The attack came without warning.
As had become their standard practice since acquiring the ambulance, they had stopped at midday so as to eat, practice their Suus mahna throws, and perform any necessary maintenance on the vehicle to keep it functional. According to Charles, the ambulance was a wreck and they were lucky to have made it this far without its engine ‘freezing up’ or ‘throwing a rod.’ He often went on at length about the state of the ‘tranny’ or the ‘jug,’ or how the ambulance was barely a ‘four-banger’ despite the size of the engine. Most of the time, T’Pol barely had any idea what Trip was talking about when he began trying to explain what he was doing to the ambulance and why, but she listened quietly and gradually began to comprehend his meaning when he used slang she had little to no frame of reference for. It was in those rare moments when their roles switched – he became the mentor, and she the student – that she found herself unable to entirely regret the crash that had stranded them here.
Trip had just climbed out from underneath the ambulance when the fixed wing aircraft appeared. Twisting around one of the rocky outcroppings that the road followed, the attack plane abruptly leveled off and accelerated toward the parked ambulance. The noise of its engine suddenly filled the valley around them and T’Pol reacted without hesitation. She sprang toward Charles who was just now turning toward the aircraft and slammed into him. Her unexpected tackle took him completely by surprise – the impact knocked his breath from him in an explosive gasp – and carried them both clear of the ambulance. They hit the ground hard mere seconds before the guns on the aircraft began barking. Large slugs whined through the air, ripping into the road and the truck. Dirt, metal and glass exploded into the air, showering down upon them like rain. As if to mock their inability to retaliate, the aircraft climbed higher into the sky, its wings waggling. The pilot did not even bother to turn back and see how much damage he or she had wrought with the strafing run.
Without waiting for Charles to recover, T’Pol scrambled to her feet. At a glance, she could tell that the ambulance was a loss – the engine was on fire and bullet holes riddled the front tire. She shot a quick look in the direction that the plane had come from, noting now thick plumes of smoke rising into the sky beyond the horizon. It was probable that they had been nothing more than a target of opportunity by an aircraft returning from a strike mission, a realization that made her relax slightly.
The fire was spreading from the engine compartment, however, and T’Pol knew that there was very little time left before anything within the vehicle was consumed. She sprinted toward the back of the now ruined ambulance and pulled the door open. Smoke billowed out of the enclosed truck bed, but she ignored the discomfort and climbed in. Relying on her flawless memory rather than her vision – the smoke was getting quite thick – she located the two survival bags and flung them toward the open hatch at the aft of the vehicle. She spent several more long seconds gathering what items she thought necessary and throwing them out of the ambulance before finally exiting the vehicle herself.
A soft groan caused her to glance toward Trip and her breath caught at the sight of him still flat on his back.
“Trip?” T’Pol gasped softly before springing to his side. She could not help but to touch him and relief washed through her when he opened his eyes.
“What the hell happened?” he asked as he pushed himself into an upright seated position with her help. “I feel like I got hit by a truck.”
“You did not,” T’Pol replied. Silently, she chastised herself for the momentary loss of composure. At least Charles had not noticed her slip. “I knocked you to the ground,” she added, earning herself a wry frown.
“So you’re the truck,” Charles murmured. “A little warning next time, please.” He glared at the ambulance. “Figures,” he said. “I just got the thing running.”
“We should leave as quickly as possible,” T’Pol said. She straightened, pulling him to his feet as she did. When he gave her a look, she pointed toward the distant indications of a much larger fire. Tucker sighed.
“Well,” he remarked with a hint of disgust in his voice, “so much for heading in that direction.” He pointed to her left – planetary west, according to her internal compass – and T’Pol followed the gesture with her eyes. “That way?” Trip asked, crouching alongside the pile of gear and hefting one of the rifles. T’Pol studied the landscape for a moment – it was rocky, but dotted with enough trees so as to provide some cover from aerial reconnaissance or inclement weather.
“Yes,” she said simply.
On foot, they made … adequate time. Weighed down by their packs and forced to test boots that were beginning to wear out, their progress was slowed considerably, and they barely reached the treeline before the sun vanished behind the mountains. All three moons were out and the skies were clear for a change, which made it about as bright as an ordinary Vulcan night. Trip seemed to find the slight breeze only mildly bracing, but T’Pol found herself desperately longing for the enclosed ambulance. She was unsure whether her inability to get warm was another symptom of the Pa’nar or simply a sign of her body trying to fight off illness, but whatever the reason, T’Pol hated it. Viscerally.
They had only begun to set up camp when she heard the sound of approaching creatures moving stealthily through the trees. At her rapid gestures, Trip dove for his rifle and took up a position behind an overturned tree. T’Pol put her back to one of the thicker trees and checked the load on her own weapon. Salvaged from the wrecked train – had that truly been thirty-five days ago? – it bore a startling resemblance to weapons used on Earth centuries earlier. Tucker’s familiarity with slugthrowers had proved to be quite helpful, as he already possessed basic understanding of how they were to be used.
Nearly five minutes passed before four figures emerged from the darkness. Each was dressed in thick coats, although they were too ragged to be military issue. Three of the figures raised their weapons almost immediately, leveling them in Charles’ direction.
“Stay your shots,” the lead male ordered sharply. He stepped closer, pushing back the hood on the jacket he wore to reveal the weathered face of a man nearing the twilight of his life. His eyes were still sharp, if the way he took in their appearance was any indication. At his gesture, the three men accompanying him lowered their rifles slightly, though they did not ease their grips on the longarms. “We are no enemies.”
“Nor are you friends,” T’Pol declared coolly. Her mastery of the local dialect was far from perfect, but compared to Charles, she was nearly fluent. “Who are you?” she demanded, noting out of the corner of her eye that Trip had not budged from his cover and had not lowered his own weapon. Instead, he was very specifically aiming at the leader of these men.
“Refugees like you,” the man declared before frowning in Trip’s direction. “You must be outlanders,” he decided, “because only outlanders allow their women to be so free with their tongues.”
“Better speaks than I she does,” Tucker replied haltingly.
“I can hear that,” the man said with a chuckle. “I am Dahnel Raspos,” he continued, and these are my friends.” T’Pol frowned tightly – she doubted anyone but Trip or another Vulcan would have even noticed the change of expression, so minute was it – and shot Tucker a quick glance. From her study of Ekosian culture, this man … this Dahnel had either made a serious breach of etiquette or had intentionally omitted perhaps the most important aspect of his introduction: his social standing and the city-state from whence he originated. In either case, it could only mean that he was one of the many overthrown ‘highborn’ who had, until twenty-five years ago, ruled this continent.
“We greet you, Dahnel Raspos,” T’Pol said in response, suddenly very glad that she had actually bothered to read the translated text on protocol that had been among the books taken from the mesa city. “I am T’Pol,” she continued, “and he is-”
“Trip,” Tucker interrupted before she could use his given name. She narrowed her eyes fractionally at the triumphant look he shot her, but otherwise ignored it as Raspos – that was his family name, and according to what she understood, derived from his mother’s line; it was ironic, she thought, that a culture which used a matrilineal naming system and revered females as the progenitors of the society remained so mired in male-dominated thinking – gave his men a clear hand gesture to relax.
“We came to see the source of the small fire,” he declared, gesturing in the direction she and Tucker had come from, “but I see now that it was you.”
“Our … transport was attacked by a skycraft,” T’Pol said. She nodded slightly at Trip’s sidelong look and, in response, he eased his hold on his rifle.
“Pah,” Raspos growled, spitting on the ground as he spoke. “The Alliance,” he snapped. “Their patrols attack anything west of Tulindos. You are fortunate to have escaped.” His eyes darted to the two packs stacked near Trip’s feet. “Is there anything else to salvage?”
“You may look if you wish,” T’Pol said. “It burned until sundown.” Once more, Raspos’ expression darkened and he gave two of his men a sharp head gesture that sent them back into the woods, this time angling toward the distant ambulance.
“We have a camp some distance from here,” Raspos declared. “It is not much, but we have fires and blankets for fellow refugees.” Trip tensed at the open invitation and clearly did not do as good a job as hiding this fact as he could have if their guest’s reaction was any indication. “I make this offer not out of malice,” he said, the words sounding rehearsed but sincere, “and understand if you decline. Most of the refugees we encounter do so refuse.”
“And die because of it,” the remaining Ekosi guard muttered, his voice not meant to carry. Raspos gave him a flat look. “Forgive me, Steward,” the man said, and the utterance of the title removed any doubt that T’Pol might have had about their guest’s social standing. Steward was the name of the rank afforded to only the greatest of the highborn, the equivalent of a prince or count in human terms.
“If you are concerned for your woman,” Raspos said, this time directing his comments to Trip, “you need not fear. We follow the Old Code – if you are wed-bond, then no other man may touch her or look upon her uncovered hair.” Tucker wet his lips, but did not have a chance to respond as Raspos continued. “And there are nigh twenty families in our camp now, all seeking refuge from the Tandos Alliance and their war of unification.”
“Talk we must,” Tucker replied. “She and I,” he added with a frustrated grimace. Raspos nodded and fell back several meters to converse softly with his guard. The moment they were out of hearing range, Trip stood and fast-walked to where she was crouched. “He’s got three more sharpshooters hiding in the woods,” he said softly in English.
“I know,” she said, her voice equally low. “I can hear them.” Trip blew out a defeated breath.
“Is there any way we can get out of going with them that won’t look suspicious?” he asked.
“Unlikely.” She frowned. “His name,” she began, and Tucker nodded.
“Yeah,” he interrupted, “I caught that. He’s one of the nobles, right? The guys who got overthrown a while back?”
“Highborn,” she corrected, inexplicably pleased at the revelation he had been paying attention to her discourse on the local culture. “And yes,” T’Pol added. “His companion called him Steward, which indicates very high social status.”
“So that’s what that word was,” Trip mumbled. “How do we play this?” he asked.
“As we did previously,” she decided. “We are wed-bond and foreign, which will explain our cultural ignorance,” she continued. “Remember to keep your hair covered at all times – that is an indication of marriage – and do not meet the eyes of women with uncovered hair…”
“That’s not what I’m talkin’ about,” Tucker interjected. “This could be a trap, T’Pol,” he pointed out. “These people are killing each other with wild abandon – God only knows how they’d react if they saw your ears or if you cut yourself in front of them.”
“I am well aware of the dangers, Charles.” He gave her a quick, disgruntled look at the use of his given name, but T’Pol pressed on. “As you pointed out,” she said, “we are outnumbered, so cooperation is the least dangerous option currently at our disposal.” When he frowned, she reached out and touched his hand. “If you have an alternate idea,” she murmured, “then I am quite willing to listen.”
Trip was silent for a long moment, and T’Pol snatched her hand back the moment she realized that it was trembling. There was no way he failed to notice but, to her surprise, he said nothing. Instead, he closed his eyes and drew in a steadying breath before nodding.
“All right,” he said. “We play along for now. But we bolt the second it starts to smell like a trap.” T’Pol nodded.
“Agreed,” she stated before glancing in Raspos’ direction. The man responded to the look and approached. “We will accompany you,” she said in the local dialect.
“Lead the way,” Trip added as he shouldered his backpack and tightened his grip on the rifle. He did not bother to hide his distrust of Raspos and intentionally stepped closer to T’Pol than was entirely necessary. And yet, she could not find it in herself to call him on his overprotectiveness.
It was most illogical.