When the meeting finally ended, everyone but Malcolm Reed left.
Lili looked up as she put the used dishes back on the cart. "Sir?"
"May I speak with you, Ensign?" he asked.
"Uh, I guess so. But I'm still working. I'm not done until the dishes are out of the sanitizer."
"Can we talk while you go back to the kitchen, then?"
"Long as it's not too private, she said, Make sure the door stays open for me, please?"
They walked into a hallway. "Ensign, I just, I want you to know that I, when we were talking about not wanting you to be hurt, well, I truly meant it."
"I, uh, thank you, Lieutenant, Lili guided the cart along.
"It's just, it, well, may I ask you something?"
"Like I indicated, I didn't know Major Hayes too well. I know nothing of his private life or his innermost thoughts. We always and only talked about work, Malcolm said, What is, what is this iteration like? If that's not too personal a question, that is."
"That's fine, Lili said, He's very attentive, very intelligent. When we talk, he seems to be interested in what I do. Things like that."
"What, uh, what does he do?" Malcolm then visibly reddened. "I, I mean for work. Not other things. I don't mean to offend."
"No, huh, that's okay." They had arrived at the kitchen. "Actually, Lieutenant, he has your job now."
"Oh, interesting." Malcolm kept the kitchen door open as Lili got the cart inside and wheeled it over to the sanitizer. "I wonder what my counterpart is doing there. If I have one, that is."
"Yeah, it's strange, sort of makes you wonder what would happen if things were tipped in some slightly different direction, and circumstances were changed. Would you still be you?" Lili asked, while loading dishes into the sanitizer.
"Precisely." Malcolm started to help her.
"No, wait, um, put it in the other way. See the teacup handle? Down and to the left, Lili pointed out. "There, that's right. Thanks for helping; I usually do this myself."
"It's unfortunate that you don't have any helpers."
"Well, that's just it. I'm the helper, Lili said, You remember, the Xindi War broke out and the ship had to be cleared of redundant personnel. Chef used to have a saucier, a Pastry Chef and a Sous-Chef. Those jobs were all combined into mine when I came on board. And that's when Doug I mean, Jay got here, too."
"I confess I did not care for him much when he first arrived, Malcolm said, smiling wanly. "But I learned that he was very competent and thorough. Well-respected by the men and women under his command. And certainly capable of not only my job but probably most jobs on board, except in Engineering."
"Yes, you have to be a kind of special person to be in Engineering, I think, Lili said, My roommate, when she talks about work, I don't know what she's saying half the time."
"Your roommate is Jennifer Crossman, yes?"
"Yep, the Redheaded Bombshell."
"Oh, I, I hadn't noticed."
"Lieutenant, everyone notices."
Doug walked back to his quarters. Tripp Tucker fell in beside him. "I got news for you." Tucker said.
"Oh? Did I ask for news?"
"No. But this you want to hear, Old Man."
"Funny you should call me that, seeing as you're probably going to go before I do, Tucker."
"Maybe. Anyway, interesting that you tossed the Bombshell out and threw her to the grabby Scotsman. 'Course I wouldn't kick her outta bed myself, but I can see why you might do that."
"You? Tucker, I thought you only had a thing for alien tail."
"Yeah, T'Pol had a nice, huh, bit of allover padding." Tucker admitted. "She's Crossman going around saying she kicked you out and whipped you enough to get you to bring her stuff over to MacKenzie's. But I know better."
"Oh, you do? And this matters to you how, exactly?"
"Not too much. But I recognize a finesse move when I see it. You force her hand and push her to the kid before they've really solidified their alliance. And you win either way, as either they bicker so much that the alliance falls apart, or they do it like bunnies so often that they don't have the time to conspire."
"What makes you think anyone's conspiring anything?" Doug asked, knowing the answer but asking anyway.
"Ha, you're not that naive." Tucker said, Every single person here is on the make, and Porthos would be if he were sentient enough. They're looking to do both me and you in, and take control of two departments. Then they'll bring the power together, bring in any other groups they can Security if they can swing it and make a run at the Empress herself."
"Don't say that about the Empress, Doug said quietly.
"Yeah, yeah, I know everyone is listening. You're too paranoid, Old Man."
"You get paranoid in my position, Doug replied.
"Maybe so. See, when you're like me, you can throw caution to the wind. I just don't give a damn. I'd rather die better, but if I die worse, it's not gonna be much worse and it's not gonna be much earlier, I figure."
"Why are we having this conversation?"
"Two reasons. First, I like learning from a master although the fact that they can conspire in private when not burning up the sheets is a troublesome flaw in your plan."
"Yeah, I've thought of that, Doug admitted. "What's the other reason?"
"Be that as it may," Malcolm said, "I do agree. The Engineers definitely speak a different language than you or I. May I ask, what do you think you will do when this connection with Hayes ends?"
"Uh, what?" Lili turned away. "Damn onions." she muttered although the onions were on the other side of the room and were not what was making her eyes tear.
"Surely you've realized. Oh, my. I have really put my foot in it, Malcolm said, I'm sorry. That was rather boorish of me to inquire."
"No, no, I'm okay, Lili said. She wasn't. "I, uh, I've been thinking about it, and the answer is: I have no idea. I just hope it doesn't end."
"I think I can understand that, Malcolm said, I apologize for bringing it up. That was insensitive of me. You, if I were in your position I suppose I would feel the same."
"No one's been in this position before, Lieutenant."
"Call me Malcolm. And, and let me know, when, uh, when you are ready, uh, afterwards, if you like to talk. I've been told I'm a good listener when I'm not placing my foot in things."
Lili smiled slightly, the half-smile that wasn't much of a smile at all, which she used when she didn't really feel like smiling but it was somehow expected of her. "I, um, I think that's generous of you, Lieu, uh, Malcolm. Look, I'm done here. I need to get to my quarters and get some rest."
"And see Hayes?"
"If I'm lucky, yes."
"Then I hope that you are very lucky."
"Okay, so the other reason is, I got little to lose, but you've got a lot at stake. You could use a friend." Tucker said.
"I don't have friends, Doug said, although that had not been strictly true for the past few days.
"Of course." Tucker said, A bit of protection, then. I watch your back a bit, when I can. I can definitely keep Crossman occupied with endless diagnostics and schematics. God knows they're needed anyway."
"Yeah, I heard about that."
"It was the Empress's decision, Doug said, So by definition it wasn't stupid."
"Yes, yes, I know the Party Line as well as you do, Hayes. But it really was stupid. Erasing all the older records is one thing. I can see not wanting to be able to check out your counterpart in that other universe. But that's as far as it should've gone. Maintenance logs, system specifications, even the recipe for Chicken Noodle Soup! All gone and completely irretrievable. Stupid."
"Swiss cheese database, Doug nodded. "I suppose I can occasionally occupy MacKenzie with a few sensor checks. Can't promise anything though, given that he's on the overnight shift."
"Understood." Tucker said, I'm not gonna be around too much longer. I figure I might not see New Year's Day. So after that, you're on your own. Just, uh, just get it so I can die in my own bed. And without a dagger sticking in any part of me, okay?"