The crack of a gunshot woke him from a deep sleep.
Rolling to his feet, Trip instantly realized he was alone underneath the lean-to and there was no sign of T’Pol. Almost at once, panic started to set in, and he scrambled to locate his phase pistol before darting out of the crude structure and into the biting wind. His heartbeat pounded loudly in his ears as he quickly scanned the immediate surroundings, and fear turned his muscles into rubber when he could find no sign of his Vulcan companion. A second distant gunshot echoed across the valley and he sprang forward in the direction it had come from, barely noticing that he hadn’t pulled his boots on despite the snow still on the ground.
“T’Pol!” he called out desperately, jumping in surprise at her nearly immediate response.
“I am here.” T’Pol’s muffled voice drifted from his left, and Trip froze in place, his head snapping toward her. Crouched within a large copse of iced-over trees, she was studying the valley below them with the small binoculars that had been included in one of the survival packs. Very little of her skin was exposed to the cold, but there was no indication that she had been wounded.
“Are you all right?” Trip asked urgently. In response, she tilted her head to one side and gave him a slightly confused look – or at least as confused as a Vulcan could appear with a scarf wrapped around her face and leaving only her eyes visible.
“Why would I not be?” she wondered. Relief washed through Trip so intensely that his knees nearly buckled. He opened his mouth to explain, but T’Pol was already speaking. “Where are your boots, Charles?” she asked. At her words, the sensation of bare feet in frozen slush caught up with his adrenaline-fueled brain, and Trip shivered. Cursing softly, he quickly retraced his steps, grimacing at the burning cold of the snow that crunched underfoot. It didn’t seem fair, he mused darkly as he toweled his skin dry before pulling on some socks, that the feel of freezing snow was almost the same as a plasma burn. Stamping his feet to settle his boots, he paused to flip the blankets back over the single bedroll in what was probably a vain attempt to hold in any residual body heat left there.
T’Pol had not moved from where she was hidden, her attention yet on the valley below, and Trip drew abreast of her as stealthily as he could manage. More gunshots echoed through the hills, sporadic pops that were a constant reminder of the danger they were getting closer to. The sounds weren’t any closer, nor did they seem to be the noises of a pitched battle, but their very existence caused a sliver of concern to crawl up Trip’s spine. Before he could ask her to, T’Pol offered him the binoculars.
“What’s going on?” he asked as he accepted the binos.
“The aftermath of yesterday’s battle,” the Vulcan replied. She pointed, and Trip hefted the binoculars to look in that direction. Large craters littered the terrain around what looked to have once been a train, now derailed and lying on its side like a giant metal centipede. Boxcars, many of which appeared to have recently been consumed by flames, were yet smoldering. Dark plumes of smoke climbed into the sky from both the train and the impact craters that had warped the tracks. Bodies were everywhere, scattered across the battlefield like broken toys.
“I thought you said they were twenty klicks away,” Trip said.
“Twenty-five,” T’Pol corrected, “and that was in reference to the largest of the blasts we saw.”
As Trip swept the binos across the valley, movement caught his eye. Uniformed Ekosians moved through the carnage like vultures, picking through the bodies as if they were seeking wounded. A pair of the soldiers pulled a native to his feet and shoved him toward a cluster of other survivors already ringed by a squad of men carrying rifles. To Tucker’s horror, the soldiers quickly conversed before raising their weapons and firing at point-blank range. A dozen bodies hit the ground.
“They’re killin’ the prisoners!” Trip exclaimed. He gave his companion a horrified look. “We’ve gotta do something!”
“There is nothing we can do,” the Vulcan replied softly, a hint of sadness in her voice. Trip shot her an incredulous look.
“How can you say that?” he demanded. A second volley of gunfire sounded, and another group of natives fell. “We can’t just sit here and do nothin’!” He glared at her, suddenly hating her Vulcan indifference. “You said we were in this together,” he growled, “and I’ve got a say! Well I say we do something!” T’Pol was silent as she gave him a long look. Finally, she exhaled deeply in what he took to be a Vulcan sigh.
“Very well,” she said calmly, her eyes never leaving his. “Which side shall we murder?” Trip blinked.
“What?” He rocked back on his heels, unable to believe what he had just heard.
“We do not have sufficient ammunition for the small arms you acquired from the law enforcement officers for those weapons to be useful,” T’Pol said, “which means we will need to utilize our phase pistols.” She was openly studying him, her eyes unblinking and more alien than he had ever seen them. It didn’t help that her protective scarf concealed the rest of her face. “Since the stun setting appears to be lethal to the natives of this world,” she continued dispassionately, “our intervention will result in fatalities.” At his continued silence, she pressed the point home. “Of course,” she said flatly, “our use of the phase pistols might also lead to difficult questions with the group we aid, so we should be prepared to defend ourselves from them as well.”
“All right,” Trip snapped. He looked away. “You’ve made your point.”
“Have I?” To his surprise, T’Pol reached and placed her hand upon his shoulder, almost forcing him to meet her eyes once more. “I do not wish to allow such barbarity to continue either, Charles,” she said softly, “but we do not have the luxury of mistakes.” The report of another rifle shot echoed through the valley, causing Trip to wince. “At the moment,” T’Pol continued, “we do not know the circumstances leading to this conflict and acting without that knowledge is both dangerous and foolish.”
“So we do nothing,” Tucker muttered bitterly.
“What would you have us do, Charles?” the Vulcan asked. “Pick a course of action that does not involve wholesale slaughter or our deaths, and I will support it completely.” She nodded in the direction of the valley. “By acting without full understanding of the conflict,” she said, “we could inadvertently make it worse.”
“By pickin’ the wrong side?” Trip asked.
“That is one possibility,” T’Pol replied. “We do not have sufficient information to form a valid opinion in regards to these hostilities.” She removed her hand from his shoulder and returned her attention to the valley below. “It is entirely possible,” she said with distaste in her voice, “that the cultural standards of this planet are such that the actions we are witnessing are expected.”
“Doesn’t make it right,” Trip retorted.
“No,” she said, “it does not. But it may be, in their eyes, justified.”
“Nothing justifies that,” Tucker said angrily. As if to punctuate his statement, another gunshot cracked the sky. Grimacing at the sight of one more victim falling, Trip tossed the binos to her and walked away, flinching at each additional rifle report. He could feel T’Pol’s eyes on him as he climbed into the driver’s seat of the parked ATV. “There’s a quote on Earth,” Trip said, knowing she would be able to hear him despite the distance between them. “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
“A noble sentiment,” the Vulcan remarked as she drew closer to where he sat, “but one that could easily be used to justify action where none is warranted.” She shivered slightly as the wind picked up, and Trip slid into the passenger’s seat so she could take his spot behind the steering columns. It wouldn’t be much – the ATV wasn’t sealed very well – but at least it would give her some protection from the cold breezes. “What you or I define as evil may not be construed as such by others in the galaxy,” she added as she accepted the offer and climbed into the vehicle.
“I’m not gonna abandon my morals, T’Pol,” he said tightly.
“Nor would I ask you to,” she replied calmly. “Your moral code is part of what makes you who you are, Charles, and it would be a great tragedy if you lost that part of yourself.” She pinned him with a look. “But not every species we encounter will necessarily share your morals or mine.” He frowned, suddenly reminded of their very first landing party together and the assumptions he had made in regards to a pair of Lorillians. When the hell are you gonna learn, Tucker?
“I’m doing it again,” he muttered darkly. T’Pol watched him without comment, and he continued. “Drawin’ conclusions based on how I was raised,” he said with a heavy sigh. “You warned me about it on Rigel, and I still haven’t learned.”
“You are learning now,” T’Pol pointed out, “but, in this case, I fully share your desire to act.” Her eyes narrowed, and she glanced once more in the direction of the. “Civilized cultures do not act in the manner that these Ekosians are.”
“Humans did,” Trip murmured sadly.
“As did Vulcans,” his companion said, “but both species eventually evolved beyond such madness.” Tucker grunted.
“So I guess there’s still hope for these people,” he said.
“If I have learned one thing from working alongside humans,” T’Pol replied, “it is that there is always hope.”
“That’s a really … emotional sentiment, T’Pol,” Trip said slowly. The urge to smile despite the grim circumstances was powerful. Her response was instantaneous and thick with frosty annoyance.
“There is no reason to be insulting, Charles.” Before he could apologize, she was continuing. “I suspect the Ekosians not in uniform are some form of insurgency,” she said. “It is logical to assume that there are more such guerilla units between us and our destination.”
“It can’t ever be easy, can it?” Trip asked before sighing. “So do we stick to the plan? Head for the desert?”
“I do not know,” T’Pol replied. “We need additional intelligence regarding these hostilities before we act. It might be localized to only this continent-”
“Which would track with our crappy luck so far,” Trip interjected. T’Pol continued as if he had not spoken at all.
“-but it is entirely possible this is a global conflict, in which case locating a place of relative safety could be difficult.”
“How do we find out?” Trip asked.
“If this were a more advanced culture,” T’Pol said wryly, “I would suggest locating a computer with the appropriate information.” Tucker shook his head.
“I’m not sure if these people even have television yet,” he remarked.
“Exactly. Which means we must consider alternate methods of gathering intelligence.” T’Pol was silent for a moment before turning her full attention to him. “I owe you an apology, Charles,” she said. Trip blinked in surprise at the non sequitur, but his companion continued before he could respond. “I should have begun teaching you mental techniques when we were first stranded,” she continued.
“It’s okay,” Trip said hesitantly.
“No,” she replied instantly, “it is not. To maximize our chances of survival, we must both be as skilled as possible. Delaying the beginning of your training was illogical and an error in judgment on my part.” She drew in a deep breath. “Therefore,” she said a moment later, “we shall begin at once. Are you ready?”
“For what exactly?” Trip wondered. He didn’t bother trying to hide his discomfort.
“The techniques I will teach you are intended to augment your own natural talents,” T’Pol said. “Acute observation, the ability to read low-level, passive body language. The ability to notice and compare. To analyze.” She spoke as if reciting from memory. “By necessity,” she added, “I will also need to teach you Vulcan since many of the concepts do not translate well to English.”
“Okay.” Tucker swallowed, hoping she wouldn’t realize how intimidated he was at the notion of her training him. From what he had seen of how she ran her department on Enterprise, he knew she would be a harsh taskmaster.
“Tomorrow,” T’Pol continued, “I also want to begin instructing you in Suus mahna.” Trip frowned at the unfamiliar terms. “It is an ancient Vulcan martial arts fighting style similar to judo,” T’Pol explained, “and your hand to hand skills are … deficient.”
“Hey! I can take care of myself!” Trip retorted instantly.
“Like you did on Risa?” T’Pol asked, and Tucker flushed.
“That was Malcolm’s fault,” he muttered.
“Of course it was,” T’Pol said, dry amusement in her voice. “We will begin with simple observation. Three meters directly behind you is a tree that you passed several minutes ago. Do not look at it!” Her sharp words arrested his half turn and forced his eyes back to hers. “From memory,” she ordered, “describe the shape, the size and the number of its existing leaves.”
“Are you serious?” Trip asked. “I don’t even remember looking at it!”
“You did,” she replied. “Three times, in fact.” She tilted her head to one side. “You stared at it for six full seconds the second time you looked in that direction.” When he still hesitated, T’Pol reached forward and placed a gloved hand on his shoulder. “The mind – human or Vulcan – is capable of far more than you believe, Charles. I am confident you can master this.” He nodded hesitantly; if T’Pol said he could do something, he knew she wasn’t just blowing smoke. “Now close your eyes and concentrate on the leaves of the tree,” she instructed. “Shape, size and number.”
It was going to be a long day.