Splash Down - Part One
The shuttlepod bucked and shuddered like a live thing as it was pummeled mercilessly by the wind. Jonathan Archer didn’t have time or attention to spare to curse the storm that had descended on them almost too fast to be tracked; his focus was on keeping their tiny craft aloft. Far below them, an alien ocean churned as it was whipped into a frenzy by the same tempest that threatened the shuttle.
When the Enterprise had reached this particular Minshara class planet, there had been conflicting readings about its life forms. Remnants of a civilization were barely detectable, but T’Pol’s most conservative estimate of how long the once-magnificent cities had been abandoned was in excess of thousands of years. Wondering what had wiped its citizens off the face of the planet, two shuttles had been dispatched to investigate. They’d found no obvious causes, no “smoking gun” to point to what had happened to the people that had obviously once lived there. Finally, T’Pol had admitted that finding the answer would take far longer than the Enterprise could afford to devote.
Deciding to make note of what they could and alert Vulcan research scientists to their discovery, the first of the away teams had left the surface an hour earlier. The ship’s chief tactical officer, Lieutenant Ruth Cho, had asked for permission to stay behind, wanting to test the phase pistols’ performance in the planet’s heavily ionized environment. Fascinated by its wild and beautiful seascapes, Jonathan had stayed with her. They’d left when T’Pol had first issued a warning of the storm, but even so, it was too late. Hitting like a hammer, the violent winds had nearly torn the shuttlepod from the sky.
“I think we’re going to have to make for land again; wait this thing out.” The captain had to raise his voice to make himself heard over the shrieking of the wind. The sound was unnaturally loud, even with the shuttle’s insulation.
“But, sir, if we try and set down in this, we’ll be dashed against the ground,” Cho protested. Sweat ran from beneath her dark hair as she fought the shuttle’s controls.
“Understood, but it’s a risk we have to take. If we don’t, we’ll be torn apart in the air,” Jonathan retorted.
The storm itself put an end to the discussion. A huge bolt of lightning, exponentially more powerful than any they’d ever seen on Earth, ripped through the shuttle, disrupting all of their systems. The small craft hurtled towards the sea, the waves no longer beautiful but black and angry. Their plunge was unchecked, both Archer and Cho having been rendered unconscious by the energy that had sliced through their vessel.
Jonathan woke to find the shuttle’s lights flickering. His entire body hurt and he moaned, some sort of instinctual urge making him stir as much as the pain would allow him. The mad flickering of the lights made him dizzy - or was that the pain in his head? Disoriented, it took the captain another minute to remember the danger he and his crewmate had been in. “Ruth?”
Archer saw his companion slumped over her console and reached out to shake her. The young woman’s head flopped like a doll’s and Jonathan got a very bad feeling in the pit of his stomach. Biting off a groan, he hoisted himself to his feet and, sloshing through water, he crossed the short distance between them. “Lieutenant?” Jonathan put a hand on Cho’s neck and felt for a pulse but there was none. He gently turned the junior officer over, wincing when he saw that her eyes were open in a lifeless stare. Realizing that the body was already getting cold, he gently closed her eyelids, softly murmuring “Safe journey home, Ruth.”
Straightening, the captain resolutely put his grief to the side and began assessing his situation. That was when the import of water being present on the shuttle hit him. Already up to his shins, the fact that it was there indicated that there had been a significant breach in the hull. The unrelenting sound of the wind had ceased but there was no relief, not when it had been replaced by a deep groaning noise emanating from the walls. The shuttle must have taken heavy structural damage, judging by the sound alone.
Archer wiped moisture out of his eyes, its warmth showing that it was blood and not water clouding his vision. Steadying himself against the walls, Jonathan ignored it and the pain in his side, fighting to keep his balance. It was hard to tell if his difficulty was due to the blow to his head or the way the shuttle listed constantly. It was probably a combination of both, but it didn’t matter. All that mattered in Jonathan’s world was getting to the locker where the EVA suits were stored. They would hold up in deep water as well as they did the vacuum of space and were his best chance at surviving.
Unfortunately, the inanimate protests of the walls became louder as he inched his way towards his goal. As Jonathan watched, the surface closest to the locker bulged in and, with one last belly-groan, the shuttle’s hull gave way. The tear in the vessel’s skin allowed water to pour inside the tiny craft, nearly ripping Archer out into the ocean’s depths.
The captain held fast to a piece of equipment, maneuvering upwards as the shuttle filled. He quickly gave the suits up as a lost cause; the locker had been the first thing to spill into the water beyond. Feeling that his ship was sinking even further, Jonathan began taking deep but quick breaths, trying desperately to oxygenate his body. When he was as ready as it was humanly possible to be, Archer gave up his death grip on the shuttle, allowing himself to be pulled towards the hull breach and closer to the open ocean. He opened his eyes as his head went completely under, the shuttle’s lights still flickered and gave murky illumination to the drowning craft. With one last regretful look at Cho’s body, he was pulled away.
Jonathan felt the fabric of his uniform rip as he passed the tear in the hull and then he was out into open water. He hadn’t even had time to grab a light and was immediately disoriented, even though the water seemed to sparkle. Feeling the current from the rapidly sinking shuttle, he set out in the opposite direction. In the featureless blue that surrounded him, it was his only way of guessing which direction the surface lay.
Archer had no way of knowing how far down he was and if there was any chance of breaking through to the surface. And, if he made it, he didn’t know if he could survive the storm or not. He had little choice. The alternative was to give up and Jonathan had no intention of having his dream of exploring the universe end by drowning in an alien ocean. Besides, he had a responsibility to his crew and that meant surviving.
Determination and a sense of duty were small tools against the might of the ocean. Adrenalin gave Jonathan the strength to drive his body through the unforgiving water, but the lack of air soon took its toll. At first, his limbs moved in powerful strokes, but slowly his movements became slower and less effective. Eventually, his body gave out and he was unable to force himself to move. Jonathan thought it ironic that he’d always loved the water and now it was to be the death of him. He thought of his father and how sorry he was not to finish Henry Archer’s dream. Even more than that, though, he was sorry to abandon his ship and his crew; they would now have to go on without him. Finally, he didn’t think at all and his body took over. Instinctively opening his mouth to breathe, he thought of death, almost welcoming the pale arms that reached out for him.
Somehow, Jonathan had never imagined Death’s arms to be warm. They wrapped around his waist and, surrendering himself to their embrace, Jonathan Archer blacked out.
When Jonathan awoke, he didn’t immediately realize that he should be surprised to be alive.
The captain lay quietly for a few moments, taking stock of his situation. He was wet; he hurt; and, for some reason, the sensation of breathing seemed particularly blissful. The space he was in was dim but not completely dark. He could hear the soothing sound of water lapping and Archer smiled. He loved that sound.
Water... waves... ocean.....
It all came back to Jonathan and he sat up in a hurry. That was a big mistake. The far-off throb in his head became a crescendo and he had to catch himself against the ground to keep from fainting. Breathing hard, Archer steadied himself on one arm, using the other to tentatively pat at his temple. His fingers came away red.
Archer lifted his head. His vision was swimming but he could see that he was in a cavern. Jonathan himself was placed near the lip where the cave’s rocky floor met what he assumed was a still pool of seawater. The light source turned out to be dual in nature; there was some sort of phosphorescent growth clinging to the walls and the water itself glimmered. Stacked at Jonathan’s feet were odd shapes that were familiar as part of the shuttlepod’s contents. Obviously, whomever had brought him to this place of shelter had managed to rescue some of his equipment.
Jonathan was telling himself he should get up and take stock of his supplies when he became aware of a rippling in the water. Even with the light, it was difficult to see clearly what was coming, but Archer got the impression that a body about his size was making its way towards him. He held himself still as the head broke the surface, surprised to see a face not too much unlike his own. Wide eyes blinked at him in surprise and the man stopped, human-looking arms moving just beneath the surface of the water, keeping the newcomer afloat.
“Hello,” Archer greeted the stranger. He hoped that this was his rescuer and he was anxious to learn more about his benefactor.
Apparently Jonathan was more used to first contacts than the other man was. Archer’s voice startled him and he flinched back, head almost completely dipping under the water. Dismayed that the stranger might leave him, the captain reached out to him. “No, don’t go, please.” The movement caused his head to ache even more and the cave began to dance around him in a dizzying pattern.
Jonathan sank back to the cave floor, watching with dazed eyes as the stranger bobbed up once briefly and then dove down, the newcomer’s large tail quickly propelling him out of sight. His last thought as unconsciousness claimed him was, of all the things he’d thought to discover on the Enterprise’s journey, he’d never imagined that mermaids would be one of them.
Malc’m looked down at the stranger in dismay. He hadn’t gone very far before becoming embarrassed at his automatic response to the other’s greeting. He, Malc’m, all but outcast for his strange notions… his ideas considered far too bold by the rest of the Pod… one outstretched hand and he’d turned tail and headed towards deep water.
Some scout he’d turned out to be. Perhaps he should have remained a Shroud Guardian, after all.
Malc’m reached out tentatively and brushed the hair off the stranger’s face. There was no one else to see, but he knew he had to prove to himself that the newcomer didn’t intimidate him. He braced against the rock lip and pushed himself slightly out of the water in order to study the individual he’d rescued. With shy fingers, he traced the still face. Noble brow, aquiline nose, firm lips. Even without gills, the stranger wasn’t all that different.
Unless you considered the lack of a tail.
Malc’m forced himself to look at the stranger’s nether regions. He was familiar with legs, of course, but to see them on a creature so like himself – and while in the water. An airbreather, to be spoken to by such a one, even if he couldn’t understand the words, it was almost more than even his agile mind could fathom. He ran his hand along the stranger’s side, feeling the dark material move as he stroked. Yes, he had been right, it was some sort of covering. White skin could be seen about the head and at the end of the appendages. Malc’m gently stroked the stranger’s neck, smiling as he felt the flicker of a pulse. The flesh was warmer than he’d thought. Greatly daring, his questing hand darted between those outlandishly long legs.
The stranger was male.
A soft moan brought Malc’m’s attention back to the stranger’s face, where a trickle of fluid ran down the slack features. Malc’m assumed it was blood and was somewhat relieved to see it was a familiar shade of red. Sighing, he pushed himself away from the ledge and prepared to gather medicinal plants. He’d hesitated to treat the stranger before, not knowing if Sa’an medicines would do more harm than good for someone who was so obviously different. The closer Malc’m looked, however, the more he realized their similarities were important too.
Besides, whether it was right or wrong, Malc’m had rescued the stranger. That made him Malc’m’s responsibility and the scout refused to let him suffer – stranger or not.
Before diving down out of the cave, Malc’m turned to look at the unconscious man’s form one last time. He was, the scout decided, quite attractive, even if the rest of the Sa’an would be appalled at the very thought.
Archer wasn’t really surprised to wake and find a pair of blue-gray eyes peering down at him. His second trip into unconsciousness had been full of vague dreams where friendly sea creatures frolicked among the waves and winsome mermaids called to him from just beyond a rocky shore. He couldn’t quite make out what their sweet voices were saying and, upon regaining consciousness, realized that it had probably been his rescuer’s words that he’d heard.
At least this time the alien didn’t seem inclined to swim off.
Holding himself still was no hardship, since his head was pounding hard enough to make the notion of sitting up decidedly unappealing. Trusting that his rescuer could have easily killed him already had his intentions been hostile, Jonathan took time to assess the stranger.
His first impression, that the alien’s upper body was very human-looking, was correct. Up close, he could see that the other man’s facial features were nearly human, with the exception of the gills that delicately fluttered at the side of his neck. The stranger wore no garments, only some sort of pendant that hung from a cord that went over his head. His hair, or what Jonathan assumed was hair, was dark but the captain was unsure if that was its natural color or simply because it was still wet. Either way, it was plastered against the stranger’s skull. His skin was very pale and Archer found his hands twitching, wanting to stroke its nearly luminescent surface. Would it feel like velvet, he wondered, or be as cold as a fish’s underbelly?
His fingers had actually moved towards the other man of their own accord before Jonathan could stop them. The alien noticed the movement and shifted his position, drawing Archer’s eye down to the rest of his form. A relatively narrow set of shoulders... nicely defined muscular chest... trim waist... and a tail. A very big tail that trailed off into the water.
Archer gulped, realizing that he’d been staring. He snapped his eyes back to the alien’s face, worried that he’d offended with his blatant curiosity. He found the other man gazing solemnly back at him and breathed a sigh of relief. There was no animosity in that gaze, only appraisal and, Jonathan thought, a cautious curiosity that matched his own.
“I don’t suppose that you recovered the Universal Translator when you rescued me, did you?” Jonathan asked. He knew that the other being wouldn’t be able to understand him, but figured he should try to open communications in some way.
The sound of Archer’s voice caused the alien to tilt his head slightly and he blinked. Jonathan started a bit when he saw a clear membrane briefly flick across the other man’s eyes. Given that the alien was obviously equipped to exist under the water, the captain figured it must help protect his eyes when opening them while submerged.
The rescuer’s voice, when he answered, was soft and lilting when he spoke. Jonathan couldn’t understand a word he said, but it was a voice that relaxed him by sound alone.
Shaking off its mesmerizing affect, Archer made an attempt to get up. It wasn’t dignified to make a first contact laying flat on his back. “Oooh, that wasn’t a good idea,” he muttered as he sat up. The cave walls began their dizzying dance again.
This time, the alien’s voice wasn’t quite so soft as the other man reached to steady Archer. The captain knew it was dangerous to apply human emotions to a non-human sentient, but he couldn’t help but think he was being scolded. Nevertheless, he leaned gratefully into the fish-tailed man’s strength, allowing his rescuer to brace him. A slim hand reached for his forehead and Archer followed it with his own fingers. By touch, he perceived that some sort of compress had been bound to his wound and, even though he was dizzy, his head didn’t throb quite so much.
Managing to sit straight on his own, he turned to his new companion. “Thank you,” he said simply.
The alien looked at him levelly and, apparently liking what he saw in Archer’s face, the man withdrew. Jonathan watched avidly as his helper slipped into the water. He got a better look at the tail and realized that it wasn’t covered with scales, like a fish. Instead, it appeared to be a tough skin, something like a dolphin’s. It was a darker shade of blue-gray and he thought irreverently that it was color coordinated with the other man’s eyes. T’Pol, if she’d been there, would no doubt told him he was being illogical. Cho, on the other hand, would have been vastly amused at the situation....
Suddenly, Jonathan Archer remembered that Ruth Cho had been with him on the shuttlepod and what had happened to her. Remembering her death, nothing about the situation seemed amusing anymore.
The alien heard the captain’s gasp of pain and drifted closer in the water, lifting one hand to gently touch the human’s knee. Jonathan did his best to smile at his rescuer, not knowing how to convey that his distress was emotional and not physical. “I’m okay.”
Jonathan let his head fall into his hands. For a moment, he was overwhelmed and the excitement of a unique first contact paled in the wake of his grief. Even a quiet splash that indicated movement in the water didn’t rouse him - not until a tentative hand was placed on his thigh.
When the captain looked up, his rescuer was offering him a stalk of... something. A plant, Jonathan assumed. It looked like a cross between aloe and rhubarb, only it was purple in color. When Archer hesitated, the alien poked it at him, this time adding a phrase worded in that lilting voice of his. Used to knowing an order when he heard one, whether or not he understood the language it was uttered in, Archer accepted the offering.
Resolutely, Jonathan thrust his grief aside. He’d deal with it, he told his conscience, later. At the moment, he had a first contact situation to get through, not to mention dealing with his own somewhat precarious situation. Ruth Cho had been a true professional and consummate explorer. It would not do her memory justice to allow her death to interfere with the job at hand.
Archer looked down at the plant stalk and then back to the man who’d given it to him. The confused expression on his face must have been clear because the alien made a point of showing Jonathan that he had a stalk in his own hand. Making sure the human was watching him, he put the stalk to his mouth and, rather than biting a piece off, scraped it with his teeth.
Nice, perfectly white teeth, Jonathan couldn’t help but noticing.
Trusting that the medicinal compress on his head was a sign that his physiology was reasonably compatible to his savior’s, Jonathan mimicked the act. His trust was rewarded. Rather than poisoning him, the plant was a source of hydrating liquid. Swallowing gratefully, Archer realized for the first time how thirsty he’d been.
“Thanks,” he said to his benefactor. The captain’s smile was mirrored shyly by the alien, who immediately offered the human more of the stalks.
His most immediate physical need taken care of, Jonathan contemplated the man floating in the pool before him. Although undeniably alien, his benefactor was obviously an intelligent and compassionate being. Universal Translator or no Universal Translator, it was time to attempt more meaningful dialogue.
Archer caught the partially submerged man’s gaze and, seeing that the stranger was watching, tapped on his own chest. “My name is Jonathan Archer. Jon-a-than Ar-cher.”
His attempt prompted that now-familiar head tilt, this time accompanied by a slight frown. “J’han Taan Acha,” was carefully repeated.
Hearing the verbal stumble, Jonathan encouraged his new friend. “That’s right. Jonathan.”
“Close enough,” Archer murmured. Hoshi Sato, no doubt, would be appalled by his technique but it seemed to be working. Bolstered by his success, Archer then reached a hand towards his host and the gesture was immediately understood.
“Malcolm?” Jonathan tried, subconsciously Anglicizing the alien name. Catching himself doing it, the captain tried again. “Malc’m.”
Archer’s second try was correct and his effort was reward with another shy smile. Jonathan couldn’t help but smile back, inordinately satisfied at having pleased this exotic creature.
Jonathan and Malc’m continued to stare at each other silently for a few moments. The liquid rasp of the water hitting the cavern walls echoed in the damp chamber as each seemingly contemplated what to do next. Eventually, Malc’m broke the tableau. With gestures making it clear that Archer was to remain where he was, Malc’m made to leave. Jonathan carefully stood up as his rescuer began to swim off. His instincts told him to trust this man, but the captain had no idea how far down he was... if the water was the only way out of the cave... if Malc’m would come back....
As if hearing his thoughts, the alien turned at the last minute. With a half wave and a slight smile, he dove, his large tail coming up to slap the water and help propel him down.
“Trip is never going to believe this,” Archer said in amazement. Then collecting himself, he turned to take stock of the supplies his host had left by him.
J’han Taan Acha.
Malc’m rolled the name around on his tongue as he swam, automatically monitoring the water around him for signs of trouble. Despite his fascination with the male he’d rescued, the environment was too dangerous to let his attention wander freely. Scouts that were easily distracted tended not to survive long. Malc’m had no intention of becoming one of them, if for no other reason than to prove his father wrong.
A ripple in the water at his left flanked warned him and so Malc’m was prepared when a large, furry form launched itself at him.
He startled instinctively, but lowered his weapon as he recognized the friendly nature of his attacker. The tip of Malc’m’s tail twitched in annoyance. If she weren’t careful, one of these days Tc'hla would surprise him at the wrong time and find herself skewered… or worse.
“You know better than that,” he vocalized, using the resonance that implied a chiding tone.
His green furred companion whumped in reply. She hadn’t liked being left behind but Malc’m hadn’t dared to bring her into the cavern with him, not until he knew if the stranger was a friend or not. Still, despite her irritation, she responded to Malc’m’s body language, trying to make amends. Fangs as long as his fingers closed on his wrist with infinite gentleness before letting go.
A smile flitted across Malc’m’s face. Stowing his weapon in the mesh belt he’d retrieved after exiting the cave, Malc’m buried his hands in Tc'hla’s fur, scratching with well-practiced ease. Mad’ne, no doubt, would have a fit if she could see how he was spoiling the wpa’ne she’d trained for him. Malc’m, however, didn’t care. For longer than he’d like, Tc'hla had been his only friend.
As usual, thoughts of his sister caused Malc’m to tighten his mouth in pain. Abruptly leaving off the caresses, he swam on in renewed determination. Tc'hla rolled in the water for a moment, then righted herself and followed.
The downed vessel was right where he’d left it. Malc’m approached it warily, keeping a sharp eye out for any predators. Once he and Tc'hla had determined it was safe, Malc’m carefully swam through the breach in the side, as he’d done several times already since finding it. The body of the other stranger was gone, something that didn’t surprise Malc’m at all. The sea rarely let anything go to waste.
Some of the equipment in the small craft was both familiar and not. The technology seemed achingly similar to what he’d learned previously as a Shroud Guardian, but was different enough that he couldn’t immediately figure it out. His fingers trailed wistfully across the control panels, wishing they still operated so he could see how they functioned. Wishing didn’t make them work, however, and Malc’m gave up as he had on previous trips. Instead, he poked around in the corners of the vessel, looking for anything mobile that he could take with him. As far as he was concerned, there was one person on Water who could tell him if these items were dangerous or not. Even if this location was remote, he owed it to the Pod to make sure they were safe. He grabbed a couple of boxes, including one with a long strap. Just as carefully exiting the small craft, he gave Tc'hla the one with the strap and began to swim back in the direction of the cave.
Malc’m ignored Tc'hla’s faint nervous whumping. J’han Taan had seemed perfectly harmless, she really had nothing to be worried about. Malc’m would be careful, as he always was. And if one of these salvaged items happened to be a weapon and J’han Taan happened to try and use it on him, there would be time enough to deal with it. He really didn’t think the stranger was any threat, however. How dangerous could he be, when it was obvious he would drown in no time at all? No, it was more important that Malc’m find out as much about J’han Taan as he could. Then he could report back to the Pod with real facts, not vague impressions of a strange legged creature in their water.
Malc’m found himself idly fingering his necklace as he swam, head full of thoughts of J’han Taan.. As he realized what he was doing, he quickly dropped his hand as though it had become weighted with rock. His fascination had nothing to do with the air breathing male, nothing at all. He was only assessing a potential threat. At least, that’s what Malc’m told himself. If Tc'hla chose not to believe him, it was really her problem.
“What d’ya mean, we’re not gonna mount a rescue?” Trip’s voice was full of indignation. Even so, he kept his words to a hoarse whisper, not wanting the rest of the bridge crew to hear.
T’Pol regarded him coolly. “That is not quite correct, Commander Tucker. A rescue will certainly be attempted… when the atmospheric conditions make it safe to do so.”
Tucker planted his hands on the console and leaned forward. “It’s been hours already – the cap’n and Cho may not have any more time.”
The Vulcan turned her head to peer into her viewer again. “Captain Archer himself would say the same. The protocol in such situations dictates that an attempt not be made when the conditions are such that would unduly risk additional members of the crew.”
“There’s not a person on this boat who wouldn’t be willin’ to take that chance if it meant savin’ the Captain and Ruth,”Tucker retorted.
“It is not logical, not when there is so little chance of success yet such a large chance of additional casualties,” T’Pol said evenly. “Captain Archer would not want lives to be lost in an attempt to save his own.”
Trip’s anger dissipated, leaving behind clearly seen worry. “That’s what I’m afraid of, that there might not be anything left to save.”
“You know the shuttle’s capabilities better than anyone else,” T’Pol pointed out. “Although the storm prevents safe flight, surely the shuttle can withstand the vagaries of planetary weather.”
“No, somethin’s wrong,” the engineer shook his head. “We lost communication with the shuttle right after they took off. Even if they had to go back to the ground t’wait things out, we should have heard from them by now.”
“Not necessarily,” T’Pol turned from her scanner to address Tucker. “There is an unusual amount of ionization in the atmosphere. It could interfere with communications. When the storm is over, our ability to contact the shuttle or to scan the planet for its location should be restored.”
“So, until then, we just sit up here on our butts and wait?” Tucker’s voice was full of frustrated disbelief.
T’Pol stood to her full if diminutive height and put her hands behind her back. “Yes.”
The sub-commander’s calm answer didn’t leave anything for Tucker to say. With a final glare, he left the bridge. T’Pol returned to peering through her scanner, the tightness of her grip the only sign that her own worry was at least as deep as Tucker’s own.
Much to Jonathan’s surprise, the Universal Translator was among the equipment that Malc’m had already salvaged.
“Well, what do you know....” the captain murmured. He tapped the unit thoughtfully against his chin and then set it aside. As valuable a find as the translator was, it was useless until Malc’m came back.
It took depressingly little time to go through the rest of the gear. Most of it was worthless without the shuttle, but at least a medical kit and a portable light were amongst the water-logged bounty. Unfortunately, a communicator wasn’t and Archer was becoming worried at the length of time he’d been out of touch with the ship. His crew was loyal but there were limits to how long even they could keep up hope that he was alive, given the circumstances of how the shuttle went down.
Trying not to worry over something he couldn’t control, Jonathan decided to explore his surroundings. At first, he still needed to steady himself against the cave’s rock walls but soon began feeling better. He quickly determined that there was no above-ground way to get out of the cavern, leaving him even more dependant on Malc’m.
That fact didn’t bother Jonathan as much as it probably should have.
The captain had been making use of the portable light in his explorations. As he noticed before, the water itself almost glowed and he vaguely remembered T’Pol saying something about “bioluminescence.” The radiance from the pool was enough to light the immediate area, but as he ranged further from it, he found he needed more, especially where the growth of the phosphorescent plant was thin. With determination, he shone the portable light into every nook and cranny. Although the air had to be coming from somewhere, he didn’t see any openings large enough for him to fit through. He was well and truly stuck.
Jonathan was still contemplating his situation when Malc’m returned.
A rippling in the water heralded his benefactor’s arrival and Archer headed to the spot where he’d awoke. By the time he got there, Malc’m’s upper body had emerged and it was obvious that the other man was towing something behind him. Jonathan reached out an arm to assist him.
The captain’s desire to be helpful almost lost him an appendage. Out of the water next to Malc’m, another form launched itself at the human. Jonathan backpedaled as fast as he could, only able to get an impression of dark fur and a lot of teeth.
A sharp cry from Malc’m and the creature retreated. Jonathan laid back against the rock floor of the cave, panting and trying to catch his breath. The creature was obviously known to Malc’m, who seemed to be scolding it, if the tone of this voice was an accurate indicator. Despite his shock, Archer grinned. The scene in front of him reminded him of the rare times he’d had to reprimand Porthos.
“That is one ugly puppy,” he murmured aloud. The green-colored animal was vaguely wolverine-like but had fins in the back instead of legs. The front of its body sported small arms equipped with wicked-looking claws and the mouth was bristling with teeth. As Malc’m continued to berate it, Jonathan could see the creature visibly back down, but had a feeling he’d better watch himself around it nonetheless.
Dressing-down complete, Malc’m swam away from his fanged friend and approached Jonathan. The captain belatedly remembered the Universal Translator and hurriedly turned it on. He didn’t worry about Malc’m seeing it. Even if the other man’s culture wasn’t as technically advanced as humanity’s, Malc’m had already been exposed - the damage had already been done. Looking at the equipment that had already been rescued, Jonathan figured that seeing a piece of it in action couldn’t really hurt.
“K’nsey dr-li,” Malc’m said to Jonathan when he reached easy speaking distance. “Ys-ore Qi-rfl.”
Jonathan held the UT out, waiting for it to have enough data to work. In an effort to encourage the alien to talk and provide it with more fodder for translation, he said, "Your friend there doesn't like me."
Malc’m saw the device in Archer's hands and moved a little closer. "On’drtta …….?"
Archer bent down and showed it to him, careful to keep the important instrument from getting wet. "I don't suppose I could get you to talk some more," the captain said. He knew from experience that, even if they couldn't understand him, the other strangers he'd met would respond to his verbalization. "We need to give it more material to work with."
Malc’m handed the captain a bundle of the moisture-providing stalks and then Jonathan's rescuer reached a tentative hand towards the UT, careful not to touch it "On’drtta y’mal brt…., I hope for your sake it's not a weapon, Tc'hla wouldn't like that at all."
Success! It never ceased to amaze Archer when the translator kicked in. "No, it's not a weapon. I can promise you that."
Startled at suddenly being able to understand the human, Malc’m flinched back. In what seemed to be a reflex action, he dipped down underneath the water's surface, but only for a moment. His defensive action had roused the green creature's ire and Malc’m grabbed it before it could launch itself at Jonathan.
"Tc’hla, no. J'han Taan hasn't threatened me." He looked at the captain appraisingly. "Yet."
"I won't, I promise." Jonathan smiled, excited to be able to talk to his exotic rescuer. "I want to thank you for saving my life."
Malc’m shrugged. "I'm a scout, it is my duty to patrol these waters and keep them safe." A brief smile flickered across his face but was gone before Archer could thoroughly enjoy it. "I'm not sure the rest of my Pod would think that saving you was in line with keeping them safe, however." He didn’t give Jonathan a chance to talk. “Why are you here? Are you one of the Remnants, come for the Choosing observation? We didn’t think there were any air breathers left on Water.”
Archer shook his head. "I'm sorry, no. I'm not one of your… Remnants… and I don't know what a Choosing ceremony is."
Malc’m considered. "I didn't think so. Even a Remnant, I think, wouldn't be so lost in the ocean. Who are you then?"
"My name is Jonathan Archer and I'm an explorer." Jonathan had done this spiel this so many times that he could recite it in his sleep, but it still thrilled him to hear himself say it. "I don't actually come from this planet. Water, you call it? My people come from a planet called Earth.”
Malc’m took the news calmly at first. "Earth? That explains your difficulty with getting oxygen from the water - with that kind of name, I doubt you breathe like we do." His composed facade cracked a little to show his curiosity.
Jonathan was relieved that his benefactor wasn't too shocked at the discovery that his guest was from a different planet. He had a feeling, however, that judging from by the agitated swishing of his tail, his rescuer wasn’t quite as blasé about the concept as he was pretending to be.
Malc’m gestured to the translation device. "Is that what is enabling us to speak to one another? It’s not a weapon?"
Jonathan forced his eyes away from that fascinating tail, realizing he would need to satisfy his rescuer’s suspicious nature. "Yes, it's a translator; not a weapon. We find it very useful when we visit new planets or meet new people. Is there more than one language used on Water?"
Malc’m had been looking at the instrument with fascination but lifted his head at the captain's question. "No," he said succinctly, "just the one language."
The captain had only known Malc’m for a few moments but instinctively realized he'd done something to upset the other man. He used a tactic diplomats had been making use of for time immemorial; he changed the subject. "My people are called humans. What are your people called?"
“We're the Sa’an," Malc’m answered, then countered with question of his own. "You keep saying 'we' and 'our.' Are there more of you? Will they be trying to drown themselves too? The Sa’an do not encourage visitors into our water."
Jonathan flinched, remembering Ruth Cho's lifeless body. She'd likely been dead before the water became a factor, but still, the comment was much too close to home. "One of my people has already died in your ocean," he said harshly.
“When you swim where you’re not wanted, you shouldn’t be surprised to find the water choppy.” Malc’m’s immediate reaction was of defensive anger. “We did not invite you.”
“No, you didn’t.” Jonathan deflated. “It’s the risk that all explorers take. It’s just… it feels wrong to be sitting here safe while Lieutenant Cho is dead.” The captain blinked. He must have hit his head harder than he thought, if he was making such confessions to a man he’d only just met.
For his part, Malc’m was appalled to hear his father’s words coming out of his mouth. He dipped his head and sighed, then looked back up at Jonathan. "I am sorry, J'han Taan. It is my duty to patrol this area. I failed you. Even if you're not Sa’an, I failed in my duty."
Archer was a fair-minded man and the last of his anger faded in the wake of his companion’s misplaced guilt. “It’s not your fault,” the captain admitted. “Lieutenant Cho didn’t drown, she was probably dead before the shuttle even hit the water.”
Malc’m, however, was reluctant to release his sense of responsibility. “Still, it is my duty to watch over this area. You very nearly died. If you had perished, it would have been my fault.”
“As you pointed out, we weren’t exactly invited guests,” Jonathan responded. It felt odd, having this conversation with this man. Odd and bittersweet. Ruth Cho would have felt the same deep sense of responsibility that Malc’m was showing. The deceased tactical officer and the Sa’an scout were cut from the same cloth - security officers to the core.
“But nonetheless....” Malc’m objected, unknowingly cementing the comparison even further.
Since Malc’m was acting so much like Cho, Archer decided to treat his overabundance of guilt the same way he had his officer’s when she chose to bludgeon herself for something over which she had no control - he ignored it.
“What I can’t figure out,” the captain said, “is why we didn’t know there was anyone on the planet.” When his companion looked confused, he explained. “We have the capability to scan the planet from above. Our scans didn’t show the Sa’an - and they should have.”
Malc’m looked thoughtful... and then a bit smug. “We may not swim among the stars, but my people have technology of our own, J'han Taan. The Choosing celebration is a solemn occasion and most Sa’an do not venture beyond the Shroud while it is being observed. A few days earlier or a few days later and it would have been a different story when you looked at us from the sky.” He was careful not to say too much. Despite how friendly J’han Taan seemed, he could still be a predator. Better to let him know that the Reed Pod was not easy prey, just in case.
Archer was tempted but didn’t press for details. He had a feeling from the wary way his companion was looking at him, that he had the suspicious nature inherent of all good security officers. “Your people, could you take me there?”
Malc’m’s expression immediately became wooden. “That would not be a good idea, J'han Taan. My people are not explorers and would not be happy to see visitors.”
As much as Jonathan wanted to trust Malc’m, he knew he had to press the issue. “Are you sure? Some of the others we’ve encountered in our travels have had that attitude initially, but they’ve warmed up to us.” The captain smiled as charmingly as he could. “Humans are a very friendly species.”
Malc’m’s lips twitched at Jonathan’s obvious ploy but he still shook his head. “Don’t judge the rest of the Sa’an by me. Most of my people aren’t interested in lifting their heads out of the water, let alone looking at the stars. Besides, the Reed Pod is over a day’s swim from here. You would drown long before we could reach it.”
“Okay, if you don’t think they’ll want to meet me just to be friendly, how about helping a traveler?” Archer asked. “I need to be able to contact my crew, Malc’m, to let them know I survived the crash.”
Malc’m frowned. “And how would you propose they help you do that?”
Jonathan floundered. He’d assumed, from Malc’m’s ready acceptance of his equipment and claims of being extraterrestrial, that his rescuer’s people were of a similar technological background. “Don’t you have communication equipment?”
“I’m sorry, J'han Taan,” Malc’m answered regretfully, “but we’ve never had a need for that kind of technology, not since the Choosing.”
Jonathan quickly regrouped. “All right, maybe there’s something still on the shuttle I could use,” he theorized. “Can you help me reach it?”
Malc’m bobbed gently in the water as he considered. “How long can you go without air?”
The Sa’an’s face fell with disappointment. “That’s not nearly long enough.” Malc’m held up a hand to forestall Jonathan’s next suggestion. “And, before you ask, no. It’s not long enough for me to get you to the ocean surface either.”
“Dammit,” Archer swore. Finally giving in to his building impatience, the captain got up and began pacing. “I don’t know why the shuttle dropped so far down. Even damaged, it shouldn’t have sank so fast.”
“Perhaps you shouldn’t have been so quick to absolve me of any responsibility.” When Archer stopped his agitated movements long enough to look at him, Malc’m explained. “One of the reasons I was patrolling these particular waters was a report of a Noi-ta in the area. When your vessel hit the water, it grabbed it and pulled you down.”
“Grabbed it?” The human repeated.
“In its mouth,” Malc’m explained and then shrugged. “They’re attracted to shiny things.”
Jonathan blanched when he realized how large a Noi-ta would have to be to accomplish what Malc’m had just described. “What happened to it?”
“The Noi-ta?” When Archer nodded, the other man continued. “I drove it off and came back to investigate.” At Jonathan’s appalled expression, Malc’m shrugged nonchalantly. “The Sa’an gladly share the ocean but we prefer to keep the predators as far away from where we live as possible.” The look he shot the captain clearly implied that was true of humans, as well, should that prove necessary.
“You drove off a creature big enough to haul around a shuttlecraft in its mouth like a toy? By yourself?” Jonathan looked at his companion with new-found respect. “That’s amazing.”
Pleased, Malc’m smiled. “Not really, Tc'hla helped.” At hearing her name, the creature swam up to Malc’m and bumped into him playfully. “And I am not without weapons - I just didn’t bring them in here.”
Jonathan clearly heard what Malc’m carefully didn’t say. Even if Archer had been a hostile, Malc’m didn’t need a weapon to deal with him. The surrounding ocean trapped the human quite effectively. All Malc’m would have to do was not come back and Jonathan would die, either by starvation or by drowning when he tried to swim out.
“Are you hungry?” Malc’m asked.
Still thinking of his dilemma, Archer nodded absently.
“I shall bring you something to eat, then,” Malc’m offered. “And, if you tell me what this communication device of yours looks like, I shall see if I can retrieve it for you.”
Jonathan smiled gratefully and bent down to address the Sa’an. “Thank you. It’s not that I don’t appreciate your hospitality, but I have a responsibility to my crew.”
Malc’m returned the smile. “I’m sure you don’t want to be stuck in this cave for the rest of your life.” He reached up and briefly touched Archer’s foot. “Don’t’ worry, J’han Taan. You and I will find a way to return you to your people.”
Archer believed his companion and gladly described the piece of equipment he needed. As he watched the Sa’an and his green-furred friend leave, the captain couldn’t help but wish they’d met under different circumstances.
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