Earth was in mourning.
From the aircar that was rapidly carrying him home, Jonathan Archer could see the indications of humanity's grief over the millions of lives lost only weeks earlier. Flags were at half-staff across the planet, and wreaths of flowers, both artificial and organic, seemed to be everywhere. Images of those lost – whether in Mumbai, India, or Henan, China, or Sagan City on Mars – seemed to be the centerpiece of these memorial wreaths, and it was difficult to find someone who hadn't lost a friend, or co-worker, or passing acquaintance. For the first time since the immediate aftermath of the Xindi attack, Earth seemed truly united.
It was ironic, Jon reflected bitterly, that an attack that seemed intended to drive humanity apart had accomplished the opposite goal. Where there had once been petty squabbles over territory or representation in the UE senate, now there was complete unity of purpose. Never in the history of mankind had the entire planet been so focused on a single objective.
Or so furious.
Almost overnight, the groups protesting the war with the Romulans seemed to vanish as the mood toward the conflict underwent a massive change. The media especially altered how they were reporting the war, suddenly shifting their focus from the numerous military setbacks to the heroism of the men and women serving in Starfleet. The more cynical part of Jon's psyche wondered if the Romulan destruction of the communication satellite had been perceived by the journalists as an attack on the institution of the news media.
As the reports of the attack filtered in, Archer had initially been worried that this second attack on humanity's homeworld by extraterrestrial forces would reignite the simmering xenophobia that had caused so many problems in the past. To his surprise, however, that was not the case. The images of Ambassador V'Lar leading her consular teams into radiation-ravaged Mumbai to lend assistance were splashed across the news-nets on an almost hourly basis, and the heroic actions of Captain Sopek of the Ni'Var had caused a massive shift in popular opinion for Earth's oldest ally. That Sopek was killed during his defense of humanity only turned him into a martyr.
"Incoming call," the carcomp announced, causing Jon to turn his attention away from the passing cityscape. "Identification: Starfleet Command."
"Accept call," Archer said as the aircar began descending toward ground level. The image of Jon's yeoman appeared upon the small dashboard screen. "What is it, Tyner?" Archer asked.
"I have the details about your meeting with the president, sir," the petty officer replied, and Jon nodded. "The shuttle departs at sixteen hundred and the meeting is scheduled for eighteen hundred." Tyner hesitated, and Archer gave him a 'get on with it' look. "There's a black tie reception at twenty hundred for the Chinese and Indian delegations, sir."
"Dress uniforms," Jon muttered darkly. He loathed these sort of functions in the best of times.
"Yes, sir." It was said with as much contempt as Jon felt; evidently, Tyner hated them too.
"Track down Lieutenant Reynolds and tell him to be ready at fifteen hundred." Archer decided. "I'll want both of you with me in case the president ambushes me with questions again."
"Aye, sir," Tyner said glumly. At Jon's look, he spoke again. "That's all, sir."
"Then get some sleep, Tyner. I'll see you in the morning. Archer out." He pressed the END button on the small display, causing the image of the petty officer to wink out.
"You have arrived," the carcomp declared in its monotone voice. The door retracted almost at the same time, and Jon climbed out of the small automated vehicle, pausing only long enough to grab his briefcase. One of the Starfleet Security officers waiting outside the apartments gave him a quick nod, and slid into the aircar to park it. Archer quickly walked toward the waiting turbolift, fishing out his identification as he did. An armed guard accepted his ID and checked it against the master roster, even though they had gone through this same routine every night for the past fifteen days.
The operator of the apartment's secured turbolift was a grizzled Starfleet veteran who only had one arm after having lost the other one during a plasma fire aboard the UES Ganymede several years earlier. He gave Jon a broad smile as Archer stepped into the lift.
"Evening, Eddie," Jon said in greeting. "Haven't seen you around lately." The lift lurched slightly as it began to climb, and retired Master Chief Petty Officer Edward Boyce shrugged slightly.
"Was at my boy's graduation, Admiral," the retired master chief said with another smile, before abruptly shaking his head bemusedly. "Can you believe he starts STC next week?" Jon blinked in surprise.
"I thought he was going to be a doctor," Archer commented. The last time they had spoken, Boyce had been bubbling with news about his son Robert's plans to become a surgeon.
"He is. Just for Starfleet now, instead of Johns Hopkins." The older man chuckled. "I swear, between the History and Moral Philosophy classes he's been taking, and these damned Gannett Brooks documentaries that keep airing, the boy is halfway convinced that he's destined to be an admiral!" There was no reproach in the master chief's voice, only amused pride. "At least he's not reading Hemingway again..."
"I can talk to him if you like," Jon offered, and Eddie laughed again.
"God no, sir. If you try to talk him out it, he might just sign up for the infantry!" The master chief sobered slightly as the lift began to decelerate. "If it wasn't for this damned arm," he commented softly, an undertone of anger in his voice. "I'd try to sign back up myself."
It was a common refrain, one that Jon had heard numerous times since the attack on Earth. Retired Starfleet and MACO veterans had begun contacting recruiters within hours of the attack to inquire if they could rejoin the Service, many even offering to accept a reduction in grade as long as they were allowed to rejoin. At the same time, adults both young and old across the planet abandoned their previous vocations to volunteer for active duty. For the first time in its existence, the United Earth Space Probe Agency had more personnel than they knew what to do with. Manpower shortages were gone almost overnight.
And still, the volunteers were coming.
With a soft chime, the doors opened, and Jon gave a nod and smile to the retired master chief as he stepped out of the turbolift. There were only three doors on this level, and Archer was glad to see that the logistics officer who currently resided across from him was either asleep or visiting his mistress. The third door was currently vacant, although Jon suspected that Commodore Burnside Clapp – soon to be rear admiral – would be living there soon.
The moment that he stepped into his apartment, Archer knew something was wrong. He silently drew the phase pistol that Reynolds insisted he carry, and crept forward into the large living room. At any other time, he would probably have paused just beyond the threshold to stare at the ugly throw rug that Erika had loved so much, or the silly-looking vase she had bought from a Tellarite trader, or even the beautiful Vulcan wall hanging that he had purchased for her, but his attention was instead riveted on the man sitting on the couch.
"The pistol isn't necessary, Admiral," the man stated with a slight smile. He nodded in the direction of where Dumas was lounging on one of the chairs. "I took the liberty of feeding your dog."
"Give me one good reason," Jon said grimly, "why I shouldn't just stun you where you sit."
"Because if you did," Harris replied, still smiling, "I couldn't help you."
"Help me?" Archer gave a short, mirthless chuckle. "What the hell do I need your help for?"
"It has come to my attention," the other man began, his jovial appearance transforming into a dangerous-looking glower, "that the real reason the planetary defense grid didn't work was not because of some mythical super stealth capability on the part of the Romulan warheads."
Jon hesitated for a moment, then slowly lowered the phase pistol. That had been the official story leaked to the media to prevent the public becoming aware that the Romulans had possessed Starfleet IFF codes. According to Archer's best estimate, less than ten people currently knew the truth. Even Gardner didn't know it yet, as Jon had been struggling with whom to inform. Daniels' warning about there being a traitor in Starfleet Command continued to ring in Archer's ears. If he told the wrong person, it could lead to disaster.
He studied the spymaster sitting on his couch for another long moment in an attempt to discern whether the man could be trusted or not. Very little was known about Harris, or the organization that he ran; Jon's attempts to learn more had consistently met with bureaucratic roadblocks or deleted files. Every flag officer that he had spoken to expressed a complete lack of knowledge about any such organization, although Archer doubted that many of them were speaking truthfully. His own research had yielded omnious coincidences since UESPA first launched a Starfleet.
And yet, everything that Jon had discovered seemed to indicate that Harris' organization was dedicated toward the defense of Earth, regardless of the methods they used.
"The Romulans had our IFF codes," Archer finally said, breaking the protracted silence. To his surprise, Harris frowned, clearly surprised at this revelation.
"That's ... less than ideal," the spymaster stated darkly. "I had expected that they may have penetrated the targeting stations with one of their operatives, but this is a bit more troubling." Harris leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees as he interlocked his fingers together. "You suspect a traitor in Command," he theorized, and Jon nodded.
"I have it on good authority that a traitor exists," he commented.
"From your Mister Daniels," Harris remarked. At Archer's surprised look, the spymaster offered another slight smile. "One or two of my people have had interactions with him in the past, Admiral," he smirked. "You can't conduct an investigation of this magnitude while running the war," Harris continued. "But I can." He rose to his feet. "I will keep you apprised of my findings, Admiral."
"Just like that?" Jon asked, narrowing his eyes. "From what Malcolm told me, you always have an angle." The spymaster chuckled softly.
"As a matter of fact, Admiral," he replied, "I do need your assistance in a small matter." Harris' expression was deadly serious as he spoke.
"What sort of matter?" Archer asked. Jon's eyes widened as Harris answered.
He certainly hadn't expected that.
Hoshi certainly hadn't expected him to show.
Standing at the open door, she stared at the sheepish expression on Phlox's face as he stood just outside her apartment. When she had extended the invitation for him to visit her here in London for Malcolm's birthday party, she hadn't been sure that he had actually heard her, and she certainly hadn't actually expected him to show up. With so many injuries from Acheron crowding Starfleet hospitals, as well as the millions of radiation victims from the Romulan attack still needing treatment, it hardly seemed likely that a physician of Phlox's amazing talents and skill would show up for something as trivial as an infant's first birthday party.
If she was entirely honest, Hoshi still felt a little guilty over throwing the party in the first place. It seemed ... wrong to be laughing and smiling while there were still so many people suffering in China or India or even on Mars. Up until the minute that her first guest arrived, she had honestly expected no one to show. That nearly everyone she had invited did appear seemed to validate her theory that they needed something to think about other than the fact that Earth itself had been attacked again.
"Your invitation did say that the party began at fifteen hundred," Phlox smiled. He was dressed in civilian attire and was carrying a large duffel bag.
"Of course! Come in!" Hoshi exclaimed as she backed away from the door and quickly gestured for him to enter. The muted sounds of the party could be heard from the main room, as Phlox crossed the threshold and entered the apartment. He shifted the duffel slightly as he followed Hoshi through the two meter long hallway. A hush fell over the small group of adults and children within the large room at his appearance, but to Hoshi's pleasure, no one seemed upset at his presence.
"You all know Phlox," she said, and that broke the ice. Stuart Reed limped forward to lend a hand with the duffel that the doctor was carrying, even as Maddie began clearing another place on the table.
"I do hope I'm not intruding," the Denobulan started, and Stuart gave him a slightly surprised look, as if it was ludicrous for the doctor to believe that his presence was not desired.
"Nonsense," the patriarch of the Reed clan declared. "You're always welcome here, Doctor." The Denobulan's grin was broad, but not the largest that Hoshi had seen from him. Still, she had to admit that it was nice to see him cheerful once more. During her short span of time on Endeavour, she'd been amazed at how dour he had become in recent weeks. The war, it seemed, had begun to grind him down as well.
"In that case," Phlox remarked as he began extracted items from the duffel, "Captain Tucker officially deemed me to be the bearer of gifts for young Malcolm." He smiled. "He wanted to come himself, but repairs to Endeavour required his presence." His smile faltered slightly, and Hoshi doubted that anyone but her had even noticed it.
"He threw you off the ship, didn't he?" she asked as she tried calm her suddenly over-eager son. The rueful expression that briefly crossed the doctor's face caused her to laugh, and Phlox gave her a sidelong look before chortling himself.
"The good captain threatened to have me escorted to the transporter if I did not make myself scarce," he chuckled. Several of the children present were staring at him with wide eyes, almost as if they didn't dare to breathe lest he suddenly vanish. "I suspect that Commander T'Pol was actually behind the decision, however."
"Why's that?" Stuart asked as continued to stack the boxes from the duffel in a pile; he was wearing a slightly stunned expression at the sheer volume of gifts coming from Starfleet crewmembers. The older man's breath abruptly caught, and he glanced away from everyone, clearly hoping that no one had noticed his momentary loss of composure.
Hoshi noticed, however.
She realized almost instantly what Stuart was experiencing, and her heart went out to her father-in-law. The gifts were coming from the friends of Stuart's lost son, all of whom probably wanted to be here in person but were unable to attend because of their duties with Starfleet. It was another reminder to the elder Reed of the many years that he had lost with his son because of foolish pride. Apart from the stories that Hoshi had told him, Stuart barely knew the Malcolm Reed who had served and died aboard Enterprise, and witnessing how much respect his absent shipmates had for their lost comrade only seemed to hammer that point home.
"I believe you humans have a saying," Phlox replied with an almost teasing smile. "Behind every great man, there's a much, much smarter woman." Hoshi joined the other women in laughing at his comment, even as the men present exchanged long-suffering looks.
The party was a greater success than Hoshi had hoped for, and accomplished her primary goal of getting the attendee's minds off of the recent Romulan attack, if only for a short period of time. It was not difficult to identify Phlox's present: a sterile tribble that was still capable of emitting its brethren's soothing coos. Trip's gift was also quite easy to identify: remarkably accurate-looking toy phase pistols mocked up to make obnoxious (but accurate) sounds every time that the trigger was pulled. To Hoshi's surprise, T'Pol had acquired a small stuffed sehlat and sent it, along with several candles obviously meant for the stressed out mother. Admiral Archer's gift was a small plaque that named Malcolm Reed Junior an honorary member of the Enterprise crew, with a place waiting for him in Starfleet once he was old enough; though her son didn't appreciate the plaque as much as Trip's annoying noisemaker, Hoshi found herself touched by the thought behind the admiral's gift.
Oddly, there was also an unmarked box bearing a beautiful stone octagon.
Hoshi studied the pendant for long moments before finally recognizing it as Akaali construction. Glittering red and green jewels were inlaid within the octagon's surface, and gold – or something that looked like gold – lettering spelled out a phrase. She frowned as she mentally translated it: family is everything. Unable to discern an origin of the gift, she put it aside for future contemplation, and returned her attention to her now sleepy – and thus, cranky – son.
By eighteen hundred hours, most of the party attendees had departed, leaving only Hoshi's mother, her in-laws, and Phlox. Getting Malcolm to sleep was much easier than Hoshi had expected, which allowed her to return to her guests quickly. Unsurprisingly, the topic of conversation had turned toward the war.
"-should string up the damned contractors who built that planetary defense system," Stuart was saying as he nursed a glass of wine. Hoshi's expression tightened slightly, and she busied herself with cleaning up so as to not reveal her inside knowledge. When Admiral Archer had ordered the knowledge about the Romulan possession of Starfleet IFF codes be kept secret, she hadn't been surprised. Discovery of that fact by the general public could only lead to bad things. She gave Phlox a discreet look, wondering if he was even aware of this fact.
"According to the news-nets," Peter April, Maddie's husband of only a few months, pointed out, "those weapons were the reason only two of the atomics got through."
"That was still two too many," the Reed patriach grumbled. He gave Phlox a look. "Do you think the Denobulans will join the war, Doctor?"
"I don't know," Phlox admitted, his expression revealing his discomfort. "My people have no military force to speak of anymore," he continued. "Not after our last war with the Antarans." The latter was said with a sad, almost embarrassed, expression.
"What about the Andorians?" April asked. "Or the Tellarites? They're part of this Coalition, aren't they?" He exhaled noisily and glowered at Stuart. "I swear, if your daughter hadn't forbidden it, Stu, I'd join Starfleet myself."
It was said in a joking manner, but the subtle undertone in Peter's words was anything but. It was a sentiment that Hoshi had encountered literally hundreds of times in the past week and a half. Whether it was the boy who ran the register at the local grocery she visited, or the two security guards at Heathrow, or even the friendly old man who lived across the hall from her, every non-member of Starfleet that she ran into during her off duty hours inquired about how they could help or whether UESPA needed someone of their particular qualifications.
"You do that," Maddie interjected with a smile, "and I'll divorce your bloody ass."
"Ah, a dominant female," Phlox chuckled, drawing several startled looks. He leaned closer to Peter and spoke in a stage whisper. "We have them on Denobula Triax too. It's best to do as they say." His broad, inhuman grin caused Stuart Reed to begin chortling.
"Listen to him," Hoshi smirked. "He has three wives." If anything, Phlox's smile grew even larger as Peter April shook his head in surprise.
"You're either completely daft," April commented, "or braver than any man I know."
"A bit of both, I suspect," Phlox replied, his comment causing even more chuckles. "But my great-father was much worse. He had nine wives." Surrounded by attentive listeners, Phlox seemed to warm to the subject, once more the ebullient and outgoing Denobulan whom Hoshi had first befriended. The grim resolve that had surrounded him while she was aboard Endeavour was gone, if only temporarily.
It was good to see him smile.
His smile was entirely heartfelt.
Leaning back in his seat, Trip found himself grinning as the recorded message from his father played on the small viewscreen. It had arrived earlier yesterday during the most recent data dump from Starfleet Command, but he had been so busy that this was the first time he'd been able to watch it.
"-worthless brother of yours has decided to move here to Jacksonville," the recording of Charles Junior was relaying with a smile. He looked much better than the last time Trip had seen him. "I think Mary was mostly behind that, though." The elder Tucker chuckled. "At least I'll get to see the boys more regularly." A positively wicked expression abruptly crossed the older man's face. "And I'm gonna spoil those boys like you wouldn't believe. Revenge for all the hell Billy put me through while you kids were growin' up." Trip found himself laughing along with his father's image. "Anyway," Charlie said, "I should let ya go. Give our love to T'Pol and stay safe out there, son."
As the image blinked out, Trip sighed. It was good to hear from his father, and he was overjoyed that they were unharmed in this latest attack on Earth, but he found himself wishing that he could have spent more time at home during his last visit. Even before the war started, he knew that his visits weren't long enough or frequent enough, but it wasn't until now that he really realized just how much he truly missed his parents' home.
With another sigh, he returned his attention to the work stacked up on his desk. Most of it was work orders from Hess' damage control teams, or status reports about the progress of repairs, and he gave each a cursory glance. Once he saw that T'Pol had already read them and made comments, he simply approved whatever her suggestions were without further examination. They had developed a discreet code with these reports; if T'Pol signed off on them using the acronym CMDR for her rank instead of the shorter CDR, Trip knew that he needed to read the report in depth.
With a grunt, Trip stood up from his desk and began to gather the PADDs into a neat stack. He was still at a loss how he constantly managed to acquire so many of the data devices. One of them was still active as he picked it up, and he glowered at the screen for a moment. Lieutenant Hayes' transfer to Starfleet Intelligence had caught him completely by surprise, and left him with a ridiculously green ensign straight out of STC to act as weapon systems officer. Trip had protested, of course; not even taking into account Hayes' connection to Harris' organization, the lieutenant was a very good officer. The timing of the transfer was especially unusual, and even Admiral Archer's signature on the orders had given him pause. Jon had been ... evasive about the reasoning behind the transfer when Trip had commed him to plead his case.
That particular fact bothered Tucker more than he could explain.
Glancing around his new office, he shook his head in mild amazement at how much had changed since Endeavour launched. Once, this entire area would have been part of Engineering, designed for systems analysis and manned 24/7. Following his decision to declare the A deck bridge 'off limits', he had quickly realized that he would need an office for official business; it had been Hess' decision to turn this unused section into a secondary ready room. She had even added a door that connected it to the new bridge.
Trip hadn't been surprised to learn that the ship commanders who survived Acheron had made an identical decision to abandon the vulnerable bridge.
Lieutenant Rostova was in the command chair as he entered the bridge, and she started to rise the moment he appeared. He quickly waved her back to the chair before giving the gamma shift a quick glance. Most of them were enlisted, but he trusted them as much as the alpha shift team.
"What's our status?" he asked.
"Continuing to waypoint epsilon at full impulse," the lieutenant replied quickly. She offered him a PADD, likely with a full status report on it, but he shook his head and gestured with the nine that he already had. "ETA: five hours. No sign of Romulan sensor signatures, but we are running silent per your instructions."
Trip nodded. Endeavour's current orders were to deploy a number of upgraded communication and sensor buoys at key locations along the periphery of the Sol System. Normally, this would be the job of a Boomer ship hired for the job, or perhaps an Iceland-class, but Starfleet Command wanted to make sure that the buoys would actually make it to their target locations. Boomer ships were simply too vulnerable for such a task should there being any hostile ships in the region, and the discovery of the Saratoga's remains in a rapidly deteriorating orbit around the Uranian moon Oberon only highlighted the vulnerability of the Iceland-class ships to Romulan fire. According to preliminary reports, the Saratoga hadn't even seen the bird of prey until it was too late.
Especially troubling was the Romulan use of Immobilizer-like weapons.
"Carry on then," Tucker said. "I'm going to bed. Don't crash my ship, Lieutenant." Rostova gave him a weak smile as he dumped the PADDs into her lap. "And take care of these," he ordered with a sudden grin. Sometimes, it was good to be in charge.
He made a quick detour to the mess hall for a late snack where he found, to his surprise, Lieutenant Commanders Eisler and Hess sharing a table. As their discussion really wasn't any of his business (both were off-duty, after all), he pretended to not notice them as he fished out a slice of key lime pie from the small refrigerator. It was weird, though; he'd always thought that Anna was a lesbian based on some of the things he'd heard her say. In recent days, however, he'd become halfway convinced that something was going on between his tactical officer and chief engineer; knowing about Eisler's contempt for fraternization, however, made Trip wonder exactly what it was that was going on. Shrugging, he ducked through the door before either of them looked up and saw him.
The pie was gone by the time he arrived at his quarters, and he tossed the small paper plate into the recycler before heading for the shower. Tentatively, he reached out through the bond and barely suppressed a smirk when he realized that T'Pol was in the stellar dynamics lab, working on her pet micro-singularities project. If she was off duty and wasn't in her cabin (or in his), the SD lab was generally where she could be found.
Trip spent an unusually long time in the shower, once more puzzling over the odd actions of the Romulan commander. If warning Endeavour away from his ship before self-destructing hadn't been odd enough, the commander's comments had only added to the puzzle. According to Hoshi, it had been a salutation between equals, something that she had never heard before. As the resident exprert, she had theorized that the Romulan captain was paying Trip a compliment of some sort, and that simply made no sense whatsoever. The shower chirped, warning him that he had exceeded his daily allotment of hot water, and he shut it off. Shaking his head, he used some of the techniques that T'Pol had taught him to push the thoughts about the Romulan out of his mind.
He was very nearly asleep before his head hit the pillow.
The dream began like it usually did. Lizzie was at the cafe, sitting at the round table that she preferred. T'Pol was there too, meditating under the Florida sun, and Lorian sat alongside her, smiling that half-smile of his. A hideously deformed figure with bolts in his neck and half of his skull missing was between them, holding a baby in his arms; as the monstrosity shifted, scars and stitches could be seen across Sim's face, and he was smiling at the sleeping infant that he was holding. Trip wanted to close his eyes when he saw Elizabeth T'Mir's innocent face.
His breath caught as the Xindi weapon suddenly loomed overhead, blotting out the sun with its impossible size. It was bigger than the moon. There was no death ray this time, though. This time, it was spitting fission bombs that were all too familiar. Trip tried to scream, tried to warn them, but no words emerged from his mouth. As he shrieked silently, the dream T'Pol blinked as if she had just woken and looked around, her eyes almost instantly zeroing in on Trip. Her hazel eyes seemed to gleam with emotion, and she shook her head.
Instantly, the dreamscape transformed to a Tucker family picnic. The Xindi weapon was gone, and the paralyzing fear that had gripped him vanished. He inhaled peace as T'Pol stepped closer to him, her eyes locked on his. The part of him that was still aware of the world outside of the dream felt her warmth as she slid into bed beside him, and was glad that she had come. He didn't think that he could take the horrific images tonight.
"You won't," her mental image promised, and Trip exhaled with relief. The dreams that had plagued him in the Expanse had returned with frightening regularity following the second attack on Earth, displacing the usual ones of Sim's final hours, and Tucker knew that some part of his psyche blamed himself for the fifteen million who had died on Earth and on Mars in atomic fire. If only he had done something different, had acted faster, or was a better captain, then maybe...
"Dance with me," he urged as he pulled T'Pol to her feet, suddenly desperate to think of something other than the war. In this place, he could forget the terrible cost of lives that had already been paid, or the fact that the war was far from over. He could pretend that he was just Trip, and she was just T'Pol, and they were just an unlikely couple in love with no duties or responsibilities save to one another. The expression on her face as his request sank in caused him to laugh.
"Vulcans do not dance," she pointed out primly, and he laughed again.
"It's a dream!" Trip reminded her. "We all do crazy things in dreams!" She appeared hesitant, so he snapped his fingers. A tango pulled from his memory began playing, though there was no band, and he grinned as T'Pol's eyes widened slightly in recognition of the tune. It had been in an old twentieth century movie about a spy whose wife did not know he was a spy until near the midway through the film. "Dance with me," he repeated.
"I don't know the steps," she prevaricated, and Trip laughed again. No one would ever believe him if he told them that the fearless T'Pol was afraid of dancing. Her eyes flashed as she tasted his thoughts. "I am not afraid," she declared as he basked in the warmth of her katra.
"Prove it," he replied.
"You have nothing to prove."
The words hung in the air, causing D'deridex i-Mheissan tr'Irrhaimehn to frown slightly. He continued to don the powered armor as he sought the proper response to S'enrae's assertion. From where she lounged on his bed, his new lover watched him as he dressed. A small part of his ego allowed him to imagine that it was concern for his life that glittered in her eyes, not worry for her new station.
"On the contrary, I have everything to prove," he declared. Turning to face her, he made it a point to look into her eyes. The urge to let his gaze roam down her nude form was quite difficult to suppress. "I am still new to my rank and position. Most of my officers distrust me and envy my rapid rise." As he began securing the cuirass, she rose and approached to assist; his breath caught as she was momentarily bathed in a halo of light. D'deridex swallowed; she was entirely too attractive for his state of mind. He needed to focus on the here and now, not his base instincts. "If I am to accomplish my goals, I must earn their respect." He did not add that he trusted no one to speak to the Xin'di in his stead.
"Male foolishness," S'enrae murmured. She circled him, eyes examining the armor. "Where do I fit in this master plan of yours?" she asked. Her eyes bored into his.
"I haven't decided yet," he replied with a smirk.
Before she could reply, the ambient sounds of the Vastagor changed, and D'deridex's amusement faded. They had arrived. It had taken nearly four dhaei to get here, with his chief engineer complaining the entire time about the speed needed, but they were finally here.
"You should get dressed," D'deridex said as he turned away. To his surprise, S'enrae caught his arm and forced him to face her again. This time, he could easily see concern on her face.
"If you die," she started, and D'deridex placed two fingers upon her lips to silence her. He did not know if she was truly concerned about him or merely an exceptional actress; in the end, he allowed himself to think that it was the former.
"I will not," he stated firmly before heading for the door. As befit his station, he paid no attention to the two Reman bodyguards that stood watch inside his cabin. They were completely loyal to him, and most of the time, he was barely even aware of their presence.
His first officer gave him a tight-lipped nod when he entered the command-executive center. There was no love lost between them, and D'deridex knew that Arrain L'haen was behind the two assassination attempts that had already been made on the commander's life. The first had been made within dierha of the Vastagor's departure from the Convocation of Commanders; a pair of centurions had gambled upon D'deridex being alone and unarmed while in his personal quarters.
He had been neither.
In retrospect, D'deridex had realized that it had been a tactical error to simply dispose of the two centurions without fanfare or announcement. He had presumed that their silent disappearance would have been warning enough, but the second attempt on his life proved that to be an error in judgment. It was fortunate that S'enrae had been present at the time, as the poison that one of the cooks had laced his food with had caused an immediate cardiac seizure; coming on the heels of his sated mating cycle, the poison had taken advantage of his weakened state. According to S'enrae, he had died twice while she tried to revive him.
This time, he had not allowed sentiment to cloud his judgment. He had acted swiftly and completely without mercy; three of the four cooks had been killed during the purge, and two additional centurions had been executed by airlock. There had been no official ties linked Arrain L'haen to the assassins, but the circumstantial evidence was overwhelming, and D'deridex had acted. The poison that he had fed to L'haen was a binary one, and the first officer had been made quite aware of the terminal consequences of a third attempt on D'deridex's life.
"We are now entering orbit," L'haen announced stiffly. "Communications has already been made with planetary defense. They are awaiting your arrival."
"I trust the trip will be a smooth one," D'deridex said, his expression blank. "It would be ... unfortunate if there were some form of miscommunication that led to an incident." L'haen frowned darkly.
"There will be no incident, Daise'Erei'Riov," he replied. "This I swear."
"Good." D'deridex made no further comment as he strode from the command-executive center.
The trip planetside was uneventful, and gave D'deridex an opportunity to review communication intercepts from the humans. His mood darkened as he studied their reaction to the Hnoiyika's attack on the Terran homeworld. Exactly as he had predicted, the humans were rallying together, and were now united where they had once been divided. Chulak was a fool, he decided as he set aside the data-slate, and would likely look at the entire excursion as a success.
With the slightest of bumps, the shuttle came to a stop on the designated landing platform, and D'deridex forced himself to relax. He pulled on the concealing helmet, blinking quickly as the laser pulses within clicked on. The integrated heads-up display snapped alive as the lasers beamed the information directly onto the lenses of his eyes, and he spent a long moment examining the data that appeared before him. Satisfied that everything was in working order, he strode to the hatch of the shuttle, flanked by the everpresent Reman guards.
The Reptilian Xin'di that was waiting for him outside the shuttle was indistinguishable from the others of his species, and D'deridex wondered if they used some sense other than sight to tell one another apart. It was wearing the ridiculous-looking uniform that he had seen all other Reptilians wear, but the metal rings were bronze instead of silver. He wondered if that had some meaning.
"I was expecting Admiral Valdore," the Reptilian said as D'deridex approached him. The integrated translator within the helmet appeared to function without problem.
"The admiral is no more," D'deridex replied, offering a data-slate with his credentials upon it. "I am his replacement." For a long moment, the Reptilian studied the device, prompting D'deridex to wonder if perhaps this was a mistake. It should not take this long to verify the information that was plain. "Is there a problem?" he asked, grateful for the voice modulators on the helmet that robbed his words of emotion.
"No," the Reptilian replied as it handed the data-slate back. "Certain changes in protocol have occurred since the war began." It spoke matter-of-factly about the ongoing civil strife between the Xin'di, evidently presuming that D'deridex was already aware of those facts. He nodded in understanding.
"It is unfortunate," he said, "that your Arboreal and Primate brothers do not recognize your superiority."
"They have always been difficult," the Reptilian groused. It studied D'deridex for another long moment, clearly attempting to see past the opaque faceplate. "Your communique indicated that your need was urgent. How may we assist our ally?"
"My government," D'deridex stated calmly, "desires to reopen negotiations for your matter transmission device. We are willing to provide you with military assistance in your war."
"How is this urgent?" the Reptilian demanded, almost angrily. Behind him, D'deridex could sense the two Remans tensing at the Xin'di's body language.
"There are two other things that we are interested in," he revealed. "One is a trivial matter, barely worth mentioning, but the other ... we wish the technical schematics for the weapon that you deployed against the humans." He crossed his arms. "We wish to construct one of our own."