Sometimes, he really hated his job.
One hand resting lightly upon his holstered phase pistol, Malcolm Reed glowered at the scene before him and fought the urge to curse. At any other time, he suspected he would be having a loud laugh at Captain Archer’s current situation and appearance. Ridiculous-looking braids hung from the captain’s head, secured to his scalp in some fashion that Malcolm didn’t quite understand, and brilliant body paint covered every exposed centimeter of Archer’s body, which, at the moment, was quite a lot. Thin strips of some sort of cured animal hide served as a loincloth and were the only piece of clothing the man had been allowed. Displaying grace Malcolm didn’t realize he possessed, the captain danced around a tall, leafless tree set atop a raised dais with a similarly dressed Kreetassan who towered over Archer. A sea of robed and hooded Kreetassans encircled the dais, swaying to the beat of unseen drums and watching the captain and their ambassador dance with unblinking eyes.
If Archer wasn’t so bloody exposed, Reed would have found the entire situation hilarious.
“I don’t like this,” Commander Hernandez murmured from where she stood next to him. Like Reed, she was wearing desert utilities and carried a pistol at her side. Worry lines were carved in her forehead as she stared at the curious greeting ritual being played out before them, though Malcolm wasn’t sure if her concern revolved around the captain’s safety or the possibility that she might have to do something similar one day. Based on what Reed had learned about the older woman’s Starfleet service, he suspected it might be a combination of both.
With a background in xeno-anthropology, Erika Hernandez hadn’t served aboard a starship since her junior lieutenant days, and instead had spent the last ten years working alongside human diplomats. According to her official record, she spoke six languages fluently, including High Vulcan and Denobulan, and had close contacts within every major human embassy throughout the quadrant. Her last duty assignment had been on Vulcan as a Starfleet liaison to Ambassador Pollock and, prior to the Paraagan catastrophe, her name hadn’t even been considered for the captaincy of a warp five capable starship. Afterwards, however, her exceptional diplomatic record had shot her to the top of the list, and, for a while, rumors that she would actually displace A.G. Robinson as the captain of Columbia when the NX-02 launched next year began making the rounds. Only her lack of command experience made such an appointment untenable, and Reed wasn’t surprised that the Admiralty had instead assigned her to Enterprise to gain some much needed time in the Big Chair.
Unfortunately, she also knew that she was green, which inevitably led to her being defensive about the decisions she made. Where Captain Archer was, in Malcolm’s opinion, sometimes too bold by half, Commander Hernandez was far too cautious.
“How do you think I feel, ma’am?” he growled, more tensely than he intended. Finishing his latest scan of the crowd, Reed shifted his attention to the upper levels of the almost-coliseum they were in. The hairs on the back of his neck tingled as his eyes sought out the most likely spots for a sniper’s nest. There were too many of them!
Hernandez gave him a quick look – he noticed her well hidden annoyance at his tone, of course, but it was his job to observe those sorts of things – before quickly returning her attention to the captain’s dancing form. Without realizing it, she shuffled a half step closer to where Soval stood next to her, prompting the Vulcan ambassador – was it still correct, Reed wondered, to refer to him as such? – to discreetly put an equivalent amount of space between them once more. Malcolm frowned again; it hadn’t escaped his notice that the two generally sided with one another – Hernandez fancied herself a diplomat, after all – and Reed himself backed most of the captain’s decisions. The tug-of-war between the command crew was in desperate need of a mediator, someone who could bridge the impasse between the two sides…
Someone like Commander Tucker.
It was still hard for Malcolm to accept that his friend had likely been dead for three months now, and he pushed down the guilt that always surfaced when he thought of Trip. Like the captain, Reed had spent every spare moment poring over the data, looking for anything that might reveal the two commanders hadn’t perished in the bombing run by one of the warring factions on Ekos. He’d lost track of how many hours of sleep he had lost studying aerial images obtained by the inconspicuous satellite they’d put into geosynchronous orbit over the landmass Shuttlepod One crashed onto, but no amount of examination had revealed any hint that the commanders survived. The only way they wouldn’t have been noticed, Malcolm had decided, was if they stayed under constant cover by sticking to the treeline, but he didn’t think they would have done something as silly as that knowing that Enterprise was looking for them.
Once again, the back of Reed’s neck began itching, and he realized that he had foolishly allowed himself to get distracted. Trip’s dead, he told himself. Deal with it and move on. Scowling, he let his eyes sweep over the crowd once more, looking for some sign that trouble was coming. On the dais, the captain was twirling and spinning, his every move matched by that of the Kreetassan leader.
“How much longer is this bloody thing going to be?” Malcolm grumbled, suddenly unable to hold his tongue.
“Approximately nine point three minutes,” Soval replied calmly as Hernandez shot Reed a frown. “Providing Captain Archer has sufficient endurance to last that long,” the Vulcan said almost snidely.
“It was in the cultural packet, Mister Reed,” Hernandez said, a chastising tone in her voice. “Didn’t you read it?” Malcolm’s eyes narrowed.
“No, ma’am,” he replied flatly, ignoring the identical expressions of disgusted surprise upon the faces of the Vulcan ambassador and Enterprise’s first officer. “I was too busy studying the tactical analysis of the ongoing hostilities between these people and the Klingons,” Malcolm added as he met Hernandez’s eyes.
She winced and quickly looked away. A completely unprofessional thought flashed through Malcolm’s mind in that moment: Reed 1, Hernandez 0.
Movement among the Kreetassans surrounding the dais drew his attention, and Reed tensed as one of the hooded figures began weaving his way to the elevated stage. He silently cursed himself for not reading the appropriate information – this could be a legitimate part of the ceremony, after all – and mentally began drafting the reprimand he would submit on himself later. Tightening his hold on the grip of his phase pistol, he narrowed his eyes and held his breath. Light glinted off of something the hooded figure held in his hand, and recognition flared instantly.
“Gun!” Reed shouted, drawing his phase pistol and aiming it in a single, smooth motion. At the exact moment, the figure brought his own weapon up, pointing it at the dancing Kreetassan leader while bellowing something that sounded Klingon. Captain Archer was already moving, diving forward into a body tackle that knocked the Kreetassan clear, even as the hooded assassin discharged his disruptor. A flash of emerald light sliced through the air, burning a ragged scar across Archer’s back and slamming into the leafless tree that dominated the dais with an explosion of bark and pulp. Despite the range and the difficulty of the shot, Malcolm squeezed the trigger of his pistol, and a lance of fire flashed out, punching into the back of the now revealed Klingon and dropping him without a sound. A half second later, the Kreetassans around the assassin swarmed him, howling in fury.
The Klingon was dead seconds later, ripped to bloody chunks by the enraged aliens.
His pistol still drawn, Reed darted forward, pushing through the mass of Kreetassans as he tried to reach the dais. He could hear Captain Archer’s groans of pain, as well as Commander Hernandez’s urgent demand for a medic from Enterprise. A heartbeat later – or maybe it was a minute; Malcolm couldn’t tell in the rush of adrenaline and fear – Reed sprang onto the raised stage, his weapon primed. The Kreetassan leader was kneeling over a still conscious Archer, eyes wide.
“Captain!” Malcolm shouted as he reached his commanding officer’s side. To his surprise, Archer began struggling to rise. “Sir, you’ve been hit!”
“It’s just a flesh wound,” the captain retorted, grabbing Reed’s arm for the leverage he needed to stand. The Kreetassan leader rose with him.
“You risked your life for mine,” the alien said, his voice quickly translated to English by the communicator at Malcolm’s side. At his words, the rolling mass of hooded figures surrounding the dais quieted, and Reed suddenly felt the weight of a hundred eyes upon him as he supported the captain’s weight. Commander Hernandez was still trapped in the midst of the crowd, hemmed in by the aliens now staring at the raised stage, but Ambassador Soval had not moved from where he stood. A bored, almost indifferent expression was upon the Vulcan’s face, though Malcolm could see that he held a Starfleet communicator in his left hand.
“That’s what allies do for each other,” Captain Archer said in response to the Kreetassan leader’s comment. He tried to straighten but winced and nearly fell; only Malcolm’s support kept him on his feet.
“Why do you do this thing?” the alien asked.
“There is an old adage on my world,” Archer replied. “Greater love hath no man than this,” he said through clenched teeth, “that a man lay down his life for his friends.” A soft murmur of approval swept through the assembled observers.
“A debt is owed to you, Jonathan Archer of Earth,” the Kreetassan announced loudly. “We name you and yours … Friend.” He abruptly bowed deeply, holding it for long seconds.
“Malcolm,” the captain whispered, “help me.” Wincing at Archer’s hiss of pain, Reed obeyed and then pulled his commanding officer upright once more.
“Attend to your wounds, Friend Archer,” the Kreetassan said a moment later, “and return when you are hale once more so that we may treat you with the honor you merit.” As if by magic, the crowd parted, creating a clear path from the dais to where Soval stood. Suddenly freed, Hernandez sprang forward and slipped the captain’s other arm over her shoulder.
“I didn’t know you were religious,” she said softly as they began half-supporting, half-carrying Archer toward the waiting Vulcan ambassador.
“I’m not,” the captain replied. He grimaced. “Trip’s death just gave me a lot to think about,” he admitted a moment later. Reed nodded in understanding.
“Doctor Phlox is standing by,” Soval said as they drew abreast of him. He raised an eyebrow. “An effective, if painful method of acquiring allies, Captain,” he remarked, almost wryly.
“Gotta keep things interesting,” Archer replied with a wince. Soval frowned slightly, before exchanging a look with Commander Hernandez. She nodded slightly, and the Vulcan suddenly reached forward, clamping fingers down on the captain’s shoulder and squeezing. A bare second later, Archer was unconscious.
“If you will allow me, Commander Reed,” Soval said as Malcolm staggered under the captain’s dead weight. Without waiting for a reply, the ambassador easily hefted the unconscious Archer over his shoulder. At Reed’s questioning look, Soval raised an eyebrow. “We do not know if the Klingon was acting alone,” he remarked flatly, “and I am uninterested in being shot at today.”
“I’m not interested in it any day,” Hernandez grumbled as she began striding quickly toward the waiting shuttlepod.
“Then I suspect,” the Vulcan declared, displaying no hint of strain, “that you have chosen the wrong profession, Commander.” Malcolm gave the ambassador a startled look: was that a joke? He shook his head and returned his attention to watching for any bloodthirsty, suicidal Klingons.
“So much for honor,” he muttered sourly.