Icy wind wailed through the starless night, battering the tent unrelentingly with driving rain and sleet. Little more than two long strips of cloth fastened together and secured in place by metal stakes, the crude structure was already soaked through and barely managed to keep out the freezing gusts. The two supporting poles trembled and shook under the onslaught of nature’s fury, threatening complete collapse each time a new blast of wind struck.
His eyes wide open, Trip Tucker stared at the dark canvas cloth above his head and tried to keep from coughing. He was so tired it was almost painful, but despite his best efforts, he couldn’t seem to convince his exhausted mind to turn off long enough for him to get any much needed rest. It was all T’Pol’s fault, he decided with a soft sigh.
As if sensing his frustration, the Vulcan subcommander shifted slightly in her sleep, snuggling closer to him and burying her head in the crook of his neck. Her face was mostly concealed by the prickly blanket wrapped around them, and Trip carefully drew the too thin strips of cloth up to completely cover her face in a possibly vain attempt to protect her from the freezing rain now beginning to drip from the tent’s ceiling. In a way, Tucker found himself grateful for the inclement weather as it gave him something to focus on other than the fact this was the sixth night in a row where T’Pol had ended up in his arms in a decidedly non-romantic nature.
For her, anyway.
Twelve local days had passed since their narrow escape from the mesa city – ten and a half Earth days, according to T’Pol’s calculations – and they had been on foot for the last two once the last of their fuel for the ATV had been expended. With rapidly dropping temperatures and rains that continued sporadically throughout the day, they had been forced to seek shelter earlier and get later starts than desired. Trip doubted they were more than fifty kilometers from where they’d concealed the now useless offroad vehicle, but with the Vulcan still recovering from the gunshot wound, speed had been abandoned for security.
“You need to sleep,” T’Pol abruptly declared, her words causing Trip to jerk in surprise. He froze, realizing almost at once that he had been unconsciously stroking her back with his left arm. When she didn’t chastise him for it or pull away from where she lay, he relaxed as much as he dared.
“I’m tryin’,” he retorted, the tightness in his lungs causing his voice to nearly crack. The Vulcan tilted her head back and peered up at his face, a quizzical expression on her features. It was almost a comical sight, with the ineffective blanket still shrouding all but the very top of her head, and Trip had to bite his lip from laughing at how ridiculous she looked.
“Charles,” she said with a hint of emotion in her voice, “you must rest.” The thrill that pulsed through him whenever she used his given name caused him to smile. “If I must,” T’Pol added, “I will render you unconscious.”
“Believe it or not,” Trip said with a tight smile, “I may just take you up on that.” He coughed, grimacing at how … wet it sounded. A cold was the last thing he needed right now. Feeling T’Pol’s eyes still on him, he glanced down to meet her gaze. “What?”
“You cannot sleep,” she said, “because you are distracted by something.” Trip closed his eyes quickly, suddenly once more aware of how she was almost draped over him like a second blanket to share body warmth, a necessity in these dangerously low temperatures. “I cannot help you if I do not know what concerns you,” she continued. Trip winced. For the briefest of moments – barely a heartbeat, really – he considered telling her how her wonderful curves pressed against him in all the right places was the reason he couldn’t relax. The impulse passed quickly though, especially when he imagined how she would react to the truth. It was bad enough knowing she and Archer had been – were? – involved; he certainly didn’t want to see disgust or, God forbid, pity in her eyes when she looked at him.
“Will you tell me why you keep havin’ nightmares?” he countered, looking down to meet her gaze once more. Instantly, T’Pol glanced away, but not before Trip saw a flash of green wash across her lovely features. Her lips tightened and Tucker could feel her entire body tense underneath the blanket. She gave him a couple of quick looks that would have looked furtive if they were on anyone else’s face, and he held his breath when she opened her mouth.
“This shelter is inadequate,” she said instead of answering his question. A moment later, she returned her head to his shoulder and, although she tried to hide it, Trip could feel her shivering. “Tomorrow,” she added, her voice muffled by the blanket, “we shift focus from evasion to survival.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Trip said with a smirk. He closed his eyes and tried to ignore the pleasant sensation of her warm breath upon his neck. Despite the chill in the air, he drifted toward sleep.
The whine of an approaching internal combustion engine snapped him out of a nice if admittedly confusing dream involving monkeys and pecan pie. T’Pol was already scrambling out from under the blanket, her eyes wide as she darted to their carefully stacked supplies. At her insistence, they stored their bags in the exact same spot each night when they retired so she could rely on her perfect memory instead of her almost nonexistent night vision. As he rolled to his feet, Trip could tell dawn had just broken.
“Ground vehicle?” Trip asked as he joined her. He pulled his phase pistol free from where it was secured to his survival pack and gave her a quick glance. T’Pol’s head was tilted slightly and her eyes were slightly out of focus.
“No,” she replied softly. “An aircraft of some sort.” She frowned. “There are at least two, I believe.”
“Flyin’ this early? That’s a first.” Trip watched her for a long moment, waiting for instructions. He hated how out of his depth he felt in these sorts of situations, and silently gave thanks that the subcommander was here with him instead of someone like Travis or Hoshi who would be looking to him for direction and guidance.
“They are moving in a circular pattern,” T’Pol announced a moment later, “but are definitely moving in this direction.”
“Dammit,” Trip muttered. He wet his lips and met her eyes. “We need to run, don’t we?”
“Yes,” she said as she reached into one of the duffel bags and pulled out a jacket. “I do not think we have time to repack the tent.”
Sharp gusts of icy wind met them as they emerged from the tent moments later, and Trip cursed softly at the light blanket of snow falling from the sky. It seemed like only yesterday that it was raining, and he had to wonder about the quickness with which winter had set in. Was it normal on this planet, or did they just happen to show up at exactly the wrong time? If past experience was any indication, he suspected it was the latter, no matter how far north they’d traveled in the trike before abandoning it.
As T’Pol readjusted the distribution of her pack, Tucker kicked the support poles of the small pup tent free and let the small structure collapse. If they were lucky, the tent would be covered by snow by the time any search party arrived. Frowning, he watched his Vulcan companion as she silently hefted one of the duffel bags and almost casually slung it over her good shoulder, seemingly ignoring the gear’s considerable weight. The southern gentleman in him revolted against letting her carry the lion’s share of their equipment, even as the Starfleet commander acknowledged the necessity of the act.
“Which way?” he asked as he hefted his own rucksack. T’Pol tilted her head slightly and was silent for a moment, before pointing in the direction Trip took to be northeast.
“If we move quickly,” his Vulcan companion said through tightly clenched teeth, “we should be able to reach the ridgeline before nightfall.” As she spoke, the subcommander began wrapping one of the towels from a duffel bag around her face, and in seconds, only her eyes were still showing. Trip gave her a grin and followed suit.
The distant rumble of the aerocraft continued to pursue them as they stumbled through the forest, slipping and sliding on slick rocks and small sheets of ice, somehow managing to stay ahead of the aerial search. By noon, Trip’s lungs felt like they were on fire, and with each step he took, the urge to cough grew exponentially. Driving wind and freezing rain pelted him nonstop, soaking through his clothes and leaving him more miserable than before. The makeshift niqāb he wore over his face was frozen almost solid from sleet and sweat, but Trip was too exhausted to even consider pulling it away. His shivers had worsened a kilometer or so back, and some part of his brain knew this was a bad thing, yet he simply continued to trudge on, unable to focus on anything else. A sneeze began building at the back of his throat, but seemed permanently lodged there.
They topped a small hill overlooking a well-tended farm valley, and T’Pol’s head snapped around to the left, her body tensing. The tiny part of his reflexes not totally dulled by the freezing conditions recognized that she had detected some sort of danger, and Trip tried to force himself to react accordingly. He half-turned, his hand awkwardly seeking the concealed pistol at his side, and planted his feet.
Too late, he realized he was standing on ice.
T’Pol’s startled cry followed him as his legs shot out from under him and, unbalanced by his ruck’s weight, he tumbled down the hill. He hit the ground butt first, landing on a slick patch that was as smooth as any children’s slide he’d ever seen, and his attempts to slow his sudden race down the incline only succeeded in turning his body around. Adrenaline coursed through his veins, momentarily wiping away the deadly fatigue sapping his muscles of strength, and Trip flailed his arms around in a desperate attempt to find a handhold.
A moment later, he was airborne.
He smashed through the thin layer of ice covering a large pond at the base of the hill, and the shock of the painfully cold water suddenly surrounding him caused him to reflexively gasp. Choking on the flood of water he’d accidentally inhaled, Trip kicked his legs in an attempt to resurface even as he tried free himself from the heavy ruck on his back with uncooperative fingers. With each heartbeat that passed, though, he could feel himself steadily sinking deeper and deeper. Darkness beckoned.
Hands suddenly seized his clothes and pulled him up into the light. Unable to do more than shiver uncontrollably, Trip fought to open his eyes, to look upon his savior even as his body desperately tried to shut down. There were three of them he vaguely realized, and they were chattering away in a language he didn’t comprehend. All three were bundled up against the weather, with wide-brimmed hats and thick beards that were immaculately groomed. Oh, my God, Trip’s frozen brain reflected as stared at them through frost-laden eyelashes, I’ve been saved by Amish aliens.
“Charles!” A voice drifted across the wind, familiar but unfamiliar at the same time. “Charles!” the voice repeated, this time accompanied by a slender hand that gripped his bicep with bruising force. T’Pol was suddenly there, her eyes wide with visible worry, and Trip tried to force a smile on his face.
“I’m inna bad way, ‘Pol,” he slurred through lips that barely worked a heartbeat before he gave into the urge to close his eyes.
Oblivion – blessed oblivion – swallowed him.