T’Pol was beautiful when she meditated.
He knew that he shouldn’t stare, that it was both impolite and more than a little creepy, but Trip simply wasn’t able to tear his eyes away from the Vulcan woman as she sat quietly, her eyes closed and an expression of peace on her face. Light from the rising sun bathed her face like a halo, giving her an almost ethereal quality. The only downside was that damned shawl on her head, concealing her elfin ears from sight and hiding the hair that now tumbled down past her shoulders.
This was the second morning since they’d put the refugee band behind them. Although she had expressed a desperate need for mediation, T’Pol had fallen asleep shortly after their tent was set up on that first night and, if he hadn’t been so worried about her, Trip might have thought the sight of her slumping over in her seated position funny. Instead, he had urged her to stretch out, covered her with the blankets, and spent the rest of the night either watching her, watching their surroundings or thinking. After waking near dawn, she had spent all of the following day in mediation, which gave Trip plenty of time to catch a couple of naps himself as well as scout out their surroundings a little better. When the sun went down, he’d relocated their rudimentary camp to a more defensible location, one that was more easily hidden from sight as well as being on some higher elevation.
He still wasn’t sure how to entirely react to her revelation about the Pa’nar and just the thought of that slimy asshole Tolaris doing this to her made him see red. T’Pol had insisted that she was at least partially responsible – she had initially agreed to the meld, after all – but Trip knew a case of date rape when he heard it. That bastard had manipulated her and then abused her trust to get what he wanted. Even now, seventeen days after the fact, he could remember the despair and fury that had warred within his belly when T’Pol explained the specifics of her condition in a voice that cracked several times. She’d answered all of his questions honestly and forthrightly, but Tucker had seen the toll reliving the incident was taking on her and pared down his inquiries to the bare minimum.
Inhaling deeply in an attempt to calm down, Trip focused on some of the mental techniques she had taught him, all the while watching her breathe. No matter how badly he tried, though, he couldn’t quite shake the knowledge that he was probably going to outlive her now. It didn’t seem fair. T’Pol was supposed to outlive everyone Trip knew, was supposed to look back at her time working alongside the smelly, impatient humans with fond exasperation, not die because of some jackass who needed to have a less than tragic accident in an airlock. He frowned – was this why Jon had made sure he was busy when Tolaris left Enterprise? Had the captain been worried that Trip might find out the truth and take matters in his own hand? Sighing deeply, Tucker silently acknowledged that he probably would have done something stupid if he’d learned what that piece of crap had done to her. Hell, Trip knew that Malcolm would have helped if he found out and there were rumors that the Boomers airlocked rapists so Travis probably could have offered some pointers…
Stop it, he told himself. Focus on the now, on what you can do, not something that has already happened.
He had very nearly wrestled his emotions under control when a dozen cracks echoed through the forest, and Trip recognized the sound instantly as gunfire. He tore his eyes away from T’Pol and grabbed the rifle he’d been carrying since they raided the overturned train. Nothing was immediately visible – the terrain was mostly rocky hills with enough trees present to probably be classified as a forest – but he didn’t relax, not when more gunfire sounded.
“T’Pol,” he called out softly. A whisper of movement from behind him was the only indication he had that she heard him until she slid into place next to him, her own rifle in hand. The stress that had been on her face for so long was absent and she looked more like the subcommander he first met so long ago. She narrowed her eyes and tilted her head to one side.
“Multiple firearms in use,” she remarked with a tight frown. “I can also hear the sound of equines.” She met his eyes and Trip was surprised to see that she did not even bother trying to hide the emotion in her eyes.
“The refugees?” he guessed sadly.
“That is the logical deduction,” she replied. She pointed to the northeast. “That direction,” she revealed. “We should…”
“Not get involved,” Trip finished tightly. He bit back the urge to
curse. “I know.” When she placed her hand on his shoulder, he exhaled
bitterly. “You don’t need to remind me, T’Pol,” he said. “I know what
we’ve gotta do.”
“That was not what I was going to say,” the Vulcan woman interjected. Trip looked up and met her unwavering gaze. “We need to know if our position is compromised,” she pointed out. “If … Undil is behind a successful unseating of Dahnel Raspos’ leadership,” she continued with a slight frown, “it is possible that he will encourage pursuit of us.” Trip grimaced at the thought even as he admitted she was probably correct. What was it about her, he wondered, that drew psychos like Tolaris and Undil? For that matter, what did it say about him that he was just as drawn toward her?
His mood darkened even further at that thought.
The sun was high in the sky when they reached the source of the gunfire which had long since died away. From the looks of it, Raspos’ refugee caravan had been ambushed while trying to cross a fast-moving river likely swollen to twice its normal size thanks to the melting snows far to the north. Corpses were everywhere, most appearing to have been cut down by well-aimed sniper fire before they were even aware of the danger they were in. Two of the carts that Trip remembered spending hours working on were overturned, and a trio of men were slumped behind them, sightless eyes staring into the blue sky without seeing. Judging by the state of the carts, the men had used them as rudimentary protective barriers while they tried in vain to defend themselves. One of the weird-looking horses was still alive but crippled, moaning in agony.
It was a massacre.
Closing his eyes, Trip breathed through his mouth and fought to keep from vomiting at the sight. Knowing these people – the men, women and children – only made it worse. Daugrey there snorted when he laughed, and little Navalia was the cutest six year old Tucker could remember ever seeing. He bit his lip and struggled to hold it together.
At his side, T’Pol studied the charnel ground with apparent dispassion, but Trip could see that she was affected too. No matter what she felt, though, she simply pushed it down and carried on. Never in his life had he envied Vulcans as much as he did now.
“There were two groups firing upon the refugees,” she murmured, nodding in two different directions. “They did not emerge unscathed,” she added a moment later. “I can see numerous bodies.”
“Good,” Trip growled. He hoped they all had died, every last one of the bastards. “Can you tell who they are?” he asked softly. “Undil’s thugs or soldiers?”
“Both, I think,” T’Pol said.
“That sonuvabitch sold them out.” The Vulcan nodded.
“A probable scenario,” she agreed. The quick glance she gave him instantly caused the hairs on the back of his neck to stand up. Whatever she was about to say, he just knew that he wasn’t going to like it. “We must find Dahnel Raspos’ body,” T’Pol declared.
“He had in his possession a map,” she said, “and I suspect he was using it to navigate.” At Trip’s slight frown, she continued. “I recommend we begin there,” the Vulcan stated, pointing to one of the elevated ambush positions. A rocky outcrop that rose a half dozen meters into the air, it jutted over the river and overlooked the comparatively narrow ford the refugees had been using to cross. Trip frowned at the idea of T’Pol climbing it.
“You cover me,” he instructed, “and I’ll check it out.” She raised a single, elegant eyebrow at the comment and Trip intentionally looked at her hands. They weren’t shaking at the moment, but she recognized his meaning and a slight emerald flush colored her cheeks. She nodded.
“Very well.” There was no trace of embarrassment in her voice, although her expression was rueful. “I would advise you to be cautious,” she added with a tightness to her voice Trip wasn’t sure about. He gave her a bright grin before pushing away from their place of concealment.
Hugging the ground and moving carefully, Trip crept closer to the rocky outcropping, tensing at every sound he made or heard. Exactly as he feared, the stone was slick from melted snow and spray from the fast-moving river as it crashed against the rocks, and he shivered at the thought of T’Pol trying to scale this with her poorly hidden muscle spasms that came out of nowhere. He was able to find plenty of handholds in the pitted rock and began to climb, paying no attention to the thought that this was a bad idea. It wasn’t as hard as he thought, but then, he’d gotten pretty good over the last couple of months at ignoring things that he didn’t want to think about.
Unbidden, the memory of waking on a bed, naked, with an equally nude and astoundingly warm T’Pol sprawled out atop him, popped into his mind’s eye, but he pushed it down.
And ignored it.
By the time he reached the top, the muscles in his arms and back were burning, but Trip kept himself moving. He quickly pulled himself onto the top of the mini-cliff, wincing the moment he realized that there was a small footpath curling up from the other side of the outcropping which would have made the ascent a whole lot easier. Two unmoving bodies were near the far ledge, both missing significant portions of their skulls thanks to perfectly placed rifle shots very likely thanks to one of Raspos’ bodyguards. The two corpses were dressed in the military uniforms Trip now knew as belonging to the Tandos Alliance, and he slid closer to them so he could get a better look at the killing field, once again fighting against the urge to gag.
From this high – it was closer to seven meters than six, he guessed – the carnage actually seemed worse. Now, instead of seeing just a few isolated bodies, Trip had a clear view of all of them. Bile tickled the back of his throat as he scanned the ambush site for Dahnel Raspos’ body. He finally found the Ekosian man, facedown over what looked to be the corpses of two children, and Tucker closed his eyes the moment he realized that Raspos had died trying to protect his people. And to think, Trip reflected bitterly, he’d feared the man was trying to build his own fiefdom. Blinking the moisture away from his eyes, he glanced toward where T’Pol was hidden and then pointed. A moment later, the Vulcan crept out of the bushes.
Pushing himself away from the ledge, Trip gave the two dead Alliance soldiers another quick once-over. Both were wearing ammunition belts – Tucker unhooked one of them, and donned it around his own waist – and two military rucksacks were half hidden several meters farther down the outcropping, just at the lip of the footpath. Trip climbed to his feet and, keeping low so he wouldn’t silhouette himself, duck-walked to the packs. The first thing he examined was the small shovel strapped to the outside of a ruck; it was probably half the size of a normal one, but he unstrapped it anyway, suspecting it might come in handy down the road.
He’d only just begun to open the ruck when the sound of someone charging up the footpath caused him to scramble for a weapon. Pater Undil, eyes wild with fury and madness and bruises on his face, sprinted into view, a machete-like weapon held tightly in his uninjured hand. He swung the blade without warning, and Trip threw himself back in a desperate dodge, landing awkwardly atop one of the Alliance corpses. The body slid away, tumbling over the lip of the outcropping and into the river below with a loud splash.
Undil snarled something in the local dialect that Trip, in his adrenaline-laced fog, didn’t understand, and lunged forward again, the machete whistling through the air. Tucker’s hand closed around a weapon – the rifle of the corpse that had gone over the side – and he brought it up quickly to block the blade. Sparks flew as the metal blade bit into the longarm’s barrel, but Trip ignored it as he pushed back, angling the momentum of Undil’s attack toward the ground. At the same time, he kicked out, his Starfleet-issue boots slamming into the meaty portion of the Ekosian man’s thigh. Undil howled and backpedaled rapidly, which gave Trip enough time to scramble to his feet and to determine that the rifle he’d grabbed was empty.
“When I’m done with you,” Undil growled, “I’m going to find your woman.”
He attacked again without waiting for Trip respond, again bringing the machete down with all of his strength. Tucker moved at the same time, stepping forward and dropping the useless rifle as he reached for Undil’s arm. Another shift of his feet and his waist, a hard tug, and suddenly, Undil was in the air, his battle cry abruptly transitioning into a shriek of fear. The Ekosian man hit the ground hard, bounced and slid to the ledge, his fingers scrambling to find purchase on the slick rock. He hung there for a long, extended heartbeat, his terrified eyes locking with Trip’s.
And remembering Undil’s open threat against T’Pol, Trip didn’t even bother trying to help him.
With another cry, the Ekosian man lost his battle with gravity and plunged into the fast-moving river. His head popped up once, twice, three times before the current carried him out of sight and Trip slumped back, suddenly at war with himself. A better man would have felt guilt or disgust over this, but all he felt was relief.
Relief, and a sense of triumph.
Shaking his head, he straightened and glanced in the direction of Raspos’ body. T’Pol was there, lowering her rifle from the ready position, and somehow, Trip knew she had been trying to get a clear shot at Undil. One of Surak’s most important tenets was to avoid killing if at all possible, and Tucker was suddenly and absurdly glad that she had not been forced to violate that belief to save him. He raised a hand in her direction, hoping she would recognize that he was showing her that he was fine, and turned away.
Using the hidden footpath, he descended from the ledge. At the last minute, he decided to bring both rucksacks with him, and, when he joined her, T’Pol was studying a large map that looked ancient. A small leather tube – probably for Raspos’ map – was now secured to her personal pack, along with a sheathed machete seemingly identical to the one that had gone into the river with Undil. Two more blankets were strapped to the top of her ruck, along with a trio of metal canteens and a small axe. An ammo belt similar to one Trip was wearing encircled her slender waist.
Clearly, she’d been busy.
“On foot,” she said as he approached, “I estimate we should reach these lodges within a solar month.” Trip grunted as he dropped the two Alliance packs onto the ground. He gave his own ruck a glance – T’Pol had brought it along with her, and compared to her pack, it looked positively under-packed – and knelt before them. Despite his best efforts, he couldn’t quite ignore the fact that there were bodies all around them or that the body of a man whom he’d grown to like was barely a meter away. So instead, he tried to distract himself by focusing entirely on searching the packs of the two dead soldiers.
“Are you well?” T’Pol asked softly after several long moments of silence. She was studying him with that warm, worried look she sometimes donned, and Trip shrugged. When her eyebrow climbed in confusion, he frowned.
“I joined Starfleet to be an explorer,” he said through clenched teeth, “but look at me now.” He gestured toward the bodies scattered around them. “I’ve turned into a goddamned scavenger.” To his surprise, T’Pol reached out and touched his arm.
“We have all of the supplies we need,” she said. “And we do not know if these soldiers were operating alone or were part of a larger force.” Her old-young eyes drifted to Raspos’ body and Trip thought he could see sadness in them. “We should leave before we are discovered.”
“Right.” Trip straightened, reaching for his ruck. He gave the ambush site another look and promised not to forget these people. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”