This no longer seemed like a particularly good idea.
Artillery fire boomed all around him, kicking up great gouts of stone debris as the incoming shells detonated with fierce explosions. The chatter of machine guns seemed nonstop and from so many different directions, it was impossible to tell where the nearest weapon emplacement was located. Propeller-driven aircraft roared through the sky overhead, some friendly and dedicated to defending the city while others seemed intent on destroying it with guns and bombs.
It was utter chaos.
Crouching behind a large slab of fallen wall, Trip Tucker looked around desperately for a safer spot to hide in or behind or under. No stranger to firefights since shipping out on Enterprise, he had never before realized the sheer insanity of a pitched battle. The screams of dying or badly wounded men and women could only be ignored when another explosion shook the ground or toppled another building. But then, of course, even more wails would join the terrible cacophony.
Another artillery shell detonation rattled the ground, and Trip grimaced at how close it seemed to his current position. Nothing had gone right from the moment he had left the garage nearly two hours earlier. The building that he had thought was a store turned out to be some sort of office, which in turn forced him to venture farther from where T’Pol was in order to find the supplies they needed. By his reckoning, he was nearly a kilometer away from her, and it almost seemed as if the universe was trying to do him in. Each time he tried to retrace his steps, artillery would begin falling upon the path he needed to take, forcing him to retreat deeper into the heart of the already shattered city.
Without warning, two military groundcars – ATVs like the one he and T’Pol had used days earlier – slid around the wet streets, engines whining with stress. The passengers of each vehicle were standing upright in their positions, manning what looked to be machine guns. With a guttural roar, one of the swept-wing aircraft raced overhead, its own weapons barking angrily. The lead groundcar shuddered as bullets punched into it and sent it tumbling through the air to explode against a building already on fire. The other ATV returned fire, its much smaller gun sending a spray of hot lead into the aircraft’s superstructure. Tires screeching, the surviving groundcar took another hard turn, disappearing from sight even as the aircraft vanished behind the looming wreckage of a multiple-story building.
Trip let out a tense breath and looked once more for better cover. A man could get himself killed out here.
Keeping low, Tucker half-ran, half-crouched toward a three-story building that still seemed mostly intact. In his right hand he held one of the slugthrowers he’d taken from the two cops days earlier; his phase pistol was still securely holstered and within easy access, but he didn’t want to use it unless he had no other choice, especially since the energy beam would be so foreign to the locals. If T’Pol was right – and she usually was – the two of them might be on this backwater rock for a long time and he had no plans to be dissected by some trigger-happy native wearing a uniform.
The door to the three-story building had been blown off its hinges sometime back, and Trip darted toward the open doorway with the pistol at the ready. Adrenaline was coursing through his body and his breath sounded ragged, even to his own ears. Fear was making him jumpy, a part of him coolly accessed, and he tried to calm himself down. The boom of another exploding shell close by ended that attempt rather quickly.
Inside the building were dozens and dozens of cots, upon each of which was a wounded man or woman wailing for aid. Trip’s stomach tightened at the overpowering stench of blood, and he backed away quickly, lowering the sidearm as he did. Though he’d never seen one in person, he knew enough about wars to recognize a casualty collection point. Hoping that he hadn’t been noticed, he sprinted toward another alleyway.
This is insane, Tucker thought as he ducked around another corner. I’m gonna get killed! As if in agreement, one of the military ATVs that seemed so common raced down the connecting street, narrowly missing Trip’s arm with its protruding mirror. Belatedly, Tucker jumped backwards before glowering darkly at the fast-moving vehicle.
The driver never looked back.
A second close call with one of the military groundcars sent Trip scrambling into a derelict building that was missing most of its roof and two of its outer walls. To his relief, it had once been a private home and still had local clothes in a mostly intact dresser. In a partially demolished armoire, he found a framed backpack that reminded him of his grandad’s old Army rucksack. A few more minutes rooting through the debris netted him a pair of black long-coats that reminded him of dusters; he pulled one of them on – it was a little too small, but still covered up his tan-colored uniform nicely – and stuffed the other into the pack for T’Pol. A pair of maroon-colored pants that he thought she could wear joined the coat, and Tucker spent several more minutes sifting through the remaining clothes but ultimately leaving them behind.
The loud rumble of a tracked vehicle echoed through the house, and Trip watched the self-propelled artillery piece through a shattered window with an engineer’s fascination but a guerilla’s caution. Smoke was trailing off of it as it lumbered slowly down the street, and small impact craters pockmarked its outer armor, clear indication of hard use. Twice, the engine on the vehicle nearly gave out, but each time, the driver coaxed a little more out of it.
Once the artillery piece was gone, Tucker hefted the rucksack and crept from the house. He glanced up into the sky and was momentarily distracted by the aerial acrobatics being conducted by the dogfighting planes that flew overhead; the moment passed quickly, though, and he sprinted toward some cover about five meters away. Another doorway beckoned, this time a plain-looking and mostly intact four-story building that had a parked ATV in front of it, and he considered it for a long moment. In the end, he decided against entering it.
Another hour passed as Trip dodged large pockets of fighting and artillery barrages. Once, he nearly stumbled into a squad of seven locals, all armed with rifles and other military gear, but none of them seemed to notice him as they jogged toward their destination. It took nearly another twenty minutes for his heart rate to slow to normal after that close call.
Fifteen minutes later, he discovered a crashed supply truck that had everything he needed. The driver – a young woman, Trip realized – had evidently lost control of the vehicle when one of the rear tires was hit by shrapnel. Military bags were strewn all across the street, their contents spilling free. Some of them had sealed packages that his scanner identified as rations of some sort; others had camping gear. Still others had clothes he recognized as the local military uniform. For a long moment, he didn’t know how he would be able to carry everything they needed, but memory of the parked ATV in front of the four-story building caused him to grin. Moving quickly, he dragged several of the bags away from the smoking truck and concealed them under large slabs of rock. Satisfied, he began retracing his steps, consulting his small scanner as necessary.
To Trip’s delight, the vehicle was entirely functional, and the engine caught on the first attempt. He nearly went airborne several times in his urgency to get back to the crashed truck, and what had taken over an hour on foot took only five or ten minutes in the groundcar. His heart was racing as he loaded the gear onto the ATV, and he fought to keep himself from grinning too broadly. This was going to work.
A soft groan sent a stab of panic through him and Tucker spun to face the source of the sound, the slugthrower already in hand. It was the driver, he realized with some shock. She was still alive. Against his better judgment, he approached her and ran the scanner over her body. What he saw wasn’t very encouraging; without treatment, she would be dead in a matter of hours. Trip hesitated as he debated his next course of action. In the end, there really wasn’t any option.
“You’re gonna be okay,” he told her, even though he knew she couldn’t hear him. Even if she could, it wasn’t like she could understand him anyway.
No one challenged him as he parked the ATV outside the casualty collection center, but one of the locals inside approached the moment Trip stepped through the doorway with the unconscious girl in his arms. The man directed them to an empty cot, asking questions in a language that Tucker couldn’t understand. When Trip simply looked at him with a blank expression, the man offered an encouraging but oddly condescending smile, before gently pushing Tucker away from the cot. At the man’s gesture, several other locals descended upon the injured girl with the practiced motions of medical professionals.
The abject stupidity of what he had just done suddenly sent a shiver up Trip’s spine and he backed away as quickly as he could manage without drawing more attention to himself. Relief washed through him when he saw that his ATV was still where he left it; more importantly, though, none of the gear strapped to its “roof” had been touched. He climbed onto it and started the engine once more.
This is too easy, he mused as he directed the groundcar down the side streets. Something just had to go wrong in the next couple of minutes.
To his surprise, though, nothing did go wrong and thirty minutes later, he braked in front of their garage hideout. For the first time since they’d crashed on this damned rock, Trip felt optimism returning. Nothing had gone wrong. He hadn’t been shot or stabbed or punched or captured. Not to mention, he’d probably saved that girl’s life. Wait until T’Pol hears about that, he grinned, suspecting she’d chew him out for acting illogically and emotionally.
But T’Pol wasn’t there.