Aidan hadn't even bothered showing up for his shift. Instead, he and Jennifer were in his quarters.
And then she disappeared.
He swore loudly, the moment he realized she was gone. "Damn, just when it was getting good." he announced to the empty room.
Jennifer picked up the PADD cautiously. She hadn't noticed Lili holding it earlier. And where was Lili anyway? She glanced at the writing on the PADD.
'My sweetest Lili,
I don't know if you can see this, but I'll type it anyway, just in case you can. You disappeared once before, but you came back. But this time I'm alone on your ship, and I never have been before. It feels different and very, very wrong. And maybe tomorrow we'll laugh at how scared I'm getting but right now I'm just really, really scared....'
She looked away. She threw on her uniform, grabbed the PADD and ran to the Bridge.
Doug awoke to the sound of a general alarm. He got out into the halls, distracted, without putting the extra dagger in his boot. He was walking to the Bridge, very fast, when he felt a hand on his shoulder.
"Travis!" he said, Let's get to the Bridge. She needs us."
"Not so fast, Old Man, Travis had a knife in his hand. "That's the last time you make me look bad in front of her."
"Look bad? I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about."
"Oh, c'mon. Yesterday. When we were testing the phasers? You know I was in the right position, in a perfect position. And you missed. Now she thinks I messed up."
"No, no, she doesn't think that. Like I said then, you don't have any working sensors. So how can you be so sure that conditions were perfect anyway?"
Travis mulled that over for a second. "She still thinks I messed up."
"Well, I can't help you with that, Doug said, Didn't she say she was gonna have Targeting tested again overnight? Maybe it's all fixed."
"I, I dunno."
"Look, that alarm won't shut off until you and I get to the Bridge. So come on and like I said, maybe it's fixed. And if it isn't, I'm sure we've got a fresh crisis. Yes? C'mon."
"We're not through, Old Man, Travis resheathed his weapon.
"Didn't say we were." Together, they ran to the Bridge.
Jennifer burst onto the Bridge. She rarely ever went there. It always felt strange. "Captain, Captain!" she called out.
"Uh, Ensign, not now. We've got systems down shipwide. And ...."
"Sir!" Jennifer insisted. "Lili's, Lili's gone. I think she's gone from the ship. And, and I have, I have this." she showed him the PADD.
"Ensign, what are you trying to show me?"
"Sir, this is a letter from him, she said.
"Might be related, sir, Malcolm said, looking up.
"Yep." Captain Archer allowed. "Delacroix, Haddon, you'll need to vacate. Hoshi, contact Dr. Phlox and Tripp Tucker and get them up here for a meeting. Ensign," he faced Jennifer, "stick around for this."
"Captain!" Hoshi said, I have a message from Chef. Lili never showed up to cook breakfast."
"Delacroix!" Jonathan called after him. "You and Haddon, get down to the kitchen and make yourselves useful while we meet."
"Yes, sir. C'mon Deb. Let's go peel some potatoes." Delacroix said.
Falling falling foggy falling pain dark heat cold itching.
"Ensign, why don't you sit in my seat?" Malcolm offered, once everyone had assembled.
"Thank you, sir."
"All right." Captain Archer said, We have multiple failures on the ship. No targeting, no outside communications, and no warp drive. Am I missing anything?"
"Impulse power seems to be fully operational. And we're still on course around the planets and moons in the system, Travis offered.
"We still have torpedoes, too, sir." Malcolm added.
"All right. Ensign, show us what you have."
"I, sir, when I got into bed last nigh-, uh, early this morning, Lili was asleep and talking so I know she was dreaming. But she didn't have her PADD in bed with her or anything. I would have noticed something as strange as that. And then this morning, when the alarm went off, I saw the PADD flashing and no Lili. And there's, uh, there's a message on the PADD."
"Do you think she left voluntarily?" Commander Tucker asked. "I mean, well, don't tell me I'm the only person who's thought of this. She's in this, I dunno what to call it...."
"Relationship." Hoshi suggested.
"I, I guess so." Tripp said, And, well, maybe they got some way to be together and it just took out a buncha systems. Although, while I'm saying that, it sounds like magical, wishful thinking to me. It's, uh, strange the way the failures occurred, all at oh two hundred eighteen hours. This was no accidental failure stream."
"Sir, the message doesn't seem to indicate that they left together, Jenny said.
"Oh? What does it say?" Dr. Phlox asked.
"Maybe we shouldn't read it, Jenny said.
"It, it could be a love letter of some sort." Malcolm offered.
"Yes, Jenny said.
"We need to follow any lead we can get. Ensign Sato, read the letter."
Doug shut off the alarm as soon as he and Travis had gotten onto the Bridge. "Empress! What's going on?"
"Your protιgι never showed up for work last night. And now his girlfriend is missing, too."
Doug flipped a switch to send a message. Nothing. He then clicked open a personal communicator. Nothing. "How long have in-ship communications been out?"
"Since about oh two hundred eighteen hours, Hoshi said.
MacKenzie ambled in. "Well, there's one of them, Doug said.
"How do you know Crossman's gone, Old Man?" asked Aidan.
"Ahem, Hoshi said, Uh, sir, it feels weird reading this."
"Just read it, Ensign."
'My sweetest Lili,
I don't know if you can see this, but I'll type it anyway, just in case you can. You disappeared once before, but you came back. But this time I'm alone on your ship, and I never have been before. It feels different and very, very wrong. And maybe tomorrow we'll laugh at how scared I'm getting but right now I'm just really, really scared.
I couldn't tell you before, and it was stupid of me not to, because I wasted time. And I let my fear and my history keep me from telling you the thing that I really should have told you from the second time we were together: that you are more important to me than anyone, that you are my light and all I want is to bask in that shadow. And that means what you think it means, and it is very scary to know that I may never be able to really say it to you. I will fight waking up. I always do, and this time I will fight harder. All I can think of to tell you is to tell you it so many times that maybe you're covered for the rest of your beautiful life.
I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you....'
Sir, it goes on this way for pages."
"One thousand, three hundred and forty-six, to be exact." T'Pol said, looking at the version on her own PADD.
Jennifer started to weep loudly. "Ensign, Malcolm said quietly.
"Go on, Jonathan said to Hoshi. "Skip that, see if there's something at the end."
"Okay. Yes, here it is.
'It is almost time to wake up, I can tell. And if I could sleep and wait for you, I would. I know you wanted to be equal, but I am your faithful and loving servant. And I will never stop looking for you.
"No, no!" Jennifer said, between sobs. "Lili is, is, she's dead. Or at least she might be. And if she's not, I almost wish I was. Because none of us should have ever opened this. It's not, it wasn't ours in the first place!" Her voice got louder and higher as she choked out the words. "It was private. It was theirs. And now we've, we've spoiled it!"
"Jennifer, Malcolm said very quietly and offered her his handkerchief, which she took.
"We had to know." Tripp said, At least it doesn't look like Hayes was complicit."
Hoshi looked up, eyes shining. "It feels like we just violated her."
"Look, let's adjourn, Jonathan said.
Tripp said, "Crossman, take the rest of the day off."
"I'll, I'll escort the Ensign back to her quarters." Malcolm volunteered.
"Yes, uh, let me go, too, Hoshi said, I kind of, I need some air." The three of them left.
"I'll do what I can to get communications back on line. I take it that's top priority. See if there's some request for a ransom or whatever." Tripp said.
"Some sort of an explanation is definitely in order." Archer said, And let's do something where we're not trampling all over someone's private life."
Falling falling foggy falling pain dark heat cold itching.
Doug was out in the halls. Lunchtime. Ugh. At least it was a break from the endless bickering about who was supposed to be on duty, and what they were going to do about Jennifer. The Empress favored a quick strike, but everything was still down. And not being able to communicate within the ship was becoming exceptionally inconvenient.
He heard his name being called. It was the Empress.
"Something I can do for you?"
"Nothing much more than you normally do, she said, smiling at him. "You keep a cool head, I like that."
"Makes no sense to me to dole out punishments until after we get Crossman back. Take advantage of people's talents while they're still peaking."
"Peaking. Good choice of words." The Empress was close, very, very close.
"Empress, is there something else you wish to discuss?"
"Yes. You may have heard. I am looking for a little brother for Jun."
"And that little brother needs a father."
"How about Tr-Travis?" Doug asked.
Hoshi smiled. "No. Maybe some other time. I am right now looking for someone a little more, uh, seasoned." she ran a finger down the front of his uniform, to just above the belt.
"What about Jun's father?"
"Oh, him? He's dead. Daniels. What an idiot, always babbling on and on about future this, timeline that. Plus, even if he was alive, I'd still pick someone else."
"Some, uh, special reason?" Doug fought to concentrate but she was awfully close and was beginning to touch him.
"All of my children are going to have different fathers. They'll have different factions and when the time is right, they'll combat for succession. No sense in giving them anything to get sentimental about, other than the basic blood tie to me. I'm going to have lots of them. And they need good bloodlines."
"Like a, like a bull?" he asked, voice rising.
"Yes." she grinned. "Castrate or kill the rejects, of course. My, oh my, Old Man. If I'd known you were still capable, I'd have done this sooner."
"No need to speak."
"Um, uh, Empress, what about, uh, uh, Tucker?"
"Tripp Tucker?!" she laughed. "It probably glows in the dark, assuming it hasn't fallen off by now. Still, if it does glow that would make for a very interesting game of 'Hide the '. Oh, Old Man. Responsive and everything. I bet you have some bullets left."
"Empress, I, uh, I can't, uh, perform the way I used to, Doug lied.
"I'll see about that." she said.
He stood perfectly still, at attention, glancing around the hallway which was fortunately empty. He dug his short fingernails into the palms of his hands. This was so not what he wanted to have happening. He thought of Lili for a second, and that made it harder for him to maintain his composure. Then he realized that both the Empress and Jennifer were different from Lili when it came to this. He felt guilty for comparing them, and that made him find his voice again.
"Em-press. I. Don't. Think. We." he spoke slowly and deliberately, getting the words out with difficulty as if he were dictating to history's most incompetent secretary. "Should. Be. Doing. This."
"Oh?" The Empress inquired.
"N-no. I, I value our, our current situation. It. Is. Important. To. Me. That. You. Trust. Me. You won't. Trust. Me. After this."
She said, "You're right. Your value is in me knowing you're not trying to get into my pants."
"Y-yes, Empress." he covered himself. "I, uh, I've sweated my uni. Let me, um, shower and change. Be back at the Bridge in less than half an hour."
"Permission granted. Oh, and you passed the test." she waved him off and glared at a few people in the hallways who had been watching.
"Jennifer," Hoshi said as the three of them walked, "I don't want to leave it like that."
"Neither do I, Malcolm said.
"But what can be done?" Jenny asked. "The Captain said all the communications were down."
"Uh, maybe there's one channel, Hoshi said, indicating the PADD.
"Maybe he can find her. He's in a dream. Perhaps he can defy gravity and other physical laws." Malcolm posited.
"So what do you think we can do?" Jenny asked.
Doug was in pain. That kind of overstimulus, without release, was downright torture. He stripped and got in the shower and grabbed at himself.
After spending time trying so hard not to react in any way, it was exceptionally difficult to do the opposite. He thought of Lili. That made it happen for him. He whispered while the water ran, "I hope that's the last time I have to do that without you."