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Thursday, May 22, 2155
"Admit it, Jonathan. You're already at least as bored with this mission as I am."
Unable to deny his fellow NX-class starship captain's assertion, Captain Jonathan Archer smoothed his rumpled uniform and leaned back in his chair with a resigned sigh. Porthos, whom Archer had thought was fast asleep behind him at the foot of his bed, released a short but portentous bark, as if voicing agreement with the woman who looked on expectantly from the screen. Archer turned away from the lone desktop terminal in his quarters just long enough to toss a small dog treat to the beagle, who immediately became far too preoccupied with the noisy business of eating to tender any further opinions.
"My feelings really don't matter all that much, Erika," Archer said to the image on the terminal. "And frankly, neither do yours. This was Starfleet's call to make, not ours."
From across the nearly six-parsec-wide gulf of interstellar space that currently separated Enterprise from Columbia, Captain Erika Hernandez punctuated her reply with a withering frown. "All right. Who are you, and what have you done with Jon Archer?"
His lips curled in an inadvertent grin. "I'm just an explorer, Erika. I don't make policy. And I don't like babysitting Earth Cargo Service freighter convoys any more than you do. But you've got to admit that there have been enough attacks on the main civilian shipping lanes over the past few weeks to justify keeping Earth's two fastest and best-armed starships out on continuous patrol, at least for a while."
She shook her head slightly. "Maybe. But not indefinitely. And certainly not if you're interested in treating the underlying disease instead of just the symptoms."
Archer couldn't really disagree with that either. The past six weeks of mostly uneventful patrol duty, spent endlessly covering the same roughly twenty-light-year stretches outbound from Earth, followed by a virtually identical inbound course which intermittently brought Enterprise and Columbia together from opposite directions, put him in mind of the ancient Greek myth about a man whose misdeeds had earned him the divine punishment of rolling a huge boulder up a hill, only to have to repeat the process endlessly after reaching the summit and seeing it roll down again. Archer sometimes half-seriously considered asking Starfleet to send the new NX-class starship Challenger, still under construction in the skies above San Francisco, to relieve him -- after rechristening it Sisyphus, of course.
But he knew better than to think that either he or Captain Hernandez could do much to change the minds of Admirals Gardner, Black, Douglas, Clark, Palmieri, or any of the rest of Starfleet Command's determined brass hats. After all, each of them had shot down essentially the same argument Erika was making today when Archer had first brought the topic before them weeks ago.
"We still don't have any hard proof that the attacks against our freighters are anything other than exactly what they appear to be," Archer said. "The work of rogue pirates and freebooters."
"That's probably only because those alleged 'rogue pirates and freebooters' have been keeping us both so busy waiting and watching, not to mention wearing a triangular groove in the space between Earth and Draylax and Deneva, that we haven't had any time to go hunt down the real culprits."
"The Romulans," Archer said.
She nodded, confirming that he had completed her unvoiced thought. "Or the Klingons. Or maybe even both. The disruptor traces we found on the hull debris are consistent with either of them."
"As nasty as the Klingons can be, my money's on the Romulans," Archer said.
Her eyes widened. "Why? You know something I don't?"
He nodded. "Is this line secure on your end?"
"I trust my mother and God, in that order," she said with a nod of her own. "Everybody and everything else has to go through the most stringent of security protocols. Go ahead."
He paused to gather his thoughts. From the edge of the bed, Porthos released a low growl that almost made Archer wonder if his own dog wasn't spying on him on behalf of Admiral Gardner.
"The attack on Coridan has overshadowed just about everything else that's been going on in a dozen sectors in every direction," Archer said at length.
"That's understandable. Over a billion people have died on Coridan Prime so far, and people are still dying there three months later thanks to all the environmental damage, not to mention the damned civil war they're fighting. Have you found some evidence linking the Romulans to the Coridan attack?"
"No," he said with a glum shake of his head. "The Romulans are way too subtle to leave any fingerprints behind."
She frowned again. "So why bring up Coridan?"
"Because Starfleet has been able to use it as a diversion to keep a lid on something we discovered on Andoria a little bit before the Coridan attack. The admiralty has classified my report on the subject. But in my judgment you have a legitimate need to know what they've been sitting on these past few months."
Hernandez's brow furrowed. "You've found evidence of some sort of Romulan incursion on Andoria?"
"Indirect evidence. But it's as close to a smoking gun as you're going to get with people as slick as the Romulans. You've been briefed about their use of telepaths to pilot remote-controlled attack ships, right?"
"Of course. I know that you and your crew destroyed a telepath-guided Romulan prototype last year."
"Right. But what you haven't been told is that the Romulans have recently been trying to get their hands on more telepaths for similar military applications, using the services of third parties brokered through Adigeon Prime."
A look of understanding crossed her olive features. "The Adigeons. Gotta love those tight-lipped Swiss banker types."
"Believe me, the Adigeons make the old Swiss bankers look like the village gossip. In spite of that, we managed to track down and rescue about three dozen Aenar-Andorian telepaths that a third party had captured on behalf of the Romulans."
Hernandez's face became a study in horror. "Enslaving all those people. Just to launch another remote-control attack against us."
"And they're not going to back off, either. Not when they can just lie in the weeds and wait until they're ready to try again."
The horror on Hernandez's countenance slowly solidified into an almost palpable anger, and her words carried the timbre of blood and fire. "And you're content to let Starfleet just go on reacting instead of actually doing something?"
Archer endured her not-so-subtle criticism with all the stoicism he could muster. "What makes you think I'm not doing anything?"
"Let's see. Maybe it's the fact that you're still out here patrolling the boonies, just like I am."
"Let's just say I'm working on the problem through a back channel and leave it at that."
"I know you have political pull that I don't, since you're the man who saved Earth from the Xindi. But I can't believe you've got a special back channel with Starfleet Command that I don't even know about."
Archer grinned. "What makes you think I was talking about Starfleet Command? Their hands are full at the moment just keeping the Coalition from collapsing into four squabbling pieces, especially since the Coridan attack."
"Unlike either of us," Hernandez said as the door chime sounded.
"Be careful what you wish for, Erika," Archer said, even though he was half hoping for news of another so-called pirate raid, if only to break up the tedium of the past several days of utterly fruitless patrolling. He held up a hand for silence, then turned toward the door.
The door hissed open and Commander T'Pol stepped gingerly over the slightly raised threshold, then paused in the open hatchway. She wore a standard-issue, dark blue Starfleet duty uniform, a sight to which he was still only beginning to become accustomed, though she had adopted it nearly three months ago. To the Vulcan woman's credit, she appeared as comfortable and unself-conscious wearing Earth's service attire as she had in the somewhat more formfitting uniform of the Vulcan military from which she had retired over a year earlier. Despite the lateness of the hour, her clothing looked fresh and neatly pressed.
"I apologize for disturbing you, Captain, but I have received some news that you will wish to hear immediately," she said, still hesitating in the open hatchway. She glanced toward the image of Captain Hernandez, which was clearly visible from her vantage point. "Am I interrupting anything?"
Archer smiled gently at his second-in-command. Long before their respective careers had conspired to draw them literally light-years apart, there had once been a time when anyone "walking in" on him and Erika Hernandez might indeed have interrupted something rather intimate. Had Hernandez, who had never been sanguine about making love in Porthos's presence -- and was allergic to pet dander to boot -- not issued a fateful it's-me-or-the-beagle ultimatum, the lives and careers of both captains might have taken radically different trajectories. Only very rarely, such as that time his canine companion had become fragrantly flatulent after snarfing up an entire wheel of Chef's fancy Gruyère cheese, did the captain have cause to regret his decision. Regardless, fair was fair, and since he'd known Porthos longer than he'd known Hernandez, the dog had ultimately won the contest.
Remaining in his chair, Archer fanned the fingers of his left hand toward himself in a "come in" gesture. "Not at all, Commander. I'm sure you know Captain Hernandez."
T'Pol finished crossing the threshold and allowed the hatch to hiss closed behind her just as Porthos jumped off the bed and approached her, his tail wagging. "Captain Hernandez," she said, nodding toward the screen and apparently ignoring the dog.
"Good to see you again, Commander," said Hernandez. "T'Pol and I met on Earth a couple of months ago, Jon. While you were busy panicking about your speech at the Coalition Compact signing ceremony."
Archer nodded, recalling the extremely jangled state of his nerves on that recent red-letter day. Facing the adoring crowds, the legions of media cams, and the all-seeing eye of history that day had made him more anxious than the prospect of fighting off whole phalanxes of Klingons or Xindi. Hell, he might have welcomed a firing squad as a dignified alternative. He scarcely remembered what he'd said, and later had to refer to the recordings of his words to reassure himself that he'd not made a complete ass of himself. So it came as no surprise to him that there were small gaps in his memory regarding matters peripheral to the speech itself.
He tried not to think about what the two women might have said about him behind his back while he'd been fumbling through his speech; he preferred to believe that the Vulcan's standoffish sense of propriety would have brought a certain decorum to the conversation. But given the uncharacteristically casual manner in which T'Pol now bent down to scratch the insistently expectant Porthos's head -- there had been a time when her acute Vulcan sense of smell would have driven her very quickly from the beagle's presence -- he couldn't assume his first officer would always hew to the Vulcan cultural stereotypes.
"What do you have for me, T'Pol?" Archer said, deciding that getting right to business was the best possible diversion. "Any new piracy incidents to report?"
T'Pol straightened and Porthos quickly withdrew with a muted whine, his tail drooping in evident disappointment at the commander's failure to toss him a snack. "Not to my knowledge, Captain."
Archer felt both relieved and disappointed. "Then I suppose it's too much to hope that Starfleet has finally seen the light about the futility of this wild goose chase we're on?"
"If you mean to ask whether Starfleet Command has finally acceded to your request to permit Enterprise to conduct an independent investigation of the recent attacks on Earth Cargo Service vessels, I'm afraid the answer remains 'no.'"
Still seated, Archer felt his shoulders slump in resignation. "So we keep rolling the damned rock up the hill and back down again."
"Sir?" T'Pol said, her right eyebrow raised inquisitively.
"Never mind," Archer said, waving his hand as though wiping his words off an imaginary blackboard. "Let's hear your report."
"Do you want me to close off the channel, Jonathan?" said Hernandez, reminding him that she could hear whatever his first officer was about to tell him.
He glanced in Hernandez's direction momentarily before fixing his gaze back upon T'Pol. "Not unless there's some security concern I'm not aware of. T'Pol?"
T'Pol approached the desk and addressed Hernandez. "Unless I'm mistaken, Captain Hernandez, you have the same security clearance as Captain Archer. And the same need to know, since this may well impact upon your duties as well."
Hernandez grinned. "Well, don't keep us in suspense, Commander."
T'Pol nodded. "Minister T'Pau has just sent us a response to your request for assistance with our... predicament out here in Earth's shipping lanes."
Archer felt his spirits buoying, however cautiously. "How many Vulcan ships can she send to reinforce us?"
T'Pol shook her head almost sadly. "None at the moment, unfortunately. Vulcan's military resources are still stretched somewhat thin because of the Coridan relief efforts, and that situation is unlikely to change soon. However, Minister T'Pau has made an urgent request of her own."
Archer's brow furrowed. "Of us?"
"Of the United Earth government, the United Earth Space Probe Agency, and the Coalition of Planets Security Council," T'Pol said, sounding almost pleased. "Minister T'Pau is well aware of Starfleet's insistence that Earth's fastest ships be kept on continuous patrol along the shipping convoy routes. She agrees, however, that Starfleet's time and resources would be put to better use trying to reach the true root of our current piracy problem. As, incidentally, do I."
Archer grinned. "Your support is anything but incidental to me, T'Pol. Especially now." With his old friend Trip Tucker still officially listed as killed in the line of duty -- and therefore unavailable as a sounding board for the foreseeable future -- Archer had come to depend on his first officer's input more than he ever had before.
"Well, it's nice that somebody on high agrees with the three of us," Hernandez said. "It's just too bad that Minister T'Pau really can't do a lot of effective arm-twisting inside Starfleet, or in Earth's government."
Archer shrugged. "Granted. But I'm betting that won't matter as much as her influence over the Coalition Council."
"Indeed," said T'Pol, nodding. "While she cannot order anyone outside the Vulcan government to do anything, Minister T'Pau's sway with the other Coalition Security Council members is considerable."
"Do you think she'll come to Earth to address the Council -- and make our case for us?" Hernandez wanted to know.
T'Pol shook her head. "Minster T'Pau's present duties overseeing the rebuilding of the Vulcan government and the Coridan relief efforts will keep her away from Earth for at least another few weeks."
"A lot can happen out on the Romulan front in another few weeks," Archer said, his earlier rising arc of hope now sliding inexorably into a downward parabola of despair.
"True," T'Pol said. "However, under the Coalition's parliamentary rules, the authorities of every member world must consent to meet with any surrogate that Minister T'Pau appoints to speak before the Security Council -- so long as whomever she nominates is willing to do so. The minister's only question is whether or not you are willing to serve as that surrogate, Captain Archer."
Archer allowed a smile to begin spreading very slowly across his lips before he answered. "And not even Admiral Gardner himself can stop me."
"Not unless he wishes to commit a direct violation of the Coalition Compact," T'Pol said. "What should I tell the minister?"
Archer did a few quick back-of-the-envelope calculations in his head. Enterprise was on the inbound leg of this latest iteration of her Sisyphean journey, three to four days out from Earth at maximum warp, as near as he could figure.
"Tell her I'll be on Earth just as soon as Enterprise can get us there," he said. "And with bells on."
One of T'Pol's eyebrows launched itself skyward again. "Respectfully, Captain, I would recommend a more dignified choice of apparel. However, I will advise Minister T'Pau of your decision. And I shall instruct Ensign Mayweather to make best speed for Earth." With that, she turned back toward the door and exited, leaving Archer alone with the subspace-transmitted image of his fellow starship captain.
"Vulcan, Jon? That's one hell of a back channel. Not exactly part of the officer's manual."
His smile widened into a broad, triumphant grin. "When have you ever known me to stand on ceremony, Erika?"
She beamed at him. "Now that's the Jon Archer I know. By the way, I hope you'll accept my apology for implying that you might have been replaced by some sort of overly complacent shape-shifting alien monster."
"No offense taken," he said, returning her grin at a comparable wattage. "It was just your frustration talking anyway."
Hernandez's smile abruptly turned mischievous. "Would you like me to tell Gardner about this, or do you want to break the news to him yourself?"
Archer felt his own smile begin to sputter out, like an old-style propeller-driven aircraft running out of fuel.
"And there's yet another unpleasant reality to consider here, Jon," she continued, sounding grave.
"What's that?" Archer asked.
"You have to get busy preparing another big speech."
Though Hernandez's grin returned, what little remained of Archer's own smile immediately stalled, crashed, and burned.
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