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Five

Trip's Quarters, Enterprise

Trip paused in his story to take a long gulp of his bourbon. He'd deliberately left out the vision of Soval's marriage ceremony, his "pon farr", for the sake of Vulcan privacy; he'd only glossed over it, going into detail about his memory on the boat. The only two who would know the truth were Jon and T'Pol. Jon wouldn't breathe a word of it, and T'Pol respected his and Soval's privacy.

"Fascinating," Phlox murmured. "So the ambassador experienced your memory from your point of view? Every sensation, every reaction?"

"That was what he said." Trip shook his head and added, "It seemed that we were mentally linked at the time, and my fall into the water had triggered the memory for him. In return, his Vulcan senses alerted me and Nate Kemper to our so-called 'friend'."

"Who was the guy who tried to kill you?" Travis asked. "And why?"

Trip took another sip and swallowed. "That's the weird part."

Vulcan Consulate, San Francisco, March 18, 2141

Trip surveyed the man attached to the biomonitor with a cold, dispassionate eye. The suspect was of medium height, with snow-white hair stuck up in the air, and blue eyes sparkling with a hint of madness. He didn't seem bothered at the fact that his arms and legs were in restraints, or at the Vulcan Healers who hovered nearby. In fact, his soft voice was one of extreme politeness, but the detachment in it made Trip shiver.

"He is a rather unusual man," Major T'Lydya commented as she stood next to Trip.

"No kiddin'," he agreed. "Do we have a name for him?"

"According to the Earth database, his name is Doctor Arik Soong," T'Lydya answered in a cool professional tone. "He is currently the chair of biomedicine and genetics at the University of Southern California at Berkley. His work in those particular fields have earned him many accolades and awards, and the respect of his peers." T'Lydya raised an eyebrow. "Up until this incident, Doctor Soong has never been in violation of the law. In fact, he was considered a model citizen."

"I take it he never played football for USC. He'd make a great defensive lineman," Trip muttered under his breath. She chose not to respond to his comment. "He doesn't appear to have any remorse for his attack."

T'Lydya sighed silently, then said, "That is because he does not seem to have any recollectionof his attempt."

"No memory of it? Not a trace?" The possibility left a bad taste in Trip's mouth. "Meaning someone deliberately erased it? Or gave him a neural block?"

"The Healers have considered both options, Ensign. They are evaluating the scans of the doctor's brain as we speak."

"Can we talk to him?"

She nodded. "He has been asking for you in particular, Ensign. I believe he wishes to apologize."

T'Lydya followed him as he stepped into the room. Doctor Soong looked up and his expression brightened at his visitors. "Ensign Tucker? I am sorry for what happened last night. I would try to explain myself and my actions, if I could remember."

"The Healers told me you had difficulty," Trip said carefully. "Tell me, Doctor—"

"Arik, please." The scientist's eyes sobered. "I doubt I'll be allowed to retain my title and position once news of this gets out."

"Arik, what do you remember?"

Soong bit his lip, then answered, "I was on campus, walking home from a roundtable discussion with my colleagues and my students. I was waiting for the next transport at the station, I remember getting onto the transport...and the next thing I know, I'm at the Marina and I'm running towards you and I feel a sting in my back. It all went dark...I know I hit water—"

"Whoever erased your memory did so between Berkley and San Francisco," assumed T'Lydya. "That is approximately three-hundred and eighty six point eight miles or six hundred and twenty two point four nine kilometers."

Trip scowled at T'Lydya's overly precise calculations. "That's a lot of distance between 'em, about three hours by fast shuttle. Plenty of time for whoever did it."

Soong nodded. "I've racked my brain, trying to remember, but it's all a blank."

"Did you feel a needle prick? Did you feel any strange symptoms before gettin' on the transport?"

Soong shook his head. "I don't remember, if I did or not."

"Whoever assaulted you knew you would be on the transport at that particular time. Who was at this roundtable discussion?" asked T'Lydya.

"There were nine people, excluding myself. I can give you a list of who attended. Two of them were a brother-sister team, Doctors Quinn and Danica Erickson."

Trip's eyes widened. "The Ericksons? Didn't they work with their father on the first matter transporter?"

"Yes, Danica worked on the molecular converter for the pattern buffer, while Quinn helped the Vulcans sort out the filters for biotransport. Very crucial to putting your atoms back together in the right places," Soong replied, with the pride of a grandfather. "Brilliant duo; Emory was very proud of them. I was their sponsor for their doctorate programs."

"Doctor Erickson—Quinn, I mean—he worked with the Vulcans?"

"Indeed. Quinn has a completely rational, logical mind. If it weren't for the ears, I would've thought he was Vulcan himself." Soong chuckled at the thought. "He speaks the language with all its nuances. I believe he had teamed up with a colleague to present a paper on the Vulcan physiology...a Doctor Malcolm Reed, I believe."

"Doctor Reed?" Trip repeated, as T'Lydya's eyebrows shot up.

"Do you know him, Ensign? Quite the researcher, I'd say—"

Trip smiled. "I know of him, but I've never met the guy. So Quinn Erickson worked closely with the Vulcans. What about Danica Erickson?"

Soon sighed and answered, "I suppose Danica was jealous of the time he spent with the Vulcans. She didn't enjoy their company, not one bit. Then again, she's always been highly emotional. Very Human, Danica is. I think the final straw was when Quinn was considering a Vulcan wife. He ended up not doing it, of course, but that damaged his relationship with his sister. It's only recently they've mended fences. In fact, it was Danica's idea to attend the roundtable with her brother."

Trip caught T'Lydya's expression of unease. "Did anyone else share Danica's views of the Vulcans?"

"A few, but they weren't quite as vocal. It was just a matter of personal preference, Ensign. Some people on Earth still believe they're the center of the universe." Soong shrugged. "Though I know Danica like my own daughter. I don't think she'd ever cross the line between words and action. Emory instilled a strong sense of ethics in both his children. I think Danica would be horrified at the thought of harming anyone, Human, Vulcan or otherwise."

Trip nodded. The scientist was chatty and not ashamed to provide information, even if it was somewhat personal...and even if the subjects weren't present. That really bothered him; it made him wonder just what Soong would disclose if the price was right. T'Lydya looked rather uncomfortable, and Trip hated to put her through this, but he needed more information.

For Danica Erickson's name was on the list Captain Harris had given him.

"Tell me about the other people who were at this discussion, Arik. It could be that one of them might know something about what happened to you...and we'd need to talk to 'em fast."

*****

Later, that morning, Trip requested an urgent meeting with Soval, Jon, Carlos Ramirez and Major T'Lydya. Soval had anticipated his request, and had set aside a conference room for that purpose. There were advantages to being mind-linked, Trip considered ruefully.

He and T'Lydya took turns in their report, making sure not to forget any piece of information. Soval sat next to Trip, his hands pressed together and fingers steepled, with a grave expression on his face. Jon looked impassive, but his eyes were hard emeralds. Ramirez shifted in his seat; his broad features reflecting turmoil.

"If Doctor Soong is telling the truth, then we are dealing with more than just a group of disgruntled individuals," Soval said quietly. "It appears that there is a well-organized and efficient organization."

Jon nodded and said, "This contact you met—Jeremiah? Can you get in contact with him again, Trip?"

He shrugged. "I think so. Corporal Lee Doumaides knows him and Lee would know where he is. He hinted that he had background information about this group and he was willing to share it."

"Talk to him. See what he has to say. Carlos, I want you to cover him," Jon said.

"What about Nate Kemper?" Trip asked.

"I have another assignment for him," Jon replied. "I'm sending him and a team as an escort for Doctor Soong back to USC Berkley. Corporal McVegran and Crewman Niemas are familiar with the campus, and they'll be able to talk to some of their old friends there." He smiled, but it didn't reach his eyes. "I've got connections at my alma mater; I'll chat with the Stanford chancellor and see how widespread this movement is."

"And Major T'Lydya and I will warn other Vulcans and outworlders on the Consulate grounds," Soval said, "I will also talk with Security Minister T'Pau about this matter as well. This is too important to hide from her; it could potentially damage Vulcan/Human relations."

Jon nodded. "Agreed. Nothing we've discussed goes out of this room, understood?"

Everyone agreed, then the meeting dispersed. Captain Ramirez caught up with Trip in the outer hall. "I'll call Doumaides—"

"Beggin' yer pardon, sir, but I think I should do it." At Ramirez's expression, Trip clarified, "He'd get suspicious if his commanding officer asked him about this. He was the one who steered me to Jeremiah in the first place."

Ramirez nodded. "All right, we'll do it your way, but I'm monitoring you every step of the way."

Trip nodded back, grateful for Ramirez's confidence in him. He only hoped that faith was justified.

*****

Trip's Quarters, Enterprise

"Quinn was a good man," Malcolm said in a quiet tone. "He knew how to relate to complete strangers. He was the powerhouse behind most of the joint Human/Vulcan biomedical projects of the time. I was only his assistant."

T'Pol turned to him with a hint of a smile. "Do not deny your own contributions to those projects, Doctor Reed. I believe Doctor Erickson looked up to you like a mentor."

"It was rather the other way around, T'Pol."

Travis sighed and shook his head. "A pity what happened to him, though. I would've loved to have met him in person."

"What happened to him?" Jon asked. "I thought I heard something about a transporter accident—"

Malcolm shook his head, obviously unwilling to relive the memory. Hoshi squeezed his arm in reassurance, causing Trip and T'Pol to exchange another glance. The captain seemed unaware of her gesture.

"Quinn volunteered to be one of the first ones to use the transporter. He said that it was illogical to ask someone to test it if its creator wasn't willing to go through it himself. His father had tried it and was successful, and Emory was enthusiastic about his son's sense of adventure, so Quinn didn't expect any problems."

Phlox's voice was just as quiet. "Something went wrong."

"Yes, Commander. Something went wrong." The corner of Malcolm's mouth turned up in a bitter expression. "Quinn failed to materialize at his destination. It was the final straw; Danica and her father had a very public argument and they broke off contact. Emory died not long afterwards."

"Oh, man," Travis breathed.

"Ironically, it was a problem with the molecular converter, the same piece of equipment that Danica Erickson had assisted with," Phlox added. "Her theory was sound, but the engineers had misaligned some critical components. She blamed the members of the engineering group as well. A group comprised of mainly Vulcan and Denobulan engineers."

Another heavy silence fell over Trip's quarters. Then Phlox answered the unspoken question. "No, I was not with that group, but several of my colleagues were. They took the shame with them back to Denobula."

Trip nodded. Phlox had used the Denobulan euphemism for the Terran equivalent of hari-kiri, ritual suicide. "None of us knew what the future held for them," he said. "At the time I was at the Consulate, Danica and Quinn had worked with the Vulcans for a few years. I hadn't known just how well connected some of them were, especially one man in particular..."

*****

O'Charley's Bar, San Francisco, March 18, 2141

"Over here, Tucker, and ditch your friends. I want to speak with you alone."

Jeremiah leaned against the doorway leading to the basement stairs. He looked like a lazy tiger, casual yet coiled to strike. Trip regarded him with a wary expression. How did he know? Lee gave him a questioning look.

"You want me to get lost, Trip? I don't trust you alone with him, where I can't see you."

"Have a couple at the bar for me, Lee. I'll be right back."

"You sure?"

"Yeah, I'll be okay. I'll holler if I need help." Trip knew that Ramirez wasn't going to be thrilled with him wandering off by himself with Jeremiah, but he had the stealth communication system set up on his body, so Ramirez could track him.

Lee shrugged casually, then headed for the bar. Jeremiah gestured for Trip to precede him down the stairs. As Trip passed him, Jeremiah reached over and switched off the tiny button behind Trip's ear. The sudden touch made Trip jump and he whirled around to face Jeremiah.

"I told you to ditch your friends. Plural. What I gotta say is between you and me, no one else, even if the other one's your commanding officer." He inclined his head towards the stairway and Trip began the slow climb down. Jeremiah had deactivated the most obvious comm circuit, but Trip had a back-up circuit implanted in his inner ear. Ramirez was one who believed in redundancy.

Trip hid a smile. If Jeremiah was half as good, wouldn't he have expected that Trip had an alternative means of communication? "I thought you were an engineer."

"I was, but that isn't the only job I've held in my lifetime," Jeremiah said with a slight smirk. "You know the saying 'it takes one to know one'?"

"You're Starfleet Security," Trip whispered in a hushed voice.

"Kind of. I've got connections, enough to know that Harris tried to worm himself into your confidence." Jeremiah's voice was calm, but there was a dangerous undertone. "He isn't who he seems. And I know enough to warn you that Diplomat Archer and Ambassador Soval are in danger."

Trip glanced over his shoulder. "You'd better start from the beginning, Jeremiah...if that's your real name."

He laughed. "Actually, it is. I've never lied to you, Tucker."

"Just omitted a couple of things."

"Like you haven't been guilty of the same in your career?"

"We're not talkin' about me." Trip bit off the rest of what he was going to say. Jeremiah was testing him, trying to get under his skin, and Trip wasn't going to give him the satisfaction.

They emerged in a dining area, dominated by a long table with chairs on both sides. Trip stopped so suddenly that Jeremiah nearly ran into him. The table was empty, but at one end sat an ordinary-looking man; ordinary, at least, until you saw the steel in his eyes, the suppressed rage in his frame. Trip suddenly wondered if this guy could take both him and Jeremiah in a fight.

"Hello, Mister Tucker," said the man as he regarded Trip with a cold smile. "My name is John Paxton. Welcome to Terra Prime."

*****

Trip sat through the most difficult half an hour of his life. Not only did he hide his anger and disgust at the self-serving rhetoric that Paxton spouted, but he had to hide his fear as the man knew every bit of Trip's service record, even the events that were kept strictly "off the record."

He watched Jeremiah out of the corner of his eye; the man said nothing, only watched Paxton with the manner of a hawk. It confirmed Trip's assumption that Jeremiah had been in Starfleet Security at one point, but he didn't think Jeremiah was part of them now.

Special Ops? Or is there some kinda group that I don't know about? Trip wondered. And was the mysterious Jeremiah the one who dug up the information for Paxton? If so, that meant that Jeremiah had access to the highest echelons of Starfleet Security. And such a man was working for Paxton and his group, this Terra Prime?

This is a major breach. I bet heads'll roll at Starfleet Command when they find out about this. Trip glanced sideways at Jeremiah; whose side was the man on? He'd warned Trip about a threat to Archer and Soval, and now he acted as Paxton's loyal bodyguard. A double agent of some sort?

Damn, I'm kinda glad I don't have his job, if that's the case.

"Jeremiah's vouched for you, Ensign Tucker, as well as Lee. You showed restraint after a 'sick' Vulcan attacked you, but tell me, if the Vulcan would have tried to hurt Diplomat Archer, would you have shot her?"

Trip raised his eyebrows, and told the truth as closely as he would have dared. He had the feeling his answer would make or break him. "I would have defended Diplomat Archer by any means necessary. It's my job to protect him."

"And would you have allowed Doctor Soong to drown, even if he had tried to kill you?"

"I'm sworn to protect life, Mister Paxton, even Soong's." Trip didn't miss Paxton's sarcastic smirk at the academic's name. "Even if the man had a screw loose somewhere."

"You protect life? Human life?"

Trip forced himself to answer calmly, even if his stomach twisted into knots. What the hell kind of a question is that? "Part of the contract, Mister Paxton."

Paxton chuckled and shrugged. "True. We need you for a very important assignment, Ensign. Our world is poised at the edge of change, and we need a catalyst to launch our new campaign. Jeremiah, as good as an assassin as he is on his own—" and here, Paxton acknowledged Jeremiah with a look of respect. Jeremiah's green eyes flashed dangerously, but he said nothing. "—he doesn't have the access or the connections to get onto the Consulate grounds."

"But I do," Trip said, with a sudden realization. Oh, damn. Is he gonna ask me what I think he's gonna ask me?

"That's right, Ensign. We have a problem with a few people who want to give away our power to the Vulcans, and unfortunately, they are at the highest level of the Consulate's office." Paxton's eyes glittered like a spider's. "We need someone to eliminate Diplomat Archer and Ambassador Soval...immediately."

Six

Trip's Quarters, Enterprise


Jon Archer choked on his bourbon, T'Pol's eyes widened a fraction, Malcolm and Travis stared at Trip with a dumbstruck expression, Hoshi's pretty features darkened like a thundercloud, and Phlox only gave him a look of interest.

"Wait a minute," Jon wheezed and coughed as he put his glass down on Trip's desk with a deliberate movement. "You were the one who—"

"Yeah, that was me. Not exactly proud of myself, Jon, but I had to save you and Soval," Trip admitted with a sheepish smile. "It was the lesser of two evils, you understand."

T'Pol's tone was frosty, but not because of anger. "Are you endangering yourself by telling us this tale, Lieutenant Commander?"

Trip winced at the use of his rank, but replied, "No. Everyone who might've known...isn't around anymore. With a couple of exceptions, and both of them kept their mouth shut." He glanced at Hoshi. "Don't look at me like that, Hoshi. I didn't have anythin' to do with that, either. And Matt's innocent in that too."

Hoshi looked ready to snap Trip's neck, since Matt Hayes wasn't available at the moment. "Matt never told me about this. Classified?"

"Very much so," Trip replied. He knew why Malcolm, sitting next to Hoshi, was so tense. Malcolm had never really liked Matt Hayes, and didn't cherish the fact that Hoshi was romantically involved with Columbia's captain.

Despite himself, Trip remembered the words of Diplomat Saphia Daro, the Betazoid ambassador. "He is her imzadi, and he hers. Any other path will only bring her pain." Malcolm glanced sideways at Hoshi, who refused to look directly at him. Trip hoped the doctor wouldn't snap like a rubber band.

"I know that he had to keep things from me, as part of his job," Hoshi said, her tone still quiet. "I've learned not to ask questions, and he won't have to tell me any lies."

Trip nodded, sympathetic. "I don't suggest you bring it up to Matt the next time you see him. It's not exactly something he's proud of. The mysterious 'Jeremiah' has been officially dead for ten years. In fact, when I met Commander Hayes, I didn't make the connection at first, because Matt was the exact opposite of the Jeremiah I knew. In fact, I was convinced that Matt had an evil twin brother or something."

"Quite the actor, then," Malcolm said.

Trip raised an eyebrow, then said, "Doc, don't be so quick to judge. You weren't there."

"And this man is the captain of Starfleet's second Warp 5 ship?"

Travis looked ready to jump to Hayes's defense, but Hoshi interrupted, "That's enough, Malcolm. Whatever Matt—and Trip—have done in the past stays in the past."

Malcolm nodded, but grudgingly. Jon cleared his throat and asked, "Trip, I can understand why you kept quiet, but how did you—"

Trip grinned and tapped his temple. "I had help."

*****

Vulcan Consulate, San Francisco, March 18, 2141

Trip and Lee returned to the Consulate in time for lunch. The whole fifteen-minute walk from the bar felt like a surreal dream to Trip. Lee took one look at his face when he emerged from the basement, ordered a stiff drink, and made him drink it. Considering Trip didn't feel drunk was a sure sign of how distracted he was.

He shook his head and thought, I sure as hell can't afford to be distracted now, of all times.

The guard at the door was Third Officer Somek, the young Vulcan man who'd greeted trip on his initial arrival at the Consulate. Somek gave both Trip and Lee a cordial bow. "Ensign, Corporal, welcome back."

"Thank you, Third Officer Somek," Trip replied. "Is Diplomat Archer around?"

Somek raised an eyebrow at the colloquialism, but only answered, "Diplomat Archer is 'around', but he is currently in an emergency meeting with Ambassador Soval. Shall I inform him that you have returned, Ensign?"

"No, that's all right. I'll stop by his office later. Thanks."

Trip went straight to his office, Lee right behind him. He gestured for Lee to close the door after them and whispered hoarsely, "Bugs?"

Lee understood the question and raised a finger to his lips. Quietly, he crossed to the com system built into the wall, undid the latch and fiddled with the circuits inside. After a few moments, he nodded and replaced the panel. "No one can overhear us now, Trip."

"Good." He didn't bother to tell Lee about the spy device in his own ear. He guessed that Jon, Soval and Ramirez had overheard his meeting with Jeremiah and Paxton, and that was the cause of the 'emergency meeting'.

"Did Paxton offer you the big job?"

Trip nodded slowly. "Yeah."

"You gonna do it? It's gonna be impossible to hide anything from these Vulcans."

"That's why I don't plan on sittin' on this for very long, Lee." He bit his lip and thought hard. "I'm gonna have to ask you for some help. I haven't been here that long and I'm still unfamiliar with some of the security systems around here."

A smile played on the corporal's lips. "I know of some people who could help, Trip. Once they hear you're on our side, they'll be willing to give you anything you need."

Trip remembered Nate Kemper's remark about how many of the Security contingent were clearly on the "pro-Human" side and his stomach clenched in dread. "Can any of them get around the systems connected with Archer's and Soval's offices?"

"With their eyes closed and their hands tied behind their backs," Lee bragged with a smirk. "We've got a munitions guy with us too, if you decide to go that route."

"Depends if we want a lot of collateral damage or not," Trip said, trying to keep his voice casual. "It'd make a statement, but we'd still have to clean up the mess."

Lee raised his eyebrows. "I thought Paxton wanted a big statement."

"He's not a security officer. Big statement equals early detection and an early grave," Trip snapped. "Major T'Lydya would be on our asses as quick as a Hyberian saberfish. Now a stealth attack—" Trip lifted a finger to forestall Lee's protest, "—especially one that can't be traced, that'll strike fear in the hearts of everyone, including the Vulcans. Suddenly, they'll realize that even they aren't safe in their own inner sanctum."

Aw, geez, I sound like every bad movie villain there ever was! Trip thought with an inner wince. Lex Luthor, eat your heart out. I sure as hell don't feel as heroic as Superman. Hell, Supe would be on my ass too.

Lee didn't seem to notice; he only nodded at Trip's reasoning. "Good point. So what are you thinking?"

"Got any ninja training?" Trip half-joked.

"Nope, but I can find someone who probably does."

He stared at Lee's innocent look. "And you're only a corporal?"

"This time out, anyway. I'm a lot more experienced than I look." This wasn't a brag, Trip realized, but a simple statement of fact. "So...we're talking what? Poison? Needles?"

Trip stared at him. "This time out? What are you, really?"

Lee sighed and shook his head. "Technically, I outrank you, Ensign, and it's only because I like you that I'm letting you run the show. Jeremiah and Paxton seem to have a lot of confidence in your ability to have given you this assignment with just one glance."

Trip realized his mouth was hanging open and he closed it firmly. "I hope you aren't envious, Lee, 'cause I plan to include you every step of the way."

"Envious, me?" The charming smile was back and Lee appeared as the young, naive corporal once more. "Nah. I'm more than willing to let you lead."

"Thanks a lot," Trip said mildly. "Anyways...you were talkin' about ways of...assassination?" The word left a bad taste in Trip's mouth. "Somethin' subtle."

"There's a Vulcan maneuver called tal-shaya that's pretty quick." Lee demonstrated with his hands.

"I'm sure Soval's trained in that kinda thing and I know for a fact that Vulcans are a lot stronger and faster than Humans. Dunno 'bout you, but I like my neck where it is." He unconsciously rubbed the back of his neck as he spoke.

Suddenly, unbidden, images came across his eyes. Images that Trip knew didn't come from his experience. The Vulcan Security Ministry would suggest...He sent a wordless laugh back to Soval and felt the wicked chuckle that Soval would never allow to be heard by anyone else.

Then he grinned as if something had just occurred to him. Lee gave him a wary look and asked, "Uh-oh. What is it?"

"I've got an idea, Lee. We might have to use your demolitions guy after all, and I think I have a way to get some extra help."

"Oh?"

"Yeah. I need Jeremiah."

"Jeremiah isn't cleared to step foot on the Consulate grounds, not with his background of trouble."

Trip's grin widened and Lee actually took a step back at the coldness of it. "Don't worry. I know Diplomat Archer'll help with that, even if he won't be aware he is helping."

*****

He sent Lee to gather the personnel and equipment they'd need for their "hit". Then he dropped by Jon's office as usual. Trip had to act as if everything was normal, or his cover was blown.

"Hi, Trip," Jon greeted. He smiled, but the worry still shone in his eyes. Archer had to act as if he knew nothing of the attempt on his life. "So, did you get in touch with Jeremiah?"

"Sure did." Trip handed him a PADD. "Look, I was thinkin' about invitin' him over to meet you and Soval. He could be a valuable contact, but he needs some protection. He's between a rock and a hard place where he is...and it ain't safe."

Jon nodded and glanced at the information on the PADD. "His life's in danger?"

"Yeah, you could say that."

"Then he needs a clearance tag. Get it through Major T'Lydya; tell her I authorized it. Are we set for the meeting with Admiral McGee tonight?".

"Yeah. I got the proposed Security assignments right there on the PADD you're holdin'. That is, till it meets your approval and Captain Ramirez's and Major T'Lydya's."

Jon nodded again as he scrolled down the screen. "Got some of the best in your squad covering me and Soval..."

Trip grinned and hoped it looked genuine. "No offense to Admiral McGee, but I gotta do my job, y'know. That's protecting you, especially after you saved my butt the last time. So it's my turn to save you again."

Jon's eyes were suddenly sober. "I trust you will, if the opportunity comes up."

"Don't have to worry about that." Trip accepted the PADD back and tucked it under his arm. "I'll be back a little later when I got everythin' all set up."

"All right, Trip." The diplomat held him with his gaze. "Like I said, I trust you."

Trip only smiled and left the room.

*****

Trip's Quarters, Enterprise

Trip deliberately shoved the bottle of bourbon further away from him. Malcolm helped by claiming it and shoving the cork back in the top of the bottle. Then Phlox took it with a grimace and stashed it behind him, where Trip couldn't see it. Jon reached over and put a hand on Trip's arm.

"If this is difficult for you, you don't have to finish the story," he said kindly. There were nods all around, and even Malcolm wore a sympathetic look on his face. "It's late, and I know that some of us have the early shift tomorrow."

Trip shrugged and made a gesture with his hand. "If any of ya'll are tired, ya can leave any time you want to. I promised T'Pol I'd tell her the story of how I met Soval; it's just pretty complicated. 'Sides, I want to set the story straight: none of ya have to worry about my loyalty to Starfleet and Earth...or Matt Hayes's. We got caught in this mess and had to get ourselves out of it...and Soval and Jon helped us."

Travis shook his head. "I want to hear the end of this one. This is another side of Matt I never even imagined he had. And besides, if it involves Terra Prime—"

"Yes," Phlox added, "it will be prudent to know about them, considering there are still remnants of that splinter group that exist, even a decade later."

"I would be gratified to hear how you and 'Jeremiah' managed to save Soval and Lieutenant Archer from Terra Prime," T'Pol echoed. Her brows came together in confusion. "Though if you might explain one small detail, Trip?"

"Which detail?"

"Who is this 'Lex Luthor'? And this 'Superman'?"

Laughter erupted around the room and broke the tension. T'Pol wore a nonplussed look on her face and Phlox seemed just as confused. Trip said, "Superman is a comic book character, T'Pol. Comic books are like...well, adventure stories, drawn and inked. Lex Luthor was one of Superman's nemeses, and Luthor was always trying to take over the world. Of course, he was never successful."

T'Pol's mouth quirked upwards in distaste. "An infantile form of entertainment for teenaged Human males?"

"Hey!" Trip objected. "I'll have you know there are layers upon layers of subtext in comic books, especially Superman! They are not infantile!"

Travis howled in laughter at Trip's protest. Hoshi clapped her hands over her mouth, her eyes merry. Malcolm was about to make a snarky remark, but Hoshi elbowed him in the ribs just as he was opening his mouth. The doctor glared at her, but held his peace.

"Like you've never read anything about Captain Britain, Malcolm?" Hoshi asked in a low voice.

He quirked an eyebrow. "Captain Britain is considered a patriotic figure among the young. Not like Nelson, mind you, but—"

"Well, Superman is considered a patriotic figure in North America. Give Trip a break."

Malcolm rolled his eyes. Travis finally stopped laughing enough to take a deep breath and Jon pounded him on the back. T'Pol, whose remark had sparked this humorous interlude, only said, "I would be interested in perusing one of your 'comic books', Trip, in the interest of cultural exchange."

"If you'll trade Surak for Superman, ya got a deal," Trip said with a grin. "Well, if ya'll are stayin' till the end, let me warn ya—" and here, his expression sobered, "—I don't consider myself a hero, just someone who just happened to be at the right place at the right time."

*****

Vulcan Consulate, San Francisco, the evening of March 18, 2141

Trip sighed and tried not to fidget with the collar of his formal uniform. He waited at the Consulate gates with Third Officer Somek. Somek scanned the street beyond with a sharp eye. Somek, like the rest of the Vulcan contingent of the Consulate, had been briefed by Captain Ramirez and Major T'Lydya about the assassination attempt.

"May I be so bold as to compliment you?" Somek said in a low voice.

"Huh?" Trip blurted out. Real intelligent, Tucker. You sound really intelligent right now.

"For volunteering for such a difficult assignment. Please know that no matter what the outcome, I will have no doubts as to your intentions."

He chuckled, embarrassed at the praise. He didn't feel worthy of the young Vulcan's words. "I didn't exactly volunteer."

Jeremiah appeared at the gate. He was dressed in a normal Starfleet uniform, with red piping and two solid pips with one empty pip added to the collar. Lieutenant Commander? Trip thought the man fit a Starfleet uniform well, even if he technically wasn't in active service anymore. Jeremiah handed his clearance tag to Somek through the gate bars, who swiped it through his PADD. The screen showed green. Trip nodded again and Somek opened the gate for Jeremiah.

"Thank you," Jeremiah said abruptly. Somek only inclined his head in response.

"C'mon, show's startin' in an hour," Trip said. "Told Diplomat Archer 'bout you. He's pretty impressed, even with some of the misunderstandin's on your record."

"Well, I hope you didn't exaggerate some of my finer points," Jeremiah said dryly.

"Nah. Just some of the blunter ones." Trip's offhand remark actually brought a startled laugh from the older man. "We're all ready; I just need to make one more round before Ambassador Soval and Diplomat Archer arrives. If you'll follow me, I can take ya to a place that's kinda comfy."

Trip led Jeremiah to a walled garden near the center of the Consulate. The main fountain threw up sprays of water, only to fall gently back into its basin. Butter-colored flowers floated on its surface. Neat plots of flowers were concentrated in pleasing patterns, and vines crept up the adobe walls. Three members of the Security team were stationed along the walls. They nodded as Trip approached.

"All in order?" Trip asked in his best command tone.

They snapped to attention. "Yes, sir."

"Good." Trip paused and asked, "Has Corporal Kemper come back from USC Berkley yet?"

"No, sir," replied Corporal Trebarre. "They had trouble catching the shuttle back to San Fran. Diplomat Archer sent alternative transport for them."

"So, he won't be back until after the meeting?"

"I assume so, sir."

Trip nodded. "And Kemper promised me a couple of drinks tonight. Ah, well. I suppose I'll just have to take a rain check."

Trebarre grinned. "Andorian ale, sir?"

Trip noticed the hard glint to Jeremiah's eyes as he replied, "You kiddin'? Good old Glenfiddich from the old country. I'll check with you later, Corporal."

"Yes, sir."

Trip quietly went through the halls, making a visual inspection of his teams. Jeremiah was a silent shadow, not saying anything, but observing everything. There was a nervous stir as recognition dawned in some of the Security personnel's faces. No one dared object to Jeremiah's presence. Those who didn't know who he was assumed that he was another Security officer, probably Admiral McGee's man.

And as Trip went through, he nodded at a particular sergeant standing guard duty at the conference room door. "Sergeant Harry Breen, one of the best sharpshooters and bomb guys on the Security detail."

"Sergeant," Jeremiah said with a nod.

"Sir," Breen replied. "All ready for their arrival."

"Good." Trip sighed and glanced at his wrist. "Damn, I left my chronometer in my office. Sergeant, you got the time?"

"Sure, Ensign." Breen pushed his sleeve up and showed Trip an old-fashioned watch. The hands showed six forty-five, with a blinking green light at the base of the watch face, and the sound of a steady "tick-tick" keeping time.

"Thanks, Sergeant."

"You want to borrow my watch?"

"Nah, you don't have to—"

"I insist, sir. You need it more than I do." Breen unsnapped the band and handed the whole thing to Trip. "I just ask that you take good care of it. It's pretty important."

"I sure will," Trip said as he affixed the watch to his own wrist. "Thanks again."

Trip entered the room and pretended to check the security cameras and the sensors. Lee Doumaides hadn't been kidding at Breen's expertise; the six explosives were inconspicuous and practically undetectable to the naked eye. Per Trip's instructions, they had been strategically placed to minimize collateral damage, but were still potentially deadly in the small room.

He tapped the wall comm. "Control room, report."

"Everything's a go, Ensign," came the reply. "We had a little bit of a sensor glitch earlier, but we fixed it. Diagnostics came back clean."

"Sensor glitch?" Trip asked, injecting a tone of worry in his voice. The sergeant heard it and stuck his head in the door. He gave Breen an inquiring look; the sergeant's forehead wrinkled in genuine confusion.

"The diagnostics came back clean, but we can run another one if you want, Ensign."

"Nah, we don't have time before Admiral McGee, Ambassador Soval and Diplomat Archer arrive. Make sure none of the other protocols have been breached."

"Yes, sir. Control room, out."

Trip began to leave the room, but he stopped by Breen and said in a low, menacing voice, "If it doesn't work, you'll be answering to me, Sergeant. Got that?"

Breen looked taken aback, but he modified what he was about to say as he saw Trip's expression. "Yes, sir."

Trip stalked down the hall and turned the corner, with Jeremiah scrambling in his wake. He tried not to betray his trembling hands. Talk about close. I hope Soval's engineering guys are as good as he says or we're in a lot of trouble. It ain't easy to defuse six bombs undetected and still leave the outer casings intact.

He glanced at his borrowed watch. Six fifty. Ten more minutes. I hope Ramirez and T'Lydya's people know what they're doing.

"Time to meet the diplomat," Trip said aloud.

Jon Archer sat at his desk, making final adjustments to his meeting agenda. Trip rapped on the door frame and waited for Jon's answer. The diplomat managed a smile. "Be right with you, Trip...Ah, this must be Jeremiah?"

"Yes, sir," Jeremiah said in a quiet tone as he accepted Jon's handshake. "Diplomat Archer."

Jon held his gaze. "Starfleet Security?"

"Formerly, sir."

"Good. Trip's going to need as much help as he can get." Jon met Trip's gaze. "I trust this man with my life, so don't piss him off."

A genuine smile flashed onto his face. "I don't plan to, sir."

Then Jon got to his feet. "The Admiral's waiting, gentlemen. Let's go."

Archer's penchant for wandering was well-known at the Consulate. He enjoyed stopping by his fellow diplomats' offices and by some of the junior Vulcans' cubicles. This was no exception. Personally, Trip thought it was a great idea to boost morale. As a security officer, it was annoying as hell. Major T'Lydya had hated this part of Archer's routine. This time, Trip silently thanked Jon's foresight.

As Jon went through his usual routine, Trip watched as the members of the security detail stationed themselves nearby, but not in the way. The only ones who were always around Archer were Trip, Jeremiah and Lee, who had joined them midway through the circuit through the Consulate offices. Lee's eyes widened at the sight of Jeremiah in a Starfleet uniform—and wearing lieutenant commander's pips—but wisely said nothing.

Trip glanced at the watch around his wrist. Six fifty four. Six more minutes. Soval should be at the room by now, with T'Lydya and her people...

Trip, you must delay Jonathan for a moment or two longer. Soval's mind-voice was as clear as a bell, as if the Vulcan was standing right next to him.

How'm I gonna do that? Just as Trip thought the question, his communicator went off. "Damn," he muttered. "Lee, gotta step out. Be right back."

"Sure, Boss," Lee whispered back, with stress on the title.

Trip stepped into the hall and hissed into his communicator, "Tucker. What is it?"

"Ensign," came Kemper's low voice. "Admiral McGee's chief of staff reports the admiral's delayed five minutes. His security detail's has rendezvoused with Ambassador Soval's."

"Acknowledged," Trip replied. Nate had just told him that Major T'Lydya and her people had quietly replaced the questionable guards in the conference room with supporters of Archer and Soval. Okay, timing is everything here.

He went back to Jon's side and whispered, "Diplomat, Admiral McGee's been delayed five minutes."

"Thanks, Ensign." Jon finished chatting with T'Saiya's temporary replacement at the front desk. Now he slowly made his way through the entrance of the western wing of the Consulate. Trip nodded at Lee, who checked the power level of his EM-33. Jeremiah did the same; he kept an eye on Lee's every move.

"Send word to the rest of the team," Trip whispered. "Stay put until it's time. Anyone who jumps early's gonna be strung up."

"No problem, Boss," Lee whispered back and relayed Trip's orders to the other members of the detail. Trip knew that he could trust only one or two of them not to shoot Jon or Soval at the first opportunity. He prayed that none of the others would get any bright ideas.

They finally reached the floor where the conference room was located. Sergeant Breen snapped to attention as the diplomatic party neared the door. Archer nodded at him and asked, "Is Ambassador Soval—?"

"He and Major T'Lydya are waiting for you inside, sir," Breen said. "Admiral McGee is on his way now."

"Thank you, Sergeant."

Breen's eyes suddenly widened in alarm as Trip's watch emitted a sharp screech. The green light at the base of the clock face turned from green to red.

Trip realized it in an instant: Breen had implanted one of the bombs in the watch and had given it to him. Paxton had known—or had at least suspected—that he had been playing both sides. But judging from Breen's expression, someone had triggered the bomb a moment too soon, which meant none of them would have time to escape before it went off.

"Dammit!" Jeremiah ripped the watch from Trip's wrist. "Get DOWN!"

"What the hell are you doing?" Trip burst out, but Jeremiah had already disappeared down the hall with it. He'd never seen a man Jeremiah's size move so fast. Trip made a split-second decision: he launched himself toward a startled Jon Archer, knocking him down and covering Jon with his own body.

Then the bomb went off, shaking the Consulate to its foundations.

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October 2012

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