It was useless.
Every time Malcolm patched a breech in the hull, a new one would appear. The latest one had sent water gushing through the life-support system, which meant he'd had to work with his arms stretched overhead, salt water running down his face and neck as he tried to rip through conduits and plasma packs in a hurried attempt to reach the breech.
The water was up to his knees now and even an occasional glance at his hallucinatory companion wasn't enough to keep the raw edge of panic from clawing at the back of his brain. In fact, it was starting to bother him that he could still see Trip.
First he'd tried rationalizing the illusion away as a manifestation of his subconscious desire to know Trip was okay. Then it was because of the need to know he was going to be okay, that he wasn't going to drown. But it was all starting to break down. Panic and rational thought fought for control of his mind and, as the situation became increasingly desperate, he was beginning to second-guess his own mental state. Were the breeches real? Was he really underwater? Was he even conscious or awake? Was anything real?
He took a deep breath. The situation had to be real. He could feel the water running down his face and neck. He even could feel the resistance of the water as he walked through the flooded compartment. He grimaced in pain and clutched his side. Yes, even the broken rib was real. He could feel that too, since the drugs were starting to wear off.
Still clutching his side, he glanced again at Trip's disturbingly casual expression. It was starting to gnaw at him that there was only one thing in here that wasn't real, that wasn't solid, and that he couldn't touch. The one thing he really wished was real, wasn't.
"You can't even help me here," he muttered as panic launched a new offensive against the small victory of rational thought. His emotions and frustrations were bubbling to the surface as fast as the compartment was flooding. "The real Trip Tucker is somewhere out there, playing at being a spy!" He reached overhead again and twisted a hyperspanner with more force than necessary. "Doing things he's not trained for. Just..." he shoved a metal plate into place, "because..." he tightened the bolts to within an inch of their stress tolerances, "... he has to get involved. Dammit!" Malcolm swore as the hyperspanner slipped from his hands, dropping into the water below.
"Well, isn't that bloody obvious," Malcolm growled.
"Why not?!" Malcolm continued to - unnecessarily - hold the plating in place, but turned an angry glare on Trip. "How could you do this? To your family? To your friends?" He blinked through the water running down his face. "And what about T'Pol? How could you do this to her?" He let go of the plating and pointed a finger at the other man. "Do you know what it's like to walk into engineering and ask for someone else? Did you think about your crew? Did you think about them?" He clutched the side of his chest again in pain. "Did you think about me?"
There was a beat of silence before Trip answered, clearly unperturbed, "You were the one that put me in touch with Harris."
Guilt and regret flooded Malcolm and his shoulders sagged in defeat. "I don't want to talk about this anymore."
"You brought it up."
"Let's just focus on the problem at hand?"
A loud pop, like the sound of an ancient projectile weapon made the already tense security officer jump. For a moment he thought it had come from the electrical system but there was no smell of burning plasma or scorched insulation. He turned slowly in the water - it was up to his thighs now, so he must have missed another breech somewhere - scanning for the next crisis to deal with, until he was facing the forward windows above the helm ...
... and saw the spidery crack slowly inching along one of the panes.
His mind raced for solutions, but his gut knew this round was going to be a victory for panic. He couldn't fix the window. He didn't have plating large enough to solder to the windows and he couldn't remove one of the interior ones in time. This was it. If the window failed ...
"What's really botherin' you, Malcolm?"
Incredulous, Malcolm let out a snort, half-laugh, half-annoyance and waved a hand at the window without turning around to face Trip. "Isn't it obvious?"
Trip seemed unimpressed by the impending doom. "No final thoughts? You might die in here you know."
That did cause Malcolm to turn around to stare at the other man. "I thought you were supposed to make me feel better!"
"That's not how this works."
"What do you want from me!?" Malcolm shouted, immediately regretting his outburst when his head started throbbing.
Trip was suddenly right next to him. "Any regrets?" he asked.
"Other than introducing you to Harris and getting you embroiled in a intergalactic mission that could get you killed?" Malcolm smirked unhappily, the damaged shuttle forgotten again. "None." He paused, and then added without sarcasm, "I made amends with my father, so there's no regrets there this time." A brief smile crossed his face. "There was nothing really to amend. We were both just stubborn gits."
He swallowed hard. Yes, there was something else.
Trip waited patiently for an answer. The man's expression was warm, gentle and non-judgmental.
Malcolm closed his eyes and tried to regain some semblance of control. This time the painful knot in his chest had nothing to do with his physical injuries, but the more he tried to focus and shove the feeling down into the depths, the more the panic surrounding his situation rose to the surface. It was going to have to be one or the other, it seemed, so he let himself sag to lean against the bulkhead, his forehead against the cool metal. The words came flooding out of him the same way the water had been rushing into the compartment.
"For most of my life, I held people at arm's length. ‘He's hard to get to know' was how others would describe me. That was by design. I never liked letting people get too close. ‘Close enough' was perfectly fine with me."
Oddly, the admission felt good, so he soldiered on. "I let relationship after relationship fail when I was young. Don't get me wrong, they were all lovely girls... rather, women. I loved each and every one of them in some way. But I'd never intended to give all of myself away. I don't know if they realized that, and perhaps I still regret it. Every time one of them got too close, I left. It was a ... a ... let's call it a tactical decision. Those were the unwritten rules of the game, whether they knew it or not. The occasional skirmish was fine, but if one stepped into the neutral zone, the treaty was broken."
He backed away from the bulkhead slightly. "That was the nature of any relationship I had. My girlfriends, my friends, even my family. And then along comes this job, and this crew." He paused, feeling overcome for a moment.
After a long pause he straightened up and continued, "They became like family. More than family. I had friends," his voice broke, "like I'd never had before. And ..." he paused, suddenly having trouble speaking. With effort, he continued, "By the time I realized that my carefully constructed fortifications had been breeched, that I'd fallen in love with someone, that I wanted to say something ... I was too late. That someone I was in love with," he turned to look Trip in the eyes, "was in love with someone else."
"I'm sorry," was all that the other man said.
"I wanted to do the honorable thing - to be a good friend. To ... them both." Malcolm's voice dropped. "I just wanted them both to be happy."
It would have been so easy, had the face in front of him been real, to simply reach out and kiss him breathless. It would have been easy to plead his case and bargain for a piece of someone's heart that so obviously belonged to someone else. And right now, if this had been real, he would have done anything to win the situation, honorable actions be damned.
Malcolm closed his eyes, fists clenched. But this wasn't real. He was alone, in a damaged spacecraft, running out of time and quite possibly going to die, spending his last moments having a fantasy about someone unobtainable in every sense of the word. This was making him crazier than his phobia about drowning and there was only one thing he could think of to do.
"Go away," he whispered. "Please, just ... go away."
When the silence roared louder than the rushing water through the breech, he opened his eyes. Except for himself, and a lot of water, the shuttlepod was empty.
He was utterly alone.
He wasn't sure how much time had passed. Minutes? Hours? It felt like days.
He'd found a pocket of air near the useless comm. speaker, but it wasn't going to last much longer. Staring at the visible edges of the spidery crack in the windshield, teeth chattering because of the freezing water, a strange sense of calm washed over him. The fear of drowning had given way to a dark notion emerging in the back of his head that it'd be simply easier to sink into the water and get it over with.
It was beginning to sound like the only rational prospect. He was hearing multiple voices now -- muffled voices that sounded like they were coming from outside the shuttle which, of course, was impossible given the vast alien ocean that had swallowed him up. It could only mean that he'd gone mad. Stark raving mad. So much for beating his phobia. The fear had won by slowly making him crazy.
The voices were insistent, and they accompanied their muffled shouts with banging on the hull. He shivered. A tactical officer who sees things and hears voices is useless. The thought had occurred to him when the water had first started pouring into the shuttle. What if this had happened in the middle of a battle situation?
The voices continued their muffled cries, but he ignored them. There was only one voice he wanted to hear right now, and he was regretting his decision to face reality.
Oh good. He might be crazy but at least he wasn't going to die alone.
"Open the hatch." Trip's voice was calm but insistent once again.
What? Malcolm sighed. No,no. That would just flood the compartment. But did it really matter anymore? There was only about a foot of space left, so his time was up. Why not just open the hatch and let the inevitable happen?
He shifted his frozen grip on the support beam and hardened his jaw. Because he wasn't that kind of pessimist anymore. And as damaged as he might be, the crew of Enterprise still needed him. They'd lost too many; they couldn't afford to lose another. He didn't want to just give up and give in, either. He knew if there was air left in the shuttle, there was still hope because a certain, persistently optimistic engineer had rubbed off on him that way.
"Open the hatch."
Very persistent. Bloody hell.
Malcolm opened his eyes and tried to smile at the illusion while simultaneously ignoring the rising water and the cold. "I can't open the hatch. I'll drown."
"The hatch is damaged from the outside. You need to open it so they can rescue you."
Trip's persistence had always been at once both annoying and endearing to him, and he decided to find it endearing now. "The voices aren't real, Trip. It's just an illusion," he said patiently, and then paused. "Like you."
"Malcolm." Blue eyes held his with a steady gaze. "Think about it. I'm not real, but have I pointed you at anything that wasn't?" The eyes were unwavering. "Have I told you anything yet that wasn't true?"
Malcolm blinked. It was true. The carbon dioxide poisoning, his injuries, the comm. system, the leak... even his feelings... had it been his subconscious speaking past the panic? Whatever it was, all of it had been real.
Malcolm swallowed, his heart beating faster with renewed fear. "The hatch release is underwater."
Trip nodded. "You can do it. Open the hatch."
Taking a breath that was neither steady nor deep, Malcolm clenched his fists and then sank under the water before he could change his mind, pushing his way to the fully submerged half of the shuttle. Frozen fingers struggled with the mechanical override for the hatch, and for a moment he stopped breathing. His vision wavered, and he was certain this was the moment he was going to die, but just then the hatch popped open easily.
He nearly slipped forward and out the hatch as the water inexplicably rushed out of the shuttle. Two sets of hands grabbed his shoulders and kept him from cracking his knees on the door frame as he fell, and he looked up in confusion. Ensign Travis Mayweather's bright smile greeted him first, "Sir!"
He smiled weakly back at Travis and turned his head as the other set of hands lifted him up off the deck plating. He couldn't help but notice that both the captain and Enterprise's helmsman were dry. They weren't even wearing EV suits.
Archer interrupted his train of thought with an expression of concern. "Lieutenant! Are you okay?"
Malcolm nodded, and finally found his voice as he struggled to his feet, "Yes ... yes, sir. I'm a little battered and bruised," he managed through chattering teeth. "But I'm fine..." his voice trailed off as he looked up.
There was the ocean, several feet above his head, forming a giant dome above Shuttlepod One and, he looked past Archer, Shuttlepod Two. He looked up again at the ceiling of water in confusion, and then dawning understanding. He turned back to the captain just as Travis settled a warm, and blessedly dry, blanket over his shoulders, a half-smile growing on his face.
Archer grinned back at him as they stepped into Shuttlepod Two. "It worked, Malcolm. The energy shielding... I looked up your reports on your work on it. Travis and most of the engineering crew managed to get it into the shuttle's system." As if to confirm the captain's words, the corridor created by the shielding crackled with streaks of blue.
The mention of engineering caused Malcolm to pause just inside the door as Archer closed the hatch and Travis slid into the pilot's seat. Through the pane in the door he could see a hazy figure standing casually in Shuttlepod One's open hatchway. The figure smiled, then wavered and vanished. Moments later the ocean rushed in to fill the space between the two spacecraft. It was only then that Malcolm sank into the chair behind the helmsman.
Archer remained standing, like a energy shield himself. "We'll retrieve One in a couple of days. The Kreetasans said they had some salvage equipment that could help." He paused. "Are you sure you're okay?"
Malcolm nodded, relief flooding him as the realization that his ordeal was over became more real. "I'm alive, sir."
Travis turned from the helm for just a moment his usually sunny personality suddenly serious and earnest, "We're glad you're still with us, Lieutenant."
"As am I, Travis. As am I."
As they broke the surface of the water, and then the atmosphere of the planet, he couldn't help but think that the stars too were welcoming him back home.