Lie is fear of facing reality
'Let's stop here for a few minutes,' Archer said as the dense forest broke for a stream.
Jon had held a hope, all throughout their time in the Expanse, that once the war was over things could go back to the way they were before. It was a somewhat naive hope, he knew, but he held it nonetheless. His crew, for the most part, seemed relatively happy to go along with the pretence, for as long as it took until it was real again.
They had come across the planet while surveying another in the system for dilithium. Dense with life, Jon had sent down teams to explore and then organized shore leave on rotation over two days, for the entire crew. It had been ten months since they'd left dry dock in Earth-orbit, and many crewmembers hadn't left the ship since then, Malcolm included.
Jon had been surprised when Malcolm had accepted his offer to spend part of their shore leave together hiking through the tropical jungle, but immeasurably pleased. They had been friends... were still friends. But it had seemed, more and more often, that they only talked to be at odds with each other. Jon knew he couldn't fix it overnight, but they had to start somewhere.
Reed shrugged his pack off, propping it against a mossy rock, and took out his near-empty water canister while the captain fiddled with his scanner.
'Nearly there?' Reed asked as he dropped a purification tablet into his canister, filled from the stream, and swilled it around as it fizzed.
'Yep,' Archer replied, removing his own pack and sitting down with his back against a tree trunk. 'Just another half kilometer.' He looked up at the sky, visible for the first time in an hour through the canopy, and followed the rays of afternoon light gliding down through the trees, seemingly alive with the tiny things they illuminated.
Wiping the sweat from his face with his light-weather uniform sleeve, Reed sat down on the rock and took a swig of water. 'I can't believe how bloody hot it is. When you said 'forest', I imagined Great British woodland, not Amazon jungle.'
Jon chuckled. 'I thought your parents lived in Malaysia. Aren't there rain forests there?'
'My parents only moved to Malaysia six years ago, after Madeline finished university. I was brought up under grey English skies,' he explained wryly.
'Huh,' Archer said, surveying Reed. 'So what you're saying is, you can't handle the heat?'
'Not at all, Sir.' Reed rose and re-shouldered his pack, looking at Archer pointedly. Jon smiled and got to his feet, squeezing Malcolm's shoulder companionably before they set off again.
Another half hour passed before they reached their destination, hacking their way through dense foliage. Then the trees just seemed to fall away and they stood on the edge of a large clearing. Archer stood for a moment, catching his breath, then turned to Reed.
'We're here,' he whispered.
Reed frowned, scanning the area. 'I don't see... Oh... wow.' At the sound of his voice, amplified by an echo around the glade, little ruby-winged creatures like butterflies rose out of the brush. They were innumerable, rising and rising out of the forest floor like a crimson breeze, circling around each other and the two men in a towering column encompassing the entire clearing.
Jon watched Malcolm watching the display, eyes wide in wonder. 'How did you...?'
'Ensign Cutler told me.'
Malcolm didn't say any more, and Jon closed his eyes taking in a deep breath, feeling the magic of this place literally flowing around him. When he opened them again, he found Malcolm staring at him, his expression neutral, but... there was something about the set of his mouth, the glint in his eyes. Jon couldn't put a name to it, but it unsettled him, and he looked away again, out into the moving sea of red.
'Come on,' he said soon after. 'It'll be getting dark soon.' It was a quiet trip back.
Five days later, Jon got a transmission from Starfleet headquarters, finally approving his recommended promotions, among them Sato, Mayweather and Reed. He was just reaching over to comm. them all in when he noticed something, and he paused, reading the note by Malcolm's name. He stared at it for a long time, then walked to the ready room's small porthole and watched the stars fly by, deep in thought. Eventually, he stepped out onto the bridge.
'Malcolm,' he said, 'a word.'
Reed followed him in, standing at ease just inside the door. 'Sir?'
'Congratulations, Malcolm. Starfleet has seen fit to promote you to the rank of Lieutenant Commander.'
Reed blinked. 'I don't know what to say.'
'About time?' Archer suggested, and Reed quirked a small smile.
'Thank you, Sir.'
Archer came to stand in front of him. 'Don't thank me yet. The promotion came with a transfer to the Endeavor.'
'Endeavor?' Malcolm said, surprised. 'The third warp-five ship.'
'That's right. I don't know the captain personally, but he has a reputation for his command style. Apparently, it's extremely relaxed.'
Reed looked down at the deck. 'How very perverse,' he said quietly, dryly. 'Sir.' He added.
'You don't have to go, Malcolm. I can overturn the transfer.'
'I wouldn't want to put you out, Captain.' Reed was smiling slightly, but it was humorless, not reaching his eyes.
'This isn't about me,' Archer said carefully. 'It's about what you want.'
Reed looked back up at him then, the same expression on his face that had unnerved Jon in the clearing. He didn't say anything for a long time, just looked at Jon, scanning his face, his eyes, over and over.
'I want to leave,' he said eventually. 'I think it's for the best.'
Even as he wondered how, Jon knew he couldn't change Malcolm's mind. So he didn't even try. It would be a year before they saw each other again, and they would be deep in the midst of another war.
October 21st, 2165.
'Admiral,' T'Pol inclines her head in greeting, 'It's... good,' she raises an eyebrow at the human expression, 'to see you again.'
'T'Pol.' Placing his hands on her shoulders -- the closest to an embrace she's ever accepted -- Jon smiles, genuinely, deeply happy to see her. 'It's good to see you, too. How was your journey?'
'Uneventful,' she replies, glancing around her. They're standing in the VIP debarkation lounge at the landing pad behind Starfleet headquarters. 'Is there somewhere more private we can go to talk?'
'My apartment is only a couple blocks away.'
'No,' T'Pol says, lowering her voice, 'There is a possibility that your living quarters are being monitored.'
Jon takes a deep breath, and wonders when this reeling sensation will stop. 'I suppose my office is out as well, then,' he says, unable to find it in him to be shocked.
'A walk,' T'Pol tells him. 'Somewhere unpopulated.'
'What about your luggage?'
'I don't have any. I don't intend to stay.'
They leave the complex and head off on foot in the direction of the bay, T'Pol's traditional robes fluttering about her in the light breeze of the mild fall evening.
'Leave your furs on Andoria?' Jon comments, remembering the last time he'd seen her, buried under layers of animal skin to meet his transport out on the surface. And that was during the Andorian summer.
'It is agreeable,' she remarks, 'to be on a temperate planet again. It's been several months.' Her emotionless face softens somewhat as she looks up at the night sky. 'I confess, I had hoped to arrive during the day time, but circumstances didn't allow.' Jon nods in sympathy for the woman adapted to the desert, living underground on a frozen rock. He remembers Randor, Andoria's sun, a tiny white light low in the sky, so very far away.
'How's Shran? Seen him recently?'
'General Shran was at the Daloa symposium last month. He systematically disagreed with each of my proposals,' she says dryly, 'but he seemed in good health.'
Archer shakes his head, 'Same old Shran.'
Jon can't stop glancing at her, burning to know what she had to travel two days to tell him in person. But she's made it clear she won't talk until she's satisfied they're completely alone. They walk on in silence for what seems to Jon like a long time. His thigh is throbbing and he leans more heavily on his cane, beginning to sweat.
'Admiral?' T'Pol asks, 'Are you alright?'
'My leg,' he says through gritted teeth as a spasm clenches what remains of his muscles like a fist.
'Of course, I'm sorry,' a slight frown crosses her face. 'Let's sit down.' They're in the middle of a grassy playing field, deserted at this time of night, and the only place to sit is on the ground. But at least they can see they're alone. Slipping an arm through his, T'Pol leads him a few meters to a slight rise, helping to take his weight with that deceptive strength of hers. She helps him to the ground and then gathers up her robes and sits down next to him. 'I'm sorry, Jonathan,' she says again. 'I had forgotten.'
'It's okay,' he grates out, waiting for the spasm to subside. 'I just need a moment.' She hadn't been there, when it had happened -- she was still on Enterprise. He shouldn't have been there himself, if he'd listened to Duncan. And Lieutenant Commander Reed, of course.
Letting out the breath he didn't realize he'd been holding, Jon slowly unclenches his wrecked muscles and stretches his leg out in front of him. Tenderly massaging around the scar tissue, he glances over at T'Pol.
'So... want to tell me what this is all about?'
She bows her head momentarily, a graceful arc of the neck, and when she looks back up there's something almost like pain, almost like guilt, shining in her brown eyes. 'It is imperative that you deny all knowledge of Captain Reed's history with Mr. Harris and Section 31.'
'Deny it to whom, exactly?'
'Anyone who should ask.'
Jon lets out a small, mirthless laugh. 'You do realize that the enquiry report has already been finished.'
Her eyes widen slightly. 'So quickly? Did anyone come to speak with you?'
'Yes. And yes, they did ask about Malcolm's history. Don't worry,' he adds, seeing her concern, 'I kept to the same old story.' Her relief is almost palpable. 'Be so kind as to tell me, Ambassador,' he says, more heatedly that he'd intended, 'exactly why I jeopardized my position and the trust of my colleagues by lying to an official enquiry, to cover the tracks of a dead man.'
'Because if you hadn't,' she replies, features calm as ever but a tremor in her voice, 'more lives would have been lost.'
'Welcome aboard, Admiral,' said Captain Gravelle, slurring the words with his Creole accent. Archer stepped down from the Endeavor's transporter pad and shook his outstretched hand.
'A pleasure to meet you, Captain.'
'Likewise.' Gravelle smiled broadly and gestured to the two men at his side. 'My first officer, Commander Stephen Clare, and I hear you've met my tactical officer before.'
Clare nodded politely and they shook hands, then Archer moved to stand in front of the second man and laid a hand on his shoulder. 'It's good to see you again, Malcolm.'
Reed focused somewhere over Archer's right shoulder, standing stiffly to attention. 'Sir,' he replied in way of greeting.
'Now now, Commander Reed, be nice,' Gravelle admonished lazily. Unused to the new title, Archer's eyes flicked down to Reed's rank pips -- three small rectangles above the red piping on the shoulder of his uniform: two silver, one black. 'He doesn't like you being on board,' Gravelle confided as they filed out of the transporter room. 'Makes him twitchy.' Jon couldn't help smiling at that and looked back over his shoulder at Malcolm.
'I simply feel, Sir, that taking the second fleet admiral into the middle of a major battle is not just deeply foolhardy, but an unnecessary risk to his safety,' Reed said to Gravelle, then turned to Archer. 'You could co-ordinate just as easily from the base on Tessic-prime.'
Jon repressed a sigh, having already had this argument with Duncan Boothroyd back on Earth. 'You know it isn't the same, Commander. I don't have to remind you how important this confrontation is. I need to be here.'
'Respectfully, Admiral, I disagree.'
Clare coughed uncomfortably and Gravelle frowned back at Reed. 'Ça suffit,' he warned. 'Behave yourself, Lieutenant Commander.'
'Aye, Sir,' Reed replied after a moment, but his eyes were on Archer.
Just over two hours later, Endeavor rendezvoused with the sizeable, multi-species fleet Archer had rallied specifically for this mission -- the destruction of the Romulans' primary weapons plant.
Just under two hours after that, Endeavor hit a cloaked mine in orbit around the planet, causing a chain reaction in the EPS grid. There was a massive explosion at the back of the bridge where Archer, Gravelle and Reed stood hunched over the tactical display.
The last things Archer remembered were two shouts, one English-accented, the other Creole, and someone throwing him to the ground. It saved his life.
'It isn't what you think,' T'Pol says. 'Three years ago, I was approached by Admiral Boothroyd, Ambassador Gra'an and several other prominent Federation members, to join an intelligence network. I was to oversee the flow of information in the surrounding sectors of space to Andoria, and help co-ordinate the efforts of our operatives. Four days ago, I received some very disturbing information regarding an incursion into the Neutral Zone by the Romulans. I believed they were trying to develop a new weapon using a local phenomenon, which, if successful, would have severely threatened the balance of power. Brimstone was the nearest ship to the facility, so I contacted my operative on board, in the hopes he could take care of it quietly.'
'Malcolm,' Jon sighs, rubbing frustratedly at his forehead.
'No,' T'Pol replies. 'Commander Mayweather.'
'Has been working for me since I first took on the responsibility.'
'Malcolm wasn't involved?'
Jon lets out an unsteady breath, surprised by the wave of relief flowing through him. 'Where does Section 31 come into it?'
'The organization Commander Mayweather and I work for is a legitimate branch of Federation intelligence, even though it isn't widely known in Starfleet. Section 31 is not. When I became involved, one of the first things I attempted was to expose Aubrey Harris and his associates. Unfortunately, the Section came into possession of a partial list of our operatives. If we ever try to shut them down, they will simply sell it to the highest bidder. It's a delicate situation and I was concerned that if you had revealed Mr. Reed's past involvement... There are nearly two hundred names on that list, admiral,' she looks at him, eyes heavy with the burden.
'It isn't your fault, T'Pol,' he says softly, touching her arm.
'Perhaps not, but it is my responsibility. As is the death of Malcolm Reed.'
Jon awoke to the activity of the Endeavor's overcrowded sickbay, disorientated and groggy. He tried to sit up but none of his limbs seemed to work properly. The movement made his head hurt -- bright colors obscured his vision, nausea rolling through his stomach. He squeezed his eyes shut again, but it didn't help. Strong hands turned him onto his side and someone held a container to his mouth as he vomited. Then he was laid back down, his mouth gently wiped and water pressed to his lips.
Blinking a few times, his vision cleared a little and a familiar face came into focus.
'Malcolm? What happened?' he murmured thickly, his throat raw and dry, and it was then that he noticed the glint of light on Reed's right shoulder -- three rectangular silver pips.
'An EPS conduit exploded,' he said. 'Captain Gravelle is dead.' He reached over and pressed a button on the monitor above Jon's head, alerting the doctor that he was awake, then looked back down, right into Jon's eyes. 'You shouldn't have come, Admiral,' he said, and Archer wanted to recoil from the weary bitterness in his eyes.
And then he left, to take up his new duties as first officer. It was only after Malcolm was gone that Jon realized he couldn't feel his left leg.
'There is a region of space in the Neutral Zone, close to the Garratan system, where the fabric of space-time can spontaneously dissolve into something known in astrophysics as a 'microrift'. In simplistic terms, these rifts are microscopic singularities that emit a tremendous amount of high frequency radiation, hence they are extremely dangerous to most humanoid species. During the war, the Romulans experimented with recreating them artificially, for use as a weapon, but with the establishment of the Neutral Zone they were forced to withdraw from that sector. When I learned that the Romulans had secretly annexed Garratan-three, I became concerned that they had resumed their research. As I said, such a weapon would destabilize the stalemate between our two sides. It could have lead to another war.
'I sent the information, with my conclusions, to Commander Mayweather in the hopes that something could be done without involving Starfleet. He contacted me the next day with his plan -- to steal a shuttlepod, fly to Garratan-three and destroy the facility himself. Despite Mr. Mayweather's confidence that he could return safely, it was an incredibly dangerous mission and one which, should he have survived, would almost certainly have led to his dismissal from Starfleet. But there seemed no alternative.
'Unfortunately, Captain Reed captured and decoded our communication. Mr. Mayweather had no choice but to reveal everything to him. Together, they put it to the rest of the senior staff, and between them decided on a course of action -- to take Brimstone herself across the border.
'They reached Garratan without incident and managed to destroy the base and an orbiting warship, but another ship escaped and as it did so, it deployed a device that expanded a nearby microrift. Brimstone was damaged, her impulse drive offline, and the intense radiation being emitted by the expanded rift not only began to threaten the crew's health, but also interfered with the warp field. It induced a negative feedback loop in the field generator, preventing warp drive engagement -- they were trapped.
'The science officer and chief engineer managed eventually to discern that a massive antimatter explosion, a warp core breach, would close the rift. In the time that they had before the build up of radiation became fatal, the crew set the necessary conditions and evacuated. However, someone had to remain on board to initialize a controlled core overload. Commander Mayweather protested strongly, but in the end it was the captain's decision.
'It is Mr. Mayweather's belief that Captain Reed was overcome with radiation poisoning before he could make it to the transporter room. He was still onboard when the ship exploded.'
Archer doesn't speak for some time. As a boy, he had often wondered at the phrase 'to have your world turned upside down.' He would picture himself from China's perspective -- on the bottom of the globe -- and tried to imagine himself falling clean off into space until it made him dizzy. He thinks of this now, unconsciously reaching out to touch the grass, and marvels at how inadequate a sensation he had imagined. He can't voice what he's feeling at this moment, so instead, after a couple of minutes, he asks, 'The ship that got away -- did it make it back to Romulan space?'
'I can only assume that it did,' T'Pol replies. He hears the sound of her robes rustling as she changes her position. 'One of the reasons I sent the information directly to Commander Mayweather, instead of going through formal channels, was that, should the Romulans trace the destruction of their facility back to Starfleet, their response was likely to be a resumption of hostilities. Given that they almost certainly know the Brimstone was the cause of their loss, the fact that they have yet to respond in any way makes me very uncomfortable.'
Grasping his cane, Jon struggles to his feet. T'Pol rises smoothly and offers him her hand.
'Thank you,' Jon says, 'for telling me.'
'You deserved to know,' she says in return, and something in her eyes tells Jon that she knew about Malcolm and him.
They make their way back down the shallow incline, T'Pol wordlessly supporting him again, and head back to the lights and life of the city.
At the edge of the playing field, Jon stops, and says, 'You aren't responsible for Malcolm's death, T'Pol.' She simply nods, appreciating his words even if she doesn't agree.
Admiral Archer can't sleep again. He finds it hard to believe that it was just last night that he received Reed's letter, and the day before that he learned of his death. His mind reels with the things he's heard today: Commander Lloyd's subtle accusations, T'Pol's revelations. He feels like he's barely had time to just stop, and absorb what he's been told.
But now, his work and responsibilities on pause while he's supposed to be sleeping, there is time to think and remember, and things come back to him; his guilt, his loss. The words of Malcolm's letter burned into his brain.
*I wish that I could have told you this myself.*
Jon remembers a thousand touches and looks and laughs, sitting around a campfire watching Malcolm's face as he talked with Trip; his slow, seductive smile one night over a memorable dinner; lying in bed simply looking at each other, words unnecessary. And yet, how they were.
*I love you, Jonathan, I always have.*
Again the thought comes to him, that maybe this could have been prevented had they stayed together. He tries to envisage his life, the last twelve years, with Malcolm at his side, as Malcolm's lover. He tries to see how things might have been different. But he can't possibly begin to imagine, because they weren't. He'll never know.
And the sick feeling, the anger and the heartache confused into a hard lump in the pit of his stomach, as he tries to reconcile everything he knows to be true with the fact that Malcolm is dead. But he can't figure it out. He can't see the link.
*The destruction of the Brimstone was no accident.*
You fool, he thinks vehemently, but he isn't sure to whom it's directed. It would be so much easier, to blame T'Pol or Travis, but in the end it just comes back to him -- *his* choices, *his* self-deception.
He rolls over onto his back and closes his eyes, letting alternating waves of rage and sorrow, guilt and regret wash over him, until they drown out his senses.
Jon remembers this excruciating numbness that comes at the darkest time of the day, from the friends who have gone before, from his father and Trip. But they were different, their ends coming as a relief to incurable pain. There was nothing he could have done to change either of their fates.
He thinks of Trip now, of his slow descent into painful oblivion, and he misses him, his steady companionship, with a soul-deep ache. His greatest fear, over the years, has been to end up as the last one standing. Since his childhood, people he has cared about have died and he's said goodbye, or not, and continued to live. The list only gets shorter, he thinks, and his mind turns to Hoshi and Dan, and Aki.
Getting up, he goes into the next room and sits at his console, considering its blank face for a moment, and then typing in a command. He a waits a few seconds for the connection to be accepted, and then Hoshi's tired face appears on the screen.
'Hoshi, I...' he trails off, suddenly unsure of what to say.
'It's ok, Jonathan. I wasn't asleep.'
By the time Hoshi arrives at his door, Jon's world has just shifted for the second time in as many days. Before she can say anything about his ashen face or the way his body trembles, he takes her by the hand and pulls her into the den. There the console is on, showing a handsome man in his late thirties.
'Travis!' Sato exclaims.
'Hoshi,' he says guardedly, eyes going to Jon.
'Go on, Commander,' Jon says, 'tell Hoshi what you just told me.'
Mayweather looks between the two of them, the whites of his eyes luminous against his mahogany skin. He says, 'Malcolm might still be alive.'
Part 4 | Part 6