By the end of the second day, they were already nearing the end of their fuel.
It didn’t surprise T’Pol – the ATV only had a twenty-eight liter tank, and the two fuel cans they possessed held only nineteen liters apiece – but it was nonetheless discouraging that they had barely covered five hundred kilometers thanks to the treacherous road conditions. According to her companion, they were fortunate to get as far as they had: the primitive fuel delivery system of the ATV was wildly inefficient, and even his repairs left much to be desired.
For the first time all day, Charles was silent. He had been talking since almost the moment T’Pol took over the driving early in the morning, reminiscing about his past and telling her colorful anecdotes about growing up a Tucker. At first, T’Pol had simply let him talk because she hoped it might help him get over the depression that had consumed him for weeks, but by noon, she was fascinated by what he referred to as the adventures of his misspent youth. Tales of his youth quickly segued into discussions about his career with Starfleet, and before she knew it, T’Pol found herself reciprocating. To her surprise, she found herself telling him about her father, her difficult relationship with her mother, and even about several of her missions for the Ministry of Intelligence. Charles was a rapt listener, interjecting only occasionally to seek clarification about Vulcan terms or traditions he did not understand. His expression was incredulous when she described the exact nature of her covert training, and it was those descriptions that resulted in him now looking away and staring at the passing landscape.
“Charles?” T’Pol said when his silence stretched out for too long. It should have concerned her that she had revealed such intimate details about her life, but for reasons she didn’t want to focus on at the moment, it didn’t. “You are very quiet,” she said when Tucker grunted.
“Just thinkin’,” he replied before sighing heavily. “Just thinkin’ about how unprepared I am for this,” Charles expounded a moment later, “and how much I must be slowin’ you down.”
“Stop,” she ordered sharply. He almost jumped at the terseness of her words, and shot her a surprised look, but T’Pol continued. “Do not continue along that line of thought, Charles,” she told him.
“I can’t help it,” Tucker muttered. He gave her a frown. “I mean, I’m just a glorified mechanic, and you’re Jane Bond.” Her confusion must have shown on his face, because he blew out a breath and explained. “A super spy,” he said.
“I was not a spy,” T’Pol retorted, hyper-annunciating the word as she spoke. “You have no reason to feel inadequate, Charles,” she added. “If not for your skills and talents, it is highly probable I would have been killed months ago, perhaps even with the crash.”
“Can’t you call me Trip?” he asked softly, discomfort warring with pleasure on his face at her open compliment. His rapid change of subject did not fool her, and she marveled at his upbringing, that a human so wonderfully talented would think so little of himself.
“Why not?” T’Pol gave him a quick look before returning her eyes to the icy road before them. “Bet you called the cap’n Jon,” he grumbled.
“Only once,” she replied calmly, thinking instantly of the Akaali mission. Charles’ eyes widened slightly, and he was silent for several long moments. From the way he kept shooting her furtive, almost hesitant looks, T’Pol suspected that he wanted to ask her something, but did not know how to phrase it. He opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again, and then tensed abruptly, narrowing his eyes and cocking his head as if he were listening for something. Charles frowned.
“Pull over,” he said. “There’s something wrong with the engine.” T’Pol quirked an eyebrow, but did not argue his assertion. Instead, she angled the three-wheeled vehicle toward a concealed embankment along the side of the road. The front wheels of the ATV sent a geyser of dirty snow and ice into the air, and T’Pol winced at the momentary loss of control. A second later, she found a relatively flat piece of land to park on – there would be sufficient room for Charles to conduct any repairs, as well as adequate space for them to erect a lean-to from the protective tarp should they need to stay overnight. The moment T’Pol slowed the vehicle to a stop, Charles made a beeline for its engine housing.
“Can I borrow your scanner?” he asked after several long seconds of examination that looked to be little more than pushing and pulling hoses seemingly at random. T’Pol passed the device over and watched in silent interest. “Fuel’s contaminated,” Charles identified a moment later. “Must have gotten some dirt into it, and that’s messin’ up the whole system.”
“Can you fix it?”
“Not with what we’ve got on hand.” Charles leaned back and glowered at the ATV. “For now,” he said, “I think it’ll keep runnin’. For a while, anyway.” He shrugged. “But then, we’re not gonna get very far tomorrow before we run outta gas anyway,” he added.
“Then we shall proceed on foot,” T’Pol said. Charles snorted.
“That’s what?” he asked. “Over two thousand kilometers? Through the ice, snow, and whatever other surprises this planet throws at us?” He shook his head, and T’Pol gave him a sidelong look.
“I did not say it would be easy,” she deadpanned. To her secret delight, he grinned broadly – a real smile, not the pale imitation he’d be flashing for months.
“You’re the master of understatement, T’Pol,” Charles said with a soft laugh. He crouched over the engine once more, absently offering her the scanner as he did. In the far distance – to the south, T’Pol believed – a steady, rhythmic thumping drew her attention away from him and she spent several long heartbeats studying the skyline for indications of danger. At first, Charles didn’t seem to notice, so intent was he on the engine, but when she failed to take the scanner from him, he looked up.
“Something wrong?” he asked. Charles glanced in the direction she was facing, a frown starting to appear on his face. A moment later, he grimaced. “Please tell me that’s thunder,” he muttered.
“Unlikely,” T’Pol replied. “It is too repetitive to be natural.” She closed her eyes, pushed away every distraction, and listened. “Artillery,” she theorized.
“How far away?” Charles asked.
With a hollow boom that rattled the ground, an immense fireball suddenly climbed into the sky before she could respond, forming almost instantly in a distinctive mushroom shape as condensed debris and water vapor exploded outward. From where he stood alongside the ATV, Charles gasped. Horror and fear flashed across his face as he shot T’Pol a startled look, but she ignored it as she took her scanner from him and activated it. There was no reason to hurry, she told herself as she suppressed her own flash of panic. If the detonation had been atomic in nature, they were already too close to the blast radius to avoid lethal doses of ionizing radiation.
“It appears to have been created using conventional explosives,” T’Pol announced a single, agonizing minute later. “I am detecting no indications that a fission or fusion weapon has been used.” Charles sagged backwards, suddenly limp with relief, but seemed unable to tear his eyes from the expanding cloud.
“I thought mushroom clouds only came from nuclear weapons,” he whispered in disgusted awe. A second and third explosion joined the first, though they were much smaller in size, and he flinched with each one. T’Pol shook her head as she studied her readings.
“Any sufficiently large blast will create one inside an atmosphere,” she explained. “I estimate that they are over twenty-five kilometers away.” More booms echoed across the distance.
“Do we run?”
“Not at the moment,” T’Pol decided. “Tomorrow, we will remain here and observe,” she said. “It is far easier to detect a moving target than a concealed, stationary one, so we should be able to determine if the conflict is moving in our direction.”
“And afterwards?” Charles wondered, wincing with every additional explosion.
“We investigate.” At his startled look, she continued. “You were correct when you pointed out that we will not get very far without fuel.”
“And you think we might find some down there,” he finished.
“Among other supplies,” T’Pol replied. She didn’t bother mentioning the possibility of survivors since she didn’t know what they would do if they found any.
Using the tarp, they erected the lean-to by securing it to the ATV and tying it to the unimpressive-looking trees they had parked next to. A second, much smaller tarp was placed on the frozen ground, and atop it went their respective bedrolls. They had replaced the thin, military-issued blankets obtained from the mesa city with much thicker and warmer ones stolen from the Zeon family, but even with them, T’Pol suspected she would shiver most of the night. Charles was asleep within seconds – the stress of their escape the previous night had clearly drained him, but the noises and general discomfort of the ATV seats made sleep impossible for him while she drove.
Nearly an hour passed before T’Pol opened her eyes, unsure exactly why she wasn’t able to get to sleep. She carefully sat up, moving as quietly as possible to avoid waking her companion, and gave the scanner a quick glance, satisfying herself that no other life forms were within seventy-five meters. The booms of artillery and explosions had long since faded away, leaving only a deathly silence that was mildly disconcerting, even to her. A long moment passed before T’Pol realized she was watching Charles sleep, his features illuminated by the light of three moons now bathing the entire snow-covered valley with soft light.
Frustrated at her inability to rest, T’Pol decided that meditation might be in order. She closed her eyes, adjusted her posture slightly, and pushed all other distractions from her mind. With calm breaths, she inhaled control and exhaled chaos. Here, in this place, there were no sounds, no images, no smells. Only peace.
And Charles’ snoring.
To her surprise, she realized that she had incorporated the soft, raspy sound into her meditation, and was using it as a focus. The instant her mind processed this new bit of information, T’Pol’s eyes snapped open. Comprehension dawned, and she stared at his sleeping form. You are a fool, she told herself. You should have expected this.
At some point, her subconscious had apparently linked Charles’ presence with rest and sleep, and the extent to which Vulcans were controlled by their instincts was a closely guarded secret among her people. One hundred and two Ekosi days – eighty-nine point two-five Earth standard, the analytical portion of her brain whispered – with only Tucker as a companion, and at least three-quarters of that time sharing blankets with him had clearly played havoc with her normal sense of privacy. The neuropressure certainly had not helped in that regard, she reflected wryly, no matter how necessary it had been, and T’Pol wondered how she should proceed. To continue along this path, to allow herself to become emotionally invested in Charles, could only lead to pain, especially if the ancient stories about psychic bonds were true.
You are already emotionally invested in him, her conscience pointed out flatly. He was her only companion, her only friend on this world, and T’Pol instinctively knew that he would give his life to protect hers. A primal part of her shivered at the thought, but she pushed the emotion out of her mind to focus on her next course of action. Trust had been earned between them, but it was still fragile, and if she made a misstep, all of their efforts to this point could be for naught. She frowned, considered, reflected.
Without giving herself time to second-guess her decision, T’Pol quickly gathered her blankets and crossed the short distance to where Charles slept. He stirred almost instantly as she draped the second layer over him and woke the moment she slid underneath the covers beside him. Blinking rapidly, he gave her a questioning look through bleary eyes.
“T’Pol?” he slurred.
“I am cold,” she answered, suddenly embarrassed by her weakness. How could she explain to him what she did not entirely understand herself? To her relief, he accepted the answer as the truth and shifted closer to her. T’Pol instinctively relaxed against him, her head dropping onto his chest where she could hear the steady and reassuring beat of his heart. His arm came up around her, pulling the blankets closer, and she could sense him beginning to drift back into unconsciousness. “Go to sleep, Charles,” she whispered as her own eyes slowly closed.
“’s Trip,” he mumbled. “Name’s Trip.” A moment later, he was asleep, and T’Pol realized she was smiling.
“Go to sleep, Trip,” she whispered.
But only the wind heard her words.