His muscles were howling with protest, but Trip Tucker forced himself to ignore them.
For nearly four days, he had set a grueling pace, knowing that T'Pol would be able to keep up without any difficulty. They rarely spoke during the long hours of hiking and hugging the wood line, and Trip knew that the Vulcan subcommander was watching him discreetly. Part of him was glad that she cared enough to recognize that he was still struggling with guilt over the accidental death of that local, but a larger part argued that, as the first officer, it was her job to keep an eye on him. Her concern didn't really mean anything other than she was a very good officer.
Trip's mood had soured considerably in the days after their awkward conversation in that cave. It had been a surreal experience, sleeping alongside her and feeling her much higher body heat. He was no stranger to sex or women, but as the voluptuous Vulcan had shifted in her sleep and snuggled – snuggled! – closer to him, he had found his mind fixated on how she smelled, or how wonderful her curves felt pressed up against him, or what kind of sounds she made as she slept. The desire to kiss her had nearly undone him, and he was incredibly glad that she hadn't been conscious at the time; his body's reaction to the nearness of her would have been impossible to miss.
Somehow, she remained unaware of the effect that she had on him, and, for that, Trip was grateful. It was already bad enough knowing that she and Archer were together; he could only imagine just how difficult it would be to look either of them in the eye if T'Pol learned that he couldn't control certain parts of his anatomy around her. God, he groused to himself, this is worse than high school. At least then, he hadn't hated his best friend for getting the girl.
Thunder boomed out of the darkening sky, and Tucker sighed. Like clockwork, fierce rainstorms had rolled in almost the very minute that the sun sank below the horizon and forced them to seek shelter from the elements. This close to their destination, though, and with very little time remaining, they couldn't risk hiding from the storm.
"Commander." The Vulcan's unexpected voice caused him to jump slightly before glancing in her direction. She was several meters to the right, crouched behind an unusual-looking rock and looking down at something. Keeping low, he joined her and felt his breath catch at the sight before him.
A large city stretched out on the mesa below this slight drop. For a moment, Trip forgot that he wasn't on Earth as he took in the layout of the city. It reminded him of Atlanta for some reason, although it was much smaller and the Georgia city definitely wasn't constructed atop an elevated slab of land. Dozens of roads and highways spread out from the city, making it appear from this angle almost like a spiderweb.
"The roads appear to be guarded," T'Pol pointed out as she studied the city through her small binoculars. She lowered the binos, a subtle frown on her face. Though he did not know her quite as well as he would have like – not as well as Archer, he reflected sourly – Trip recognized the expression as her 'I've seen/heard/detected something that I don't understand and I don't like it.'
"What is it?" he asked, and she gave him a quick, sidelong glance.
"Have you noticed," the Vulcan subcommander asked, "that for a city this size, it is remarkably quiet?" Trip blinked in surprise, before focusing once more on the mesa-city. He hadn't noticed the silence until now, but once T'Pol pointed it out, it was nearly impossible to ignore. Movement could be seen in the streets, but an ominous silence seemed to be draped over the entire mesa. He swallowed as he tried to figure out what it could mean. Before he could comment, his communicator vibrated, and he sighed. It was that time again, and he pulled it from his trouser pocket and flipped it open.
"This is Enterprise to landing party," came Hoshi's voice. "Departure in H minus three. Emergency frequencies are being monitored." It was the same message that had been broadcast every hour on the hour for over four days. The only thing different was the declining number for the departure time. According to Trip's calculations, the countdown had begun the moment the shuttlepod crashed instead of when they lost contact with Enterprise, prompting him to suspect that Starfleet Command had put its foot down. "This message will repeat in one hour," the recording of Hoshi's voice finished. Trip looked at T'Pol.
"Three hours," he repeated grimly. She made no comment as she continued to study the city with the binoculars. "How far away is that city?" Trip asked.
"Twenty-one point two three two kilometers," the Vulcan replied after consulting the laser rangefinder integrated onto the binos. Tucker grunted as he glanced at the rapidly darkening sky. Twenty-one kilometers wouldn't normally be that hard to cover in three hours, but in the rain and in the dark? And with a night-blind Vulcan in tow? As if reading his mind, T'Pol spoke. "Commander, in the event that we become separated-"
"I'll come lookin' for you," Trip interrupted. The subcommander's lips tightened fractionally, and Tucker gave her a smirk. "Come on, T'Pol. You've known me for over a year now," he pointed out. "What are the chances that I'm gonna leave you behind?"
"I am merely attempting to maximize our chances for survival," the Vulcan retorted, a shade more forcefully than necessary, and Trip's smile grew wider. Fat raindrops began falling from the sky, and Tucker flinched at the coldness of the water when they splashed upon his skin.
"Well, I'm not leavin' you behind," Trip stated definitively. "End of discussion." Overhead, thunder boomed, as if in agreement with him, and Tucker grinned broadly. "See?" he asked. "Even God agrees." If she had been human, the expression on T'Pol's face would have been called disgruntled. She glanced away, muttering something softly in Vulcan that Trip didn't understand. He did recognize his name and the word human, which made him wonder what she had said. Instead of asking, though, he stood and began making his way toward the footpath that would lead to down to the scrub below.
Getting to the city turned out to be a nightmare. The rain pounded the ground with angry force, turning the footing treacherous, and the brightness of the lightning that cracked the sky every few seconds thoroughly ruined Trip's night vision. He didn't know how many times he fell, and the sense of urgency that he'd felt earlier slowly drained away as fatigue dulled his senses and slowed his pace.
If he had it bad, T'Pol had it ten times worse. Whenever he caught sight of her face, Trip could see that her eyes were as wide as she could make them as she struggled to see in the darkness. Rain plastered her hair to her skull, and he could see that she was shivering nonstop; too late, he remembered that she was from a desert planet and had complained – though she always insisted that it wasn't complaining – about the temperature of Enterprise being too low. After the fourth time she fell into a large puddle that Trip could easily make out, he abandoned propriety and grabbed her hand so he could lead her more easily. That she was quick to let him take the lead in such a way said volumes about her state of mind.
He lost track of how long they struggled against the inclement weather, and it became a task to simply put one foot in front of the other. According to Starfleet standards, the survival pack that he was carrying weighed 13.5 kilograms, but in the slow plod toward the city, he misplaced the decimal point and didn't think that T'Pol would let him go back to look for it. When the bluish-white beam of a spotlight washed across the ground in front of him, it took ten incredibly long seconds for his exhausted brain to identify what it was that he had just seen. T'Pol, he realized, had her head down, evidently focusing upon the ground directly in front of her and relying entirely upon his superior night vision.
For some reason, that sent a surge of pride through him.
"Spotlight," Trip whispered, and her head came up. She looked as miserable as he felt, but offered no word of complaint as she blinked rapidly and squinted. "Looks like seven ... no, eight guards to our right," he reported. "They're not payin' a lot of attention to anything but keepin' out of the rain."
"How far?" the Vulcan asked through chattering teeth.
"Twenty meters?" he guessed. "If we can keep outta sight, I think we can sneak by 'em." He was still holding her hand, Trip realized, but she hadn't said anything so he didn't let go. The spotlight beam crossed their path once again, and Tucker tugged her forward, whispering urgently, "Now!"
It was less a run than a stumbling lurch, but they were just fast enough to avoid the spotlight's next sweep. Jagged flashes of lighting forked across the sky, and thunder shook the ground, covering up the loud splashes that their feet made as they half ran, half crouched up the incline and toward the vehicles that blocked entrance into the city. His breath sounded loud in his ears, and his heart was thudding so hard that Trip expected the guards to hear it, but none of them moved from their place of relative safety from the angry storm. It was the first piece of good luck that he'd seen since they crashed on this godforsaken planet, and Tucker wanted to laugh giddily as he led T'Pol through the cordon and into the city's outskirts.
They didn't stop moving until they were long past the rudimentary barricade. Leaning up against a building, Trip gasped for breath and tried to calm his racing heart. T'Pol, he noticed with no small amount of envy, was barely breathing hard; she did begin hugging herself, though, and was very obviously freezing. Once again, her eyes were as wide as possible, and she was staring at the dark streets with a sort of wary concern on her face.
"We need to find communications equipment," she said, and Trip nodded. As he started to turn away, she surprised him by reaching for his hand. It was a logical thing to do, he mused, especially since it seemed like every light in the city was out. He had to admit, though, that he rather liked the feel of her hand in his.
Using her scanner, they weaved through several alleys and side streets, pausing only long enough to get more accurate readings. Trip wasn't entirely sure what she was focusing on, but trusted her judgment as they crept through the sleeping city. Every noise that they made seemed to be too loud, or echoed in funny ways, and it started to feel like the entire city was holding its breath. Trip tried to shake the uncomfortable feeling off, but wasn't entirely successful.
"There," T'Pol said abruptly, her voice pitched so low that he had to strain to hear it. Even then, it seemed unnecessarily loud. Following the direction she indicated, Trip could see a completely unremarkable-looking building. Unfamiliar squiggles that he took to be letters were prominently displayed, and he grinned at the oddly-shaped structures on the roof of the building. They had to be antennas.
"Jackpot," he grinned as he started forward. T'Pol pulled on his hand, though, causing him to stop and give her a surprised look.
"Commander," she said grimly, her scanner still whirring. "Four hours have elapsed since the storm began." Trip felt his stomach lurch, and fumbled for the communicator.
There was no signal.