Despite their best efforts to be stealthy, the floorboards creaked under their weight.
Biting back a curse, Trip Tucker froze in place, his eyes wide, and he could feel T’Pol do the same behind him. Laden down with their duffel bags and rucksacks, anyone happening upon them would immediately recognize what their intentions were, especially with only two of the three planetary moons in the sky and Ekos’ sister planet yet lurking below the horizon. By Trip’s reckoning, there were still another three hours until dawn, and at least twice that before their hosts would be up and about. There was plenty of time to make a discreet escape, providing their luck held out.
Although given the experiences of the last couple of months, Trip was starting to suspect that the only luck they had was bad.
“Go,” T’Pol ordered softly. She was carrying the lion’s share of the weight and was holding onto his shoulder with her right hand so he could lead her through the darkness. Using even a candle might reveal that they were on the move, so Trip’s superior night vision would have to do.
With a nod, Tucker continued to inch down the stairs, T’Pol a bare half step behind him. He winced with each step that he took, his keyed up senses screaming that they were making too much noise no matter how quiet they might have actually been. Any second now, he expected Aron or Daveed to appear at the doors leading to their respective rooms, some sort of weapon in hand and shouting for aid. Trip’s heart pounded loudly in his ears like distant thunder, and even his breathing sounded impossibly loud.
But no one appeared.
They paused at the back door of the house, and Trip slowly opened it, grimacing at the wash of cold air that greeted him and the slight shudder he felt run through T’Pol. Newly oiled hinges barely made a sound, and they silently exited the Zeon home, shutting the door behind them just as carefully as they opened it. Snow was still on the ground outside, but gradually warming temperatures over the last week had melted much of it. The air was still crisp and sharp, though, with a biting taste that never smelled quite right to him.
Though the distance between the house and the barn couldn’t be more than four meters, it seemed to stretch on into infinity, and by the time they reached the door leading into the large structure, Trip was fighting the urge to jump at every shadow or noise that he saw or heard. Only T’Pol’s hand on his shoulder and her poised, unhurried breathing kept him from over-reacting at unexpected sounds like the distant baying of what sounded like a wolf (or rather, the Ekosi equivalent, whatever that might be), or the soft clang of metal upon metal as the wind knocked oddly-shaped horseshoes hanging from the barn’s roof together. Why do they have horseshoes, Tucker wondered abruptly, but no horses? He suspected T’Pol had already noticed the inconsistency. She seemed to see everything, no matter how minor, and he wondered if it was her super spy training or just a Vulcan thing.
Whatever it was, he was glad for it.
Relief flooded through him when the barn door opened with barely a squeak – he had spent the last two days covertly greasing its hinges in preparation for this moment, and had been desperately afraid another cold snap would freeze the cooking oil he’d used. The ATV sat exactly where they had left it earlier, in the very middle of the open barn with the protective tarp secured over it. Trip spent several long moments double-checking everything, T’Pol a silent, watchful shadow at his back, to make sure nothing had been tampered with or added, before finally grunting in satisfaction. The Vulcan offered no comment as they unsecured the tarp and quickly lashed their gear into place. Reflexively, Trip’s eyes sought out the fuel cans – the full fuel cans – and he shivered slightly.
There had been no explanation offered by the Zeon family as to where the fuel had come from – one day, the cans had been empty, and the next they weren’t – but T’Pol immediately pushed forward their time table as a result. In the last week, her level of paranoia (even if she wouldn’t admit it was paranoia) had skyrocketed, and Trip found himself almost wishing she hadn’t shared her concerns with him. The unanswered questions piling up had reached, in her opinion, critical mass. Where had the fuel come from? How did it get here without any of the family members seeming to make a trip? If the Zeons acquired it from somewhere else, did they explain why it was necessary? To who? Even if the family wasn’t working with local authorities, did she and Trip dare wait any longer to make their escape?
“I’m ready,” T’Pol murmured. She was at the aft of the trike, awaiting Trip to slide into the driver’s seat and disengage the parking brake so she could begin to push the vehicle clear of the barn. A part of Tucker – the part that labored in caveman chauvinism under the guise of being a southern gentleman – wanted to revolt against the notion of her doing the heavy lifting while he steered, but another part, the logical part that his Vulcan companion had been training him to utilize more frequently, admitted it was necessary. She was significantly stronger than he was, and he could see better in the dark so he could guide them around any obstructions until they reached a safe distance to engage the engine. Logic demanded the best people for the correct jobs, and who was he to argue with that?
“Right,” Trip replied, equally soft. “Let’s get the hell outta here.”
Snow crunched under the ATV’s wheels as T’Pol pushed it from the barn, and Trip forced himself to focus entirely on steering instead of the sound. Using the levers that reminded him so much of his great-uncle’s heavy tractor, Tucker angled them in a general southwesterly direction. Chosen mostly for its slight downward slope, this particular route also carried them closer to a major highway that would carry them to their ultimate destination, the Priipan Desert some twenty-eight hundred kilometers away. Once on that main thoroughfare, T’Pol had mapped out a meandering route intended to throw off any pursuit while keeping a maximum amount of cover from aerial observation.
They crested the slight hill, and a moment later, T’Pol slid into the passenger seat, her breath coming much faster than normal. Recognizing his cue, Trip started the engine and mashed the accelerator to the floor. Dirt and snow churned up behind them as the tires sought purchase, but the ATV sprang forward rapidly and raced down the incline. Out of the corner of his eye, Tucker saw his Vulcan companion clutch the rollbars tightly, a grimace briefly flickering across her face.
He tried not to grin.
“Should you not engage the lights?” she demanded, her eyes as wide as they could be.
“Not yet!” Trip replied quickly as he aimed the ATV toward a cluster of bushes drooping with ice. If memory served from last night’s walkabout, there was a sharp drop just beyond the shrubs, and two or three meters beyond that was the road. A heartbeat later, the vehicle went airborne, and Trip knew that he didn’t imagine the startled gasp from his left. They hit the ground seconds later, an explosion of dirty snow erupting around them, but the wheels of the trike found enough traction to keep them moving forward. A distinctive squeal sounded – rubber against icy pavement – and the ATV darted forward once more as they hit the road, fishtailing only slightly before he regained control.
They drove in relative silence for nearly half an hour, the engine growling at the speed Trip was demanding of it, and he noticed T’Pol shooting him uncomfortable looks every few minutes as he kept the headlights off. He knew she didn’t like being in the dark – though Tucker really didn’t consider this dark since there were two moons out, for Pete’s sake – but Trip wanted to cling to any advantage they might have at the moment, especially if they had any pursuers. Back when they had first crashed on this rock, the Vulcan had theorized that the natives likely had poor night vision due to the presence of three moons, not to mention the sister planet that had started appearing in the night sky three weeks earlier. So far, they hadn’t been able to determine if she had been right, but in the year plus he’d served alongside her, Trip had quickly learned that, excepting engineering-based problems, T’Pol was always right.
When he finally turned on the headlights and reduced his speed to something potentially less life-threatening – the road was still covered in snow and ice, after all – Trip could sense rather than see her relaxation. He couldn’t have explained if he tried how he knew she was no longer freaking out in her Vulcan way, but somehow, someway, he did know. Shrugging, he kept his eyes on the road. Three months alone – God, was it really that long? – with her had clearly provided some insight into her moods, and he’d long since given up trying to explain the weirdness that was his life. Just roll with it had become the mantra he clung to in order so as to stay relatively sane.
The sun slowly crept into view some hours later, brightening the sky with splashes of crimson and gold that stretched out across the blue-white ocean of air. A carpet of rough-looking clouds, fat and bloated with precipitation waiting to fall, crowded the horizon, blocking out most of the local star’s life-giving illumination. Even the brightness of the two moons, now dropping behind the mountains far to the west, had waned so they were little more than distant specks. If they had been anywhere else but here, anywhere but on a planet where a mere whisper of their true origins would lead to potential imprisonment or painful death by dissection, Trip would have said the view was breathtaking.
“I recommend we continue along this highway for another two hours,” T’Pol said, her voice muffled from the scarf she had wrapped around her face to protect it from the bracing air, “before deviating our course.” Trip nodded.
“You’re the boss,” he replied. To his surprise, she turned her attention away from the scanner in her hands and focused on him.
“Charles,” she said, and once again, the thrill of the personal address coursed through him. He doubted it would ever get old … though he did wish she would call him Trip instead. “It is not accurate to continue referring to me as your superior officer,” T’Pol continued. “You have an equal say in our course of action. We are … what is the human phrase? … in this together.”
“I know,” Trip murmured. He knew she would hear him with her keen Vulcan ears, so he didn’t bother raising his voice beyond a whisper. “Right now, though,” he admitted, “I really need you to be in charge, to tell me what to do.” There was no visible change in her appearance – the concealing scarf hid her features from view – but somehow, he knew she had raised an eyebrow. “I’m an engineer, T’Pol,” he said, “and I was trained to fix things, not spend a life on the run.” Trip risked a look in her direction. “I don’t know what to do,” he revealed.
For a long moment, T’Pol was silent. Finally, she nodded.
“Then I shall teach you,” she said calmly, “everything I know.” The Vulcan returned her attention to the scanner. “We will survive this, Charles,” she said, her voice so casually confident that Trip couldn’t help but to feel positive about their chances. “You may not know what to do now,” T’Pol continued, casting him a sidelong glance as she did, “but you will.”
“I hope you’re right,” he muttered.
“I usually am,” she retorted calmly, “when I have the appropriate data at hand.” Her eyes studied him for a long moment. “Survival in this situation requires intelligence and creativity,” she added, “two traits you have displayed in abundance while aboard Enterprise.” She glanced once at the scanner before returning her young-old gaze to his profile. “For a human, that is,” she added, her eyes were sparkling with the restrained humor he’d grown to love.
“Stop,” Trip told her wryly, smiling as he spoke. “You’ll give me a big head with all this praise.”
“We cannot have that,” the Vulcan deadpanned. Tucker laughed.
And, though he couldn’t see it because of the scarf, Trip thought she just might be smiling too.