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1 *** NOW


There was no pain if he didn't move.

The chief engineer of the Enterprise, Commander Trip Tucker, suspended in a white web, couldn't feel his body unless he twisted, and then he felt the tendrils pulling against his body. He knew the alien was inside of all of them, could imagine the tendrils twisting up into his body, tapping into his spinal column, branching into his nerves. He had been invaded. If he thought about it, he got scared, but if he just drifted, everything seemed okay. In fact, it was even soothing, lying suspended in a hammock of white—until he remembered. There had been an intruder in Cargo Bay 2 on D deck, some kind of alien. He guessed it had gotten them. He remembered grabbing the captain's hands as the captain, seized by white tentacles, was pulled backward. Tucker had slid on his stomach across the floor for at least three meters, hands clutching the captain's, unable to save him. Unable to save himself.

From his vantage point, he could see his captain, Jonathan Archer, and crewman Michael Rostov. Both were covered in the tendrils, white lace covering their bodies; their faces were shiny in the low light of the cargo bay—some kind of slime. Out of his line of sight were Mark Zabel and Denise Kelly. He thought Zabel was unconscious, but he couldn't be sure.

How long had he been here? He had no idea. Underneath his thoughts, he could hear persistent music. He didn't know the tune, but it seemed familiar. He hummed under his breath, then a little louder. Rostov's voice, rusty, joined him, and their song danced, thin and small, between them. "I love that song," Rostov said when the song came around again to what was clearly some kind of refrain. "But I hate it when a song gets in your head, don't you?" He hummed a few more bars, then fell silent. "Captain?" Rostov asked uncertainly.

There was a long pause. Tucker, whose thoughts had been pulled back to the water polo game he and the captain had been viewing before they headed for the cargo bay, was struck by a realization: "The Texas goalie can't block to his right because he keeps his hands too deep," he said. He saw it now. That would explain Stanford's third goal. Tucker had been rooting for Texas, Archer for California.

Archer's voice: "How do you know that?" Tucker was no water polo fan. He preferred football.

Rostov broke in. "Captain, I know it too—and I don't understand anything about water polo."

Tucker knew: Rostov had never even seen water polo before. How did he know that? He barely knew Rostov, even though Rostov was posted to Engineering.

Archer grunted, flexing sideways slightly. "It's this life form. It's linking us together—somehow."

When Tucker considered that, he felt his anxiety level rise. Linking them together? There were some things he wasn't ready for the captain to know. Panic bloomed. "We've got to get out!" he cried, twisting. He heard sucking noises as the tendrils sought to maintain their grasp. Pain arced through his body, and he saw Rostov and Archer wince in sympathy.

"Calm down," Archer soothed, his voice hoarse.

Rostov gasped. Tucker could feel an edge of searing heat from Kelly and Zabel. Tucker was somehow causing all of them pain.

"This thing's gotten inside our heads," Tucker realized. It wasn't just his body, then. It was going after his mind. That was worse.

Archer tried to distract him. "Trip…do you know what I'm thinking about?"

"Now is not the time to be thinking about the regionals," Tucker snapped.

"Trip!" Archer admonished. Archer was trying to focus him.

All right. "Senior year, North American regionals against Princeton, we…I mean, you were down by two goals with under a minute left."

"And what was I thinking?"

Tucker twisted and groaned. He knew. He knew what Archer was thinking.

Archer repeated his question, insistent: "What was I thinking?"

Unwillingly, Tucker responded. "You thought…you could win…every game." It was hard to talk. "You always thought you could win. No matter how far behind you were." He panted.

"And we did. We went on to the finals that year. As soon as you give up, the game's lost."

It wasn't Archer's soothing, motivational words as much as the calm he was radiating. Tucker felt it. The waves of panic receded. He couldn't give up. Reed would kill him if he died. He nodded, eyes wide, breathing hard. He was afraid, but Archer's calm was permeating him.

He relaxed.

Archer nodded.

2 *** THEN


Archer was looking at his hands, and he wouldn't look at Tucker, who was seated across from him in Archer's quarters. "I had no idea," he confessed. "I was surprised, that's all."

Tucker used his thumb to make a line in the condensation down the side of the glass of beer he was holding. He knew they had to talk, but something was up with Archer, something Archer wouldn't say. Archer had seen Tucker and his lover, Lieutenant Malcolm Reed, the armory officer, kissing in sick bay. Archer hadn't known they were lovers, thought they were straight, just good pals. Reed hadn't seen Archer, seen the shock and incomprehension on Archer's face. Tucker had. In fact, seeing Archer had galvanized Tucker, enabling him to take the next step in his relationship with Reed. The thought of his best friend knowing about such an important part of his life had liberated him.

"Jon, I'm getting a vibe from you," he said. He rarely called Archer "Jon," preferring instead his nickname, "Captain." But they were being deadly serious here—not good buddies joking around, not chief engineer talking ship's business with his captain, but friends having a very serious talk. He wasn't stupid. He knew this would change their friendship fundamentally. But he thought he knew Archer better. At first, he hadn't think their friendship was at stake—not really. Archer was a generous friend, a broad-minded man. But now, he wasn't so sure.

"A vibe?"

"Something's really wrong. How freaked out are you about this?"

Archer exhaled, a slow huff, and laced his fingers together. Finally, he looked up. "A lot. More than I care to admit. I thought I was pretty open—live and let live, right?" He gave a short laugh. "Tell me about it. Has this been going on since the shuttlepod incident?"

"No. Before."

He had surprised Archer. "Before?"

Tucker didn't elaborate. "You have to understand, we don't see ourselves as—as homosexual. We're two straight guys who sleep together." He took a sip of beer. "Except I'm in love with him."

There. He'd said it. He hadn't even said it to Reed.

"And this is a mutual feeling?"

"Yes."

"And this is your first time—"

"—with a man. Yes." Tucker smiled wryly. "I was surprised myself. In fact, no one was more surprised than me." Maybe even Archer.

"What about Malcolm?"

"Same as me, he says."

Archer reached over and grabbed his own beer from the table. "Well, I'll hand it to you. You are incredibly discreet."

"Damn straight." Archer's eyes were still closed to him. "Jon, your friendship is important to me. I'd hate to fall out over this. But I haven't told Malcolm you saw us. I wanted to talk to you first, figure out where we stand. Can I tell him?"

Archer nodded. "Yes, of course."

Tucker eyed him narrowly. Well, he would take him at his word. He was having trouble reading Archer's face. "It's actually a big relief to me that you found out. But I understand that you might not want to hear about—about me and Malcolm. What we're up to, fights or whatever. So I won't talk unless you ask." Because it was clear Archer was upset. He figured he'd let Archer set the parameters. "So—where do we stand?"

Archer said, "Nothing's changed. We still stand together." He held up his glass in an implied toast. His eyes met Tucker's and he smiled.

"Always." Tucker clinked his glass against Archer's. But he was worried. He could feel it: something was wrong.

3 *** NOW


First it had been the song, then it was the water polo game, but he lets go of the panic and drifts, and then he hears them more clearly—is he asleep? or unconscious?—voices in his head, but it isn't voice, it's thought

Trip and Jon and Michael and Denise and Mark and the Other, all one, and it seems that it is partly asleep because Denise is dreaming about the lake and it can hear the loons call and it can hear the rustle of the leaves in the night sky but the stars don't look familiar, not familiar at all but it is home

Trip and Jon and Michael and Denise and Mark and the Other, all one, and edges are blurring because the Other is erasing them, pulling them, pushing them, molding them, inside them with its tendrils

Trip and Jon and Michael and Denise and Mark and the Other, all one, and Mark is heavy and inert and his thoughts are hard to find, but he is dreaming of a woman with short blonde hair and brown eyes and she is holding a toddler and smiling, and there is a rush of love

Trip and Jon and Michael and Denise and Mark and the Other, all one, and there is a landscape that is breathtakingly familiar but inutterably alien, with a dark sky spangled with incredibly bright stars and sheer rocks covered with white lace and there are no loons, but the stars make familiar patterns and it is home

Trip and Jon and Michael and Denise and Mark and the Other, all one, alone, singing but no one seems to hear, and the Other longs for more of the small ones, but Trip and Jon and Michael and Denise and Mark say no, leave them alone, but then later they reconsider and say yes, being alone is sad, they can join me here, and I can sing, one voice

Trip and Jon and Michael and Denise and Mark and the Other, all one, yearning and wanting: movement, pressure, touch, sight, sound, smell, taste, it can feel color and see noise, an explosion of synesthesia, with experience filtering through Trip and Jon and Michael and Denise and Mark so the Other can understand, but they are one, so it understands

Trip and Jon and Michael and Denise and Mark and the Other, all one

4 *** THEN


Reed and Tucker met every Monday night after dinner in the laundry facility. It was often empty at that time, and after they pulled their clothes out of the machines, they could nab back their socks or underwear or whatever one had borrowed from the other. Sometimes it was easier to just mix their socks together and then pair them. Tucker supposed it was domestic.

Reed, unsurprisingly, had strong feelings about how to fold. He even folded his briefs with military precision: he would turn a pair right-side out, grab the waistband, use his fingers to fold the waistband into thirds (left first, then right), the cloth forming a long column, and then he would fold the column in half, making a little brief pillow. It was kind of cute, but likely Tucker only thought that because Reed never said anything to Tucker about how to fold. Reed, bless his heart, didn't offer him unsolicited advice or suggest that his way of folding was the only way, although he had once been driven to make a cutting remark about the moral integrity of people who failed to turn their socks right side out before pairing them.

So as Tucker methodically went through his pile of clean socks and turned them right side out, he said, because they were alone, "I have to tell you something kind of important."

"Oh?" Reed sounded politely interested.

"It's the captain. He came by sick bay when you and I were, um, talking while Doctor Phlox was gone during the visualization therapy thing, and he saw us together."

Reed set down a perfectly folded undershirt, its bright blue color shocking in the harsh light of the laundry room. "How together?"

"Really together."

"Ah."

"I talked with him yesterday and he says he's good, but I think it freaked him out."

"And how do you feel about this?"

"Me?"

"You're good friends," Reed pointed out. "This is bound to affect your friendship."

"Well, I'm relieved, of course, but I didn't expect him to—I don't know, withdraw." Tucker shook his head. "I thought he was more broad-minded than he was. I guess he did too." He reached over and nabbed a sock from Reed's pile, matched it to one in his own, and folded them together into a ball. "Anyway, I thought you should know."

"Yes, thanks." Reed frowned slightly. "Are we in trouble or anything? The nonfraternization rules?"

"The captain didn't say anything about it. I guess not. Anyway, I'm only your supervisor in the broadest sense. You're not assigned to Engineering. Actually, I doubt the captain even thought of that whole issue." Tucker cleared his throat. "Are you okay with the captain knowing?"

"I'm relieved," Reed confessed. "I've been able to talk to Doctor Phlox as a friend. You deserve the same freedom."

Tucker nodded. There was one other thing. "I told the captain something that I think I'd better tell you," he began.

Reed went back to folding, pulling an undershirt out of his pile and tossing it face-down on the table. He made an encouraging noise as he smoothed it out just so.

"I love you."

Reed's hands paused, and he looked up. His changeable eyes looked blue in the too-bright light. "I know," he responded quietly. "I love you, too."

"I know." They didn't need to say it, but somehow, Tucker felt a lot better. He had never really imagined he'd be professing love to a man in a laundry room. Life was weird sometimes. "He did say that we were incredibly discreet," Tucker continued.

He stepped closer and stroked around Reed's left ear with his thumb, then leaned down and kissed him in front of the ear and swooped his tongue slowly around. He lingered in the sensitive hollow just behind Reed's earlobe, then gently pulled the lobe between his teeth. It felt velvety, soft, and tender in his mouth. Tucker released it, brushing first his nose, then his lips against Reed's ear, exhaling slightly. Reed smiled at the puff of air and rubbed his ear against Tucker's lips. Each slid his hands around the other's head, and Tucker took Reed's mouth with his own, a soft, gentle, intimate kiss that lasted a very, very long time, a kiss that sealed their understanding.

When they broke apart, Tucker turned back to his laundry and Reed resumed folding his undershirt. They were both breathing heavily, and they were both hard. "What are you doing tonight?" Tucker asked.

"I thought I'd have an evening of snogging with my boyfriend," Reed responded.

"Snogging? What's that?"

"I'll show you."

Tucker grinned. "Can't wait."

5 *** NOW


Trip and Jon and Michael and Denise and Mark and the Other, all one, remembering

The scent, the feel, the texture of the skin of the beloved, the beloved's pulse racing under the touch of the One (but it was a memory, before they were the One, but whose memory, Trip's or Jon's or Michael's or Denise's or Mark's, it didn't matter), the beloved's face, gray-blue eyes half-closed in abandon

The hardness and the warmth, pushing against the body of the beloved

The hardness the focus of the One's attention; it throbs in time to the One's heartbeat

The hardness the focus of the beloved's attention, as the beloved's hand closes around it, tugging, stroking, and then, and then, and then—kissing and licking

The world becomes limited to sensation, the beloved required, necessary, needed—needed in order to allow sensation, to permit love and delight, to allow the filtering of existence

Then release of the hardness, and the beloved's mouth on the One's body, on the One's lips, and the beloved's hand on the hardness instead, and the One matching the strokes, the beloved's body the focus now

Warm, then hot, the pleasure is drawn out razor fine, thin and suspended and trembling

The beloved's face, as the beloved makes faint sounds that incite the One to new heights, the beloved's eyes burning with a blue intensity

The beloved's hardness, with the skin sliding over the hardness, the hardness leaving a small trail of sticky wetness on the One's body

The dark smell of desire

Sensation, linked with emotion, and under it all

Love

So beloved

Then the pulse of unadulterated ecstasy

Then shattering, breaking apart, fragmenting, but one with the beloved

And the beloved and the One cry out in release, cry out in one voice

6 *** THEN


Tucker wasn't sure about the whole game of water polo—or, for that matter, the entire genre of sports played in water. He had never been able to figure out Archer's fixation on it. It was such an obscure sport. Not football, soccer, or baseball for Archer, no, he had to like water polo. Archer had been quite a player in college, and he kept a ball in his quarters on a shelf.

The Stanford versus Texas finals were playing on the TV. On the spur of the moment, Tucker had had a buddy record the game, then send it to him via subspace just after it aired. He had sprung it on Archer as a surprise. Archer got recordings of the game through an official media source so he could archive them, but there would be a three-day delay before the media source packaged and released it. The game had aired late last night, Enterprise time. Archer had been touched that Tucker had gone to the trouble of getting what he considered an advance recording.

Now Archer was explaining the finer points of the game to him. It was great to see him so excited. Archer had been in a funk the last two days, ever since, now that he thought about it, he had told his captain about his relationship with Reed. The disastrous experience with the Kreetasans, the aliens they had so inexplicably angered, had cinched it: he had retreated to his quarters or office and snapped at whoever spoke to him. But this was just what they needed: what Ensign Travis Mayweather called one-on-one male bonding, good buddy time alone. It was male bonding all around: Reed had gone to see a film with Mayweather, with whom he had been friends before the posting to Enterprise, some movie that was supposed to feature lots of explosions. Reed would no doubt love it.

Tucker watched as an official made an inexplicable call. "What the hell was that?" he asked, dismayed. It did not look good for Texas.

Archer crowed. "Number eight on Texas just fouled one of my boys. He's going to be ejected for twenty seconds."

"Is that fair?" Tucker demanded. "It gives you guys an advantage."

Archer laughed. "Well, that's the point." Tucker made a noise of disappointment, and they both took sips of their beers. As the game continued, Archer said thoughtfully, "I don't suppose it would be practical to put a pool on the ship."

Tucker chuckled. "I wouldn't want to be taking a swim if the gravity plating went off line."

Archer considered that. "No," he said, and they both laughed at the image: a huge, uneven ball of water, held together only by surface tension, rising out of the pool, with hapless swimmers circling inside, up and down meaningless without gravity.

They were interrupted by a voice over the com: "Kelly to the captain."

Tucker put down his beer. Crewman Kelly was a tech in Engineering. What was up? He paused the game as Archer crossed the room and hit the com button. "Go ahead."

Kelly's voice sounded panicked. "Sir, I'm in Cargo Bay 2, and there's some kind of life form in here." Her voice rose at the end, as if it were a question. Something was very wrong.

"Life form?" Archer repeated.

"It's got Rostov, sir. He's still conscious, but he can't—"

Kelly's voice was cut off by a noise, a high-pitched distortion that veered outside the human range of hearing.

"Crewman?" Archer queried, worried.

There was no response.

Archer exchanged a look with Tucker, jerked his head slightly. Tucker rose and followed him out.

Reed and Zabel, both in uniform, met them outside the cargo bay doors; Tucker had paused at a panel and summoned Reed for help, and Reed had apparently recruited Zabel, who was on duty on second shift. Reed went in first, flashlight and phase pistol deployed, then waved them in.

Tucker saw it first—a web of white, Rostov and Kelly bundled up, as if they were in cocoons. Rostov said only, "Leave. Leave." They saw the tendrils moving; they backed up slowly; and then everything happened fast. The captain, seized; Tucker, grabbing his hands, pulled across the cargo bay floor, then seized himself; Zabel running up a ladder, but too slow—he was taken too.

Reed got out. Thank god, Reed got out. He was the only one.

7 *** NOW


Trip and Jon and Michael and Denise and Mark and the Other, all one, remembering

An odd doubling: the One looks within by remembering, seeing the inside and the outside simultaneously, a confusion of images, weaving the two into a single voice

The man (the One), wearing an environmental suit, trying to remove the helmet, the other (the One) saying no, don't, you can't breathe here, I order you to leave your helmet on, I order you, damn it, listen to me, and behind it was breathtaking panic and terror and the horror of the possibility of loss

The man (the One), lugging water and a heavy pack, the sun bright and hot overhead, sand all around, the world arid and dry, both of them dressed in white clothing, the other (the One) smiling underneath his hat, the presence of the man wonderful and interesting and comforting, and underneath is that pull, but with it is the knowledge that the man doesn't feel that pull

The man (the One), taken out of the shuttlepod along with another man, cold, white, the sharp flare of panic, the question is he dead, oh god, he can't be dead, his skin felt cold and hard and unresponsive to the touch of the other (the One), and then he was borne away on a metal stretcher, a piece of ice, oh god, let him not be dead

The man (the One), injured or ill, reclining back, one of his hands in both hands of the other (the One), a warm, strong touch, an almost guilty pulse of delight at the forbidden pressure, worry melding with

Love

So beloved

And then Trip says out loud, "Jon, I didn't know"

8 *** THEN MEETS NOW


The sound cut through the cargo bay. Tucker blinked. He was himself because he was awake. When he drifted off, he became part of the One. First there had been the bright light and the pain, the incredible pain, that had thankfully stopped. Kelly had been the most affected. Her body was not bearing up well against the onslaught of the tendrils. Maybe she was just different enough, physiologically, from the four men, to give the Other trouble. He knew she was dangerously close to death.

But now there was a high-pitched sound. No meaning was in the voice. It was a single tone.

He couldn't see the cargo bay's door; it was off to the side, blocked by barrels and storage containers. He heard the cadence of human voices, but he couldn't catch the words. He heard Ensign Hoshi Sato's voice. She was a communications expert and linguist. Good. He thought he heard Reed's voice too, and Subcommander T'Pol, the Vulcan science officer.

The high-pitched sound came again, and then it fluctuated. After a pause, the sounds repeated exactly. There was another pause, and it played a third time.

The Other considered it, then drew them into the One. Trip's and Michael's voices came simultaneously. "I wish to speak with you," they said, although it didn't matter whether they spoke aloud or not. That was what Sato, one of the small ones, had asked it in her odd, low-pitched voice. She wanted to sing.

"Respond," said Trip and Jon and Michael and Mark to the Other. Denise could not speak, could not sing with the one voice, the heavy blackness pushing her down. Sato needed the information to build her vocabulary. Just as the Other spoke to them, they spoke to the Other. "Sing."

The Other sang of what it most desired: home. The dark sky, no real atmosphere to divert the power of the light of the stars. The rocks, glowing. The lacy patterns of the Unity, spread over the continent, basking in the radioactivity of the rocks, the lick of cosmic rays from its distant, dark sun. The Other had explored on behalf of the Unity, and it longed to reunite to share its understanding of this new song. It sang in a mathematically precise voice, specifying coordinates, requesting, demanding, that it be returned.

Sato's voice, transmuted through the translation device she was using, sang back, still weirdly low to the ear of the Other, but understandable: "We will return you. We promise this. We politely request that you release the crew members."

The Other considered. The Unity created with these small ones was not real unity. This ship would return it to its home, where real Unity could be had. Did these small ones it had caught want to be released? They could join the Unity if they wished.

No. The small ones wished to be released. They did not seek Unity.

The One linked for a long moment, a goodbye.

The Other began releasing its tendrils, pulling out from tissue and bone and cell, methodically, quickly releasing. It was easier to cut the small ones loose than it had been to seize them. It carried within it records of these others. It had what it came for: experience.

Tucker and Archer and Rostov and Kelly and Zabel, gasping, lying separate on the floor, sticky ooze covering their bodies, were now fragmented voices. The Other withdrew to a corner and waited patiently—waited to go home.

9 *** NOW


"Trip?" Archer's voice came through the com. Tucker leaned his head against the wall when he heard his captain's voice, thumb on the com button.

Might as well get it over with. "Yeah, come in." He activated the door and Archer stepped through. Archer looked bleak. "Jon, I don't know what to say or do." He waved at a chair and Archer sat down automatically. They had spent a day in sick bay, being prodded by Phlox, and all of them had the next two days off, courtesy of the creature. Kelly, who had been close to death, had been released too; she was doing well. She had left with Rostov. The two had drawn close.

"I know." Archer crossed his ankle over a knee and surveyed his shoe. "I didn't want you to know."

"That you've been carrying a torch for me for three years?" Tucker sat down in the only other chair in the room and leaned forward, arms on legs, tapping first one toe, then the other, nervously. "I had no idea. Anything else you want to tell me?"

"Anything else you want to know?" It was moot. They knew each other as they knew the self.

"Boys and girls?" Tucker asked ironically.

Archer sighed. "I've dated both men and women, Trip. I thought you were straight. When I found out about you and Malcolm, I felt like I'd blown the biggest opportunity of my life. I felt like I should have said something before to you. Then it was—too late. Because you love him."

Tucker nodded. "That explains the vibe when you found out about me and Malcolm."

"Yeah, it was disappointment, pure and simple." Archer jiggled his foot nervously, then grabbed the ankle, stopping himself. "When we were one voice, I understood how much you love Malcolm. You said it, but now I understand it."

Tucker nodded.

"So it's a problem now."

Tucker nodded again. "It's all mixed up," he confessed. "I know the four of you like I know myself. We're the same. We're—we're one."

Archer uncrossed his legs and rose. He kneeled in front of Tucker, who removed his elbows from his legs and sat back but made no effort to get up or push Archer away. Archer put his hands on Tucker's legs and began stroking up and down. Tucker shut his eyes. Just for a moment, there was a weird doubling: his legs could feel the pressure of Archer's hands stroking him, but Tucker's own hands, on the arms of the chair, could feel the texture of the fabric, the warmth of a body, as the hands moved over his legs. Like he was touching himself.

Tucker said quietly, opening his eyes, "Malcolm. Me. You."

"Malcolm. Me. You," Archer repeated, his hands slowing. Tucker knew what he meant. Reed, the beloved—of both of them, now. The love had made a loop. But—Reed, not part of the One, was out of this loop. Archer's eyes locked with Tucker's and he leaned forward. He paused a long moment and gazed at Tucker, face to face, yearning. Tucker could feel the longing. He felt it himself: Archer's tall, strong body; Archer's expressive face; Archer's smile. He had not considered Archer before, but since unity, he saw it: strength, intelligence, and playfulness, and underneath it, a—a sweetness.

Then the One sought to merge, lips to lips, breath to breath. To be separate was to be inutterably lonely. The odd doubling continued as their tongues tested each other, a feedback loop of sensation, and Tucker felt Archer's hand move to his neck and stroke. Sparks trailed from the touch; he could almost see them bouncing off his uniform, off the chair, little red-gold embers of unfulfilled desire. He understood Archer completely. To want, to not to be able to have, to be a patient friend only to discover that perhaps the object of desire had been accessible this whole time. He saw himself as Archer saw him: Archer liked the way he talked, liked his hair, eyes, and mouth, liked his sense of humor, and, oh yes, Archer found him sexually desirable.

Pressure increased as the kiss deepened and Archer's hand tightened on his neck. Tucker tasted the longing, the pleasure in finally having, the dream realized after waiting so long. The hand stroking his thigh brushed his cock, and he hardened suddenly in a burst of red. He opened his legs into a wide V and pulled Archer closer, arms around Archer's broad shoulders. He ground his cock against Archer's stomach; Archer was still kneeling in front of him. Archer urged him closer still, hand sliding around to Tucker's ass, insinuating his fingers between Tucker's ass and the chair, pushing against a cheek. He gasped at the pressure, his cock throbbing. Yes. He wanted. He wanted.

He was barely aware when his door made a quiet "beep beep" sound, then swooshed open.

Of course. They could feel it too, the pull. They knew Tucker's door code as well as Reed did.

Rostov and Kelly entered the room. They were holding hands, clutching hard. There was no need to speak. The One had brought the two of them together, pushed their relationship, just starting out, into overdrive. They longed for the other as Archer longed for Tucker.

Tucker stood up and helped Archer to his feet. He reached out a hand and pulled Kelly to him as Archer pulled in Rostov. He wanted to touch warm flesh, so he stroked the side of Kelly's face and her neck, and she blinked like a cat. She imitated the movement on Tucker's body. Her hand was slightly cool. Her lips parted and her eyes were shining.

"The One," she whispered. Except they all said it. "One voice."

The door hissed again, and then Zabel was there. Zabel joined Archer and Rostov, and underneath the flare of desire was Zabel's conflicting emotion: he was married and had a child. Archer soothed him with his hands while Rostov kissed him, and Zabel relaxed, gave in as their consciousness began to merge.

Tucker kissed Kelly, pulling her body in close. He liked her dark skin; it reminded him of Natalie. She was all softness and roundness. He brushed one of her nipples with a hand, and he felt it harden, although he couldn't see it through her uniform. He knew exactly what it felt like: a puckering, a stretching, a tightness as the sensitive tip swelled.

The One began to merge. Clothing was cast aside to facilitate the merging. Trip was hardly aware of his surroundings, only of touch and breath. He was aware of Jon's interest in him, of Denise's interest in Michael, escalating the desire. When he kissed Denise, it was Jon kissing him back.

He and Denise fell back, nude, on the bed as Jon and Michael and Mark twined themselves on the floor, hands grasping erect cocks, tongues licking. Denise's breasts were firm globes under his hand, the nipples hard as he stroked, then suckled. The sensation looped around, novel. So this was what it was like to be a woman. One of his hands strayed down, and they both gasped as he gently stroked inside her, then up, then down and up again. He found the hard nub of her clit and used his index finger to gently press it in slow circular motions, his tongue reiterating the movement on a nipple. He adjusted the pressure, the movement as Denise's body dictated. Mark groaned. The sensation was like nothing Trip had ever felt before: a concentration of pleasure in a tiny area, blooming downward; a hot wetness between his legs.

He felt her longing. He released her nipple and kissed her on the mouth, pressing hard. Their tongues met. He knew what she wanted; he wanted it too. Supporting himself on his arms, he slid his hard length into her.

With penetration, the world slid into focus. Trip paused, deep inside. Denise's hands played up and down his sides; her knees slid back slightly, and her hands cupped his ass. She rocked gently, and her mind, her voice, linked with him, with Michael, and thus to Mark and Jon. Underneath skimmed the simultaneous feeling of filling and being filled, of hardness and of wetness, of pushing and receiving. Underneath skimmed the web of connections, drawing them closer and closer together.

They could be one again. They would be one again. They were so close.

Trip thrust softly, then more firmly, because harder felt better. He could feel himself surrounding the hardness, squeezing it, squeezing himself. Layered over this was another sensation: Mark and Michael had taken each other in their mouths. He felt the anticipation before he felt Jon's fingers touching him. Jon's hot desire warred with Denise's arousal. The cold slickness of lubricant, the pressing down into Denise's body as Jon awkwardly pressed into his body, the cap of Jon's cock pushing; then it was inside, and with it, delirious pleasure.

And with that penetration, with that physical link, the One coalesces, newly aware of its surroundings, of the individual minds that make up the whole

Sensation links them into one being

Jon and Trip and Denise, sparks trailing where they touch, ecstasy shivering just out of reach, the desire to be deeply filled

Michael and Mark, mouths on cocks, bloodred lust, the desire for the crash of coming

And all of them almost able to reach through to the other, to literally become one being, to dissolve the envelopes of flesh and blood, almost almost almost

So close and then

Trip and Jon and Michael and Denise and Mark, all one, pushing against hardness, sliding inside softness, and gasping and crying out

Each touch multiplied by five, each thought amplified, and underneath it all, terror of loneliness

Then the pulse of unadulterated ecstasy

Then bodies shattering, breaking apart, fragmenting, but one mind

And the One cries out in release, cries out in one voice

Trip and Jon and Michael and Denise and Mark, all one

10 *** NOW


Tucker opened his eyes blearily. Archer had thrown an arm around him and was breathing through his mouth, deeply asleep. They were all on the floor, pillows and blankets pulled off Tucker's bed. Clothing was everywhere. The room smelled of sex. His back hurt from being on the hard floor too long. He heard a sound, and his head snapped around.

Reed. He had heard the warning beep of the door, announcing someone was using Reed's door code. That was what had woken him.

"Malcolm," he managed. It was hard to stay awake when the others were asleep. He felt Zabel stir, then Archer.

Reed, who had been standing by the now-closed door, watching, crossed the room. "I can't believe this," he said quietly. The lack of emotion in his voice spoke volumes. He squatted down by Tucker, clearly trying not to wake the rest of the group. "I can't believe you did this." His voice was low, intense, and bitter.

"I—I should have called you," Tucker realized.

"Wrong answer, mate. I'm not interested in a—in a six-way." An angry exhalation. "God! You had sex with three men and a woman. Does what we have together mean nothing to you?"

"It means everything," Tucker said, beginning to awaken. He could feel the individual members of the One, Archer, Rostov, Kelly, and Zabel. "You're the beloved."

"I'm what?"

"You're the beloved."

Reed's eyes shifted to the person who had just spoken: Archer. He sat down heavily, legs crossed. Instead of anger, Tucker read something else in his face: was it fear?

Archer spoke again. "Love. So beloved." His voice sounded wistful.

"If you love me so much, why did you do this?" Reed alternated looking at Tucker and Archer.

"To be one," said the One simply, a single voice.

Trip sat up and put out a hand to the beloved, who shied back. Clearly, the beloved did not understand. He pulled the beloved gently, insistently to him and kissed him, and the beloved allowed it. The One tasted the warmth of the beloved's mouth. Trip's tongue played with that of the beloved, and the One took delight in the warm familiarity. While Trip spoke to the beloved with his body, "You are the beloved," said the One in Denise's voice, and at the same time, in Michael's voice, "I love you," and simultaneously, in Jon's and Mark's voices, the fear, articulated: "Please stay. Please don't go." "Stay with me. Love me."

The beloved pulled back slightly at the voices, all speaking at once, and the spell was broken. Trip leaned back on an arm, his other hand lightly clasping one of his lover's ankles. Jon's hand was still on Trip's waist, intimate. Michael sat up and arced one leg around Jon, flung one arm over Jon's shoulder, crossing it over Jon's chest, pulling him in slightly. He looked curiously over Jon's shoulder, chin propped in the crook of Jon's neck.

"No," the beloved said. Then, more firmly, "No."

Trip brushed his hand against the beloved's dark hair and smiled at him. The invitation was unmistakable. Mark's voice sounded again, emphasizing it: "Stay with me. Love me." Trip's cock was hardening in anticipation, and Jon's hand dipped lower, circled it idly, released it. Michael moaned in response, and Denise kissed him, pushing him back against the floor.

"Trip, no." The beloved pushed Trip's hand away. "I'm going, and I'm not coming back." Trip captured his mouth again, and for a long moment, the beloved was with him, solid and real. Then the beloved pulled back and took in a shuddering breath. "Oh, god. Trip, I can't." He scrambled up awkwardly. "I have to go. Don't do this to me." He hesitated a long moment by the door, looking at his crewmates, nude, entwined on the floor of his lover's room, then let himself out.

The door closed behind him with utter finality. The One shivered, receded. Tucker shut his eyes. Something terrible had just happened. But then Archer's hand stroked up his side and he forgot about it.

The One was calling to him.

One voice, singing.

11 *** NOW


Doctor Phlox pressed the hypospray against Tucker's neck, then turned to Zabel and repeated the motion. "There," he said, "that should do it."

"How long?" Archer asked.

"You tell me."

Tucker and Archer exchanged a glance, and Tucker shrugged.

"Well, give it a minute. This is a very interesting case. The creature changed your body chemistry, activating certain neurotransmitters, the chemical composition of which I am still analyzing. I'm sure this is what allowed you to read one another's minds. You were already attuned to each other after your experience. The connection should dwindle now that I've inhibited the neurotransmitters."

"Lonely," said Kelly.

Phlox nodded. "I imagine it will seem so." He set the hypospray down on a small tray. "I'm sorry I didn't realize this would happen after the creature released you. I thought its effects were purely physical and that once the tendrils withdrew, you would return to normal. My mistake caused you all unnecessary pain. I apologize."

"How could you know?" Archer asked rhetorically, shrugging.

Rostov and Kelly joined hands. "Anything?" Rostov asked her.

Kelly shook her head. "I guess it's working." They released each other regretfully.

"Did touch help?"

"It intensified the connection," Archer said. He avoided looking at Tucker. The One had broken apart a few hours after Reed left, and Zabel, shaken, had suggested they go to Phlox. Zabel, the married man, the odd man out. It had hit him the hardest.

Fifteen minutes later, Phlox let them go. Instead of going to his quarters, Tucker parted company with Archer in the lift, then rang the chime of Reed's door. He didn't try his code. He knew it wouldn't work. There was no answer. He rang again, then checked the time. Oh. It was Monday.

Reed was in the laundry room, alone, moodily watching the clothing spin in the machine, leaning against a table, when Tucker entered. Reed nodded at him but didn't say anything.

Tucker cleared his throat. "The doctor said that we should all be back to normal in no time. He gave us some kind of shot, so we can't join any more. I think it worked."

Reed said, "Good."

"I'm so sorry, Malcolm."

"I am too."

"I was under the influence of an alien being," Tucker said. "I love you." A hesitation, then: "Please."

Reed's face was closed. "You betrayed me."

Tucker thought about that. "No, Malcolm," he said at last, "I really didn't. The five of us were one being, one creature. The sex was—the sex was just a metaphor, the human way of becoming one."

Reed shook his head. "I don't buy metaphorical sex, Trip." He leaned on the word "metaphorical," ironic. "It looked pretty physical to me." He took a deep breath. "But that's not really the issue. The issue is this: the captain loves you." Reed said it like a statement of fact.

Tucker got it now. Maybe it wasn't so much the sex as the new understanding between him and Archer. He remembered the sparks, friendship transmuted into something more; Archer's hand on his waist, the light touch staying there even when Tucker shifted his position to sit; Archer's hand on his cock while Tucker kissed Reed. "Yes. He's loved me for a while. I hadn't known before."

"And you love him."

Tucker's eyes didn't waver. "Yes, because he loves me. And he loves you. Because I do. Because of the One."

Reed barked a laugh. "So very complex, isn't it?" He pushed himself off the table as a machine beeped, then, basket against hip, briskly unloaded it. "I'm not up for a relationship, just you, me, and the captain."

Tucker knew that Reed, intensely private, had not had a real, successful relationship until now, had not opened up until Tucker came along. To finally allow the barriers to be breached, only to be hurt—this betrayal must be killing him. He understood why Reed felt betrayed. But it was far too late to take that betrayal back. It hadn't felt like betrayal at the time. It had felt like love. During the unity, Reed had never been far from his thoughts. Reed couldn't understand that. What could he say or do to make it all right with Reed? What could he do or say to make the pain go away?

"Do I get to pick? I pick you."

"No, you don't get to pick. I get to pick." Reed carried the basket over to the table and dumped it out, then began pulling out socks and tossing them into a separate pile. "Seeing, hearing the five of you—" He broke off. "It was eerie. Weird. Wrong. Frightening." He turned to face Tucker. "I was going mad with worry. I did everything in my power to free you and the captain. The creature was a threat, and now you're—you're siding with it. When I close my eyes and think of you, I see the five of you. And Captain Archer touching you like he owns you, like he had the—the right to touch you. It felt like the world ended. Something that was just between the two of us, perverted like that, parceled out amongst all of you."

"The world didn't end," said Tucker after a moment.

"No, actually, I think it did."

"So what do we do now?"

"Nothing."

"Nothing?"

Reed nodded. "We're not a couple any more. You and the captain can do what you like. It's no concern of mine."

Tucker blinked, cut. He was having trouble breathing.

Reed turned back to the pile of clothes. "Dating men is clearly not for me. Back to women, don't you agree? I wager I'll do much better." His voice was bitter.

"Whatever you want, Malcolm," Tucker whispered.

Reed whirled around, face angry, but then stopped his retort. There was a long pause. Reed's eyes were gray and bleak. "Goodbye, Commander Tucker," he said with finality.

Tucker nodded, then turned and left.

Oh god.

He was alone.

A single voice, alone.