By Christina Moore
Part One: Vanishing Act
October 31, 2161
He laid his head down on the pillow, weary from his day’s work. Being a department chief was one thing, second officer another. But first officer? One step down from captain? It was exhausting sometimes, it really was.
Not that Charles “Trip” Tucker III regretted taking the job as Columbia’s second-in-command. Truth be told, he rather liked the crew looking up to him, either because they needed his help with something or simply because they admired him for one reason or another. No man (or woman, for that matter) could ignore that feeling, the one where your chest swelled with pride because you were liked and respected by the people you worked with.
Didn’t mean a long day—or long night, as he’d just gotten off his last third shift of the week—wasn’t capable of wearing you out.
Trip lay still, his eyes closed, hoping for sleep. Real sleep, mind you, not the kind where his psyche was plagued with dreams of what would never be. Of a life that had ceased being his years ago. He didn’t know how much time had passed since he had lain tiredly on his bunk, but he finally felt himself starting to drift off, his last thought another fervent prayer for dreamless sleep.
Erika Hernandez, captain of the Starship Columbia, sat in her office, a steaming cup of coffee in her hand, going over Trip’s third shift report. He’d had a busy night, supervising the repairs and upgrades in the engine room, the armory, and here on the bridge. They were on their way back home for an inspection, and like she, he was determined that Columbia would be in top form. Chances were they were on the verge of being decommissioned—it had been almost seven years since their launch, after all, and the warp 7’s were in production now—but hope ran abundant through the crew that they might just get a few more years out of this ship.
The sudden jolt that nearly had her turning her cup over in her lap and scalding herself with the hot liquid was, naturally, quite unexpected. Erika quickly set the cup down and dropped the datapad containing Tucker’s report on her desk, stumbling as she rose and made her way across the office, the ship still shaking forcefully.
“Report!” she called out as soon as she made her way through her office door and out onto the bridge.
Rachel Walcott, her second officer and pilot, left the command chair and shooed the relief pilot out of her seat so she could take the controls herself, calling over her shoulder, “Some kind of spatial disturbance, Captain. We just…ran into it!”
“Well, run us out of it, Lieutenant!” said Hernandez, struggling to get into her own chair as the ship shook a third time. She hated to do this to a man who’d just gone off duty, but it looked like they might need him, so she looked over at her communications officer and said, “Get Commander Tucker up here—now.”
The young man nodded and started to carry out her order. Hernandez finally seated herself, though she held tightly to the arms of her chair as the ship shook yet again. “Mr. Brace, any idea what’s going on out there?” she asked, directing her question to her science officer.
“None yet, ma’am,” Daniel Brace said over his shoulder, his eyes pressed into the reader at his station. “All I have so far is some sort of spatial flux. It looks to be stationary, though, so as soon as we get through it—“
As he spoke, the trembling of the ship mercifully ceased. “All stop,” Hernandez said to Walcott, standing and walking over to the science station. “I take it we’re out?”
For a moment Brace didn’t answer, then he turned around and nodded. “Yes, Captain, we’re clear.”
“Keep scanning the area, Mr. Brace, I want to have a look at this thing. If it’s dangerous, we’ll leave message buoys to warn other ships,” Hernandez said, and turned to her pilot. “Move us another hundred thousand kilometers away, Rachel, then come about.”
She then walked over to her communications officer. “Leo, where’s Commander Tucker?”
Ensign Leo Thomas shook his head. “I don’t know, ma’am. I’ve been calling his quarters, but I haven’t gotten any answer.”
Hernandez pressed the comm button herself. “Commander Tucker, this is the bridge, over.” She waited about thirty seconds before she tried again. “Charlie, this is Captain Hernandez on the bridge, respond please.”
She’d thought calling him Charlie would work—in the nearly seven years they’d been serving together, it had become something of a running joke that she would call him Charlie when she wanted to get a rise out of him. He had no idea how very much she liked that she was the only one who could get away with it. How very much she liked him, in fact.
Still no response. And it was not like Trip to ignore the comm, even when he was fast asleep. If it went off, he always answered.
“I’m going to go see what’s keeping him. Rachel, you have the bridge. And get me a damage report while you’re at it,” said the captain, as she marched over to the lift to see what was going on with her first officer.
When she reached his quarters on C Deck, she tried ringing his buzzer. “Charlie, this isn’t funny anymore, open the door,” she said after the third try. When still he did not answer, she heaved a frustrated sigh—he had to be here. He’d told her that he was going straight to bed when she’d relieved him hardly more than half an hour ago.
Reaching over to the keypad, she pressed a series of numbers that would allow her to override the lock and enter without consent. When the door swished open she stepped over the threshold, fully prepared to yell for at least a minute because she’d had to come all the way down here.
Erika Hernandez did not expect to find his bunk empty. Turning around, she reached for the comm panel next to his door, calling down to the mess hall, then the armory, then the gym, and finally engineering. He was in none of those places. Next she called the bridge to see if he had reported in, and they still hadn’t heard from him, either.
“Rachel, alert security: I want a deck-by-deck search for him,” she said, a sense of dread beginning to form a knot in her stomach.
“Captain?” Lt. Walcott queried.
“Just do it, Lieutenant. Commander Tucker is missing.”
More than an hour later, after a deck-by-deck, room-by-room search and a scan of all the access tunnels, nooks, crannies and closets on the ship, her crew had no other choice but to report the worst…
…Commander Tucker had vanished.
But they did find something very interesting in his quarters. Hernandez had not noticed at first, hadn’t even looked there because she’d expected to find him in his bed. A more thorough search of Tucker’s personal space, however, turned up an exact replica of Rachel Walcott in the head, unconscious on the floor.
Hernandez had the doppelganger carried to Sickbay. Dr. Lena Rosenbaum was scanning the woman as their own Rachel Walcott walked in, having decided to go down when she heard that someone—who was not Commander Tucker—had been found in his quarters.
She stopped short upon seeing her own face on the unconscious form. “What the hell?” she muttered, looking from the person on the bed, to Dr. Rosenbaum, to Captain Hernandez, and then back again.
“I found her in Tucker’s bathroom,” said the captain. “I don’t know how she got there, but then I have no idea how Charlie disappeared, either.”
“I have run every bioscan conceivable,” said Rosenbaum at last, putting down her instruments. “I’ve checked her DNA, her RNA, blood samples---I even did a micro-cellular scan of her bone marrow. Except for some sort of quantum level fluctuations, the reason for which I have yet to identify, this woman is Lt. Rachel Walcott.”
“But that’s impossible!” declared Columbia’s pilot. “I am Rachel Walcott!”
“Well, apparently, so is she,” Hernandez mused, gesturing toward their unconscious guest. “The question is: how did she get here? And where’s Charlie?”
“That spatial disturbance we ran into, do you think it had anything to do with this?” asked the doctor.
Hernandez shrugged. “I’m open to any theories at this point, though considering Charlie disappeared and this Rachel apparently came aboard during the time we got caught in it, I’d say that’s a very distinct possibility.”
“So how the hell do we send her back to wherever it is she came from?” Rachel asked, clearly unnerved by the presence of her mirror image. “And get Commander Tucker back?”
Hernandez looked at her, placing a hand on her shoulder in a comforting gesture. “I don’t know, but we will try. I want him back, too, Rachel.”
At that moment, Daniel Brace walked into Sickbay. Hernandez started to ask her science officer to report on his findings, but the grimly determined look on his face stopped her, especially as he walked right up to the unconscious Rachel on the bed and scanned her with the hand scanner he carried.
“Just what I was afraid of,” he said, turning slowly to the three women staring expectantly at him.
“Just exactly what were you afraid of, Lieutenant?” Hernandez asked slowly.
Brace sighed, his countenance one of defeat. Erika didn’t like that one bit.
“My preliminary findings determined that the spatial flux was some kind of quantum rift. Quite possibly some sort of gateway between dimensions,” Brace began. “When I heard about our friend here, how she was in the place Commander Tucker was supposed to be in, I got a hunch that when he was taken, she was traded for him. In layman’s terms, it’s called the equal exchange theory. To make up for the fact that he appeared in her dimension, she appeared in ours—it’s all about maintaining balance in both places. It could even have happened simultaneously. That’s why I scanned her, I had to be sure. Her quantum signature matches that of the energy readings emanating from the rift.”
Rosenbaum nodded. “Then that explains the readings I got when I examined her,” she said. “Her body is in a state of quantum flux, because she was somehow…transported, from her universe to ours.”
“Would Commander Tucker be going through the same thing, wherever he is?” Hernandez wondered.
Rosenbaum exchanged a look with Brace, who nodded. “It’s reasonable to assume so, yes,” the doctor replied.
“What I want to know is can we send her back?” broke in Rachel. “She doesn’t belong here, she belongs…wherever. Is there any way to send her back through the rift and get Commander Tucker back? To rebalance the dimensions or whatever?”
Brace’s second sigh, coupled with his crestfallen expression, caused the knot of dread that had formed in Hernandez’ stomach to twist painfully. She didn’t want to hear what he had to say, even while knowing she had no choice.
“I have some really bad news,” he said softly. “For one thing, the rift is entirely too unstable to risk sending anything through. The gravitational forces could very well tear a shuttlepod apart—to be honest, I’m surprised we didn’t sustain any more damage than minor hull fractures, but that could just be due to Columbia’s size. Secondly, there’s really no guarantee she would end up where she came from, and there’s no way for us to communicate with whoever is on the other side to find out if Commander Tucker is even alive over there.”
Hernandez swallowed, not wanting to ask because she feared she already knew the dreadful answer. “Why do I get the feeling that’s not even the worst of it?” she forced herself to say.
Brace looked her straight in the eye, himself wishing he didn’t have to bear the terrible news. “Because it’s not, Captain. The worst part is, the rift is closing. At the rate it’s collapsing, in less than two hours it will be gone.”
Gone, the captain thought, a deep sadness settling over her. Meaning no way to send the second Rachel Walcott back to her own dimension…
…and no way to bring Charlie back to his.
Part Two: Day of the Dead
October 31, 2161
Hernandez rang the buzzer on Rachel’s quarters, wondering why in the world her first officer wasn’t answering. It wasn’t like Lt. Commander Walcott not to respond, even when as exhausted as she had been coming off her last third shift rotation of the week. No matter how tired Rachel was at any given time, she always answered a summons.
Frustrated by the lack of response, Hernandez punched her security override code into the keypad next to the door. She stepped over the threshold fully intending to yell for having to come all the way down here. Rachel wasn’t in her bed, so the captain looked in her first officer’s bathroom. The sight that met her eyes in there had her gasping in shock and backing out into the main room.
No way, she thought, swallowing hard past the knot in her throat. It’s just not possible—Trip is dead!
Apparently not that dead, said another, slightly more hysterical voice.
This was impossible, completely impossible, Hernandez told herself, even as she stared at the still form that lay on the bathroom floor. How he’d gotten into Rachel’s bathroom, she couldn’t begin to guess. Wasn’t even sure she wanted to, because for all intents and purposes the man should not be lying there. Was he unconscious? Dead? Who the hell was he and just what was he doing here? How did he get here?
And where was Rachel?
Taking a deep, steadying breath, Erika Hernandez knew there was only one way to start finding out the answers to those questions. Cautiously she stepped forward, kneeling to check the pulse in the neck of the man who looked so very much (okay, exactly) like someone she knew had died back in April. His heartbeat was strong and steady, so he was very much alive. Just unconscious. And she wasn’t about to wake him, at least not yet.
Standing, Hernandez stepped over to the comm panel next to the door. “Hernandez to Dr. Rosenbaum.”
Lena Rosenbaum answered seconds later. “Yes, Captain?”
She cast a glance down at the form on the floor. “I need you to come to Commander Walcott’s quarters with a couple of medics. We’ve got a situation.”
“I’ve run every conceivable test, Captain. Except for this strange quantum level fluctuation, it is him.”
“But that’s got to be impossible, Lena! He’s dead.”
“Look at the readings here. I’ve compared them with everything we have on file from when he served with us almost seven years ago—it’s definitely Trip.”
“Of course it’s me,” Trip said groggily, sitting up slowly due to the pounding of his head. He took a look around and frowned as he swung his legs over the side of the bed. “How’d I get to Sickbay?”
Both Hernandez and Rosenbaum turned sharply to face him. They walked over to stand together in front of the man the captain had found.
“Who are you?” Hernandez asked.
Trip frowned. “Erika, what do you mean, who am I?”
“It’s Captain Hernandez to you.”
The lines of his brow creased further. “Since when do we stand on formalities? I’ve been calling you Erika for more ’n six years. You call me Charlie—you’re the only one who gets away with that, remember?”
The expressions on the two women’s faces didn’t look right. In fact, they looked as if both of them had seen a ghost. Ironic, considering it was Halloween.
“Okay, I don’t know what’s going on here, but I give up. Joke’s on me, I accept it,” he said, hoping that whatever was going on really was somebody’s idea of a joke, even if it was nowhere near funny. “And hey, Lena, can I get something for this headache? Speaking of which, is that why I’m here? Did I fall or something?”
Although she felt a little uncomfortable with how he so casually addressed her by her first name, Rosenbaum nonetheless walked over to a tray of instruments and loaded a hypodermic with medication. Hernandez regarded the patient carefully as the doctor administered a dosage into his arm. “What’s the last thing you remember?”
Trip was confused. Why would she ask such a question? “When you relieved me at the start of first shift, I told you I was wiped out and that I’d be going straight to bed—which is exactly what I did. Next thing I know, I’m waking up here. And I’m wondering why the two of you are looking at me like that.”
“Like what?” Rosenbaum couldn’t help asking.
“Like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Hernandez ignored his remark, asking instead, “Where is Lt. Commander Walcott?”
Trip’s eyes widened. “Wait, did I miss something? When did you promote Rachel?”
“Rachel Walcott was promoted to lieutenant commander three years ago, when I named her as my first officer after Frank Lipton took the Apollo,” Hernandez replied automatically.
“Now hold on a minute,” Trip said, sliding off the bed to stand on his feet. “Ain’t no way—I’m the one’s been first officer of this ship for the last three years. And this morning, Rachel was still a lieutenant.”
It was then that he noticed one of Columbia’s security officers standing just inside the door. Another glance around showed him he was the only patient, which meant he was the one being guarded.
Trip looked between Hernandez and Rosenbaum. “Somebody please tell me what the heck is going on here?” he said as the Sickbay doors opened and Daniel Brace walked in.
“Danny, thank the good Lord. Will you tell me what’s going on? Hey, what are you doing?” he added, as Brace walked straight up to him and pointed a hand scanner at his chest. After pushing a couple of buttons, the younger man nodded.
“Just what I thought,” Brace said as he turned and faced Hernandez. “Captain, I’ve got news. That spatial distortion we ran into is much more than that—it’s a rift, a tear in the fabric of space-time.”
“Whoa, what spatial distortion?” asked Trip.
Again, Hernandez ignored him, crossing her arms and looking at her science officer. “What else can you tell me about it?” she asked.
“There are massive amounts of quantum energy emanating from the event horizon,” Brace continued, “and the signature of those energy readings doesn’t match anything in the surrounding space. It doesn’t match the quantum signature of this ship or anyone on it, either. Except for him—it matches him. Captain, I think we crossed a connection to a parallel reality.”
Rosenbaum brightened. “That would explain why this man’s body is in a state of quantum flux—it’s because he’s not originally from this universe.”
“Hello!” Trip said, stepping in the middle of them. “I am standing right here. So please stop talking about me like I’m not capable of understanding you. And I have a name, which you all damn well know is Charles Tucker.”
Hernandez looked at him for a moment, then quickly between Brace and Rosenbaum. “The two of you are sure of your findings?” she asked. They both nodded, and so the captain turned her attention back to the man she could no longer deny was Commander Tucker. “My apologies. I had to be sure.”
He relaxed a little. “Sure about what? Me? Why?”
Captain Hernandez looked him square in the eyes. “Because the Charles Tucker I know died six months ago.”
Trip stared, could only stare at her because what she’d just said was completely absurd. “How can you say that, Erika? I’ve been serving with you for over half a decade—“
“No, you served with another Erika Hernandez,” Brace told him. “The Commander Tucker we know only served on Columbia for the first month after we launched. That was almost seven years ago. He went back to Enterprise, where he stayed until he died.”
“Six months ago, you say? So that would have been back in April, right?” Trip asked.
Hernandez nodded. “Enterprise was on her way home, to be decommissioned. Captain Archer was to make a speech at the signing of the Charter of the United Federation of Planets.”
Trip waved a hand dismissively. “I know all about that—we watched him make his speech on the main viewer because we couldn’t get back in time. Jonathan’s captain of the Atlantis now…or did that not happen here?”
“Oh, it did. But they almost didn’t make it to the signing of the charter on time because of Captain Archer’s friendship with the Andorian Shran,” Hernandez pointed out. “Shran asked for Enterprise’s help in rescuing his daughter, who’d been kidnapped. The venture was successful, but the kidnappers tracked Enterprise down and boarded her. They had you—they had our Trip and Archer and were demanding to be taken to Shran, who was still on board. Archer was refusing but the other Tucker said he would bring Shran to where they were. He led them to a utility closet and said there was a comm station there, said he had to connect a couple things first. What he actually did was join two oppositely polarized plasma conduits together, causing an explosion. He stopped the men from achieving their goal, killed them, in fact, but the cost was his own life.”
“No. No, no, no!” Trip cried, spinning and bracing his hands on the bed he’d vacated a few minutes ago. “That was Reed—Malcolm was the one who died.”
“I’m sorry, Commander. But it was you,” Hernandez said quietly.
He turned back, and looked at Brace. “You’re absolutely sure I came from some sort of parallel universe? That this is not my Columbia?”
The scientist nodded. “I’m fairly certain, Commander. There’s no other way to explain what happened. The rift somehow created a corridor between our two dimensions and exchanged you for Rachel, probably because you each had the same quarters on the Columbia: first officer’s quarters. It’s the simplest explanation of the equal exchange theory—when one object of mass crossed the event horizon of the singularity, an object of similar mass was left in its place in order to maintain balance between the two universes.”
Trip nodded slowly, raising a hand to stroke his chin. “Believe it or not, I actually understand that. There’s only one problem, though: I have at least fifty pounds on Rachel Walcott, at least the one I know. So unless yours weighs around one-seventy, as opposed to the one-twenty I know my Rachel weighs, balance has not been maintained. Definitely not an equal exchange.”
Brace shrugged. “I said similar mass, not exact mass. The theory isn’t precise. It could be that you and our Rachel exchanged places simply because you were in the same place at the same time.”
The intercom sounded then. “Bridge to Lt. Brace.”
Brace walked over to a work station and keyed open the comm channel. “Brace here, go ahead.”
“We’ve been monitoring the singularity like you asked, and I think we have a serious problem, sir.”
Brace looked back at the others, then said, “Transfer the data down to unit two in Sickbay, Ensign.”
“Will do, Lieutenant.”
As the work station’s monitor came to life, Hernandez, Tucker and Rosenbaum walked over to stand behind him. “What are we looking at, Danny?” the captain asked.
Brace didn’t answer at first, though his expression—which grew more horrified as he studied the data scrolling across the screen—spoke volumes. The news was not good.
“Son of a bitch,” he muttered, before switching off the monitor and turning resignedly to face the three curious faces.
“When I came in here and scanned Commander Tucker, to see if his quantum signature matched that of the energy flowing out of the rift, it was with the idea that we might be able to send him back through, and get Lt. Commander Walcott sent back to us. But there’s no way. It’s impossible now.”
“Why is it impossible?” Trip asked. “Just put me in a shuttlepod. I’ll go through the rift and make sure to put your Rachel in it and send her back through. We switch places again.”
Brace shook his head. “It would be far too dangerous to try. The gravitational forces at the center of the singularity are increasing with each passing moment—there’s no way to know if a shuttlepod could pass through without being crushed, or that you’d even come out in the right place. And I’m afraid we’ve run out of time, even if we were to attempt sending you through despite the risk.”
“I’m willing to take that risk,” pressed Tucker. “I don’t belong here, you’ve all said so.”
“I told you, it’s too late. We don’t have the time to reconfigure the shield system of one of our shuttlepods.”
“Why do you say it’s too late, Lieutenant?” asked Dr. Rosenbaum.
Brace looked at each of them in turn, his eyes settling on Tucker. “Because the singularity is collapsing. The rift’ll be gone in less than two hours.”
Part Three: Faith of the Heart
October 31, 2161
Captain Hernandez hadn’t told them why she wanted Atlantis to rendezvous with Columbia en route to Earth, but as urgent as she had seemed in her brief transmission, Jonathan Archer could hardly refuse the request. They had just returned Ambassador Soval to Vulcan and had not yet received new orders, so a short pleasure cruise was a welcome diversion.
During his lunch with T’Pol, he’d expressed his curiosity as to the reason behind his fellow captain’s request, and his Vulcan first officer had, in her usual droll style, reminded him that had Hernandez wished him to know before the time of the rendezvous, she would have told him.
“Perhaps she has a surprise for you,” she’d said, coming close to making a joke.
Still, the mystery nagged at him, and by the time they arrived at the prearranged coordinates just outside Earth’s solar system at around 1700 hours, Archer was awash with anticipation. Columbia was already in place, and their communications officer transmitted his captain’s request that he, T’Pol and Malcolm Reed would meet her in the captain’s private dining room.
They were met in Columbia’s shuttlepod bay by the ship’s medical officer, Dr. Lena Rosenbaum. “Good evening, Captain. Commanders,” she greeted them.
“Doctor, can I ask you what this is about?” Archer asked as she led them out.
“You can, sir, but I am not at liberty to discuss the matter without Captain Hernandez present,” Rosenbaum replied.
They walked down the corridor and at the end of it she pressed the call button for the lift. “It’s not some kind of Halloween prank, is it?” Archer pressed, laughing a little.
Rosenbaum allowed a small smile, though he still could not quite get a full read of her expression. “No, Captain. I can assure you it is nothing of the kind.”
After the lift arrived, they all stepped inside, riding up to B Deck in silence. In the mess hall, the three Atlantis officers nodded politely to the crewmembers they knew, though their attention was on the door that led to the captain’s private dining room. When it opened, they saw that Hernandez was not alone. A man whose frame looked eerily familiar stood facing the window, his head down and his face cast in shadow.
“What’s this about, Erika?” Archer asked without preamble, still staring at the man across the room.
Hernandez, standing next to her customary chair, gestured to the three chairs along one side of the table. “I think you’ll all want to sit down, Jonathan,” she said quietly.
As soon as he, T’Pol and Reed had done so, the man across the room turned slowly to face them.
“What the bloody hell is going on?” Malcolm Reed asked, his shock-laden voice resounding loudly in the small room.
Standing before them was the spitting image of Charles “Trip” Tucker.
Alive and well.
For his part, this Tucker, technically the third they had ever seen (the others being the one who had died and the clone called Sim), moved and sat wordlessly in the single chair across from their three seats. He looked as if he wanted to speak, but raked his eyes away from the visitors and looked instead to Captain Hernandez.
Archer, too, forced his gaze toward the woman, who sat down last. “Erika?” he said simply.
She looked at Trip, then to Archer, and explained the events that had transpired that morning. “We lost Rachel Walcott,” she added sadly. “And I am going to miss her—she was a good friend of mine. But we got someone else back that we lost in the exchange.”
“Are you trying to tell us that he’s as good as our Trip? Virtually the same?” Reed asked incredulously.
Trip spoke for the first time. “Dr. Rosenbaum says that the longer I stay here, the more my ‘quantum signature’ will adjust to this universe. Eventually it will be as if I was born here. Or so she says,” he told them.
“I do not doubt the findings of your crew, Captain Hernandez,” said T’Pol, her eyes fixed on the man sitting across from her. “However, I respectfully request access to the data collected so that I may study it myself.”
Hernandez looked at her. “You’re welcome to it, Commander,” she said, having expected the Vulcan to ask. She had a feeling Jonathan would also want to have a look.
“Does Starfleet know about this yet?” asked Archer.
“We spoke to them, yes. And have already transmitted copies of every scan, both of the singularity and Commander Tucker,” answered Hernandez.
“I’ve even spoken to my parents,” Trip told them, the first hint of a smile gracing his features as he looked at Archer. “Mama’s already planning a big pan-fried catfish dinner for me.”
“Pan-fried catfish always was his—your—favorite,” Archer said.
“I’m really sorry for what happened to the Trip you knew,” said Tucker. “In my universe—my original one, anyway—it was Lt. Reed who died.”
“Me?” Reed responded.
Trip nodded. “Apparently you did the same thing as my other self did here,” he explained.
“This…this is…” Archer stood, pacing as well as he could in the limited space of the small dining room. “I’m not even sure what to say right now, I’m so completely stunned. I… I feel like I’ve just started to really recover from losing you, and then here you are again, looking exactly like you did before you...well, before your accident.”
“I promise you, I have no intentions of trying to replace the Tucker you lost,” Trip reassured them, pointedly looking at T’Pol for a full three seconds. “I don’t know that I would have even spoken to my parents just yet had Starfleet not taken the liberty of going to them for me. My mama…she was a mess at first. And my dad…”
“I’m sure they’re both just glad to have their boy back, Trip,” Archer said when his voice trailed off. “And I think I’m just going to be glad I have my friend back.”
Trip visibly relaxed when Archer smiled at him, and laughed aloud when Reed added, “I know I’m sure not going to look a gift horse in the mouth.”
Archer walked into the science lab on the Atlantis and stood for a moment just watching T'Pol, who sat virtually immobile as she sat at one of the consoles and stared at the data flowing across her screen. The only parts of her that moved were her eyes, as she read the information from Columbia's report, and her finger, as she tapped a button to scroll down the screen.
To most any other person, she would seem to be merely studying the data—and outwardly, that's what he saw. But he knew her better than that. In the ten years he had known her, Archer had gone from loathing her very presence to respecting her a great deal. He even cared about her, as she had become a trusted friend and confidant. His faith in her as a friend and as an officer were what prompted him to ask her to serve with him again when Starfleet had offered him command of the Atlantis.
He knew that while she may appear as impassive as any other Vulcan on the outside, inside she was still reeling, her emotions in turmoil because of what had happened earlier in the day. Because Trip had, for all intents and purposes, come back from the dead.
He could empathize with her feelings. He was still in shock, too.
Stepping further into the room, he said finally, "You've been studying that report for hours, T'Pol. It's almost midnight."
"I am aware of the hour," she said without looking at him.
Archer sighed, and moved to sit at the console on her right, spinning the chair around so he could straddle it. He laid his arms atop one another on the backrest as he regarded her stoic expression, which to his well-trained eye looked as if it was taking an effort to maintain. "Commander, I get it. You're still in shock over what happened today—hell, I am, too. Believe me, I know how you feel, but staring at that screen isn't going to change the facts."
T'Pol turned to look at him. "With all due respect, Captain, you do not know how I feel," she said in a flat tone, before turning her eyes to the screen before her once more.
He didn't miss the emphasis she placed on the word "I", nor how her voice had for a split second wavered. "Then maybe you could tell me," he said gently. "Can't be too far removed from how I or Malcolm feels."
Her right eyebrow lifted. "Again, you would be incorrect," she retorted, then drew a long breath through her nose.
"I must concur with Lt. Brace's initial assessment," T'Pol said then. "As we do not have a complete understanding of the means by which the duplicate Tucker and Rachel Walcott were exchanged for one another, any attempt to create another spatial rift would be extremely ill-advised. The exchange cannot be undone."
"Do you really want it to be undone?"
Archer had been asking himself that question ever since he had seen Trip's face across that table. If it could be done, would he really want to send this Trip back to where he came from? He knew that if it were possible, sending him back would be the right thing to do. This new Trip's family and friends in that other universe would surely miss him as much as they had been missing the Trip from this universe for the last six months. Yet he had been forced to admit—to himself at least—that a part of him was glad they couldn't do it. The man he had met today was almost exactly the same man he had known, with a difference of but a few years. All the time he had shared with Charles Tucker in this universe, this new Charles Tucker had shared with him in the other one.
Well, at least until seven years ago.
Yet despite that point of divergence, Archer couldn't help feeling happy that he did, in essence, have his friend back. He knew he wasn't precisely the same person, but they were so damn close to being the same that it was almost as if there was no difference. During their time together on the Columbia, after the initial shock had worn off, he had felt himself relaxing. Trip had relaxed as well, and before he even knew it, they were laughing and talking like old times. It was as if the last six months were nothing more than a bad dream, or that perhaps Trip had been on some sort of long-term assignment.
His question, so simply put, at last garnered more than indifference from T'Pol. Her hand began to tremble and her breathing became shallow. Archer reached over and placed one of his hands on top of hers. "T'Pol, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to upset you," he said softly.
When she looked at him, he was rather surprised to see tears in her eyes. "I know that logically, he is not the same man we lost," she said softly. "Yet I find myself..."
She blinked and looked away. Archer gave her hand a gentle squeeze. "You find yourself what? Feeling like he is, or that he could be?"
Slowly, she nodded. "I was bonded with our Charles Tucker," she said after a moment. "It is a bond that would have remained despite my initial intention to serve on a different ship than he following the decommissioning of Enterprise. Our bond was severed when he died."
Archer nodded, recalling that she could very well have died when the bond between her and Trip was severed. It was no small miracle that she had found the strength of will to remain living, but then, he mused, she had never really given herself fully to Trip, had she? It had frustrated his best friend beyond comprehension how she could claim to love him and yet hold him at arms length like she did.
"Ever since Trip's death I have felt this void inside myself, and despite my greatest efforts I have been unable to deny its existence, let alone begin to fill it," T'Pol went on. "When I entered Captain Hernandez' private dining room, I felt a strange sense of familiarity, even before I saw his face. I felt...whole."
She looked at him again, and he saw that her eyes were still wet with tears, though they had yet to fall. "I looked into the eyes of that man we met today and in an instant it was as if the void had never been. It is as if I know him as intimately as I knew the other. And I do not understand how that can be when he is not the same person."
Archer sighed. "We're not as different as you think, you and I—I know that probably sounds strange coming from me," he added with a small chuckle. "But the truth is, T'Pol, that I feel almost exactly the same as you. I know he's not the same man, but he looks like him and sounds like him and acts like him. His eyes are the same, his smile is the same, his laugh... And even though I know that his last seven years aren't the same as mine, I feel like he is as much my best friend as the other ever was. It's almost like Trip never left."
He noted understanding in her eyes and offered her a small smile. "I can only imagine how hard this must be for you, for someone who was connected to Trip on a level I could not begin to understand. But if I am understanding you correctly, you're telling me that you felt the same connection with this man that you had with our Trip."
She nodded again, and after giving her hand another gentle squeeze, Archer let it go and stood. "I've loved a few women in my life, T'Pol, but I've never really been in love. I've certainly never had anything even remotely like what you had with Trip. Though I don't really know why, I know that you were willing to sacrifice that connection once upon a time, so if I were to hazard a guess, maybe you've connected with this Trip because in your heart, you never really wanted to let the other one go. Maybe you should think about that before you deny yourself what most of us never get."
"What, may I ask, is that?"
He smiled. "A second chance."
November 1, 2161
Several hours later, Trip walked out onto the back porch of his parents’ Florida home. He was beyond happy to have brought them joy—as Jonathan had said, they were happy to have their boy back—but there was a tiny voice in his head reminding him that they weren’t his parents, they were the other Trip’s parents. The one who had died. This wasn’t really his parents’ home, this wasn’t his Earth, wasn’t even his universe.
But it would be, eventually. All of it would be. Even now his quantum signature was continuing to adjust itself to this universe, and he would in the very near future be the same as the Trip who’d died back in April. Physically, anyway. Mentally, he would probably always feel somewhat like an outsider, like he didn’t quite measure up or would always be under scrutiny because everyone else would know he wasn’t their Trip, just as well as he knew it.
It was well after midnight, and his parents (although he knew they weren’t, he couldn’t help thinking of them that way) had finally gone to bed, their rapturous excitement over his “return”—“An early Christmas miracle!” his mother had declared—finally drained. And even though no one else in the house was awake, it had begun to close in on him, stifling the air inside and cutting off his ability to breathe. So he stepped out onto the back veranda for some fresh, crisp, first-day-of-November air. It was a little cool outside, but the sky was clear and the stars shone brightly, the moon full and bathing the back yard in a muted glow. He leaned against the porch railing, bracing his forearms against the aged, sturdy wood and just relished the first really quiet moment he’d had since waking up in the Sickbay of a Columbia that wasn’t really his.
The sound of cautious footsteps coming around the corner of the house had him turning his head to the right. He thought maybe it was Jonathan, whom he hadn’t seen since leaving the Columbia upon their arrival in Earth’s orbit, or perhaps his brother, but was rather surprised to see T’Pol walking toward him. He hadn’t seen her since coming to Earth, either. Unwillingly, the thought of how lovely she looked in the moonlight flashed into his head.
Six years hadn’t been long enough to erase those feelings, it would seem.
He straightened as she came to a stop directly beneath him. “What are you doing here? It’s after midnight,” he said quietly. “You should be in bed, or taking care of Henry.”
T’Pol raised an eyebrow. “I am aware of the hour. Who is Henry?”
“Uh, your son. The one John Paxton created by cloning, using your DNA and Captain Archer’s, the one you guys named after Jonathan’s father,” he said, and then suddenly he realized why she was looking at him with as disbelieving an expression as he had ever seen her wear.
“There is no Henry, is there?” he said, sighing wearily. Would he ever get used to all the differences in this universe?
T’Pol shook her head. “No. The child you speak of did exist here, however. Only in this universe, the child was female and she was created via a combination of my DNA and yours. We named her Elizabeth, in honor of your sister.”
His eyes widened. He’d had a child with T’Pol? Cloned or not, he’d had a child with her? Running a hand through his hair, he said, “Where I’m from, the baby was a boy. They used your DNA and Jonathan’s, because by that time I’d already left Enterprise. Dr. Phlox saved him by resequencing his RNA or something like that. You left Starfleet so you could raise him.”
T’Pol was silent for a long moment, her expression thoughtful. “I am…pleased for the T’Pol where you are from,” she said at last. “She did not have to suffer as we did here.”
“I take that to mean Elizabeth didn’t make it?”
“No,” she said. “Unfortunately, our daughter was not strong enough to survive by the time we were rescued by Enterprise.”
Our daughter. As if he had been the child’s father.
Oh, but one could dream.
Trip cleared his throat. “I’m sorry for your loss,” he said.
T’Pol inclined her head. “Thank you.”
“Guess that would explain why you were wearing a proper Starfleet uniform this morning instead of civvies,” Trip went on. “Looks good on you, by the way. Anyhow, you still haven’t answered my question: What are you doing here?”
“I thought perhaps you would like to know that my analysis of your abrupt arrival in this universe is, as concluded by Lt. Brace, irreversible,” she explained. “You will have to remain here in this universe, and Rachel Walcott will have to remain in the other.”
He scoffed, though not with intent to mock her. Trip walked over to the porch steps and dropped heavily onto the top one, saying, “I kinda figured that’d be the case.”
“What will you do now?” T’Pol asked.
“I don’t know,” Trip said honestly.
“You are a highly qualified engineer. It would be illogical for you not to remain in service with Starfleet, or at least to pursue a career in the engineering field,” the Vulcan admonished.
“I don’t know,” he said again. “I suppose sticking with Starfleet would be the sensible, ‘logical’ thing to do. And more than likely I’ll end up requesting a post on one of the new warp 7 ships. But this whole thing has made me think—at least when I’ve had time for independent thought—and I’ve been reevaluating my priorities while I’ve tried to figure out what I’m gonna do with myself here.”
T’Pol raised one of her impeccably arched eyebrows. “May I ask what conclusions you have reached during your self-analysis?”
He looked away, suddenly unable to meet her eyes. “Well, mostly I want the same stuff I’ve always wanted: a career in Starfleet with a captaincy someday, a wife and kids. Probably the only one I’ll ever get is the career. Maybe the captaincy.”
“Why would you not also have a wife and children if you so desire them? You are what most human females consider a very attractive man, and certainly you are still healthy enough to conceive numerous offspring. Human males have been known to produce viable sperm well into their seventies.”
He couldn’t help but laugh, though it was slightly bitter. Trip glanced at her sidelong as he said, “It doesn’t help when the only woman I’ve ever been in love with is in an entirely different universe, T’Pol. Besides that, she doesn’t feel the same way. Wouldn’t matter even if she was here.”
“Does she have a duplicate in this universe? Perhaps you could court her counterpart, whose feelings might differ from the woman you know,” she suggested.
“Somehow I very much doubt it,” Trip said, standing and pacing a few steps out into the yard.
“How do you know unless you ask?” T’Pol pressed.
Trip whirled to face her. “If you didn’t love me there, I’m pretty damn sure your feelings for me here aren’t any different!”
T’Pol stared and, disgusted with himself for having allowed her to goad him into revealing how he felt, however unwittingly, he turned away again, hanging his head as he shoved his hands into his pockets and started to walk away from her.
“Trip!” she called after him.
Trip froze, but didn’t turn back, forcing T’Pol to walk over to where he stood. Moving to stand in front of him, she waited until he looked at her before speaking.
“In this universe, you and I had an intimate relationship,” she began.
“’Had’ being the operative word there,” he retorted.
She raised that insufferable eyebrow again. “Please, allow me to finish.”
Trip raised his arms to cross them over his chest, his own eyebrows raised expectantly.
“We had an intimate relationship, but we ended it. The fault was mostly mine, though to cover my insecurities I claimed the reason as being that I intended to serve on a different starship following the decommissioning of Enterprise,” T’Pol continued.
His brow fell and creased into a frown. “I cannot imagine you ever being insecure about anything,” he said truthfully. “So how were you at fault?”
“Because I was dishonest as to the true reason behind my desire to serve on a different starship, and thus be away from you,” she replied. “Though certainly our physical relationship was more than pleasing to me, I found that I desired more. And desiring more than a merely physical relationship…frightened me. While I already cared for you deeply as a friend, I was unprepared for the intensity with which I found myself loving you. Vulcans are not supposed to feel fear, and needless to say, the realization that I was afraid was very disconcerting.”
“Did you form a psychic bond with him?” he found himself asking. “We…well, it happened to me and the T’Pol in my universe. I can’t speak for her, but it’s been torturing me for damn near seven years.”
T’Pol stepped closer. “Then you cannot say for certain whether or not my counterpart shared your feelings,” she pointed out.
Trip shrugged. “I can only go by what she told me, no matter what I saw in my sleep,” he replied. “And it’s not like she ever tried to tell me different.”
“Perhaps she was, through the dreams she shared with you,” T’Pol returned. “Perhaps like me, she was frightened by the intensity of her own feelings. And to answer your question, yes. I did forge a psychic bond with the Charles Tucker who died six months ago.”
“So you loved him?” Trip asked.
T’Pol nodded. “Yes. I loved him.”
Returning his hands to his pockets, Trip smiled. “Well then, he was a lucky man, whether you told him or not.”
He started to turn back toward the house, but stopped when her hand shot out and caught him by the arm. He tried to ignore the fire that shot along his nerves where her skin was in contact with his. She’s not your T’Pol, he told himself silently. Hell, your T’Pol was never your T’Pol.
“I’m not finished.”
“Look, thank you for telling me about your analysis of the rift that brought me here,” he interrupted without looking at her. “And…thank you for telling me that you loved him. It sorta helps to know that.”
At last he brought his gaze to hers. “But I’m not him. And you know as well as I do that I’ll never really be him, no matter how much my physiology will match his in the future. Mentally he and I are two very different people.”
When her hand left his arm to cup his cheek, Trip found it suddenly very difficult to breathe, and was unable to resist turning his head slightly to nestle his chin into her palm. He very nearly stopped breathing altogether when her thumb began to graze his bottom lip.
“My feelings have not changed even though the man I knew is gone, as I believe yours have not changed just because you no longer share the same universe as the woman you know,” she said, her voice low and husky. “And although logically I know you are not the same man and I not the same woman, I am unable to deny that seeing you has reminded me of all that I gave up when I said my feelings were not the same as his. I am reminded of all that was lost to me when he died. And I feel…I feel as if I have been given a chance to correct my mistake.”
Trip turned to face her fully, his indifference melting away when he saw that a single tear was falling from the corner of her left eye. He was completely vulnerable now, and that one tear from a woman who never cried meant that she was, too. Raising his hand to her face, he gently brushed the tear away.
“What are you saying?” he asked. He had to know, had to hear her say it.
Her hands reached up to clasp the one of his that still held her face. She brought it to her lips, kissing the back of it softly, then held it over her heart. “It would please me greatly… No. That is not how I want to say it.”
Looking up into his eyes, T’Pol’s voice was quiet as she spoke again, saying, “I love you. It is not logical, but it is true.”
No, it wasn’t. It wasn’t logical for either one of them to feel this way, but Trip couldn’t deny that he felt the same. He loved her—he would love T’Pol in any universe, whether it was the same as his or not. Perhaps it was the psychic bond they had each formed with the opposite versions of each other that was somehow connecting their hearts as it once had their minds, but whatever the reason, he knew that it had taken a great deal of personal strength for her to admit how she felt.
He could do no less.
Trip brought his other hand up to place it on top of hers, where she held his other over her heart. “I love you, too. I’m always going to love you,” he said. Then he leaned forward and pressed his lips to hers. The kiss was soft and brief, but oh, so perfect for that moment.
When their mouths parted, he touched his forehead to hers, finally able to breathe again and relishing the perfect, peaceful feeling that washed through him. It wasn’t going to be easy, adjusting to life in this universe, but he was happy beyond words that she was going to be by his side while he did so. Of that he had no doubt.