She fled before Trip could see her lose control.
It was cowardly of her to run from the truth waiting for her in the lodge, but T’Pol honestly had no idea how to even begin the conversation that would irrevocably change the relationship between them. If he had been Vulcan, she might have something resembling a starting point since they would share a similar heritage and he would be able to understand the reasoning behind some of her theories. Instead, he was an emotional human male with an overdeveloped desire to protect her and keep her safe that was frustrating … and so appealing it made her heart race. How could she explain something she barely understood herself? That she had grown up believing to be nothing more than a myth or legend? They needed each other and if the past was any indication, her attempts to clarify would unintentionally insult him or she would say something that offended his values, and he would leave, perhaps for good this time, no matter the frighteningly powerful regard for her that T’Pol now knew he harbored toward her. Would his … attraction survive once she told him what she now suspected?
Stop, she ordered herself sharply. Dwelling on what had not happened was both counterproductive and patently illogical. Until Trip had all of the facts, automatically fearing the worse from him was foolish, especially since he had consistently shown himself to be a better man than High Command believed. From day one, he had challenged her preconceptions about what a human was truly capable. Yes, there were instances where he allowed his emotions to dictate his decisions which led to imprudent actions, but since crashing on Ekos, he had surprised her time after time with both his capabilities and his aptitude for new talents. Would any Vulcan truly believe that a human was capable of mastering third-tier mental techniques in such a short period? If the diplomatic briefing she had received upon being assigned to Earth were any indication, the High Command seemed to doubt that humanity was truly any more advanced than an especially intelligent sehlat.
And, to her continuing remorse, she had once shared that opinion. Before Enterprise. Before Trip.
T’Pol shook her head slightly at the thought and tried to focus on the rocky trail in front of her. Winding around a fairly substantially-sized hill, it was wider than the footpath connecting their lodge to the lake and bore divots she took to be tracks from the sort of two-wheeled carts that had been so prevalent in Dahnel Raspos’ refugee band. They were very old, which T’Pol took to mean that this trail had once been much used, though the roots and tiny plants pushing up through the gravel certainly indicated that no one had passed this way for a very long time. With the sun high overhead and a warm breeze weaving through the trees, the walk was quite pleasant, and T’Pol pushed the cloth covering her head back so it was more of a neck scarf.
She had covered a fair distance – over a kilometer and a half – when she became conscious once more of the curious link connecting her and Trip. He was meditating, she realized, and T’Pol frowned at the distinct feel of his confusion and worry. More than anything else, she wanted to ease those fears … but at the same time, she had to acknowledge that she was quite possibly the last person in the quadrant who should even make the attempt to improve Trip’s mood, a thought that once more made her despair at explaining this curious … bond.
The crack of branches breaking snapped her out of her momentary distraction, and T’Pol froze in place, her hand instinctively darting toward the holstered phase pistol at her side. A trio of armed men stepped into view, their rifles aimed at her. All three were wearing unique-looking clothes, with tatters of cloth and leaves hanging free so they blended into their surroundings with astounding ease. Even their scents were muted, although now that she was aware of their presence, T’Pol could detect a faint odor that she suspected intentionally masked their smell from local wildlife.
“Move and we shoot,” one of the men declared. At the words, T’Pol could hear additional movement to her side and another pair of identically-garbed figures stood up from concealment. All were three meters or more distant from her, with the two to her left almost a meter higher as they crouched just below a hilltop. “Contact headquarters,” the speaker continued, his words obviously meant for one of the two standing with him upon the gravel trail, “and let them know that lodge sixteen is the target.”
T’Pol’s breath caught. Trip was in danger. She narrowed her eyes and focused on the men around her.
Compared to Trip or even Captain Archer, they were all rather short, barely taller than T’Pol herself. The sheer amount of equipment they were carrying would slow them down, she decided, and make it difficult to maneuver through the wooded environment. Their rifles were the only true advantages they had – a single, well-placed round could easily kill.
The crunch of vegetation being crushed underfoot warned her that the two hilltop snipers were approaching from behind her, and T’Pol slowly tensed her muscles in preparation. She kept her eyes locked on the leader and his two subordinates – one had lowered his weapon and was speaking softly into what looked to be a bulky backpack radio. They were watching her, but with the casual expectation of men long accustomed to subservient females.
Thus, when T’Pol moved, none of them were expecting it.
As soon as the two hilltop snipers were within reach, she struck, pivoting on one foot as she slammed both of her palms into the chest of the nearest of the pair with every gram of her strength. He flew back a full meter and a half, smashing into a tree with a bone-jarring thud before falling face forward onto the dirt. T’Pol continued her half-spin, well aware that the other four soldiers were beginning to react, and sprang toward the remaining hilltop sniper. She caught the barrel of his rifle as he tried to orient it on her, and pulled hard, easily ripping it from his grip. Without pausing to aim, she slung the rifle in the direction of the leader and his two subordinates while grabbing the arm of the man in front of her with her free hand. Twisting his captured limb sharply, she pulled her prisoner toward her as she spun them both around so he was now shielding her from weapons-fire.
The three men were staring at her with wide eyes and readied rifles, and T’Pol fought the urge to smile as she backed toward the first man’s dropped rifle. Her prisoner struggled briefly, but she simply tightened her grip and pushed his arm even higher into his back. If the man’s yelp was any indication, she was apparently applying the proper amount of pressure.
“Serjeant!” the lead man bellowed sharply. His eyes darted briefly to the still form of the first man who T’Pol could tell was thoroughly unconscious, and then back to her.
“Sir!” T’Pol’s prisoner moaned. “She’s really-”
“Silence!” T’Pol hissed. Her foot connected with the butt of the fallen rifle and she stopped, once more eyeing the three men in front of her. They were beginning to spread out in an attempt to get a better field of fire, with the lead man – he was wearing the rank of a ‘lancer,’ which T’Pol translated to junior officer; a lieutenant or perhaps even a lowly ensign – slowly walking toward her. “Cease moving,” T’Pol ordered. Working the toe of her boot under the rifle’s trigger mechanism, she kicked the weapon up into the air before catching it with her right hand. The three men froze when she leveled it at the lancer. “Cease moving,” she repeated calmly.
“How long can you hold it like that?” the lancer asked, gesturing briefly for his two subordinates to hold position. “Not long I wager.”
“You would be surprised,” T’Pol retorted as she began side-stepping her prisoner toward the edge of the gravel trail. The slope of the hill was not especially significant, perhaps twenty degrees at its steepest, but the angle was just enough that it would make pursuit difficult. Providing she was not shot in the back, of course.
“This does not end well for you, Lady,” the lancer stated flatly. The honorific he used caused T’Pol to raise an eyebrow. “These hills crawl with my warriors.”
“I am not highborn,” she declared as she continued to inch toward the lip of the gravel trail. She drew in a deep breath.
And tossed the rifle aside.
The three men reacted exactly as she expected them to, their eyes instinctively tracking the weapon as it sailed through the air, and their momentary distraction gave T’Pol just enough time to grab the belt of her Ekosian shield with the now empty hand. She heaved him effortlessly, letting her desperation fuel muscles already taut with tension, and he slammed into the lancer, knocking them both off their feet. Into that moment of chaos, T’Pol dove off the trail and into the brush along the side of the path. She hit the ground and rolled to her feet before sprinting headlong down the hill. Startled shouts echoed from the small group, and a heartbeat later, twin gunshots boomed. The bullets whined past her, smashing into two different trees and showering her with spinning shards of wooden shrapnel. T’Pol bit back a cry when she felt the splinters slice into her exposed cheeks, but the sharp pain wasn’t enough to cause her stride to falter even a step.
Flee! she mind-screamed across the fledgling connection linking her mind to Trip’s, and she could feel his startled but instinctive obedience. T’Pol felt relief wash through her, knowing that he would be safe. And right now, his safety was her only true concern.
Down the hill she ran, weaving and darting into cover as the quartet continued to pursue. She was faster and more agile, but they had the benefit of numbers and a willingness to use their firearms to great benefit. Twice, she was nearly hit by carefully placed shots and T’Pol grimly acknowledged that they were very likely herding her into a trap. If the lancer had any tactical understanding, he would have used his radio to coordinate with additional forces.
And the distant sound of approaching off-road vehicles of her confirmed this assessment.
This was always a possibility, T’Pol admitted to herself as she crouched behind a thick, leafy plant growing alongside a half-fallen tree. She drew the phase pistol from its holster and studied it for a moment – the likelihood that she would be captured was exceedingly high, even if she killed in self-defense, and it would be irresponsible of her to allow a culture this mired in self-destructive warfare come into possession of a weapon this advanced. If it had been a Vulcan disruptor, she would have known how to rig it for an overload, but her familiarity with this pistol … it was insufficient to trigger a self-destruct and she simply did not have the time to study the weapon in depth. Nodding at her logic, she concealed the weapon within the plant’s confines, drew another deep breath and began studying her surroundings for signs of her pursuers.
Now that she knew what to look for, their concealing suits were not difficult to identify for someone with visual acuity as sharp as hers. Three of them – the two junior soldiers, including the one she had thrown – were approaching from the north, while the lancer was attempting to flank her from the west. None of them seemed entirely sure of her exact location, but any attempt to flee from her current position would reveal it instantly and it was only a matter of time before one of them saw her. T’Pol glanced around for something substantial to use as a decoy, quickly locating a fist-sized piece of rock. She seized it quickly and hurled it toward another thick bush fairly close to the trio. They reacted instantly, storming toward the distraction, and giving her the opportunity to spring up and charge.
Directly toward their leader.
He had just enough time to cry out a warning before T’Pol plowed into him, knocking him bodily into a thick tree. The impact ripped his breath from him in a single, explosive gasp and his weapon fell free from his grip to tumble away, but she paid it no mind as she sprinted toward another copse of trees. Familiar booms pursued her and bullets screamed past her ears. Another pulpy explosion of bark and tree rained down on her, but she kept moving, kept scanning the terrain for something else she might be able to use as a weapon.
She did not see the sixth man until it was too late.
He had apparently been lurking in wait and was dressed similarly, in clothes intended to allow him to blend into the surroundings. T’Pol heard a whisper of movement coming from her left less than a second before his weapon – a braided leather cord with wooden balls at either end – wrapped tightly around her legs. Suddenly unbalanced, she fell, her head bouncing off the tree directly in front of her.
She lost consciousness for only a few seconds, but it was enough time for the sixth man to bound forward and expertly tie a second rope around her hands, binding them firmly at her back. T’Pol struggled against the darkness that threatened to swallow her and was only vaguely aware of the sounds announcing the arrival of the other soldiers as she fought to stay awake.
“Guess my antiques did come in useful,” the sixth man said to someone she could not see, his tone mocking. He grabbed her arm and rolled onto her back.
“Spirit save us!” one of the men suddenly gasped. “Her blood!” T’Pol’s vision swam in and out of focus as the voices echoed around her, and she could feel dampness on her face. I must remain conscious, she told herself, even as her body disagreed.
“And her ears!” another exclaimed.
“Shoot it!” the first one shouted, and T’Pol closed her eyes in preparation for the killing blow at the sound of a round being chambered. Her last thought, she decided, would be of Trip and the pleasant emotions he stirred within her. Yes, thoughts of him were most appealing. She fixed an image of his most brilliant smile in her mind’s eyes and clung to it.
“Stop!” It was the lancer, and she could hear strain in his voice, as if he were in pain. “Bind her arms and legs tightly,” the man ordered crisply. “Triple strength. I don’t know what she … it is, but the field-adjutant will want to see her.”
“But the old tales!” the one who had clamored for her to be shot whimpered. “She might be a fetch!”
“Then gag and blindfold her,” the lancer ordered. “She can’t spell your spirit if she can’t speak.”
Something blunt and heavy came down on her head then, stealing away consciousness and sending her tumbling into an endless void of nothing. But exactly as she intended, her last thoughts were of Trip.
And how she’d failed him.