how it was connected to himself and Philip, but still... the coping mechanism here was to latch onto the single fact that it could have been any of Lieutenant Reed's decisions that had resulted in the death of Philip O'Malley, and maybe he'd be able to deal with it - deal with that, and the knowledge of what had happened down on the planet... because Malcolm strongly suspected he was the only living person who truly knew what had happened that night. He owed it to the dead population of the alien planet, if nothing else. If he convinced themselves that they - and Philip - had not died for no good reason, then maybe...

"Tell me something," Malcolm said suddenly, out loud.

His tone of voice caught Philip's attention, and the younger man sat up straight, limbering out as he did so, and cocked his head to one side. "Tell you what?" he asked.

Malcolm paused for a moment. All of a sudden, it was important to him that he get these next words out right - the words... and their meaning. In the brief silence, all that could be heard was the quiet buzz of the indeterminable voices from "outside" and in that moment of quiet, Malcolm came to the realisation...

All he needed was a feeling of absolution.

"Tell me it's okay," he said softly, looking directly at Philip.

Philip nodded, then let out a short, sudden, really rather uncharacteristic burst of laughter. "Of course it's okay," he replied, smiling, "and I know that because you know that, Malcolm. And you really are a blind bloody idiot if you've only just now worked that one out."

Malcolm nodded, and in the same instant, the faint voices that had become background noise in the last however long started to get louder and louder until Malcolm could finally hear the words being said by the people on the "outside", though they sounded all jumbled up and in no real semblance of order, and still a little fuzzy around the edges, but even that was disappearing more and more with each second, as well.

And then there was one voice, and a single sentence that even Malcolm couldn't get confused with anyone or anything else.

"Go get Phlox - he's wakin' up!"

o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o

Chapter 17: Song of Songs

It had been twenty-four hours since Malcolm had first regained consciousness. Then again, Trip only knew this much because of the chronometer glowing in the corner behind one of the bat cages. He hadn't moved in over four hours, and as a result was starting to lose all feeling from the legs down.

He hadn't seen the captain since he'd stormed off the bridge; Trip didn't know if this was a good thing or not and if he was being honest with himself, he didn't really care, either. In fact, the only other soul he'd seen in the dimly lit Sickbay since he'd been here was Phlox, and aside from the occasional check-up on Malcolm's vital stats, the doctor had left Trip in his silent vigil over his friend.

And again with the honesty - Trip had no real idea why he was here, waiting for Malcolm to wake up. Since sedating him for the first time, Phlox had had to use an even more powerful sedative to keep Malcolm from becoming too distressed in his sleep. The result was now a much calmer unconscious armoury officer, but the question was how long he was going to stay that way.

Trip had recognised all the classic signs of normal sleep from around midnight onwards - rapid eye movement, and once or twice Trip could have sworn he'd heard his friend muttering something under his breath, moving as much as the restraints would allow him to.

A sudden movement behind him made Trip jump.

It was Phlox. "I apologise Commander, I didn't mean to startle you."

"S'okay," Trip replied, rubbing the back of his neck. He smiled softly. "Guess I was expectin' ya to come back sooner or later." He watched the doctor go round the other side of Malcolm's bed and check the computers. "How's he doin'?"

Phlox sighed. "As good as can be expected. The second sedative I introduced into his system wore off some time ago. Lieutenant Reed is currently sleeping under his own power at the moment. It's... entirely up to him as to when he wakes up."

"Guess that's somethin'," Trip replied quietly. It was only just beginning to hit him, just how tired he really was. He looked back at Malcolm's sleeping form. "Is he gonna be okay?"

Phlox mercifully decided to ignore the fact that he and the engineer had had this conversation more than once in the last forty-eight hours. "Physically there is no reason why Lieutenant Reed cannot make a full recovery," he answered sombrely. "His mental state, however, will very much depend on how he comes to terms with what he has gone through on the planet's surface."

Trip didn't take his eyes off Malcolm. "They think he's havin' a crisis of faith," he said softly. "Tryin' to reconcile his... his past with what happened to Phil on that planet." His breathing grew more ragged as he went on, and his voice was starting to shake as well.

He felt rather than saw Phlox come back around the bed to stand right next to him. "Absolute belief and absolute fact are sometimes two very different things, Commander," the doctor said, so softly Trip almost couldn't hear him. "It takes the strongest of minds to create a balance between the two."

Trip twisted his neck to look up at Phlox. "You know, don't ya?" he asked. "About Malcolm."

Phlox nodded. "I told you once that I had made a point of studying human religions and religious beliefs while I was on Earth," he replied. "During that time I travelled to a town in the north-west of England to meet with clergymen. One of them, a vicar of the Methodist faith, took the time to explain to me why it is that some people lose their faith in things they cannot see or touch. He used the example of someone from his old congregation to explain to me what he meant. In the last two days I've come to believe that he was describing Lieutenant Reed as a child."

"He never did say a whole lot about his childhood," Trip said, back to looking at Malcolm.

"He is a very private person," Phlox agreed. Then, "Commander, perhaps there is something you should see."

Frowning, Trip allowed himself to be led away from Malcolm's bed to the very centre of Sickbay, in front of the main computer monitor set above everything else. Phlox hit a few buttons on a computer screen beside him, and an instant later the main monitor lit up, one half of it showing the internal scans of a human, with scrolling text on the other half.

"These are the post-mortem scans performed on Crewman O'Malley," Phlox explained to Trip. He pointed up at the screen, to a spot directly inbetween two of the lower discs of the spine. "Here is where he sustained the lightning strike that ultimately caused his death."

"Right..." Trip couldn't see where this was going.

"Now," Phlox continued, "as you may well recall, Sub-commander T'Pol took several detailed scans of the planet both during and after the storm. She detected three anomalous chemicals in the atmosphere that were present during the storm, but by the time it had dissipated, they were no longer detectable by any of Enterprise's sensors or scanning equipment."

"Yeah." Trip could remember. "Weren't they the ones that kept the planet as healthy as it was?" He still couldn't see where this was going, though.

"Indeed they were," Phlox replied. "Now look at this." He pressed another button on the computer next to him, and on the monitor above the two men, the scans zoomed in to Philip's chest and lower half of his spine, then rotated around on itself so that Trip and Phlox were looking at the back.

"Eleven days ago, Philip O'Malley received minor burns from the explosion in the armoury," Phlox told Trip. "However, this was in addition to burns received during another fire, when he was a very young child. The scars from the armoury explosion interlay on top of the older wounds, creating a unique effect." He pointed to the section of lower back where the burns had been most concentrated.

"I still don't get it." Trip shook his head. "What exactly am I lookin' at?"

Phlox glanced at him. "At the precise points where the two sets of burn scars overlay, a chemical was formed by Crewman O'Malley's own body in order to prevent cross-infection. This chemical, when combined with another compound, creates a reaction not unlike that which occurred on the planet during the storm. That compound... is one made up of the three missing chemicals in the alien atmosphere."

"What?" Trip tore his eyes off the screen and turned to face the Denobulan. "What's that s'posed to mean?"

Phlox turned as well, and stared directly at him. "What I am saying, Commander, is that there is a physical explanation for Crewman O'Malley's supposed involvement in the storm."

"Two sets of burn scars an' what? Suddenly the guy's capable of destroyin' an entire planet?" Trip demanded.

"Commander!" Phlox snapped. "Please, calm down!"

Trip took a couple of deep breaths, trying to force himself to relax a little. "Doesn't make any sense," he insisted.

The doctor stood his ground. "And I'm not saying that it does, or even that it must," he replied. "I am simply saying that there is a physical explanation for what has happened to Crewman O'Malley and the other four billion who died."

"So it might not have been entirely... supernatural?" Trip asked quietly.

Phlox sighed. "Perhaps the bigger question is, will we ever know for certain?" he asked.

Trip swallowed and closed his eyes for a few seconds. When he opened them again, Phlox was still watching him, his expression unreadable and something unidentifiable in his eyes. "This is so messed up," Trip muttered under his breath, rubbing the back of his neck again. For distraction's sake he looked around Sickbay. Eventually he'd gotten back around to looking at Malcolm's biobed, and Trip swallowed again.

This was too much. It was becoming too much, and Trip didn't know what to do against the growing pit of emptiness roughly where his stomach used to be. Even worse was that he knew beyond any shadow of a freakin' doubt that whatever he personally feeling had to be nothing compared to what Malcolm was going through, what he had been going through since the Messenger aliens had kidnapped him.

And that was what got to Trip the most, because he knew there was nothing he could do help his friend right here and now. Whatever Malcolm was going through, he had to deal with on his own.

Speaking of which...


Trip froze. He stared at Malcolm's bed.

Then again. "Trip? Are you there?" Despite the question, Malcolm sounded calm - too calm, Trip couldn't help but think.

"Yeah... yeah, m'here," he managed weakly, going back over to the bed. A direct contrast to five or ten minutes before, Malcolm was now wide awake, looking more as though he should be on duty somewhere instead of being strapped to a bed in Sickbay. "How're you feelin'?" he asked, instantly kicking himself for the words.

But Malcolm didn't retract back inside himself again like he had before - well, he didn't look like he was doing that, which in itself meant very little, and also that Trip was overanalysing way too much at the moment.

"I can't move," Malcolm told him.

It was all Trip could do not to close his eyes again. "Doc didn't want ya hurtin' yourself," he replied. "I... none of us do."

Malcolm blinked up at him. "I'm not going to do that," he told Trip in the kind of tone of voice he usually reserved for when Trip tried to make suggestions involving less power being diverted to the cannons, and for a moment - one brief moment - it felt like it was Trip's friend speaking, not some... stranger. Malcolm looked up at him. "Please..." he said in a near-whisper, too close to pleading for comfort. "There's something I need to do."

Silently Trip took another step closer to the bed and searched his friend's eyes and expression, looking for something - anything - to help him out here.

He found nothing.

He found nothing that suggested that Malcolm Reed was anything other than pale, tired... and painfully sincere. "What is it you need to do?"

Malcolm stared at him without answering for a few seconds, and Trip began to feel uncomfortable under the scrutiny. He started fidgeting with the cuff of his uniform, and eventually Malcolm replied. "I need to take care of my own," he said so softly Trip nearly couldn't hear him. But he could, and it was enough.

Trip nodded, and within seconds he'd loosened the straps holding Malcolm to the bed. Slowly the lieutenant sat up, hissing in evident discomfort when he stretched out his arms above his head. The joints had to be stiff, Trip quickly realised. Malcolm hadn't done a lot of real moving since they'd found him on the planet the day after the storm.

But a little stiffness of the joints was nowhere enough to stop Malcolm when he was so obviously on a mission; seated upright on the bed, he met Trip's eyes again. "I need to go somewhere," he insisted softly. "Will you come with me?"

Again Trip nodded, and again wondering where this was going. He also wondered if he should at this point mention the results of the post-mortem on Philip's body, but just as quickly dismissed the idea. Now was not the time for that. Maybe...

Maybe he would bring it up later, when things were close to okay again.

For now, though, Trip contented himself with waiting for Malcolm to change into something resembling normal clothes. He had a hunch that Phlox did not disagree with this sudden change of plan, otherwise the doctor would have been over here by now, smothering Malcolm with poorly disguised worry and doctorly concern. Trip couldn't help but chuckle at the thought, though. For someone who professed to have no real understanding of humans, Phlox really did surpass himself from time to time.

While Malcolm was still on the other side of the privacy curtain, Trip realised he knew exactly where his friend wanted to go, and probably why he wanted to do that as well. As quietly as he could, Trip crossed Sickbay and thumbed the comm panel.

"Tucker t'Ensign Maritas."

There was a fairly lengthy pause before the link crackled and... "Go 'head, C'mand'r."

She sounded tired, and Trip couldn't blame her. But still... He told her where he needed her to be in ten minutes or less. "Think you can make it?" he asked.

"Sure thing, sir," Helen replied. Then, in the background there was something like a muffled voice, then Helen's voice gently admonishing the second voice to go back to sleep. "Ten minutes, Maritas out."

Trip released his end of the comm. He made his way back over to the curtain separating him from Malcolm's bed. A second later Malcolm stepped out from behind it. "I'm ready," he said quietly, though there was a note of steely determination in his voice. He was wearing a simple pair of trousers and a shirt, maybe his own, who knew? Either way Trip nodded in response, and motioned for Malcolm to head out of Sickbay first.

Outside the double doors, Malcolm waited for Trip to catch up, and the two men walked side by side in silence through the darkened ship. There was nobody else about; they would either have been in bed or part of the skeleton crew that managed only the essential sections and systems during the very early hours of any given morning.

Malcolm didn't seem in any hurry to reach his destination, and Trip was in no way inclined to hurry him along. Eventually they reached a small door in a corridor in the aft of F-deck, and Trip hung back for a second to allow his friend better access to the door. Malcolm stared at the door control for a moment before finally reaching out and pushing the button to open the door.

Slowly Malcolm stepped inside the armoury - his armoury, the one that had been beautifully rebuilt since the explosion less than two weeks before - the explosion that had been the cause of all this to begin with, Trip reflected sombrely, his mind going back to the post-mortem reports up in Sickbay. But then again, Phlox had been right... would they ever really know for certain about any of this?

Such questions seemed to be beyond Malcolm at the moment as with slow, almost baby like steps he gradually made his way over to the rebuilt torpedo launcher. Stood next to it, and placed his hand on the smooth, rounded surface. He had his back to Trip, who could only guess at what his friend was thinking.

There was one crewman on duty, and rather than interrupt his CO in any way he came over to stand next to Trip, the both of them just watching Malcolm in silence.

Seconds later Helen was standing on the other side of Trip. She looked tired, still wearing her pyjamas as if she had literally just gotten out of bed, and she too stared at the lieutenant with wide eyes. And when she finally spoke, her voice was quiet and hoarse. "What..." She paused for a moment, then turned to look at Trip. "What if this isn't enough?"

Trip knew exactly what she was referring to, and he didn't take his eyes off Malcolm, now rubbing his hand along the launcher, obviously saying something under his breath. "Think about it this way, Len," he replied equally quietly. "What if it is enough?"

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The End

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