13: Chapter One
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Gray waves folded in on themselves, then slid up the sand in a froth. The beach north of San Francisco was nearly deserted, the cold, dark day warning swimmers away. Trip Tucker sat on a striped beach towel, his feet buried in the sand to keep them warm. A dark-haired woman in a red swimsuit strolled the edge of the surf. A tow-headed boy ran after her, stopped to inspect something in the wet sand, then ran after her again.
Trip remembered the beach. As a cadet in Starfleet Academy, he and his friends came here to drink beer and play football. Mostly to drink beer.
He noticed a little girl close by, building a complicated sand castle with measuring cups and oddly shaped molds like gear dyes. She worked carefully, smoothing each addition with a mortar of sand and water. A red barrette clipped dark hair back from her face. Her concentration captured Trip’s attention. He’d never seen such a serious little kid.
The wind picked up, gusting in with the waves. Darker clouds boiled under the slate overcast. A storm was coming.
Trip’s heartbeat quickened. Instinctively, he scanned the beach. Out of calling distance, the woman’s red swimsuit blazed against black water and gray sand. The little boy ran far ahead of her, then out of sight behind an arm of rock. Trip strained to see him, nervously muttering, “C’mon back now, buddy. Time to go. Time to go.”
When he looked again at the sand castle, it squatted half-finished and alone. He could find no sign of the little girl.
Worried now, he started to get up, but the wind pushed him back. Sharp raindrops hit his face, made divots in the sand. Black clouds churned like something caged. It was coming. Trip watched, unable to move, panic rising in his throat. Then, something touched his shoulder.
A toddler, a little girl, stood next to him with her tiny hand on his shoulder. Wind blew her curly, blond hair away from a round, baby’s face. She wore a sundress, blue and pink, with ruffles around her hips. She gazed at him with huge, brown eyes, eyes filled with stars. She seemed so familiar, her name just out of reach. Her eyes filled his vision, her black irises expanding. Within them, stars trembled, constellations he’d never seen. “It’s time,” they told him, “time to go.”
Trip jerked away from her and started to scream.
He woke with a grunt. Safety straps kept him from tumbling out of his seat and onto the floor of the Vulcan transport. The diplomats sitting in front of him turned and eyed him coolly. Trip blinked and rubbed his face, feeling the two days of growth there.
Stars… he thought, looking out the view port at the star field beyond. …It’s time…”
The dull thud of his heart faded with the dream. Panic bled out of him as he remembered where he was and the events of the past few weeks. The departing panic left nothing in its place.
Trip turned his head and looked at T’Pol asleep in the seat next to him. She’s lost more weight, he thought, watching the outline of ribs under her sharp collar bone rise and fall with her breath. Skin strained against her cheekbone. The hands resting on her stringy thighs seemed skeletal—bones and knuckles only.
“I am awake,” she said dryly, “just resting.”
“We should talk,” Trip said.
“About what?” T’Pol kept her eyes closed. She hadn’t moved.
“About what happens when we get back to Enterprise.” He took a breath, let it out. “About us.”
T’Pol rolled her head toward him and opened her eyes. “What do you want to say?”
“I can’t tell if there’s anything here,” he said, gesturing between the two of them. “Can you?”
T’Pol stared straight ahead, the muscles in her jaw bunched and relaxed. When she spoke, her tone was unusually gentle.
“I believe it would be a mistake to assume the baby created a new bond between us,” she said. “She carried our DNA, she resembled us—“
Trip closed his eyes, seeing Elizabeth’s delicately pointed ears, her rosebud mouth, and the dark eyes that would have turned blue. In time.
“—but she was an experiment,” T’Pol continued, “a tool to engender xenophobia in humans on Earth. Paxton chose our DNA. Other than that, the baby had nothing to do with us.”
“Then, why did we just bury her next to your mother on Vulcan?” Trip pictured the tiny shroud dusted in red, Vulcan sand.
T’Pol’s jaw clenched. “Tradition.”
Trip turned away, biting down on his anger. “I don’t care if Elizabeth was an experiment,” he said, his drawl becoming more pronounced. “She was my daughter. Our daughter.”
“Yes,” said T’Pol.
“So,” he said, “we’re—what?—colleagues?”
“Friends, I hope,” T’Pol said.
He stared at the seat in front of him.
“Our intimacy was largely illusory.” T’Pol’s voice assumed the cadence of a formal briefing. “The close confines of the ship, which was under constant threat of attack, the physical contact involved in neuropressure, your emotional vulnerability after the death of your sister, my Trellium addiction and subsequent loss of emotional control…”
“You’re saying our relationship wasn’t real?” Trip gaped at her.
“What I’m saying…” T’Pol looked at him. “…is that events created a heightened sense of intimacy.”
“Bullshit,” he said quietly. “You tell yourself whatever you need to, but I was in love with you.”
“And now?” Greenish, bruised-looking skin darkened T’Pol’s eyes, but they held Trip as they always had.
“I don’t know,” he said, looking away.
She nodded, then rolled her head away and, once again, closed her eyes.
Lightening split the sky over Star Fleet Medical. Startled, Kate MacDonough yipped, running through wet grass between Medical Exchange and the arboretum. Rain drenched her and obscured her path. She cupped her hands over her eyes, searching for the door.
“Are you nuts?” A square, Asian man yelled. He bent into the rain, holding the door open. Light from behind him pushed out into the gloom.
Kate zipped past him, laughing, slowing down before tripping into the medicinal succulents. “Is he here?” She shook the rain off her hands and wiped the running water out of her face.
“Not yet.” Yin Chow brushed at the wet arm of his Starfleet jumpsuit. “Why couldn’t you walk through the building like a sane person?”
Kate bent over, pulling the binder from her dark hair, and combed the rain through it with her fingers. “I needed to see Dr. Torq before the Tellerite delegation left.”
She deftly rebound her hair. “They want to join the Medical Exchange program—all the Coalition worlds do now.” She straightened up and smiled at Chow. “And I didn’t want to be late.”
“Great,” Chow said, “but…” He gestured at her sodden uniform.
Her smile widened. “Phlox won’t mind.”
“He most certainly will not.” A familiar figure marched around a thatch of Rigellian bamboo.
“Phlox!” Kate cried. She reached to hug her former mentor, but stopped before soaking him. Instead, she pecked his cheek.
The Enterprise’s Chief Medical Officer smiled, his mouth spreading in an abnormally wide grin for a human—perfectly natural for a Denobulan. “Hello, Kate,” he said. His head jerked back as he clasped Chow’s hand. “My goodness, Yin Chow. You have increased your muscle mass considerably since we last met.”
Chow’s cheeks dimpled “Survival training.”
“Yes,” Kate said more soberly, “but what have you been doing?”
Phlox had always been optimistic, jolly, a Denobulan Santa Claus with the belly and fleshy face to match. Now, his smock hung loose from his shoulders. The terra cotta-colored facial ridges seemed to pull his face tight.
“Living aboard the Enterprise, my dear,” he said quietly. “Walk with me.”
Kate caught Chow’s eye as they followed Phlox through the fruit-bearing section. Chow’s eyebrows rose as he shook his head. Kate knew Phlox. He was always straight-forward, kind in his delivery, but frank. Yesterday, when he contacted her, he said he had something important to discuss. If she didn’t know better, she’d think he was stalling.
They meandered down the gravel path. Thunder grumbled outside, and the sky grew even darker. Nightlights shimmered on along the path. Darkness filled the spaces between the trees and vines around them.
“Did you happen to see Captain Archer’s address to the new Coalition?” Phlox asked.
Chow’s eyes darted to Kate and back. “On the news,” he said.
“I can see why you wanted to serve with him,” Kate added. “He seems like a practical man.”
“He is,” Phlox nodded, “usually. Have you heard anything about the Romulans?”
“Rumors,” Chow said. “Weird stuff about a drone ship.”
“More than rumor, I’m afraid.” Phlox looked at Chow. “Admiral Gardner believes the Romulans to be a very real threat.”
Kate shivered, wet and cold and getting colder. “Why are you telling us this? We don’t have security clearance for this level of information.”
Phlox continued. “With the Coalition so fragile and the Romulans a possible threat, Captain Archer assumed Enterprise would be sent to patrol Coalition space.”
Phlox pulled out a pocketknife and sliced off a small branch of Scarlet Berry. He attached a tube of preservative to the cutting, slipped it in his pocket, and continued down the path.
“However, those were not our orders,” he said. “Columbia, and Lexington when she is ready, will patrol Coalition space. Enterprise will carry out her original mission of exploration. We are to travel beyond charted space into the Cappa Quadrant.”
“That’s stupid,” Chow said flatly. “Enterprise has the most experience. Archer knows what to watch for.”
“Those were Captain Archer’s sentiments as well. But, because Enterprise’s crew is the most experienced, Starfleet wants her charting unknown space.”
“Why?” Kate asked.
“I don’t know.” Phlox stopped. “I’m not sure Captain Archer even knows.”
“Wait,” Kate frowned. “If you go beyond the Vulcan star charts…” She touched her friend’s arm. “How long will you be gone this time?”
“Depending on what we encounter, at least two years, maybe three.”
“You’ve already served on Enterprise four years,” Chow pointed out. “That’s a long time away from home.”
“Yes, it is.” He paused, and Kate saw the sadness in his eyes. She ached for him, a Denobulan devoted to family, isolated from them for so long.
“But,” he smiled at them, “to be away from reliable supplies for so long, we will need to be inventive. We also must try to anticipate as many of our needs as we can.”
“That’s impossible,” Chow said. “You can’t plan for the unknown.”
“I’ve done fairly well so far,” Phlox replied.
His brightness seemed forced to Kate, not like the Phlox she knew. Looking more closely, she saw weariness in his blue eyes and a drawn, pinched aspect to his mouth. What was this all about?
“From our past experience, I’ve tried to anticipate our future medical needs,” he continued. “One thing I know absolutely is that Enterprise needs more than one doctor. I am experienced, thorough and fairly imaginative, as you know. I believe I’ve served Enterprise to the best of my ability. Many times, however, that was not enough. We have a team of fine medics who assist me in times of crisis, but still…”
He stopped to finger a delicate pink flower. “…we suffered too many casualties, diagnoses took too long, research became a low priority. The entire crew developed psychosomatic illnesses. We need a specialist in emergency care and triage. We need someone versed in plasma burns and decompression injuries and an expert in reconstruction.”
He turned to Chow. “In other words, we need you.”
Before the younger doctor could respond, Phlox pulled a Narrant cherry seedling from its rich bed. “We also need a specialist in post-tramatic stress disorders and psycho-somato illness, an expert in body field energy manipulation, and a socio-psychiatrist.”
“That would be you,” he said to Kate.
Phlox tubed the fragile roots of the seedling. “We need diagnosticians, xenobiologists and research microbiologists.” He looked from Chow to Kate and back again.
“We worked together for over a year in the Medical Exchange Program. I know you both—your strengths and weaknesses.” His head jutted forward. “If you can be said to have weaknesses.”
“Your long-term friendship supports you, just as your expertise compliments each other. I know you both applied for Ship’s Doctor on the Columbia and now the Lexington. I am offering you Enterprise.”
Phlox’s sober expression, so unusual for his cheery personality, worried Kate.
Chow gripped Phlox’s arm, his black eyes bearing down on him. “Of course, we’ll come.”
Kate nodded, pushing back the flare of alarm. “Of course,” she whispered.
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