Title: A Stone's Throw

Author: EntSTSlash Round Robin (Cinmbria, TheGrrrl, Kalita Kasar, Kipli, Kylie Lee, Mara, MJ, Ragnall, T'Lin, and Trequinn)

E-mail: care of kylielee1000@hotmail.com

Author's URL: http://www.geocities.com/kylielee1000/

Date: 09/04/02

Length: ~13,700 words

Fandom: Star Trek: Enterprise

Pairing: Archer/Tucker

Type: Slash M/M

Rating: NC-17

Status: Complete

Summary: Archer and Tucker give in to their growing attraction for each other as the crew of the Enterprise copes with a little meteor problem.

Series/sequel: No

Archive: Yes to EntSTSlash, Tim Ruben, Elfin, WoMB, Allslash, Complete Kingdom of Slash, Luminosity (aka the usual suspects). Anyone else, ask. Disclaimer: Original material copyright 2002 EntSTSlash Round Robin. This is not an attempt to infringe on Paramount's copyright. No money was made.

Spoilers: None

Warnings: None

Comment: This round robin fic was written as a kind of experiment in running a round robin as structured. A general plot outline was constructed first, and the chapters were assigned on the basis of the number of people who had signed up for the round robin. EntSTSlash is at this URL: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/EntSTSlash. Beta'd by Sarah and Kim—thank you!

*** Chapter 1 (Kylie Lee)

Captain Jonathan Archer reached out a hand and hit the com button next to his desk. "Yes?" he asked, an implicit warning in his voice. He'd asked not to be disturbed while he worked on a project. In fact, he was working in his quarters, not in his ready room, to avoid this very thing.

Subcommander T'Pol's voice came through the com. "Captain, we have a problem with Shuttlepod One. Please come to the bridge."

"Is Travis okay?" Archer asked automatically. Ensign Travis Mayweather, his best pilot, was on shuttle duty: the Enterprise was orbiting the uninhabited fourth planet in the Rho Theta system, and a team was down on the surface, taking core samples. Commander Trip Tucker, the ship's chief engineer and Archer's good friend, thought there might be some elements and metals that would prove useful in constructing some spare parts for the ship. Mayweather was shuttling samples back to the ship, a run he made twice a day at preset times, in rotation with another pilot, so the samples could be analyzed using the Enterprise's sophisticated equipment.

There was a slight pause. It was enough to make Archer rise to his feet. "We have been unable to establish contact," the Vulcan science officer said, ever the mistress of understatement.

"Be right there. Archer out."

Archer was out the door and in the lift in record time. He'd asked to be disturbed only in the event of an emergency—and it looked like there was one brewing.

The tableau Archer saw as he set foot on the bridge did not ease his worries. T'Pol was in the captain's chair, seated on its edge. Everyone was being very quiet, which meant that the com was on. The general tenor of the room spoke of tension. T'Pol acknowledged Archer with a nod but did not rise. "Ensign Mayweather, do you read?" T'Pol asked, her voice loud and precise. Apparently she had been trying to hail Mayweather for a while, because she gestured a query at Ensign Hoshi Sato at the com, who gave a thumbs-up, then theatrically shrugged. The com system was up. Why hadn't Mayweather responded? T'Pol repeated her query, then had Sato put it on automatic. She rose and ceded the chair to Archer.

"Malcolm, where the heck is he?" Archer asked, irritated, when Sato cut the com.

Lieutenant Malcolm Reed, the tac officer, looked up from the telemetry he was viewing. "He's halfway, sir, but off the established course," he reported, his voice worried. Mayweather was a friend of his.

"Is she adrift?"

"I don't think so." Reed paused for a moment, frowning. "No, definitely not. The thrusters just fired. She's accelerating, but she's off by at least ten degrees. The shuttlepod will miss us if she remains on her present speed and course, sir."

Sato held up a finger, garnering instant silence and the complete attention of the entire bridge crew. She was listening intently. Then: "Got him," she said in satisfaction, punching it up.

"—Potatoes to Enterprise, are you there? Is this thing on? This is Mashed Potatoes to Enterprise, do you read?" Mayweather's voice sounded higher than usual, excited, and it echoed weirdly.

Mashed potatoes? Archer wondered. He'd just commented to Tucker the other day that the shuttlepods needed better names. It looked like Mayweather, their resident Boomer, had taken charge, as threatened, and named at least one of the pods, alluding to an event that had taken place in Shuttlepod One.

T'Pol responded, her voice characteristically calm. "Enterprise to Mashed Potatoes. We read you. You are off course. Do you require assistance?"

"Damn straight I require assistance!" Mayweather yelled. There was a scrambling sound, then a loud thump. "Shit!" he cried, and he so obviously meant it that Archer winced. There was a pause. "Sorry, sir. Um, yes, I require assistance. Two high-velocity meteors cut through the hull, and it took out the oh-two reserves, plus I can't steer this thing. I'm wearing my EV suit, what with the total lack of air in the cabin and all, so nobody panic. I'll be fine for a few hours. But I can't turn this boat. Can someone come get me, tug me out of here?"

T'Pol nodded at Archer, who had risen out of his chair. He picked up his cue. "You got it, Travis," Archer said. "Sit tight. We'll be there in—an hour?" He eyed Reed, who nodded. "An hour."

"Yeah, I'll sit tight all right," Mayweather said bitterly. "This was no accident. Mashed Potatoes out."

Sato cut the com. "That was transmitted through the EV suit's mike," she said. "He got through by boosting it through Mashed Potatoes' power system." The EV suits' mikes were low power, meant for communication between people within a few hundred kilometers of each other.

"Excellent work, Ensign," T'Pol said approvingly.

Archer began issuing orders. "T'Pol, you're in charge of figuring out the source of these high-velocity meteors." He returned to his chair and hit the internal com. "Lieutenant Hess, report to the bridge."

"Hess, aye, sir," Hess's voice said a moment later. "T'Pol, have Hess scan Mashed Potatoes from here and draw up a repair plan. Have her get a team on it as soon as we tug it in. We'll send over our analysis too. I want that shuttle scanned from here till Sunday. She'll work with you to figure out what is going on. Oh, and get the grappling arm online. Just in case."

"Aye, sir," said Reed.

"Trip is with me. I need his expertise to get the pod's power systems back online. We're going to fetch our merchandise." He turned to Sato. "Hoshi, I'll need to know how to get in touch with Travis. Send the EV suit's frequency to Shuttlepod Two." Sato nodded and did it. Archer hit the internal com again. "Archer to Tucker. Trip, meet me at Shuttlepod Two five minutes ago. Confirm that there are EV suits on board, well stocked with air."

"See you at the party," Tucker's voice responded, exaggerating his Southern drawl.

Archer turned to Reed. "If this is a weapon, I'll need your expertise. Work with T'Pol and figure it out."

"Of course, sir."

"T'Pol, you have the bridge."

T'Pol inclined her head, and Archer headed for the lift. When he exited and headed for the shuttle bay, he was met by Tucker, coming via Engineering. "What do you think it is, Cap'n?" Tucker asked. He always called Archer "Cap'n," rarely anything else. "The odds don't favor two little tiny meteors cutting through the shuttlepod, and the same thing happened to Rostov on a run yesterday."

"I didn't know that," Archer said. Now the comment Mayweather had made—"this was no accident"—made sense.

"What, you don't read the repairs updates any more?"

Archer cleared his throat. "I must have skimmed it too quickly."

"I guess you must have." Tucker's voice was amused.

The two men entered the shuttle bay, and Tucker headed straight to the room where the EV suits were kept. "You said EV suits?"

"Yes. Travis said he has no air in the cabin." EV suits were stored in each shuttlepod, one for each passenger, so each carried four as a matter of course. "So let's suit up. We'll put on the undersuit here and use the EV suits on board the shuttle." Archer opened a locker and pulled out a small blue piece of fabric about the size of a pair of socks rolled together. He tossed it to Tucker, who caught it in midair. "When we connect our shuttle to Travis's, even with the airlock, I'd rather be safe."

"Aw, I hate those things." Tucker unfolded the fabric, revealing a vaguely human-shaped suit.

"Imagine how Travis feels. He probably put the EV suit on over his uniform." The environmental suits had special garments worn under the airtight suit that allowed the user to hook to the suit's systems. Wearing it over clothing was possible, but hot and irritating. Archer pulled out his own sock-sized suit. "I told Travis we'd be there in an hour, but I'd like to beat that. Let's get moving."

He quickly stripped off his uniform and underwear and stepped into the skin-tight blue-and-gray fabric. The texture felt slick and uncomfortable, but his body soon warmed it. It was almost like wearing a scuba suit. He sealed it shut at the shoulder, then turned to check on Tucker.

Tucker's suit had twisted, and he was struggling to get his arm in, not realizing that the fabric had folded under. "Damn," Tucker said, tugging futilely. "This always happens when I'm in a hurry."

"Here, let me." Archer took hold of the fabric. "Let go, Trip."

Tucker stopped struggling and Archer untwisted the suit. He was standing very close, and he was suddenly aware of Tucker's broad, bare back, only inches away. He noticed Tucker's musculature under the lightly tanned skin. The man certainly kept up his weight-lifting regimen.

"Cap'n?" Tucker twisted at the waist and looked inquiringly over his shoulder.

Archer quickly turned his eyes from the rippling muscles to the suit. "I've got it now." He hauled up on the fabric so Tucker could slide his arm in. Archer's fingers brushed Tucker's back as he held up the other arm. Tucker was warm, his skin smooth and soft.

"Thanks." Tucker sealed the undersuit with a practiced swipe of his hand and stepped away from Archer. "Ready to roll?"

"Let's go."

Archer followed Tucker onto the shuttlepod. The skin-tight suit left little to the imagination, but Archer found himself imagining anyway: imagining Tucker's bare back under his stroking hand.

*** Chapter 2 (Kipli and TheGrrrl)

Even as they launched Shuttlepod Two, Archer was inputting the coordinates to reach Shuttlepod One. Or rather, he thought wryly, "Mashed Potatoes." He looked back at the data from the scans of the region.

"Commander, are there any data on the trajectory of those meteors? Including the one from yesterday?" he asked.

"Nope," replied Tucker. "Nothing from Rostov's flight. Maybe Travis recorded something on this last hit, though. I've boosted the power to our sensors here, so if something comes our way, we should have some warning."

As they got underway, Archer opened a channel to Mayweather's EV frequency. "Ensign Mayweather? Captain Archer here. We are on our way. What's your situation?"

Mayweather's voice came though clearly, despite the slight echo. "Nothing's changed, Captain. I'm still just sitting tight." The young man sounded calmer now.

"Good. You just hang in there. We'll be there soon. Archer out."

Archer cut the com and sighed heavily, getting up and stalking across the small space. "I should have realized something was going on. Rostov got hit yesterday? I shouldn't have sent Travis out without investigating first." He ran his hands through his hair.

"Cap'n, you couldn't have known. One meteor? That's not somethin' that would raise a red flag." Archer shook his head, leaning against the bulkhead. Then he heard Tucker curse loudly, and the next thing he knew, he was halfway across the shuttlepod interior. His head slammed painfully into a storage unit.

"Cap'n—it was comin' right at us!" Trip exclaimed. "You okay?"

Archer was already up at Tucker's shoulder, looking at the readouts. "How did it miss us?"

"I swerved."

"You what?" asked Archer in surprise. "I didn't think you could make shuttlepods move so sharply."

Tucker looked up at him and grinned, pleased. "They can if you know what you're doing." Then the grin left his face. "Hey, look at you. You're hurt. I'm sorry—there wasn't much time to warn you."

"It's nothing," he said. He touched his throbbing temple and found it wet with blood. "Just a little scratch. Anything else heading our way?"

Tucker was eyeing the readouts. "Not that I can tell. Although we don't get much warning, that's for sure." Then, getting up, he said, "Here, sit down. Let me look at that. You watch the scans."

Before Archer could protest, he found himself gently pushed down into the recently vacated seat. Tucker's fingers were touching his head lightly as he brushed Archer's hair aside to get a better look. The younger man leaned up against his shoulder, and Archer was acutely aware of the touch, of the skin-tight garment, and the well-muscled chest only inches away from his face. He forced himself to focus instead on the readouts scrolling across the console screen. Stop it, he told himself firmly. He's ten years younger than you and under your command.

"That's a nasty gash, Cap'n," said Tucker, his voice soft with concern.

"Trip, really, I'm fine. You know head wounds. They bleed a lot." It really was only a scratch, and it only throbbed a little. He tilted his head to look up at Tucker. The younger man was gazing down at him with an odd expression, his fingers still resting lightly at the side of Archer's head. Then the expression vanished and Tucker was wearing his familiar cocky grin.

"'Course you are. Takes a hell of a lot more than that to slow *you* down." Tucker dropped his hands to his sides.

"You know it," replied Archer. "And now I think it's time we got into our EV suits. You first; I'll watch the scans."

But first Tucker insisted on bringing him some gauze for his cut, telling him that dripping blood onto the console wouldn't do it any good. Archer permitted Tucker to clean the wound, affix a pad of gauze to his temple, and tape it down while Archer sat, still watching the scans. Tucker's fingers were impersonal and competent, and Archer kept his eyes resolutely on the readouts. He tried to ignore the warmth spreading in his stomach.

"Done," Tucker said at last, stepping back, swabbing his fingers with a rag from the medkit to clean off the blood. He snapped the medkit shut and stowed it. "Guess I'd better suit up." The tone of his voice indicated he wasn't wild about the idea.

Archer watched Tucker out of the corner of his eye. Tucker pulled an EV suit out, but judging by the lack of sound to follow, he didn't put it on. Archer turned, only to see his chief engineer frowning at the EV suit in his hands.

"Trip," he warned.

Tucker sighed.

Archer swung his chair around and looked at Tucker, head tilted to one side. But before he could speak, Tucker interjected, "Okay, okay, I'm suiting up."

With no small amount of cussing, Tucker did just that, and in a few minutes, he was seated at the controls with his helmet resting on his lap. Archer took one last look at his scans, then rose to do the same.


Checking the time again on the console in front of him, Mayweather sighed inside his EV suit. If he took the hour Archer had cited as gospel, he had another fifteen minutes until his rescue. He shifted as he sat uneasily at the helm of the shuttlepod. It was eerie not having control over where he was going. After finally contacting Enterprise, he had managed to cut power to the main engines. Now he was just drifting.

Mayweather glanced behind himself. Out of sight, one of the meteors had smashed its way through the engines and main computer, not to mention the air tanks. The second had sliced through the hull just a foot back from the helm. If it had hit its real target…The ensign shook his head. He didn't need to be thinking like that. Not at the moment. He was jumpy enough as it was.

"Damn it, hurry up," Mayweather muttered to himself as he glanced at the time again. His EV suit was hot, and the uniform underneath made his skin itch. Shifting in his seat again to try to get more comfortable, he wondered who exactly would rush to his rescue. Knowing Archer, the man would never leave this up to anyone else. For a moment he wondered if Reed would shove his way into coming along, but then Mayweather decided Archer wouldn't want anyone else with him except Tucker.

"The amazing duo." Mayweather grinned slightly to himself. Those two were always together. On or off duty, you were bound to find Archer not far from Tucker. It made Mayweather wonder sometimes…Not that they didn't act like any other best friends. It was just—they had chemistry between them. Something was bound to spark between them with the right catalyst. Maybe a few more months alone in space together would—

A crackle on his com interrupted his thoughts. Moments later, a loud clank from the roof of the shuttlepod sounded and Mayweather stood as he sighed, "Finally."

"Figured you'd be thrilled to see us early, Ensign," came Archer's voice through the com.

Mayweather grinned as he opened the back hatch to see Archer and Tucker in EV suits climbing aboard from their shuttlepod. The amazing duo strikes again, the younger man thought as he stepped back so they could join him inside the damaged craft. "Just getting a little lonely all by myself, sir."

Tucker looked uncomfortable in his EV suit as they stepped down, tugging at it here and there until Archer shot him a look. From the expression on Archer's face, the other man must have been playing with his EV suit the minute he got it on. Mayweather suppressed a chuckle as Archer turned his gaze back to him. He noticed a bandage on the side of Archer's head, on his temple. "What happened exactly, Travis?"

"Everything was going fine until about halfway through my return trip. The scanners just barely registered the incoming meteors before two tore through the hull. One here," Mayweather said as he pointed to the hole just behind helm, then down to the floor to the exit point, before tossing a hand toward the back. "Another hit the backside of Mashed Potatoes, running through the engine, oxygen tanks, and part of the main computer."

"This one here nearly hit you," Tucker commented, staring at the coin-sized hole above their heads.

"I think they missed their target."

Archer frowned. "You think someone was aiming for you?"

"The odds aren't in favor of this happenin' without a little malicious help," Tucker replied before looking to Archer. "It's going to take some doing to get Mashed Potatoes back online, Cap'n. She's pretty beat up."

Mayweather watched a look pass between his two commanding officers. A moment later, and it was gone.

"Let's get you and the core samples on board Shuttlepod Two, then, Travis. Someone took a shot at us on the way over, so I'm not going to take Mashed Potatoes into tow. We'll head back to Enterprise and then use the grappling arm to tow Mashed Potatoes into a docking bay before we work on her."

"Aye, sir."

The three men turned to the back of the shuttle, where multiple crates held core samples piled inside. As they all picked up a few crates, Tucker teased Mayweather, "Haven't you named the other pod yet?"

Mayweather grinned wide. "Naming is an art, Commander. She'll let me know what her name is when she wants to be named."

Tucker rolled his eyes as he struggled up the steps with his samples. "Boomers…"

A few minutes later, core samples transferred to Shuttlepod Two, the three men sealed the airlocks one at a time. Then Tucker cut the seal, sending a loud thump through the cabin. "OK, Cap'n, Shuttlepod One's released."

"Mashed Potatoes," Mayweather corrected automatically.

"Right, Mashed Potatoes," Tucker agreed. "Well, whatever you want to call her, she's adrift."

Mayweather hoped they got back to Enterprise safely: only Tucker's quick action had saved Tucker and Archer from being struck by that last meteor—or maybe "missile" would be a better word. Who was shooting at them?

"Mayweather, you're driving," commanded Archer.

"Yes, sir," Mayweather replied eagerly, seating himself in the pilot's chair. His fingers danced over the console as he set course. It was a real pleasure to pilot a craft that was quick, small, and maneuverable. The Enterprise—and its shuttlepods—were a nice switch from big, bulky cargo ships.

"You thought fast back there," Archer complimented him. "Getting into the EV suit, boosting the power so you could reach Enterprise through the suit's mike—a good display of Boomer initiative."

"Thank you, sir."

"Cap'n, I can't get anything about the trajectory of the meteors from the scans I pulled from Mashed Potatoes," said Tucker, gazing at the padd in his hand. "I think it's because I can't pinpoint a source. It's like they're just appearing."

Before Archer could reply, they all heard a strange popping sound. Bewildered, Mayweather looked for the source of the sound. Then several more pops, and a large, dark gash appeared in the console in front of Archer. Shit. Archer moved hastily and stood behind Mayweather.

"Captain, we've been hit, four—make it five times," said Mayweather excitedly. Loose items in the cabin began swirling around as the air began leaking out.

"And more are on the way!" Tucker shouted, looking up from telemetry.

Archer peered over Mayweather's shoulder at the intact console. He reached over and keyed in to Sato's direct communication relay. "Archer to Enterprise—we're under attack! Get us the hell out of here!"

"Captain, we are locking onto your coordinates now." T'Pol's voice was calm as ever.

"I'm not fond of the transporter, but I'm even less fond of having a hole blasted through my crew members' bodies," Archer said. "Trip, Travis—" He pointed to the center of the shuttle.

The three of them had reached the area and were waiting for transport when the next projectile hit. It skidded across the starboard hull, creating a long gouge. Eerily, they heard nothing, although they felt the shuttlepod shiver under their feet; there was no longer any air in the cabin to carry the sound.

Mayweather watched in astonishment as the nose of the shuttle broke off in front of him. The stars suddenly seemed very close. His feet left the floor as the power died and the gravity plating went offline, and the remainder of the shuttle began a slow tumble. He reached up and grabbed a handhold on the ceiling, automatically adjusting to zero g. He caught his equilibrium quickly.

But Archer didn't. Archer kicked back with a foot, sending himself forward a little too fast. Before he could sail out of the shuttlecraft altogether, Tucker reached out and grabbed him, pulling at the fabric of the EV suit. Tucker was stretched long, one hand around a handy ladder, the other pulling at Archer's suit. Archer had the good sense to go limp. Mayweather almost completed the rescue, but he didn't. He was interested.

"Gotcha, Cap'n," Tucker said, his voice intimate in Mayweather's ear, a little breathless. Archer's body floated back the last crucial half meter. Then Tucker wrapped one arm around Archer and pulled him in close. Mayweather watched as Tucker and Archer shared a glance.

"Thank you, Commander." Archer's voice was calm. Mayweather saw Tucker's arm tighten. Seconds passed. The two men were still looking at each other. Mayweather pretended to survey the damage.

A long moment went by. Mayweather gave an exasperated sigh. "So when the heck are they—"

Then everything shimmered and went white around them.

*** Chapter 3 (Mara)

When the dematerialization process started, Archer found himself with one thought running through his head, and that one was moving at warp five: Please, God, let Trip come through okay. Oh, and Travis, too.

As they solidified on Enterprise, he had just enough time for one more thought: We're not going to be standing upright when we get there. Then gravity took control, and Archer and Tucker dropped a meter or two to the transporter platform, Tucker's arm still wrapped around him. They stumbled as they landed, then found themselves on the ground, Tucker lying half under his captain. There was a long, startled pause, with Archer staring through his helmet at the other man, and then Tucker said, "Damn it, those bastards blew up my shuttle!"

Everyone in the room laughed, and Archer, face somewhat flushed and head throbbing, managed to lever himself upright. Taking a deep breath, and attempting to recover his dignity after the ignominious entry, he removed his helmet. "*Your* shuttle? I think Starfleet might beg to differ."

Tucker jumped to his feet and yanked off his helmet, irritation evident in every line of his body, even through the suit. Archer dragged his eyes back up to his friend's face, then turned to check on Mayweather and congratulate the engineers on a successful transport.

T'Pol's voice hailed him over the com. "Captain, should we attempt to retrieve the pieces of the shuttle?"

"Will we learn anything we don't already know?" Archer asked, frowning with concentration.

"That is unknown, Captain."

"I know, Subcommander, it was more of a rhetorical…Never mind—just take Enterprise out of this area. I don't want to take any chances with the ship until we have a better idea what's going on. Gather the senior staff. Commander Tucker and I will join you as soon as we've gotten out of these suits."

The engineers were gone already, as was Mayweather, who'd apparently taken off to change immediately. Tucker, once again tugging at his suit like a small boy with an itchy collar, was waiting by the door for him.

"C'mon," he said, "let's go."

"Can't wait to get me out of this suit?" Archer asked, his mind still half on the meteor problem. His brain caught up with his mouth milliseconds later, but Tucker was already halfway out the door, and Archer wasn't sure if his inappropriate quip had even registered with the impatient engineer. Archer closed his eyes. Focus, he thought; there's a crisis to deal with. You're just dealing with that near-death-experience adrenaline. That's all.

By the time he made it to the EV suit storage lockers, Mayweather was just leaving and Tucker was already tugging his suit down over his hips. Archer yanked his eyes up yet again and started to remove his own suit.

"Whoever the hell destroyed that shuttle, when I get my hands on 'em, they're gonna wish they'd never been born." Tucker's voice echoed in the room over the sounds of him savagely opening and closing cabinets and lockers. He apparently couldn't find where he had stowed his uniform.

"Agreed," Archer said. It astounded him that the room seemed to have gotten smaller since the last time they were in it. Every place he rested his eyes seemed to have one of Tucker's limbs in it, and every time he moved, he seemed to bump into him. Archers' eyes moved of their own volition to rest on Tucker's back, now clad only in the EV suit's skin-tight underwear as he stretched to pull something down from a high shelf. Archer whipped his head away, bumping it into an open cabinet door. Stars floating in inky darkness covered his field of vision and his chest tightened. I'm not having a good day, he thought woozily. Arms around his shoulders guided him to a bench and a welcome voice penetrated the gloom.

"Cap'n, are you okay?" Tucker asked.

Archer blinked and his vision cleared, but his chest didn't loosen at the sight of Tucker's worried face centimeters from his and the hands checking the bandage on his head. "I'm fine."

"Nope, you're not. I'm gettin' you to sick bay so the doc can take a look."

Tucker stood up and reached for the com, but Archer grabbed his arm, the muscles firm under his fingers. "Trip, wait, I'm okay. I was just clumsy and I hit my head. I haven't got time to go to sick bay."

Tucker studied his face for a long moment without speaking, and Archer realized he was still holding the other man's arm. His face felt warm and he quickly let go, then stood up, repressing a wince. "See, I'm fine," he said.

They stood practically nose to nose in the room, which must have shrunk once again, Archer thought. Tucker was still watching him, apparently to see if he'd topple over again. The slightly dazed captain focused on Tucker's hair, still mussed from the helmet, and stifled a thoroughly inappropriate desire to let his friend drag him off to sick bay.

Tucker pursed his lips. "You're sure?"

"I'm sure. Let's finish up here and go meet with the rest of the senior staff. We've got someone throwing rocks at us, remember?"

"Yeah, I hadn't forgotten," Tucker said, still centimeters away. "But somebody's got to worry about your health, 'cause you sure won't."

Archer's heart was in his throat at the concern in Tucker's voice and the look on his face. Maybe it was time to—

"T'Pol to Archer," the com said.

Tucker and Archer both jumped at the unexpected sound. "Archer here," he managed to say.

"If you and the commander are finished, I believe I have some data of interest."

*** Chapter 4 (Trequinn)

T'Pol's fingers silently flew across the panel as she interpreted the data, her brow slightly furrowed in concentration. She had seen the level of technology before, but it was odd to see it here and now. It was a puzzle. As she finished, she looked up to see Archer arriving on the bridge, the chief engineer in tow. Archer appeared injured. She had noticed that the two officers had been hanging around each other a lot lately. Of course, in typical Vulcan fashion, she wouldn't bring it to the captain's attention unless his efficiency wavered.

"Subcommander, you told me you had some information for me."

"Yes, Captain," she replied, picking up a tiny piece of the meteor and handing it to Archer. "They are artificial," T'Pol noted as the human took it from her and studied it. "The meteor is composed of a simple unit with a navigational-targeting array surrounded by rock and iron ore."

"Do you have any idea where this came from?" Archer asked, staring at the strange device.

"It's similar to technology developed by a race called the Narens. Their home planet was located about 1.4 light-years from our present position."

"What do you mean, they *were*?" Tucker asked incredulously, coming in close to Archer to view the tiny piece of meteor.

"The Narens destroyed themselves approximately two hundred years ago. Their civilization was situated in three solar systems that went though a series of civil wars. They used launchable and controllable meteors to attack other factions without being blamed by their target. Since their demise, three other races have claimed the systems for themselves. These meteorlike weapons, to my knowledge, have not been used since the Narens fell." T'Pol looked at Archer expectantly, clearly waiting for his order.

Archer sighed deeply, rubbing his forehead. "T'Pol, give me the list of possible suspects—these three other races. Mr. Mayweather, bring us in to the accident site. And Mr. Reed, bring us to Alert Condition 2. I'll be in my ready room if anyone needs me."

Archer quickly strode the short distance to his ready room and dropped into a chair as soon as the door had closed. His head throbbed. A second later, the door chimed.

"Come," Archer said, turning and looking up to see Tucker standing at his desk, at full attention.

"Shouldn't you be in Engineering, Commander?" Archer joked softly at his friend.

"I would if you weren't hurtin' so much," Tucker replied, placing his hands on the older man's desk.

"I'm perfectly fine, Trip," Archer countered weakly as held his aching head in his hands. The pain seemed to be increasing.

"Cap'n, please, you need to go to sick bay. You're hurt, and this ship doesn't need a captain who can't perform."

"Trip, when did you start being mother hen to everyone?" His patience starting to reach its limit.

"I wouldn't do this for everyone, just you," Tucker said, looking the other man in his eyes intensely.

Archer stopped his tirade and gulped hard. Of all the things that he could have said, Tucker had to have said *that,* he thought. "Trip, please." He couldn't mistake the look in Tucker's eyes—could he? Stress had been visiting him a lot lately. Two shuttle pods had practically been destroyed; three crewman had almost died—including himself; they actually had three suspects; and now it looked like his best friend was falling love with him. For a moment, he flashed back to the moment he had untwisted Tucker's EV undersuit, Tucker's back warm, bare, and inviting.

"Jon, don't run," Tucker commanded softly. He took Archer's hand in his and gently caressed it. "Please."

He hadn't been mistaken. Archer, panicking, blinked and shot up from his seat. The floor beneath him began to sway. His vision faded in and out, and the last thing he heard was Tucker calling for help.


"He's going to be all right, Commander Tucker," Phlox said as he put away some instruments.

"Are you sure? He fell kind of hard."

"He's fine and he's resting on a biobed. Why don't you go visit him? He's awake. Take him back to his quarters while you're at it. I've treated him. I don't need to observe him further. He just needs rest."

The engineer quickly left the doctor's side and walked over to Archer's horizontal form. Archer turned his head toward the sound and smiled tentatively.

"I want to apologize for the way I acted earlier. I was in shock." Archer hesitated. "I never thought you would fall in love with me, Trip."

"Jon, if anything, I should apologize. I should have known you weren't in a position to handle me tellin' you."

Sitting up, Archer stared at Tucker a long moment. He had been unbelievably aware of Tucker lately. He thought he had been discreet, had hidden that awareness. He hadn't really considered the notion that Tucker would in turn be attracted to him. Now, making a decision, he reached over and slowly ran his fingers across Tucker's face. It was his answer. "Don't worry about it, okay?"

"All right," Tucker replied, taking his hand and pausing for a moment. "You know, while you were out, Phlox said you should try taking it easy. Do some things that make you feel good." He smiled, a devilish grin. "He also said I should take you back to your quarters."

"Really?" He was grinning himself.

"Yeah. Got any ideas about what we should do to make you feel good?"

"I might," Archer replied as he slid off the bed "Let's go to my quarters, so I can…relax."

"Anything you want…Jon."

The two men quickly vacated sick bay.

*** Chapter 5 (Cinmbria and Kalita)

As soon as the doors closed behind them in the captain's cabin, the two men turned to face one another. Archer, despite his stint in sick bay, longed to pull the engineer into his arms, claim his mouth, plunder the sweetness he felt sure he would find, and yet a small part of him hesitated. He needed to be sure that Tucker wanted this.

"Trip?" He stood close, so close to his best friend, his engineer—the golden-haired man who had so long tormented him. Archer breathed a sigh, staring into wide blue eyes. But they were not wide with fear.

He took a step closer and reached out to touch the younger man. Tucker sucked in a deep breath; he swallowed hard and those soft, delicious lips parted. Archer could see just the hint of strong white teeth. The image drove him beyond control. He stepped forward quickly and crushed Tucker's body to his own, claiming that tempting mouth.

He felt Tucker's body go tense in his arms, heard the sharp intake of breath, followed by a gruff sound in the engineer's throat. For a moment, he thought that Tucker would push him away. He felt fingertips graze his sides as the man in his arms shuddered, suddenly melting against him.

Fingertips became palms and then Tucker's arms were around him and the soft lips under his parted; a tongue came to meet his own, and Archer groaned with need.

Frantic hands tugged at clothing; each man was doing his best to bare as much skin as possible to the touch. A shuddering groan burst from Archer's throat as his uniform was pushed down and warm hands snaked their way under his skivvies to trail across his skin. He drew back and impatiently tugged the shirt over his head, watching as Tucker followed suit.

They came together again, stumbling toward the bed, wrapped in each other's arms. Tucker fell backward onto the mattress, pulling his captain along with him. He gasped and arched his back as Archer's arousal butted against his hip. "Jon!"

"I've wanted this for so long," Archer whispered, ghosting his lips along the other man's cheek until he sucked an earlobe into his mouth, teasing it with his tongue. He delighted in the small cry of pleasure this elicited, then groaned when Tucker ground his hips sensuously under him, urging him on to greater heights of passion.

Impatient hands assisted Archer in removing his briefs, and finally, bare flesh pressed tightly together, each man thrust with his hips, seeking the friction they both craved to achieve release. Archer reached between them and wrapped his fingers around both their cocks, holding them together, and gave a lustful grunt when Tucker's hand came to join his.

Mouths locked together, tongues dueling, they thrust against each other, rubbing the engorged organs together until Archer tensed with a muted cry and released. He kept thrusting, driving Tucker to the edge and over while his lips and tongue continued their tender assault on the engineer's mouth. With a sharp intake of breath, Tucker arched his back, shuddering from head to toe as his climax ripped through him.

After a few moments, they rolled to their sides, face to face. Archer sighed and smiled into the blue eyes of his best friend, his engineer, and now, it seemed, his lover. It seemed almost unreal to him that this could have happened. He had wanted it, dreamed of it for so long, that the possibility had somehow been relegated in his mind to the status of an unachievable dream. It had been fast and sweet. He wanted slow and hot next. He wanted to explore Tucker, to learn his body. He drew a breath and traced his fingers across Tucker's cheek.

"Is this real?"

Tucker leaned into the caress and let his lips rest on his lover's hand. "Got to be. I…"

He was interrupted by a beep from the com unit. It brought both men back to the here and now. Reluctantly, Archer rolled out of bed and walked to the com unit. "Archer here. Go ahead."

T'Pol's voice came through the small speaker. "Captain, our sensors have located what appears to be a distress beacon. Its energy patterns are similar to the Naren meteor."

"Good work, T'Pol. I'll be on the bridge in five minutes."

He was about to cut the com, but T'Pol's voice stopped him. "Are you aware of Commander Tucker's location? He has not answered my hails. Lieutenant Reed has requested his expertise."

Thirty minutes in and the whole ship would know. Archer rubbed his hand against his forehead. "Yes, I know where Tucker is, T'Pol. I'll get him on my way up. Archer out."

"My location?" Tucker smiled. "I'm sure that Vulcan knows exactly where my location is. Our doc sure likes to gossip. Probably wondering if he can watch." He climbed gracefully out of bed.

Archer was silent for a split second, then began laughing. "And then he'll invite us to have dinner with him—resequenced meatloaf, no doubt. We'll need to talk about us, Trip. I…"

Tucker cut him off with a smile. "I know we have to talk about this. We will. I don't want to screw up before we even get a decent start."

Archer nodded and caught him in quick embrace. "I think it was a pretty decent start myself."

The two men quickly cleaned up and then dressed. As Archer and Tucker walked onto the bridge, Archer directed his attention to T'Pol. Tucker joined Reed and began reviewing the data from the shuttlepod. Was it his imagination, or were those curious stares from the other members of the bridge crew?

"T'Pol, what have you discovered about this beacon?" Archer asked, stopping beside her. "Is there an audio message with the beacon?" He let his eyes drift over to Tucker and enjoyed the sight of him leaning over Reed's station.

"As I said, the energy patterns match those of the Naren meteor, and the composition appears to be the same," T'Pol stated. "It is possible that we activated it when we came in range. Ensign Sato has detected a faint audio signal, which I believe she is working on now."

Archer turned to Sato. "Well, let's have it, then. Hoshi, what have you gotten so far?"

"Sir, there is more than one language, and they have been layered one on top of the other." Sato looked up from her screen. "I've been trying to isolate one language, but it's difficult with so many. It's like being in a crowed bar and trying to pick out a voice at the other end of the room."

"Sir," Tucker called out. "The beacon's small enough to bring on board. We may be able to sift through the components, give Hoshi a shot at isolating its core language." He looked over to Archer and Sato. "We can use Lieutenant Reed's force field generator to contain the beacon, just in case it's responsible for those little meteors that destroyed Shuttlepod…I mean, Mashed Potatoes."

Archer nodded, "Lieutenant Reed, get your generator set up in the transporter room, and we'll use the transporter to bring it into the force field." He turned to T'Pol. "Does the database have any information about the Naren civilization?"

"Sir!" Ensign Sato broke in, her voice excited. "I'm picking up a few words in English. They weren't there a few minutes ago." She cocked her head and listened. "Enemies…turn…cities gone." She looked up again. "I can't pick out any more."

"Are you telling me the beacon is learning English?" Archer asked in disbelief.

Sato shook her head. "I don't know, sir. I think it may be." She closed her eyes again in concentration. "It sounds like the same message being repeated over and over again, only now English is part of it."

T'Pol looked up. "It would be logical for a beacon to attempt to convert its message into a language that could be understood by the ships passing it. Even if it would not assist us in solving the mystery regarding the Naren meteor attack, its technology might prove valuable for a communications device. Our universal translators have not been entirely reliable."

Archer agreed with T'Pol's assessment. "We need that beacon. Mr. Reed, Mr. Tucker, please get it for me."

"Aye, sir." Reed and Tucker exited the bridge, as Archer watched his friend's—his new lover's—departure. He was uneasy; too much had already gone wrong that day. They didn't need one more thing to happen.

*** Chapter 6 (MJ)

Tucker shifted his weight from one leg to the other, leaning at the transporter and watching Reed and one of the armory ensigns set up the EM force field equipment. He could remember, dimly, seeing Reed use it once before, when he and Archer had been trapped in Engineering by the tentacled being that had come into the ship. Reed's EM field had worked then; Tucker prayed silently that it was going to work now.

"Tucker to bridge. Can you send us the coordinates for that beacon? I'm gettin' ready to transport it." Someone else could have done the transporting, of course; two Engineering crewmen were standing by, watching Tucker. But with everything that had been happening, he didn't like allowing anyone else to take the responsibility, any more than the tactical officer across from him liked permitting anyone else to handle what he could do himself.

"Here you go, Commander." Ensign Mayweather sent the coordinates, and Tucker set the controls for the transporter accordingly, crossing his fingers as he did. This would be no time for the transporter to foul up. It hadn't done so yet, but Tucker had never trusted it, not even after being transported in it to get him off of the wrecked shuttlepod.

"You ready yet, Malcolm?" He continued to watch the younger officer and his assistant test the force field generators.

"One more test, sir, and we'll be ready to go." Reed signaled his assistant, and the ensign fired a phase pistol into the space of the transporter compartment. The beam was absorbed immediately. "Thank you, Ensign. She's good to go, sir."

This had to go well; there wasn't any choice. If they didn't get to the bottom of the mystery of the Naren meteors, nothing meant anything; even the sudden blossoming of his relationship with the man he'd loved for a good two years would mean nothing if they couldn't find a way to protect the ship from these attacks.

"Stand by, Malcolm," Tucker warned. Whatever this thing he was transporting on board was, it was related to something that had just destroyed a shuttlepod; it might be an inanimate object, but that didn't make it friendly. Backup had never sounded better to him. "Bridge, we're ready to transport."

He followed the standard procedure for transport, pretending that this was nothing unusual; what was odd about beaming a space object aboard ship? Nothing, of course. But this beacon, damn it—yes, of course he had a fix on it, the transporter said so—why was it doing that? It was appearing hazily, just starting to come back into solidity, and then fading back into nothing again. Wait…"Malcolm, the EM generator must be interferin' with transport. Can you shut it down till I get this thing on board?"

"Of course." Reed flicked a switch on the generator's remote and shut down the barrier. "There you are. Go ahead."

"Thanks." Tucker moved a hand back to the transporter controls; still the beacon flickered into sight on the transporter pad, only to flicker back out into nothingness. Tucker swore under his breath and knelt down, checking the connections under the console and waving his team members over to help him examine the wiring. Everything appeared to be in order.

"I'm givin' this damn thing one more shot," he announced. "Malcolm, soon as that thing comes in solid enough to talk about, I want that force field of yours back up. I'm going to come on over to check it out, so be ready. Hess, I want you at the transporter controls when I step away—I want the controls manned at all times till we've got this fish reeled in."

"Aye, sir." That was from Reed; Hess merely nodded and stationed herself behind Tucker, peering around his shoulder and checking his settings.

He resigned himself to a "here goes nothing" effort, and began the transporter protocol again, boosting the power to maximum. The lights in the transporter room flickered, dimming substantially for a moment as the beacon began to appear on the transporter pad. The beacon slowly began to materialize fully; it was smaller than he had expected, heavily oxidized, and covered in debris. It could have been five years old, or five hundred. He couldn't tell.

Reed pulled out the EM generator controls again as Tucker came over. "Setting force field," Reed warned him as he approached the transporter pad.

Suddenly, the transporter room went dark. "Power's down," Hess called from the transporter console.

"The bloody force field's down, too," Reed swore. "This damned thing's absorbing it."

Tucker approached the alien machine in the middle of the transporter pad.

Archer's voice came over the console's communications panel as an alarm in the transporter room began sounding. "Trip? What the hell's going on down there?"

Tucker didn't respond. Reed dashed to the transporter console. "Lieutenant Reed, sir. Commander Tucker transported the beacon on board. It's absorbed the EM field and it's disrupting the power in here—we're dark in here."

"Where's Commander Tucker?" The urgency in Archer's voice was palpable, and not entirely professional. The tone wasn't lost on Reed, who had seen the two senior officers coming onto the bridge together earlier, and he had seen Archer watching Tucker help Reed at the weapons station.

"It's all right, Captain; he should be with the beacon…What's *that*?" Reed's question had been caused by his being thrown directly into Hess by a jolt to the ship.

Archer's voice crackled over the com panel at the console. "We're taking hits from some of those meteors. There seems to be a full-scale storm of them aimed at us. If you're done there, get back up here—we're polarizing the hull plating now, but we could use you back at your station."

"Aye, sir—as soon as I've confirmed with…bloody hell!"

"What's that, Malcolm?" Archer asked anxiously.

Reed blinked. The lights had come online again—at least, the emergency lights had. The transporter pad was as empty as it had been after Tucker's first two unsuccessful attempts to transport the beacon to the ship.

And Commander Charles Tucker III was nowhere to be found.

*** Chapter 7 (TheGrrrl)

Tucker couldn't move. He was floating in the blackness as lights swirled around him, disorienting him. He wondered where he was. The beacon. He should be in the transporter room. His last memories were of leaning over the device, reaching out, touching it. Apparently not a wise move, he thought wryly.

Time passed and he suddenly had the sensation that he wasn't alone. Something, someone was there with him. In his head. He fought down the panic threatening to overtake him. But something was probing him. Questioning him wordlessly. Wanting to know—


He was sitting close to Archer in the cramped cockpit of the inspection pod. Close enough to smell him. Close enough to feel Archer's strong leg brush against his as the man leaned over to peer out the window. The Enterprise, still in space dock, loomed up at them.

Tucker had just gotten confirmation from that he'd been serving as chief engineer under Archer. He couldn't remember the last time he had been so happy about an assignment. Under Archer, the admiral had said. He liked that phrase. But of course, they weren't going anywhere until the damn ship was completed. Which seemed to taking overly long, in his opinion. Didn't they all realize there were strange new worlds to be explored?

"The Ventral Plating Team says they'll be done in about three days," he commented to Archer as they floated past the small figures moving about the hull.

"Be sure they match the color to the nacelle housings."

Tucker couldn't help but grin. "You aiming to sit on the hull and pose for some postcards?" He had a few choice poses in mind.

"Maybe…" replied Archer thoughtfully. He continued to look up, inspecting the hull. "God, she's beautiful."

"And fast." He stole a quick look at his captain. "Warp four point five next Thursday." He was rewarded by a look of awe on the man's face.

"Neptune and back in six minutes," Archer mused. "Let's take a look at the lateral sensor array."

The enthusiasm on his captain's face was plain to see. Tucker found his friend's sense of wonder tremendously touching. It was just one of the many things he loved about the man.


Tucker's head was beginning to throb. Whatever it was, it was burrowing in deeper. Frightened now, he tried to shut it out, but the pain only increased. He was trapped. He had to escape. But he still could not move. He worried about Enterprise. Her crew. Jon. Where they all right? He could feel the presence more strongly in his mind, the questioning becoming more intense. Jon—


"Trip?" They were staring at each other, faces only centimeters apart. Tucker could see the hunger in his friend's eyes. But he was afraid to move, afraid that he would somehow scare Archer away, afraid that he would destroy this moment he had longed for.

Then he was in Archer's arms, and Archer was kissing him desperately, holding him so tightly he could barely breathe. Tucker's physical response was so overwhelming he could not respond. He stiffened for a brief moment as if an electric current was running through his body. The feeling passed and he brought his arms up, touching Archer, holding him. He heard a small sound and realized it came from his throat as he kissed Archer passionately, leaning into the man's embrace.

When Archer let out a small moan, Tucker thought he had never heard anything so erotic in his life. His captain. Wanting him. Moaning for him. Suddenly, he needed to be naked, needed to have skin touching skin. They both fumbled with their uniforms, and when Tucker realized Archer had his unzipped, he seized the opportunity to push it down past the man's hips. Then he was stroking bare skin, feeling Archer tremble under his touch as the man groaned once again.

At last they were on the bed. "I've wanted this for so long," Archer whispered in his ear. Tucker was startled by the admission. He hadn't known, hadn't even suspected. Archer rubbed his body against Tucker's, his lips traveling across Tucker's face and neck, his weight pinning him to the bed. Tucker let out a groan when that mouth found his ear, writhing in delight, pressing against Archer's body. The feeling was incredible, better than he could have ever imagined.


The sharp pain brought him back to wakefulness. The lights were still flashing in his eyes. His memories were being accessed, that much was clear. He got a sense from the being analyzing him: he wasn't what it sought. It dismissed him. Now he was actually shaking his head, arms flailing, trying to escape whatever it was—the computer, the being studying him. The lights dimmed. He became aware of the cold, hard surface beneath him. Opening his eyes at last, he was looking at a night sky, full of stars. He could hear faint, rhythmic chirping. Crickets?

"Shit." He turned his head without getting up, looking from side to side. Large, irregular dark shapes loomed around him. Slowly he sat up, the throbbing in his head easing a little. As he looked around, he realized he was on a stone slab in the midst of crumbled ruins.

"Hello?" he called out. The only response was the song of the crickets. He swung his legs to the side of the slab and stood, stumbling a little as his head spun. He grabbed the side of the slab to steady himself. Great, he thought. The last thing he needed was to fall and crack his head on something. He leaned back against the slab and stared into the sky, wondering where Enterprise was. But he knew Archer would find him soon.

*** Chapter 8 (Ragnall)

"Not there? What do you mean?" His voice was calm, Archer thought. Reasonable. Dispassionate, even.

"Just what I said, sir." In contrast, Reed's voice sounded tense, almost angry. "When the power came back up, the beacon—and the Commander—were just…gone."

T'Pol looked up from her station. "The alien object and Commander Tucker are not currently on board the Enterprise." Glancing down to check her readouts, she continued, "Nor do they appear to be within scanning range."

Archer let out the breath he didn't realize he had been holding. He was intensely glad that the subcommander had anticipated the question he couldn't bring himself to ask, eliminating the obvious scenario that the beacon had returned to its former point in deep space, somehow pulling Tucker back with it.

The ship shook with a low, almost gentle, vibration as a meteor glanced off the hull—followed almost immediately by a sharper jolt as another missile hit its target straight on. Archer instinctively stood up—maybe not a wise move, but he somehow felt that he needed to face the attack on his feet.

"T'Pol—anything on where these things are coming from?"

T'Pol shook her head, not taking her eyes from her station. "The meteors are appearing in space apparently at random. There may well be an underlying pattern, but it will take me some time to establish that."

Archer nodded. He hadn't really expected any other reply.

"The beacon was trying to communicate with us. Hoshi—someone may still be listening. Send messages of reassurance, friendship, threats—anything." As Sato bent to her task, yet another meteor hit.

"Hull plating holding, sir," Reed's deputy at the tactical station reported. "No serious damage as yet."

As if on cue, Reed's voice came over the com, "Captain, I'm in the armory. I'm going to try shooting out the meteors with the phase cannons."

"Worth a try, Lieutenant," Archer replied, shaking his head slightly at the thought of being able to hit small, fast-moving objects with no clear trajectory. Moving targets were always harder to hit. It was like shooting flies with cannon—pure overkill, and about as useful. But if it kept Reed busy, it was fine by him.

"Travis—can we outrun the meteors? Or just avoid them?"

Mayweather nodded grimly. "Problem is, we don't know where they're coming from, but I can try. Best to stay at impulse—don't want to risk a hit on the nacelles at warp."

Archer sat down as Mayweather pulled the Enterprise into a series of sharp turns. Across from him, T'Pol worked on her scans; he could hear Sato's voice relaying messages into empty space, and every now and then, a phase pulse crossed the view screen. Subjectively, Archer knew that he was proud of the way his crew pulled together to solve this problem—but they didn't seem real to him. It was like he was watching strangers on a screen. He felt numb. A sudden vision of Tucker appeared before him, as he had been on Shuttlepod Two, grinning in pride at his maneuver to avoid the meteor. He seemed so clear—so alive—that Archer longed to reach out to touch his best friend.

Oh god, Trip! Where are you?

A wave of pain lanced through him, leaving him breathless, choking. As if a veil in front of his eyes had been ripped through, he looked around the bridge truly seeing it for the first time. A wave of panic followed. How beautiful his ship was…how precious and fragile the people held within her. How much he loved them. And how could he ever hope to keep them all safe, when he couldn't even protect Trip, the man he…

An explosion lit up the view screen, echoing the violence of his feelings. Mayweather gave a small whoop. "Got one!" he said approvingly. Archer took a deep breath, centering himself as the panic receded, blasted away like the exploding meteor.

"Captain, I'm not reading any more meteors in the immediate area," T'Pol stated.

"All stop," Archer ordered. Five minutes passed. Ten. "Okay, ideas, anyone? We have to assume that the beacon has returned to wherever it came from with Commander Tucker." He paused, nodding in acknowledgment as Reed returned to the bridge, replacing his deputy at his usual station. Tucker was with the alien device, and the beacon was somewhere safe. It was the only scenario his mind would admit to…all Archer had to do was find the beacon. Easy. Resolve strengthened, he addressed his crew. "What do we actually know about these attacks?"

"We know both beacon and meteors mirror technology produced by the Narens," T'Pol replied, "and it would be logical to assume that they come from the same source. The random appearance of the meteors in space would suggest the use of a transporter."

"The beacon was issuing a distress message, or a warning. 'Cities gone…enemies turn,'" Sato added. "Right." Archer got up and began to pace, piecing his thoughts together. "Naren technology…cities destroyed…transporters…"

"The Naren's systems are only 1.4 light-years away," Mayweather put in.

"Do you think one the three occupying races is responsible for reviving Naren technology?" T'Pol got straight to the point.

"It's possible," Archer admitted. "But look at it this way. The technology is Naren, the message appears to be about destroyed Naren cities—surely the simplest, most logical, explanation is that the Narens are still operating their systems." T'Pol raised an eyebrow as she considered the possibility. "Out of an empire stretching across three systems, it would seem unlikely that the entire population was wiped out," she conceded.

"Was there a Naren home world?" Archer asked, feeling a growing excitement. T'Pol checked her database.

"Not that we're aware of. The population seemed evenly spread across the systems."

"Okay…any of the cities still in ruins?"

"Much of the empire's infrastructure has been rebuilt by the resettling immigrants. Several of the planets still have large areas of ruin, however—apparently unoccupied."

"Then that's where we'll start," Archer decided.

"Sir…is it really possible for transporter technology to operate over such a distance?" Reed broke in quietly, almost as if he didn't want to spoil Archer's optimism.

"I don't know, Malcolm," Archer answered honestly. It was a risk, he knew—abandoning the immediate area on little better than a hunch. But he felt so certain that Tucker was somewhere in the Naren system—almost as if he could hear Tucker's voice calling to him. "I guess we're going to find out."


The crickets—or whatever the hell the damn things were—could really get on a guy's nerves. And he was a Florida boy—he knew all about insects. At home, the sound faded into the background, a low hum. Here, the hum put him on edge. Or maybe he was just edgy.

Tucker shifted against the stone slab for about the fiftieth time, trying to get comfortable. At the best of times, it was hard for him to just sit still and do nothing. It was nearly impossible when he'd been separated from his lover, his friends, and his ship; subjected to god alone knew what kind of a mind probe; and dumped on a deserted wasteland whose only life form appeared to be bugs. And he hated the sound of those bugs. But with no communicator and no phaser, there was little else he could practically do.

As his eyes adjusted to the light, he could make out more of his surroundings. The ruins—which had appeared fairly substantial at first glance—were nothing more than crumbled shells of buildings. It was a fairly safe bet that this was part of the fallen Naren Empire.

Again, he resisted the urge to get up and explore. He was still feeling groggy, and he knew that Archer and the Enterprise would be doing everything in their power to find him. To make it as easy as possible for them, he should stay still. He also nobly resisted to urge to give the author of his current predicament—sitting, inert and innocent, at the base of the slab—a good kick.

He wondered if the alien beacon was also responsible for the unsettling experience he'd had before he'd woken on this planet. Not that it had been all unpleasant…a familiar warmth spread through his body as he thought about Archer. Jon—his best friend and his captain. For Tucker, the progression from friendship to desire to love had been as natural as breathing, and almost as painless. He'd always known there was a part of Archer he would have to share—hell, Archer's obvious care and concern for his ship and crew was one of the reasons Tucker loved him so. But Tucker also knew that Archer was never one to be easy on himself. Probably give me a load of bull about deserving someone who can devote themselves to me, he thought. Well, Tucker was just going to have to persuade Archer that his doubts were groundless. Thinking back to the events in Archer's cabin, Tucker was certain he could be pretty damn persuasive when he put his mind to it.

"Well, now you've gone and done it." A petulant voice broke through Tucker's reverie. Shaking his head, he looked up to see three figures walking toward where he was sitting, one of them carrying some sort of flashlight.

"I don't see how you could possibly blame me." The second voice sounded bored. "All I did was…oww!" The last exclamation was caused by Tucker standing up suddenly, causing the being to walk straight into the slab in front of him.

Tucker thought fast. "Hi!" he said, trying to sound friendly. He waved his hands to show he was unarmed, hoping his first contact skills were up to the task. The light was so dim he couldn't make out the aliens' features, but they were clearly humanoid. They wore heavy clothing that swathed their entire bodies. It was impossible to tell whether they were male or female—if the concept applied. "You speak English!"

"English? Yes, I suppose we do." This was the third voice. Tucker winced slightly. Of course they had some kind of universal translator. If they had something to do with the beacon, that much was obvious.

"I'm Commander Tucker of the Starfleet vessel Enterprise," he introduced himself formally. "From Earth. We're peaceful explorers"—well, nearly always peaceful, Tucker mentally added—"and we came across this…thing…in space. I'm wondering if you know anything about it." He gestured at the probe.

"It's back!" The first being to speak moved toward the beacon. As it moved in front of the light, Tucker got his first impression of the alien's face. The skin was dark, slightly mottled, and the features were dominated by a beaklike protuberance. Disturbingly, he couldn't make out the eyes. "See…see!" The first being turned back and kicked at the second. "Didn't I tell you?"

"You were guessing." The second voice drawled, sounding unimpressed.

"So you do recognize it?" Tucker broke in. "You guys are responsible for this machine?"

"Depends how you define 'responsible.'" This was the third figure, who stood at little back from the others, holding the light in front and away from it, so all Tucker could see of it was darkness.

"Did you send it into space? Along with several of its buddies? You know, those little chunks of rock?"

"They're working!" The first being sounded positively gleeful as it interrupted Tucker.

"Yeah, they're working all right. And you've got to stop them, before…" Tucker closed his eyes momentarily, willing the image of the Enterprise breaking apart like Shuttlepod One to disappear.

"Stop?" The three figures became intensely still. Tucker could almost feel heat from their gaze upon him, although without seeing their eyes, he couldn't read any expression. "You have the honor of addressing the Council of the Naren Empire," the third alien continued coolly. "Who are you to tell us to stop?"

"The guy who's telling you you're going to be in a whole lot of trouble when the Enterprise arrives. Which won't be too much longer." Tucker could feel himself getting angry at the alien's arrogance.

A sound almost like a sniff issued from the being. "We are not interested in you anyway. You are not the one we seek." It turned to walk back the way it came, taking the light with it. After a moment, the other two followed their departing comrade.

Tucker looked after the departing party in confusion. Should he stay? Follow? Finally, the temptation of the possibility of communication with Enterprise proved too much, and he cautiously picked his way after the receding light.

*** Chapter 9 (T'Lin)

"Captain, we're being hailed," Sato called out from her station. Before the captain had a chance to reply to her announcement, she added, "It's coming from the fifth planet in the system ahead. The frequency matches that of the beacon."

Now they were getting somewhere. Archer was tremendously relieved. His gamble to move the ship had paid off. "Let's hear it, Hoshi," Archer said, leaning forward in anticipation.

The signal was not all that clear, but in seconds, Sato managed to remove most of the static. "Earth starship Enterprise…this is T'kl'tr'k'sh," the voice clicked and whistled, "of the Council of the Naren Empire. There is someone here who wishes to speak with you. Commander?"

"Hey there, Cap'n. Sorry I disappeared like that." Tucker's familiar voice sounded loud through the audio pickup.

Archer closed his eyes in relief when he heard Tucker's voice. Trying to keep the deep concern he felt out of his voice, he jokingly replied, "You should be sorry…you gave us all quite a scare, Trip." Truth be told, Archer was probably the only one who had been truly scared, but he couldn't come out and say so. Sobering a bit, he continued, "Trip, are you all right? You're not injured or anything?"

"Aside from a bit of a headache, I'm just fine…and boy, do I have a story to tell."

"Yes, Captain," came the voice of the Narens' representative, T'kl'tr'k'sh. "We beg forgiveness for our inadvertent attack on your ships. If you could establish your ship in orbit, we will transport you to the surface, where all will be explained."

Archer looked over to Reed, who nodded, and said, "We have their coordinates, sir. We should be establishing orbit in seven minutes."

"Very well," Archer said to Reed, then addressed the Naren. "We will contact you when we are in orbit. Archer out."

As soon as the connection was closed, Reed spoke up, "Captain, I would recommend the use of a shuttle to get to the surface. I, for one—" But he got no further with his suggestion. He broke off when Archer held up a hand.

"Malcolm, I understand your hesitation over allowing them to transport us to the surface, but I am willing to accept the risk." With a smile, knowing that Malcolm would see the logic to his reasoning, he added, "Besides, if they intended to kill us off, all they would have had to do was use more of those meteors on us. A steady enough bombardment along a nacelle would have eventually cut through the hull plating, and I think they know it."

Reed looked a bit sheepish, "You're probably right, Captain, but it doesn't change my unease with the situation."

"Your unease is noted and logged. And Malcolm," Archer added with a smile, "if you'd rather not be part of the landing party, I'll understand." He knew Reed wouldn't pass up a chance to be on an away team.

"No, Captain, I'll join you." It was Reed's turn to smile. "After all, if this is a trap, I should be there to protect you. And if it's not a trap, I want to see, firsthand, what makes those little meteors tick, if that's all the same to you."

"By all means, Mr. Reed. I wouldn't have it any other way." Archer sat back in his chair, taking a moment to compose the rest of the landing party in his mind. He decided to keep it small. "Hoshi, I'd like you to transport down as well."

"Aye, Captain." Sato was not known for being at ease with the thought of being in space or on away teams, but she was learning to control her anxiety—at least outwardly. Archer had complete confidence in her. He just wished she had confidence in herself.


Mayweather established orbit without any problems, and transport to the surface went without a hitch. Reed looked tense—he didn't like the notion of transport—and then surprised when it all went well. Reed and Archer had transported before, to handle emergency situations, and Archer found the sensation much the same. For him, the strangest thing was blinking: first he was in one place, and then he blinked, and he was in another place. When they rematerialized, Archer, Reed, and Sato found themselves in a ruin, surrounded by a circle of unknown beings, presumably the Narens. Tucker was nowhere in sight, and Archer's heart began to accelerate. He hoped it wasn't a trap, but he knew Reed was ready for one. Who knew what tricks and toys the armory officer had up his sleeve? Reed didn't look too worried, so Archer withheld judgment. Archer was intensely concerned about Tucker.

The circle comprised approximately two dozen humanoid beings, all clothed in baggy robes, their features completely obscured by the shadows of their hoods. There was utter silence, except for the chirping of something that sounded like crickets. Their sound had a particular edge to it that Archer found annoying.

When nobody addressed them, Archer decided to begin. "I'm Captain Jonathan Archer, of the starship Enterprise," he said, then asked, "Which one of you is the council member to whom I spoke earlier?" He knew it was useless to try and speak the name he had heard. Chances are, it would be impossible for a human to reproduce it correctly, and an incorrect pronunciation could be disastrous. "Hoshi?" he whispered when nothing happened.

Sato shrugged. "I can try," she volunteered. At Archer's nod, holding out her translator's padd, she loudly and clearly uttered a series of clicking syllables. Archer had just been proved wrong. A human *could* pronounce that name.

The response to Sato's pronouncement was gratifying. There was an excited clicking, and two of the beings detached themselves from the crowd and scurried off. A minute or two later, the circle parted, and three more Narens entered, Tucker in tow. They quickly closed the distance between themselves and the Enterprise landing party, and Tucker stepped in front of Archer. Archer resisted the uncaptainly urge to grab Tucker and not let go. Instead, he said quietly, "You had me worried. You all right?"

Tucker nodded. He looked disheveled and dusty, as though he had walked a long distance. "Cap'n, these are the three members of the council for the glorious new Naren Empire." He waved his hand in their general direction. "I can't pronounce their names," he said apologetically. "I can," Sato said, and she listened to their names and repeated them back. This seemed to cause delight.

"Most polite," one of the beings said after a few seconds of excited clicking. "Most polite indeed."

"They like politeness, Captain," Sato said. "Apparently they think that my speaking their language is polite."

"I see that," Archer said.

Introductions made, Archer's party was invited into what was left of the council chambers, where all of their questions would be answered. Archer was full of questions about the fall of the Naren Empire. He discovered that efforts were currently under way to rebuild—starting with the reactivation of the ancient technologies, which would, the aliens hoped, result in the eventual discovery of the race that led to their demise in the first place. Archer wasn't sure of their motivation for finding this race—payback, probably. They sought members of this race, and that was why they had taken Tucker—to study him. They had discovered, of course, that Tucker was human instead, and so they had no interest in him. They had been ready to simply leave him behind, but Tucker had followed them, and when they found out he was an engineer, they changed their minds about his usefulness.

The Narens had been testing their weapons and beacons for decades but had never discovered whether or not they were actually working, for they had never encountered another space-faring species, and they were unwilling to shoot at their own ships. The defense system was automated, and they had actually been unaware that a team from Enterprise had been on a former Naren planet to collect core samples. Apparently they did not have access to the sensor systems. They were also unaware that the automated system was taking shots at them.

"I've been working on the sensor system," Tucker volunteered. "That's my part of the story. When my new friends found me, I told them about our shuttles being ripped apart, and they couldn't believe it. They couldn't decide whether they were happy the system worked or sad that they caused us problems."

One of the beings clicked at this.

"Happy," Sato translated, and she clicked back, and she and her new friend laughed. "Sorry," she apologized. "Joke. Go on, Commander."

"I've been working on the sensor system for the past few hours. The previous empire left a huge network of power systems underground, and I've never seen anything like it. Really interesting. Anyway, the sensor system was tapped into this power grid, but the stations with the panels to look at and read—you know, the consoles—they didn't work. I fixed the problem. It was just a minor thing, but I had to cannibalize one of their consoles to fix the other two. Anyway, the sensors are working now."

"We now see your Enterprise," said one of the aliens. "We contacted this Enterprise so Commander Tucker could return to his home. He is not the one we seek. And we have altered the programming."

Tucker explained. "The system was designed to attack vessels leaving the planet's surface—any of the planets under surveillance. I'm not sure why it wasn't programmed to attack incoming ships. But anyway, the system learned. It saw the other shuttle and recognized the configuration, so it attacked it too. And then when it put together the shuttles and the Enterprise, it attacked the Enterprise, but she was too big and the polarized plating too strong to allow damage. If our friends here had had access to the sensors, they could have reprogrammed the system to attack with more deadly force—or not to attack at all."

One of the aliens broke in. "Not attack," he said. "Most polite people."

Sato smiled.

"What about this defense system?" Reed broke in. He was clearly dying to know about the weapons. "How were the meteors launched? Because the trajectories varied greatly. Does the launching mechanism move about? Or does it perhaps use some transporter technology?"

Tucker pointed at one of the Narens. They all looked the same to Archer, but clearly Tucker could tell them apart. "This little guy can help you there," Tucker told Reed, and Reed drew the alien aside as they began talking quickly. Archer smiled. It was nice to see Reed so excited.

They stayed another few hours and got a tour. The aliens were delighted with Sato, and Archer congratulated himself on bringing her along. Archer checked in with Enterprise once every half hour, and T'Pol reported that all was quiet. Tucker showed them the sensor system he had repaired, and they all admired the view of the Enterprise that was showing on one screen.

When it was finally time to leave, Archer decided that this had been a successful first contact, regardless of the nearly disastrous beginning. Sato had a new language to add to her repertoire. Reed returned to the ship with the schematics for several types of weapon systems. It was unknown at this time whether any of them would be compatible with their current level of technology, but knowing Reed, he'd find a way to adapt some of them into the ship's systems…eventually.

And of course, Archer had not only established communications with a race that had, until then, been thought to have been extinct, he also discovered some previously unknown facts regarding the Naren Empire's demise more than two centuries ago. He just hoped that the information they had shared with each other would lead to a lasting friendship between Earth and the Narens, because the meteor defense system worked all too well. It helped that the Narens perceived humans as exceedingly polite.


Dinner that night was not quite what Archer had hoped for, but it would have been rude, not to mention out of character, for him to exclude T'Pol. After all, as the three highest-ranking officers, they all had dinner at the captain's table each night, sometimes joined by other crew members. They talked over the day's activities while they ate. Archer, however, wanted to spend the entire night alone with Tucker. He knew it was unprofessional, so he mentally shrugged and accepted that their private conversation—and private reunion—would just have to wait until later, in Archer's quarters, when they were alone.

A crew member served dinner, and Archer and Tucker filled T'Pol in on the details of their encounter with the Narens. If the conversation seemed brief and to the point, and if the time they spent eating was a bit rushed—well, T'Pol did not comment on it. As a matter of fact, as soon as dessert was served, she declined it and excused herself, leaving Archer and Tucker to their pecan pie—Chef was happy Tucker was back too—and coffee.

"Do you think she knows?" Tucker said a few moments after the door whisked shut. He took a bite of his pie.

"Maybe, but if I know T'Pol, as long as we continue to do our jobs, I doubt she'll say anything." Then Archer smiled as he reached across the table and wiped a smear of whipped cream from the corner of Tucker's mouth. Licking it off of his own finger, he said, "Shall we take the rest of this to my quarters, where we can…enjoy it more fully?"

"I thought you'd never ask," Tucker said, promptly putting down his fork and standing up. He took Archer by the hand, pulling him to his feet and into a fierce embrace. "Come on, let's get out of here," he whispered into Archer's neck.

Archer pulled back slightly, then gazed into the engineer's eyes. "I'm so glad you're all right," he whispered, and that was all he was going to say about his fear and worry about Tucker's safety. Before Tucker could respond, Archer kissed Tucker. It started out tender, but it didn't stay that way: it ended up passionate. Then they clung to each other for a moment. Archer said, "There's something I need to discuss with you, Commander, if you would come back to my quarters with me," but Archer's tone made it clear that serious conversations—if there were any—would not be forthcoming for several hours, at least.

"Happy to, Cap'n," Tucker said, and smiled.

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