"I've invested far too much time trying to figure you out, Mister Tucker.
I'm not about to accept that it was all for nothing."
Malcolm let his head fall back against the pillow, and the book he'd been reading drop against his chest. He stared up at the ceiling of his bunk; he'd read the same bloody sentence three times now. Obviously, his mind was elsewhere.
He thought back to the conversation in sickbay earlier this evening. Maybe the doctor was right, and his experience in the shuttlepod this morning had left a little psychological damage. Phlox, of course, simply thought that hours of having to fight a phobia had made the tactical officer more subdued than a few cuts, bruises, and a broken rib would seem to warrant. He'd suggested that Malcolm would feel better if he talked about it.
Well, he bloody well didn't feel like talking to anyone about his experience right now, even though he knew he probably should. He didn't seem to be hearing voices or seeing things since he was rescued but he was still rattled by the entire experience. And truth to be told, he was worried about what it meant if he had to think quickly in another tactical situation.
Malcolm sighed and shut the book with one hand, pushing himself up into a seated position, feet on the floor of his quarters. Tossing the book aside, he rubbed his face with both hands and then sat there, staring across the room for a long moment. Normally he'd take a turn on the exercise equipment in the gym whenever a good brood didn't quite suffice to deal with whatever bones were rattling around in his brain. Other times ...
He groaned lightly and rested his face in his hands. Other times he'd simply comm. Trip to see if he wanted to come on over and chat, or watch a movie over a couple of cold beers.
That knot in his chest was back, worse than before the accident this morning. He tried a couple of deep breaths and briefly contemplated a late night jog to the gym before his broken rib reminded him that he'd have to take it easy for a while. Mixed emotions started to well up inside him ...
Suddenly he grimaced and stood up, marched across his room, and slid into the chair at his desk. There was only one thing that was going to make him feel better right now, and that was knowing whether Trip was still alive or dead. He needed information, and he knew there was one person who might just be able to give it to him.
Checking the duty log, he winced. Hoshi was still on the bridge. So much for doing this quietly. He could try to bypass the comm. station but she'd still see it -- probably before he'd even gotten the message out.
He got up and went to the door to press the comm. button, "Hoshi," he said crisply, and waited.
"Malcolm. Is there something I can do for you?" came the reply.
Malcolm smiled to himself. He wondered if Hoshi knew that Chang, Ramirez, and Kemper regularly argued about who could win Ensign Sato, but only when they thought their boss wasn't listening.
"I need to send an encoded subspace message on a non-standard frequency. Incoming will be routed directly to my quarters on the same encrypted channel. If the captain asks about it, you can let him know I'll brief him as soon as I have more information."
There was only a moment's pause before the voice came back, clear and professional. "Of course, lieutenant. I appreciate you letting me know." He knew she'd understood the unspoken, ‘this is classified - don't listen in', and he felt terrible not telling her the truth.
"Thank you, ensign."
He slid back into his chair and started typing until the Starfleet logo disappeared and he was sure it was on the correct frequency. His message was simple: "Request status on a field agent. Code name: Lazarus. Reply asap. - R."
A few minutes later his terminal beeped with the arrival of an encrypted packet: "Message received. Will confirm status. - Harris."
All he could do now was wait. It might be days before he'd hear anything back.
He had just slid the book back into its place on the shelf above his bunk, intending to finally turn in for the night, when his terminal beeped.
Malcolm hurried back to the desk and slid into the seat, fearing bad news. This had to be a bad sign; he didn't expect Harris would have been able to get a report on Commander Tucker's status this quickly unless Trip had been compromised. It was a video comm. link request, so he typed in the necessary codes and initiated the link to his terminal.
And for the second time that day, he stopped breathing for just a moment.
"Malcolm!" The voice was the same, but the face that grinned back at him was flesh-and-blood this time and the blue eyes were real. "Damn but it's good to see you!"
For a moment, Malcolm couldn't say anything or do anything other than smile. He could feel a flush rise to his face as everything that had happened that day rushed through his mind at warp speed, and just as the eyes on the screen in front of him started to shift from joy to confusion, he found his voice again.
"Trip!!" Malcolm choked out the name when he could speak again. "How are you? Are you alright? Where are you? Are you safe?" He knew he was staring and probably had a ridiculous grin of his own, but he didn't care.
Trip's expression changed imperceptibly, a touch of seriousness mixed with bemusement. "I'm okay ... now." Before Malcolm could ask, Trip quickly added, "I'm fine. Really. I gave them the slip. I'm..."
Malcolm interrupted just as quickly as a tactical sense started to shift his brain out of the surprise-induced fog. "No, no. Don't tell me where you are." It was one thing to have the fact that Trip was still alive leak if this frequency was intercepted - it was another for his location to fall into the wrong hands.
His time undercover seemed to have had an effect because Trip simply nodded. "Let's just say I'm in friendly territory for the moment." He lifted a glass full of a blue liquid. "A bar in fact." So that was what all that background noise was. Trip swirled the alien liquor around in the glass. "Too bad we can't share some of this."
Malcolm chuckled, suddenly feeling himself again as the moment held a hint of old times. "Perhaps not, but ..." he said as he leaned over and popped open his small stasis unit under the desk. He pulled out a beer, pried the top off on the edge of the desk and then held it up to the screen, " ... that doesn't mean we can't drink together."
Trip grinned again and touched his tumbler to his screen. They both downed a few swallows of their respective beverages and for several minutes there was nothing but an amiable and slightly awkward silence as both stared at their drinks and then at each other.
It was Malcolm that broke the silence first. "This is quite the coincidence. I just put in a message to Harris for an update on your status."
"Yeah I know," Trip replied. "It's not a coincidence. I've been watching the sub-space frequencies and saw a ping go past on the one I used a month ago. I figured it was either you or the cap'n." He paused and smiled. "You, more likely, since you'd know who to call."
Trip glanced around his environment and then lowered his voice enough that Malcolm had to turn up the volume on his own terminal. "I found somethin' and I wanted the cap'n to see it first before anyone else." He held up a small data disk.
Malcolm nodded as he caught Trip's meaning. I want Archer to see it before Harris and the rest of the shadowy Section does. "Understood. Give me a moment and I'll initiate one of Hoshi's newer encryption schemes for the data transfer." He set to work securing another frequency, feeling for the first time in days like he was doing something useful. The small inset on his terminal screen allowed him to surreptitiously glance at Trip from time to time while he worked.
Trip waited patiently, occasionally sipping on his drink. However, unlike Malcolm's illusionary companion for most of the day, this man wore a look of real-world weariness. The smile on Trip's face had faded, and he occasionally looked up and glanced around his surroundings. With every passing moment Malcolm was fervently wishing he was right there with Trip, a hidden phase pistol handy under a jacket.
He stabbed the last keystroke in place. "Okay. Go ahead and start the transfer."
Trip did so and then raised his glass again, took a sip and swirled the remaining liquid around for a moment. When he looked up, the tension in his jaw and the shine in his eyes made Malcolm's heart clench.
"Trip? Are you alright?" That knot in his own chest was back.
There was a pause before the other man nodded. "I'm just ... not sure if I made the right decision, takin' this mission." Trip huffed a short, humorless laugh. "Not that I can do anythin' about it now. It's a little too late for regrets." The words made Malcolm startle but Trip was staring into his glass. "The thing is, I'm flyin' by the seat of my pants out here, and I don't know from minute to minute if I'm doing the right thing. Dammit, I trained to be an engineer, a warp specialist! Not this!"
The echo of Malcolm's earlier thoughts brought him no satisfaction. On the contrary, the desire to be there by Trip's side, to throw an arm around his shoulders, was overwhelming. It was killing him to know that though Trip was real - painfully real this time - Malcolm still couldn't reach out and touch him. The thought occurred to him that he'd love to find whomever had come up with the phrase ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder' and shove them out an airlock.
At least he could offer moral support. "None of us really knows if we're doing the right thing until it's done. You've already saved lives, Trip. Don't discount that."
Trip went on as if he hadn't heard, "I feel like I'm in over my head. And very much alone out here."
That did it. Malcolm could feel that knot expand through his chest and reach up his throat as if to strangle him. "You could come back," he said softly.
There was a long stretch of silence. "Maybe. But not right now. I've got to follow up on this." Trip finished his drink. Malcolm grimaced. He felt the coward for not saying anything, and for a fleeting moment he considered it.
Then the rational side of his brain intervened. I know you're trying to simultaneously save the world and keep one step ahead of the bad guys out there, alone and outnumbered, but I thought I'd let you know that I've got a thing for you, my friend. So, not to be distracting or anything of the sort, but, think about that, T'Pol, the war, Terra Prime, the baby, you know - everything - and get back to me? Malcolm rubbed his face. Trip didn't need that kind of emotional burden right now.
"Malcolm? You okay?"
Given the trajectory of his thoughts, the echo of that voice from the shuttle earlier today made Malcolm jump, and Trip's already concerned expression grew deeper. "Malcolm! Hey, what's goin' on?"
More than you know. Malcolm settled again in his chair, took another swallow of his beer to cover his discomfort and shook his head. "I'm fine." Liar.
Trip looked unconvinced.
"Really. I'm okay." He took a deep breath and misdirected, "Had a bit of a situation this morning when the shuttle I was in crash landed in an ocean and then sank but, as you can see, I made it out in one piece."
"Yikes. I know how you feel about the water."
"Yes. Well. Someone helped by talking me through it," Malcolm replied quietly.
"Glad to hear it." As Trip spoke, the data port on the terminal beeped; the transfer was complete. Much as he wanted to stay up all night chatting with Trip like old times, Malcolm knew that the longer they talked the more likely someone was going to pinpoint the engineer's location.
He took a breath and looked his friend in the eyes. "The data transfer's complete."
Trip nodded, eyes shining again. It was obvious the man was thinking the same thing: he had to go. But he made no move to sever the connection.
His heart feeling like it was gripped in a vise, Malcolm leaned forward. "I hate to say it," and indeed he did because his voice broke a bit, "But you'd better go. The longer you stay on this channel the more likely that those you gave the slip to will find you again."
Trip nodded again and rubbed a hand across his eyes. "Yeah. You're right." He frowned off into the distance. "Okay. Tell everyone ... well, no, you can't tell everyone." He paused, obviously having a hard time speaking, "Tell Phlox I'm okay. Tell the cap'n... tell T'Pol... I..." Trip stopped, his eyes filling with tears.
It was only concern for Trip's safety that kept Malcolm from doing the same. "I understand," he replied calmly. "I'll tell them." And for the second time that day, he let the words rush out of him in a flood. "It was good to see you again, Trip. I can't really begin to tell you how good it is. I miss you and I ... we all... love you... and miss you. Just finish this bloody business and come back safe?"
Trip nodded silently, slowly - and for a moment Malcolm wondered if he'd given too much away. It didn't seem to rein in his tongue though, since he babbled right on, "And if you ever feel alone, or if you ever need some advice or just a friendly face in the dark, and you can find a secure channel... call me. You know you can call me? You know I'll be there for you?" He winced inwardly at his own words, but he couldn't seem to stop himself.
Trip nodded again, then finally found his voice again. "I know. Thanks." He took a deep breath. "I think I just really needed to see ... to see a friendly face again."
"Believe me, I know the feeling."
"It's good to see you again. You don't know how much."
Malcolm just nodded, unable to respond for fear of losing what control he had left.
Trip smiled weakly. "Alright. I'll talk to you again soon. I hope."
"You will." Malcolm choked out and managed a forced smile, "You'd better, or I'll come out there and kill you myself." That earned him a chuckle from the other man, and he felt momentarily better.
Trip tilted his empty glass. "See ya," he murmured, then turned away, and the screen went dark.
"God speed," Malcolm whispered to no one. And for the next few minutes he fought back his own tears despite the fact that he was -- he looked around to check -- actually alone.
When he felt the moisture in his eyes finally subside and the knot in his throat loosen a bit he got up slowly from the desk and went to the comm. button at the door. "Bridge." He waited until a youthful voice answered, "Yes, lieutenant?" Hoshi must have long since gone to bed.
"I realize it's late crewman, but I need you to wake the captain. Tell him I'll meet him in the Ready Room."
"Aye sir," came the tentative reply. The poor lad was not looking forward to being the one to wake Captain Archer in the middle of the night. "Is there anything else?"
Malcolm paused and considered for a moment before answering. "Yes. Put me through to Commander T'Pol's quarters."
"Aye sir." Probably grateful that he wouldn't have to wake both senior officers, the crewman quickly routed the call, and a moment later a female voice came through the comm.., "Yes?"
"I apologize for the late hour commander, but I've just received some sensitive intelligence that you and the captain should be briefed on immediately." He could have simply told her at the start of the briefing, but as one emotionally reserved individual to another, he knew she'd appreciate a moment to regain her composure before meeting with them. "It was sent to us by someone we both know. Code name Lazarus."
There was a long, not unexpected pause from the other end of the comm. before the voice replied, soft and with a hint of gratitude, "Understood, Lieutenant. I will see you in the captain's ready room momentarily."
As he changed into a uniform, Malcolm deliberated on the rattling bones that still lingered in the back of his mind. He was a man of action, and he'd just been presented with a situation that he would have to deal with, sooner or later. The thing was, he had no idea what to do. If a tactical situation was where he shone, relationships left him floundering.
Just as he was about to open the door and step out into the corridor, he realized where he needed to turn. If there was anyone on Enterprise who understood the complicated nature of relationships ... he hit the comm. button once more. "Sickbay."
"Lieutenant Reed," came the cheery reply almost immediately. "You're up late. What can I do for you?"
"I was thinking about what you said earlier today, doctor. And I... suppose I could... use someone to talk to," Malcolm admitted, somewhat uncomfortably.
"Of course. Why don't you drop by sickbay tomorrow at lunch time. There's no need to schedule an appointment."
And thus alert everyone that I'm seeking some counsel. Bless you, Phlox. "Thank you, doctor. I'll see you tomorrow."
As he opened the door, Malcolm took one last look around the empty room. The knot in his chest was still there, but the idea that he had a problem to solve had taken some of the weight off his shoulders. Trip would have to be back, safe and sound before that weight was entirely gone, and achieving that outcome would take some thinking. In the meantime, he could at least share some good news with a handful of others who'd be equally as grateful for it.
He smiled at the darkened computer terminal. And, with any luck, he'd see and hear from Trip again. That thought alone was enough to loosen that last bit of tightness inside and he stepped out into the brightly lit corridor with a smile.