The Reptilians had almost killed Hoshi when they had forced her to help them. She should have been recuperating in sickbay. With the future of Earth at stake, however, Malcolm understood why Captain Archer had ordered that she be brought along on this last-ditch attempt to stop the Xindi weapon.
That didn't mean he had to like it.
There was nothing Malcolm could do except make sure that Hoshi was comfortable. He supposed he should be glad that they were on this particular Xindi ship; the furnishings and the environmental settings for Primate Xindis were suitable for humans, although he had cranked the cabin's heat up as far as possible because Hoshi had been shivering ever since she'd been brought on aboard.
Malcolm sat on the edge of her bed where she was sleeping. It was time to administer the contents of a hypospray for her cortical treatment, as prescribed by Doctor Phlox. He studied her face as he injected the medicine into her neck. The ravages of her ordeal were obvious. Her skin was sallow, and scabs marred her forehead where parasites had been forced into her brain.
Malcolm hadn't been lying when he had told Major Hayes that Hoshi was a friend, but it was more than that. You are all I hope for, he thought as he gazed at her.
Over the years of serving together, he had come to a gradual realization that he was in love with Hoshi. He had never acted upon his feelings. For one thing, he didn't believe fraternization was proper. For another, the depth of his love scared him. Rather than risk the chance of being rejected, he had been content to serve with her on Enterprise, working across the bridge from her and eating together when their mealtimes coincided. He would have been satisfied with the arrangement indefinitely.
Then Earth had been attacked, and everything had changed.
When she was better, he vowed, he would tell her how he felt. For the time being, however, all he could do was watch over her. The silence is slowly killing me, he thought. He would give anything to hear her voice again. "Hoshi?" he asked softly.
She shifted restlessly on the bed but didn't rouse. Phlox had said she would probably sleep for days if she wasn't disturbed. I'm just sitting here waiting for you to come on home, he thought.
Maybe it was just as well she hadn't woken. His first duty was elsewhere. As much as he wished to stay with her, he had to leave.
On the bridge, he found Captain Archer conferring with the Primate and Arboreal Xindis.
"They're nearly three hours ahead of us, but this vessel is faster," said the Primate who had stepped in to take Degra's place after his death and whose name Malcolm had never learned. "We're closing the gap."
"It may be faster but it's not well-armed," Malcolm said to him. "How many ships are escorting the weapon?"
The Primate glanced at the sensor display. "I can't tell."
Archer was pacing around the bridge. "The only way we're going to be able to destroy this thing is from the inside. Any luck?" This last he addressed to Jannar, the huge Arboreal, who was peering at a readout on one of the consoles.
"All of Degra's schematics are encrypted," Jannar said.
Archer looked at Malcolm. "We're going to need Hoshi to help us."
Hoshi had deciphered the launch codes. She was therefore the best person to figure out the code for disarming the weapon. That was her whole purpose for being on this mission. But Malcolm had assumed that she wouldn't be disturbed in transit, that her work would begin when they caught up to the planet-killing monstrosity. "She's in no condition to come up here," he said.
"I wish I had a choice, Malcolm," Archer said.
"Sir, she's barely conscious!" Malcolm blurted, surprising himself with his vehemence.
He half expected a reprimand for his outburst, but the captain didn't seem to notice his agitation. Instead, Archer strode over to Jannar. "Can you transfer that to a PADD? Something portable?"
Archer was going to take the work to Hoshi in her cabin, Malcolm realized. That was better than making her come to the bridge. He was also aware that it was better that the captain take the information to her, for Archer would push her harder than he ever would, and everything hinged on being able to disarm the weapon.
That, however, wouldn't keep Malcolm from worrying. Phlox had been adamant that Hoshi could have permanent brain damage if she didn't get enough rest. He knew from Archer's past behavior in the Expanse that the captain was capable of pushing her past the breaking point to get what he wanted.
"We won't be able to transport directly onto the control platform. It's too heavily shielded," Malcolm said as he, Captain Archer, Jannar, and the Primate leader discussed how to board the weapon. He pointed at a schematic displayed on a monitor on one of the bridge's tabletop consoles. "We'll have to beam in and out no deeper than this peripheral framework."
"What if you need to board the weapon before your crewman completes her decryptions?" the Primate asked Archer.
"I'm taking her with me," Archer said.
Malcolm couldn't believe he had heard correctly. "Sir, she's hardly in any shape," he reminded the captain.
"She's been there, Malcolm," Archer said. "That's where she deciphered that third launch code."
"She was drugged," Malcolm said. "There's no reason to believe that she'll remember anything."
Archer was firm. "She's coming with me. I want you and your team to beam in right before we do. Secure the closest route to the platform."
"If you succeed in creating the overload," Jannar put in, "what makes you think you'll be able to get out in time?"
"I'll give everyone a chance to get to the outer framework," Archer said. He turned back to Malcolm. "You'll be in charge of helping Hoshi."
Malcolm's sense of duty warred with the rush of relief that he personally would be responsible for Hoshi's safety. "And you, sir?"
"I've no plans of dying on that weapon, Malcolm," the captain assured him.
Their chances of not dying increased with the unexpected arrival of Shran. With the Andorian using his powerful ship to protect Degra's vessel from the Reptilians' armament, Malcolm and three MACOs beamed over to the weapon, followed by Archer and Hoshi.
Securing the weapon platform was easier than expected. The main control area, held in place by a network of gantries with wide walkways, was manned by only a few Reptilians. The element of surprise on their side, Malcolm and the MACOs easily dispatched them with a few well-placed shots.
Malcolm glanced at Hoshi as she and Archer hurried to the control area. Despite her haggard appearance, Malcolm was struck by her natural beauty and grace of movement. You're stunning, you're absolutely stunning.
He and the MACOs took up defensive positions around the nucleus of the weapon, a large metallic sphere suspended in a circular framework. Two of the MACOs were near the control area, the only access to which was a gantry walkway suspended above hundreds of meters of open space. Malcolm and the third MACO climbed up to a higher walkway. Malcolm settled in about halfway across the higher walkway, while the MACO with him went to spot above the lower walkway's main entrance. They would have to pay attention to their footing; there weren't any railings except around the control area.
As Archer hopped down into the well that housed the weapon's arming mechanism, Malcolm gripped his phase pistol tightly. More Reptilians were bound to show up as soon as their tampering was noticed.
"Okay, bring up the inversion sequence," he heard the captain tell Hoshi.
"Start with the third one from the left," she told Archer.
Malcolm risked a glance back at them. Hoshi, looking at a PADD which she held in a death grip, was kneeling on the walkway next to the well. The captain was lying on his side in front of five rods, each about a meter long and glowing with a ghastly green light. Archer twisted the middle rod, unscrewing it from its fixture, and the rod went dark. After pulling it free, he reinserted it upside down. The rod immediately glowed red.
"Got it," Archer said.
One of the MACOs stood near Hoshi, who was partially shielded by a support pillar. Satisfied that she was protected, Malcolm returned his attention to the main entrance on the level below him.
"The second from the right," he heard Hoshi tell Archer.
There was a lull in their conversation as Archer followed her directions. Before the captain could ask for the next instruction, weapons' fire ricocheted into the control area.
As Malcolm returned fire, he heard Archer call out Hoshi's name.
"I'm all right," was her tense response. "The first one on the left is next."
"Got it," Archer said. "Two to go."
Reptilians stepped onto the far end of the main walkway and fired at the control platform. The MACO on the upper walkway broke cover to fire down at them, but was left exposed to another Reptilian from behind.
In his peripheral vision, Malcolm saw the MACO and the much larger Reptilian fighting hand to hand, and fall over the side together to land on the main walkway below. Malcolm couldn't leave his position to assist, for not only was he shooting at yet another Reptilian, the area where Archer and Hoshi were working would be partially unprotected if he moved. By the time Malcolm had picked off his own target, the over-matched MACO had taken a knife thrust to the abdomen. The Reptilian pushed the man off the walkway and turned to shoot at Archer and Hoshi, who had to scramble for cover.
Arrogant bastard, Malcolm thought as the Reptilian stalked rapidly toward the control area, firing as it went. Never assume that the only opponents are the ones you can see. Malcolm waited until the Reptilian was almost directly under him before swinging down and, using the force of his momentum, kicked the Reptilian off the walkway into the void.
Malcolm pulled out his communicator. "Reed to Archer."
"Go ahead," came the response.
"I'm pretty sure that was the last one, sir," Malcolm reported.
"Good work. Now get back here."
Malcolm pocketed the communicator and hurried to the control area. He quickly realized something was wrong.
Hoshi was huddled against the support pillar. As he squatted next to her, he could see that she was on the verge of panic, and it wasn't just that she had been rattled by the firefight. She no longer had the PADD with the encryption data. She must have dropped it over the side in her haste to avoid being shot. Shut your eyes and think of somewhere, he silently tried to calm her, even as his own heart skipped a beat as he realized that she could have just as easily gone over the side with the PADD.
"Number four," she said to Archer, her voice shaking and uncertain. "The fourth one from the left."
"Are you sure?" Malcolm asked.
"Yes, yes," she said. Her voice became stronger and more confident. "Number five is the last one after you disable the reactor."
Malcolm let out a long breath. The captain had been right after all. Hoshi's memory was coming back.
But the procedure was taking too long. They needed to get out of here. More Reptilians could show up at any moment. As Archer reversed the second-to-last rod, Malcolm asked, "But if we knock the reactor out, won't that be enough?"
"We didn't come here to disable this weapon. We're here to destroy it," Archer said. He climbed out of the well and held out his hand. "Give me the charges."
Malcolm knew his duty. "I'll take care of it, sir," he said.
"I want the four of you to get to the outer framework. Beam back to Degra's ship," Archer ordered.
Malcolm shifted on his feet. "As Chief Tactical Officer--"
"This isn't open for debate, Lieutenant," Archer cut him off sternly.
Malcolm fished the charges and the detonator out of his uniform pockets and gave them to Archer. The two MACOs started back across the walkway, but Hoshi paused to look at Archer.
"Don't worry," the captain said to her. "I'll be right behind you."
The captain's words seemed to reassure Hoshi. She didn't hesitate when Malcolm urged her on, and knowing that her safety depended on him gave Malcolm the impetus he needed to leave his captain behind.
They and the MACOs beamed back to Degra's ship without incident. For the moment, they were safe, but the captain wasn't. Without Archer on board, it fell to Malcolm to work with the Xindis. He left Hoshi in the MACOs' care.
One look at the viewscreen when he stepped onto the bridge showed the weapon was still in one piece. Astoundingly, there was no sign of the Reptilian vessel. Shran must have been able to destroy it. Without the Reptilians harassing them, the captain should be able to finish the job and get off the weapon with no problems.
"Can you get a lock on him?" Malcolm asked.
The Primate leader was monitoring the transporter system. "Not yet," he said.
Jannar added, "Your captain is too deep within the weapon."
Archer should have set the charges, reversed the last rod, and made it to the beam-out site by now. Malcolm was wondering what the hold-up was when the weapon exploded in a great gout of orange flame. He threw up an arm to shield his eyes, then lowered it as the viewscreen darkened to compensate for the brilliance. When it cleared, there was nothing left of the weapon but scattered chunks of metal and dissipating gases.
As he gazed at the destruction, he waited for the relief that should have accompanied the knowledge that Earth had been saved, but it never came. Instead, all he felt was guilt and remorse that Captain Archer had been lost.
His voice cracked as he said to Jannar, "Please set a course to our rendezvous point with Enterprise."
Malcolm rejoined the MACOs and Hoshi in her cabin. They all turned to look questioningly at him as he entered.
"The captain?" one of the MACOs asked.
Malcolm didn't trust himself to speak. He could only give his head a curt shake. This was the second time in a few days that he'd had to tell these soldiers that someone had died: First, Hayes; now, Captain Archer. While he felt bad about Hayes' death, it was nothing compared to the guilt he felt about Archer, guilt that was deepened by knowing that keeping Hoshi safe had been more important to him than the captain's life. It didn't matter that he had been following Archer's orders. He should have been the last one on the weapon, not the captain.
Hoshi finally comprehended what had been left unsaid. She sank down on the bed with a sob.
Malcolm wasn't going to begrudge Hoshi her grief, but he was damned if he was going to allow anyone to witness it. He caught the MACOs' eyes and jerked his head sharply toward the door.
As the men left, he stood, indecisive, not knowing what to do to comfort her. She had been the captain's protege, having joined the crew at Archer's persuasive encouragement. Malcolm hadn't seen that charming, considerate side of Archer in a long time. The Expanse had changed everyone, Archer perhaps most of all. Grudgingly, he admitted that, even if some of the captain's decisions had been questionable, he had done what he had needed to do to see the mission through. But there was no reason that he should have been the last man on the weapon.
Hoshi's soft voice brought him out of his gloomy reverie. Like him, she needed to know what had happened, if only to make sense of things, but he couldn't give her that consolation. "I don't know why he didn't come back."
The events of the last few hours were catching up to him. He pulled out the desk chair to face her and sat down heavily on it before his own legs could give out.
"You're absolutely sure he didn't make it?" she asked.
"I was on the bridge when the weapon exploded. There's no way anyone could have survived what I saw." He closed his eyes, but the image of the explosion was burned in his memory. His eyes flew open again. "Jannar said the captain was too far inside the weapon to beam out."
"He told you to get me out of there."
She was stating fact. Malcolm wasn't sure if he heard accusation in it, but his guilt made it seem that way. He was ultimately responsible for the safety of everyone in the crew, including the captain, and he had failed in that duty. Hoshi knew that as well as he did. She had every reason to blame him for the captain's death.
"I..." His throat closed up. He gripped his hands together, holding them against his mouth as he leaned forward with his elbows on his knees.
A tear tracked down Hoshi's cheek. "I don't know if I could bear it if both you and the captain--" She swiped at the tear and looked around the small, dark cabin. "When I was first in this room, I didn't know what was going on or where I was, but I knew someone was taking care of me." Her lips trembled as she smiled. "I thought I was seeing angels. And now I know I was. It was your wings around me."
She had given him the perfect opening, but now was not the time to tell her how he felt about her. It wouldn't be right to drop his feelings on top of her while she was dealing with the loss of the captain, even if she apparently didn't think it was his fault. "Hoshi--"
"Let me finish," she said. She took a deep breath. "I've always known that I'm safe when you are around to protect me. And when the captain told you to get me off that weapon, I was glad, because I knew if you stayed, you might not come back." She inhaled raggedly, then blew her breath out in a gust. "I couldn't have lived with that."
This wasn't what he had expected to hear. He stared wide-eyed at her, his astonishment rendering him speechless.
"I've known for a long time how you feel about me," she continued. "I even understand why you've never said anything to me about it."
"You--" The lump in his throat made it difficult to speak, but he had to be certain, so he tried again. "You know I love you?"
"Of course," she replied. With a shy smile, she added, "I love you, too."
The next thing he knew, she was in his arms, and they were crying together.
"We're going to have to be strong for them," Malcolm said.
Hoshi, standing next to him in the airlock of Degra's ship prior to boarding Enterprise, nodded sadly. "It's going to be really hard on Trip. He's known the captain longer than any of us."
He glanced at her from the corner of his eye. "Hell of a Valentine's Day."
Her eyes took on a faraway look until she came up with the date. "It's February 14, 2154, isn't it?" she murmured. "We found love in a hopeless place."
He reached over to give her hand a squeeze. Hoshi had said he was her protector, but what she didn't know was that she was his strength. Together, they could get through this.
Trip and T'Pol were waiting on the other side when the airlock door opened. The engineer and first officer both looked somewhat worse for wear. Preoccupied with his own concerns, Malcolm hadn't given much thought to what hardships they must have gone through to disable the Guardians' spheres, other than that they must have been successful since the ship was here to meet them.
"It's done," Malcolm told them as he stepped through.
"Done?" T'Pol asked.
Unable to find the right words to deliver the most devastating news, Malcolm said, "Captain Archer destroyed the weapon."
Trip looked anxiously past him into the airlock. "Where is he? Is he okay?"
Malcolm took a deep breath to steel himself. "The captain didn't make it, Trip."
"What do you mean, he didn't make it?" Trip asked querulously.
"The weapon exploded before he could transport to Degra's ship," Malcolm said.
At Trip's stunned look, Hoshi left Malcolm's side to hug the engineer, holding onto him until he could process what he had just heard.
Malcolm glanced at T'Pol. She had turned away, shock at the news clearly written on her face, before looking beseechingly toward Trip as Hoshi stepped away from him.
Malcolm flashed back to the time when he had teased Trip about his neuropressure sessions with T'Pol. Trip had vehemently denied that anything else was happening between them. Now Malcolm hoped Trip's denials had been false, and that he and T'Pol could help each other to get through this, just as he and Hoshi were going to do.
Malcolm's sense of duty kicked back in, and for the first time since they'd left Enterprise to destroy the Xindi weapon, it didn't conflict with his love for Hoshi. She needed to be in sickbay. As he led her away, he felt her slip her hand into his.