The harsh light of dawn illuminated the valley below, and Trip Tucker found himself frowning in worry.
He had not been lying when he told T'Pol that it would be a difficult climb, and now, with the early morning sun beginning to creep over the horizon, he realized just how hard it would be. The rock face was almost sheer, as if a huge chunk of the cliff had been expertly sliced off by an industrial laser. It was at least a two hundred meter drop to the ground, and a fall from that height would be virtually impossible to survive. Both survival packs contained climbing gear, but the ropes they had weren't long enough to cover the entire distance; they would have to rappel part of the way, and then free-climb the remaining distance. Trip glanced once in the direction of the shuttlepod, before discarding any thoughts of returning to it. Great columns of smoke climbed into the sky, and he could only imagine how little remained of the 'pod.
To his complete lack of surprise, T'Pol had no expression on her face as she examined the cliff face. There was no indication of what she thought, no hint if she was worried or concerned about the coming descent, or even if she had noticed that the bombing had stopped over an hour ago. If anything, she looked almost bored, as if they were simply out for a walk in the park or taking in the sights at Risa.
It was amazingly encouraging, though Trip would die before admitting it.
"We should get started," she said, as she rooted through her survival pack and extracted the climbing gear. Nodding, Tucker followed suit, wishing the entire time that he was still on Enterprise. Silently, he made a vow to never again join a landing party once he got back. Surely, Jon would understand. Everyone knew how often he got injured on these damned things, and Phlox would probably be glad for the extra time off.
The climb was every bit as difficult as Trip expected, and, within the hour, his muscles were groaning with protest. As he slowly inched his way toward the ground, cautiously reaching for hand holds and toeholds, he was inexplicably reminded of an old twentieth century movie that he'd once seen about a spy who worked for an impossible mission force; the absurdity of the thought nearly caused him to laugh, and he smiled at the idea of his sunglasses exploding when they reached the bottom.
As he slowly crept down, he couldn't help but to notice how skilled the subcommander was at climbing. It shouldn't have been a surprise, especially not when he thought about what the surface of Vulcan was like, but seeing how quickly and efficiently she moved in comparison to his snail pace left him shaking his head in wonder. If he hadn't seen how utterly blind she'd been the night previous, he'd have wondered if there was anything that the Vulcans didn't do better than humans.
Trip risked a glance down, before gritting his teeth and reaching for the next toehold. Fifty meters to go. Sweat stung his eyes, but he couldn't afford to wipe his forehead clean. Liquid fire seemed to burn in his arms, legs and back, and he muttered a soft curse toward all fools who did this sort of thing for leisure. Reach, Trip, he ordered himself while trying to ignore the wind that abruptly seemed to spring out of nowhere as if Mother Nature was trying to make him fall. Just a little more...
It took nearly three hours to reach the ground. T'Pol had beaten him by almost thirty minutes, and looked only a little winded. She had removed the upper part of her uniform, though, and Trip tried not to stare at her sweat-soaked undershirt as he drained his canteen. Staring, he mused, would be improper, especially for a gentleman. He returned the now empty container to his pack, and wondered how hard it would be to find water.
"You were correct," T'Pol stated abruptly. She was using the binoculars from her pack to study their surroundings. "There is a road three point seven kilometers in that direction," she continued. "It appears to be frequently traveled."
"Great," Trip said unenthusiastically. He pulled his nonfunctional communicator free, and began studying the damage. "Think we can flag down a taxi?" he asked, prompting T'Pol to give him a quick, sidelong glance. For a second, he wondered if he'd have to explain the joke.
"Unlikely," the Vulcan responded coolly. "Can you repair the communicator?" she queried, and Trip sighed.
"I dunno," he replied. "If we were on Enterprise, then I'd say yeah." Tucker snorted. "If they hadn't blown up the damned shuttlepod, I'd say yeah. But with the tools we have here? I dunno." He offered her the communicator. "Any ideas?" T'Pol was silent as she studied the exposed circuitry of the small device.
"The transceiver appears damaged," she pointed out after a moment, and Trip nodded.
"But the UT chip and the receiver are okay," he offered, even as he reminded himself to keep his eyes on her face. Staring is bad, he reminded himself. "It's the transmitter that's screwed up." Trip said nothing else as he watched her poke at the communicator's insides; not for the first time, he reflected that she'd have made a fantastic engineer. Unlike a lot of people, she was more than willing to get her hands dirty if the situation called for it.
"Don't move!" The sudden order crackled out of the communicator in the same instant that Trip heard an unfamiliar language from behind him. He reacted without thought, pivoting in place to put his body between the source of the unexpected order and T'Pol, even as he raised his hands slightly. His eyes widened at the two figures pointing what appeared to be rifles at them. As far as he could tell, they looked exactly like humans, with no trace of the usual bumpy foreheads or unusual ears that Trip had come to expect from aliens in this quadrant.
"They must be the spies!" one of the two exclaimed, his words converted to English by the universal translator chip in the damaged communicator. At the echo of his comment, the alien frowned, even as Trip realized that it wasn't entirely accurate to think of the two as aliens. "The ones that the sky force were trying to kill last night!"
"Stand ready," T'Pol whispered before she stepped out from behind him, her own hands exposed. The two natives abruptly lost interest in Trip as a sweaty, gorgeous woman in very tight clothes suddenly appeared in their line of sight. Instinctively, Tucker's eyes darted to her ears, and he fought to keep his expression calm when he realized that they were exposed. All these two fools had to do was look up from her chest, and they'd see that she wasn't native to this planet.
And, just like that, one of them did.
The young man's eyes widened in shock, and he shouted something unintelligible. Trip's hand moved, almost of its own free will, and he drew the phase pistol from its holster in a single, smooth motion, like a gunslinger in one of those old Hollywood movies. Both of the natives recognized him as armed, and reoriented their rifles on him.
Time seemed to slow down.
Trip squeezed the trigger of the pistol, striking one of the two with the stun beam, as he dove to one side for cover. A loud crack echoed as the other native fired his rifle, and Tucker could hear the whine of a slug narrowly miss his head as it ricocheted off the rock face. Hitting the ground, Trip rolled and fired again, this time missing as he scrambled for better cover. A second bullet was fired, and the native was shouting something that Tucker didn't need the UT to translate.
And then, silence.
With a gasp, the native gave T'Pol a startled look and collapsed in a heap, victim to her nerve pinch; by her proximity to him, it looked like the native had ignored her once his partner collapsed, likely thinking that she wasn't a threat. Trip grinned, and was about to comment when the unconscious alien began twitching uncontrollably. From the horror on her face, T'Pol had clearly not expected this.
Seconds later, the young man was dead.
"What the hell happened?" Tucker asked, stunned at seeing such a violent demise. The Vulcan subcommander was kneeling next to the corpse, her scanner whirring.
"I don't know," she replied softly. Quirking an eyebrow, she looked up from her readings. "Their nervous system appears to be extremely sensitive," she stated, and Trip glanced at the man – no, the boy – he had shot. There was no sign of life, and Tucker bit back nausea. "The stun setting on our phase pistols also appear to be lethal to them," T'Pol commented, surprise obviously in her voice. "Apart from the sensitivity of their central nervous system, they are identical to humans."
"He's so young," Trip muttered as he knelt alongside his victim. The boy couldn't have been more than nineteen, and probably hadn't even started shaving yet. And now, gunned down by an alien visitor. It didn't seem fair.
"Commander?" T'Pol's hand touched his shoulder, and Tucker glanced up to meet her concerned eyes.
"I've never killed anyone before," he revealed as he looked back at the dead boy.
"It was an accident," the Vulcan stated. She did not remove her hand from his shoulder, and, for that, Trip was grateful. He needed the touch in this moment.
"He's still dead, and I still killed him," he snapped. "Look at how young he is..."
"It is only natural for a civilized person to regret taking a life," T'Pol said, and Trip looked up once again. From the tone of her voice, and the distant, haunted look in her eyes, she was speaking from experience. The moment passed, though, and she was once again all business. "These appear to be uniforms," she remarked, gesturing to the two corpses.
"They look like military," Tucker said. "He did say 'sky force.' Maybe that's like the old Air Force on Earth."
"Possibly." She was silent for a moment. "We should don their uniforms," the subcommander decided. "If we encounter additional members of their organization, they are not as likely to fire upon someone wearing their uniform."
"Right." Trip studied the young man he had killed for a heartbeat longer before reaching forward to strip the corpse of its clothes.
His hands only shook a little bit.