TITLE: Choices

AUTHOR: elfin

E-mail: elfin@burble.com

Date: 07/09/02

PAIRINGS: Trip/Malcolm

RATING: PG

ARCHIVE: Do we have your permission to archive your fic at the Archer's Enterprise site? Yes :-)

DISCLAIMER: They all belong to Rick Berman and co

NOTE: Temporary character death


"Captain, we've lost all power."

Archer rubbed his face with the palms of his hands. It felt like nothing was working at the moment.

Continuing transporter tests had succeeded only in turning an up-rooted tree from an unnamed M-class planet into a small pile of firewood, and turning a tiny rodent inside out.

The warp drives had been on and off line, 'up and down like a whore's drawers', as Lieutenant Reed had colourfully put it.

Even the front view screen had been showing nothing but static for hours on end.

Now, everything had apparently collapsed at the same time.

Archer hit the communicator button on the arm of his chair, hoping that it at least would work. "Commander Tucker?" His patient tone was underlined with the mild frustration of a man trying to take charge of a star ship on which nothing seemed to be working.

"Sorry, Cap'n, but it's not us this time."

Archer sat up slightly. "What?"

"Everything was just fine then it was like someone just pulled the plug."

"That would be your plug, Commander."

"I know, Cap'n. But I'm telling you that it wasn't us."

Leaving the communications channel open, Archer pushed himself to his feet.

"What's going on…?" A bright, narrow flash of white light in the centre of the bridge brushed his question away.

A second later, a tall man wearing a red suit and a devilish grin was standing before him.

"Who the hell are you?"

The man held out his hand, but at the same time, he seemed to take in his surroundings. His hand dropped as Archer reached for it.

"What have you done with the place?"

All the bridge crew could do was stare at the stranger.

"It's so drab! Still, décor was never your strong point."

"Our…my strong point? Do I know you?" The captain dropped his arm back to his side, expression still curious.

"I didn't mean you personally." Again, he extended his hand, smile plastered on his face. "I'm Q."

Archer finally shook hands. "Q." He spoke with a slight incline of his head. "What are you doing on my ship?"

Q turned with a flourish. "It's always my ship, my planet, my goldfish." He missed the frown. "When will you people learn to share?"

Walking to the back of the bridge, Q continued to look around.

"How about how you got on board my ship?"

Q glanced at the man questioning him. "Inquisitive from the beginning, I see." He sighed, stopping at the engineering station, where Trip usually hovered next to Malcolm. "I've met your species before. Or rather, since. I taught them a lot."

Archer caught on. "You're a time traveller!"

Q laughed. "Something like that, yes. I'm a member of the Continuum. We pass freely through time and space looking for lesser species to annoy." He focused on the panels in front of him.

A moment later, Jonathan shivered, a chill going down his spine. Q's presence was unnerving. "What do you want with us?"

"Oh, nothing. I merely thought we'd play a little game, to see if you're already a mature race, or whether Picard's crew truly is—was—the first generation we should bother with."

"Don't we have any choice in the matter?"

Q looked up. "At least your sense of humour is the same. You remind me of Commander Riker." He smiled. "Let's see just how far you've come."

No one saw it coming. They weren't even sure where Q had got the small but heavy metal rod from. Maybe no where, the same place he'd come from.

But when he suddenly smashed it into the side of Malcolm's head, the damage it caused was very real. For an instant, the Englishman's shocked stare met Archer's expression of horror. Through the blood and the mess, the fragments of skull as they pressed into his brain, there was a moment of sheer surprise.

Reed was dead before his broken head hit the weapons console.

Hoshi screamed. In the months they'd been aboard, she'd seen enough to settle her nerves, but this was too much.

It was drowned by Archer's cry of denial. He ran, launching himself bodily over the railing, over the engineering panels to tackle Q to the deck.

But before they landed they were impossibly standing, Q behind the captain, one of Archer's arms locked painfully behind his back. He was so close to his dead Armory Officer that he could see the blood running in a steady stream around the dip of his left, open, staring eye, over his nose and down to the floor.

"Malc…"

Q's arm wrapped around his throat, cutting off his speech, and almost his breathing.

"He doesn't have to die, Captain. Try to work out where you went wrong, and I'll fix this."

Archer was released, his legs making a valiant effort to keep him upright. Q was gone.

In the same moment, the tube door swished opened and Trip stepped out onto the bridge. "What the hell's going on up here? I heard screaming…"

Archer looked up to see his best friend's eyes coming to rest on Malcolm's body, still sitting at his position.

"Trip…" He willed himself to be able to walk in a straight line, stepping around his dead crewman, arm up, palm out. "Trip, don't…"

Too late.

Archer caught the engineer as he ran up the slope to the back of the bridge. "Malcolm!" He fought his captain's restraining hold. "Malcolm!"

"He's dead, Trip," Archer murmured softly, one arm wrapped around the struggling man's waist, the other around his back. "Don't."

Trip's fight lessened, tears filling his eyes. "No…"

Archer leaned his forehead into the blond hair. "Don't see him like this," he whispered. "Please."

With one final, strangled cry of pain, Trip pulled away. Archer expected him to run, but he didn't. He just stood there, shaking.

Archer turned away, unable to bare the look in his friend's eyes.

What was it that Q had said? 'Work out where you went wrong'? What did that mean?

***

Six Months Earlier

Admiral Forrest looked up at the uniformed man standing before him.

"Trip Tucker?"

"Yes, Sir. He's the best there is." Archer watched his superior, wondering what was wrong. He'd been told he could pick his own crew for Enterprise's maiden voyage, with one exception. Commander Tucker was the most decorated engineer in his field. He wanted his new ship to have the best of care. "Is there a problem?"

"You've also requested Lieutenant Malcolm Reed."

"Yes, Sir. I've never worked with him before, but a friend of mine, Captain Jack Maynard, recommended him, asked me to give him a chance."

"You don't know him? Lieutenant Reed, I mean."

"No, Sir. Why?"

"Nothing, Captain." Forrest shuffled together the papers on his desk. "I'll do what I can for you, Jon."

"Thank you, Sir."

***

Present Day

Phlox was aware of the captain's constant glances at the covered body lying on a medical bed not far from them.

"I understand how you must feel, Captain," he murmured, taking the man's arm in a gentle grip and leading him to one side, so that Malcolm Reed's body was no longer in direct line of sight.

"You can't possibly understand." Archer's tone was measured, clipped. Never before had Phlox seen any human as wound up as the man before him was now. As if, at any moment, the pressure of holding together this faćade would become too much and he'd snap, destroying everything around him in an attempt to somehow bring Reed back to them. "I want to tear this galaxy apart looking for that alien."

"It wouldn't change matters," Phlox reminded him in his patented bedside manner. "Lieutenant Reed would still be dead."

Archer's otherwise dead eyes blazed with rage for a single moment. "He said he could fix this."

Phlox didn't answer. He waited, let the other man pull himself back together, that one crack in his armour just the first of too many possible breakdowns.

Finally, Archer blinked, turning his head away, forcing back the pain.

"If it helps, he knew nothing of his fate. He died instantly."

The words brought the flash of an image into Archer's mind; that awful look of utter surprise of Malcolm's face in the moment his skull had caved in under the impact of the metal in Q's fist. He'd known. And in that second, in that sudden explosion of horror, Archer had been unable to do anything to help his crewman, his friend.

Slamming his open palm against the door open button, Jonathan moved sideways through the gap as soon as it was wide enough. He had to leave sickbay before he hurt someone. Maybe himself.


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