The tickle in his brain drew him along, like an invisible rope.
Ekosian soldiers were everywhere, but Trip ghosted through the trees, ducking into cover and successfully avoiding the patrols at every step thanks to his blatant abuse of T’Pol’s damaged scanner. He no longer cared that using the device like this was rapidly turning it into a very pretty paperweight – without T’Pol, nothing in his possession was worth having. Nothing in his life was worth having.
At the moment, Trip was crouched behind a thick, leafy plant growing alongside a half-fallen tree. He was barely two kilometers away from the lodge he and T’Pol had been using as their refuge, but something … he couldn’t quite define had drawn him here. It had taken him nearly three hours to reach this location as the presence of the Ekosian soldiers crawling all over the area made things quite difficult, but the moment he saw the plant, Trip had known it was important.
And the moment he extracted T’Pol’s phase pistol from its place of concealment, he understood why.
“No,” Trip murmured under his breath as he stared at the weapon with wide eyes, “that’s not creepy at all.” He shuddered – how in the name of God had he known it was there? – and reached for his pack.
He was down to a single rucksack, having discarded everything that wasn’t absolutely essential or part of their original Starfleet load-out. Both of the uniforms they’d arrived in – T’Pol’s surprisingly heavy white catsuit and his own tan utilities – were at the bottom of the pack, although Trip had seriously considered burying them somewhere to free up a little space. The part of him that still clung to his identity as a Starfleet officer and remained desperately hopeful that, someday, he and T’Pol could get off this world thoroughly rejected the notion of abandoning the last sign of his past career.
The scanner beeped softly, and Trip grabbed it, cursing under his breath at the three Ekosian life signs approaching his position. He hefted the ruck and slid his arms through the straps before pushing himself to his feet. His still recovering body should have hurt – no, he corrected himself, it did hurt, but for some reason, the pain was distant, muted, like he had managed to find an off switch that allowed him to function like normal. He chalked it up to some of the crazy mind training T’Pol had insisted on; she’d claimed that it would help and, if this was any indication, he had to admit there were benefits to having his own personal Vulcan sensei. As an engineer, he knew there would be a price to pay at some point down the road – one did not run a reactor at a hundred percent with damaged injectors and not have to deal with a core breach or meltdown eventually – but right now, with the distance between him and T’Pol rapidly increasing every second, he simply didn’t care what the cost would be.
With the sun beginning to sink beyond the horizon, the Ekosian soldiers appeared to be setting up camp, which Trip took to be further proof bearing out T’Pol’s theory about their limited ability to see in the dark. It was an advantage Tucker knew he had to capitalize on if he was going to have any chance at retrieving his Vulcan. Already, the soldiers were setting up more gas-powered lamps than Trip thought were entirely necessary, which had the benefit of ruining their already poor night vision. It was pretty clear that they weren’t afraid to let people know they were here, but it also made it very easy for Tucker to identify exactly where he needed to avoid.
By midnight, Trip had cleared the outer perimeter of what was beginning to look like a major ground offensive into this region, which prompted him to suspect that Undil, wherever that bastard might be at the moment, was being used as a native scout, sort of like how certain Native American Indian tribes had been utilized by the United States Army back in the 1800s. In the brief time he and T’Pol had traveled with Raspos’ refugee band, Trip had heard Undil make several disparaging remarks about these lodges, which Tucker took as familiarity with them. It was only logical to utilize the best assets available.
Logical? Trip shook his head and checked the scanner once more before breaking into a quick jog. Five minutes later, he picked up the pace until he reached his optimal running speed. It was a trick T’Pol had taught him in the weeks before the bear attack – rather than pushing himself until he felt the strain, he simply paid attention to what his body was telling him, speeding up and slowing down as necessary. At his peak, he was able to maintain a constant speed of a little over thirteen kilometers an hour for sixty minutes or so, but right now, he doubted that he was making eleven kph. He slowed to a walk whenever he began straining to let his heart rate and breathing settle, but began running again as soon as he had recovered.
And with every step, the invisible connection to T’Pol led the way.
Dawn found him on one of the numerous rocky knolls, looking down into a small valley below while immense, snow-capped mountains loomed overhead to the north. Curving between two fairly decent-sized foothills was a set of train tracks, with the tri-rail system that Trip still thought to be weird-looking, no matter that he’d already seen the sort of train that would run on these rails up close. A wide, dusty road ran parallel to the tracks for as far as the eye could see.
A trike was parked just off the road, several meters away from the rail line. One figure was up and moving, apparently breaking camp, while a second continued to slumber away nearby. Despite the dull ache in his legs and back, Trip didn’t even hesitate.
He kept low during his approach, pausing only long enough to drop his ruck to the ground before he reached the point of no return. By the time he was within striking distance, both men were up, jabbering away in the local dialect about the same kind of trivial complaints Tucker recalled hearing from Masaro or Jenkins or even Rostov on really bad days back aboard Enterprise an eternity ago. He didn’t … he couldn’t allow it to keep him from acting, not with T’Pol relying on him. One of them – the shorter of the two – was half-turning when Trip sprinted over the hill, and the man had just enough time to shout a warning to his comrade.
And then, Trip was upon them.
Later, he wouldn’t be able to really remember what happened, only that the two soldiers seemed to be moving slower than they had any right to be. It wasn’t quite like they were in slow motion, but throughout the short melee, they were always a half second behind him and did such a poor job of hiding their intentions that Trip would have thought they were intentionally throwing the fight. He knew that wasn’t the case, though, not with the open surprise and fear on their faces when he dodged or parried their strikes with frightening ease. In no time at all, both men were on the ground, bloodied and thoroughly unconscious but still alive, while Trip stood over them, completely untouched.
He swallowed, suddenly very freaked out. What the hell had T’Pol done to him? In the weeks immediately before his bear encounter, she’d incrementally increased the intensity of their sparring fights and this was the first time he’d tested himself against anyone but her but still … had her training been that effective? He shook his head – there would be time to react to this later, after he’d found her and they found a better place to hide.
After dragging the two men out of sight, he stripped the uniform off of the taller man and quickly dressed in the uncomfortable clothes. He found a nice piece of rope in the ATV and tied the two together rather securely; if they cooperated with each other, they shouldn’t have much trouble escaping, but it would still take a while. On instinct, Trip left one of the rifles at their feet, but took the other one back to the off-road vehicle. As soon as he secured his rucksack in the ATV and used one of the numerous jerry cans in the back to fill the fuel tank, he sank into the driver’s seat and gunned the engine.
“I can do this,” Trip said aloud as he angled the trike in the direction of the incessant mental tug. He didn’t know whether to be grateful or terrified that he could still feel T’Pol … and desperately hoped that he wasn’t actually on the verge of a psychotic break. What if he was just imagining this … connection? What if T’Pol had accidentally fried some of his neurons with the meld he was assuming she’d performed on him? She’d insisted that she had no training in this sort of telepathic contact the one time they’d actually discussed Tolaris’ attack and the resulting Pa’nar.
He drove for several hours, passing several identical vehicles heading in the opposite direction along the way. Most were crewed by a pair of soldiers, but two were manned by a single driver, and none of them did more than give him a quick wave of acknowledgment. Each time one of the ATVs came into view, Trip tensed and gripped the phase pistol tightly.
As the sheer volume of traffic increased, Trip decided to get off the road and wait until night fell. He spent almost an hour searching for a place of concealment where he could park and wait for the sun to go down. It went against every one of his instincts – T’Pol could be out there right now, desperately in need of his help – but he knew that it was ultimately necessary. He couldn’t help her, after all, if one of these Alliance troops stopped him and asked for papers or documents he didn’t have. Still, the images of T’Pol being beaten or tortured or … or raped wouldn’t entirely go away, and, once he programmed her scanner to warn him of any bio-signs that approached within its maximum range, he leaned his head back in the seat and tried to relax.
He was asleep almost as soon as his eyes were closed.
His dreams were scattered, fragmented, and confusing as hell. T’Pol was there in that strange white room, curled up on the featureless floor as if she were asleep or unconscious, but with each step Trip took toward her, she seemed to pull farther away. His screams made no sound while echoing around him like thunder. Finally, after an eternity that could have been only seconds, T’Pol stirred and looked up, her eyes instantly locking onto his. She mouthed his name before jerking back as if something he couldn’t see had struck her in the face.
And Trip snapped awake, his jaw aching from a blow he hadn’t felt.
The sun was already down and he could make out a fairly impressive number of lights some kilometers farther down the road that was either another military encampment or a really unusually placed town. Trip shook his head and climbed out of the ATV, wincing at how stiff and sore his entire body was. He spent several minutes stretching the kinks out, struggling to hold onto his self-control. The gentle tug of T’Pol was more insistent yet less powerful, and he tried not to think about how much distance could be between them now. Concentrate, he ordered himself. You’re no good to her if you lose your head.
“Above all else,” T’Pol had told him when she began instructing him, “we are taught to focus on the objective. Panic is counterproductive and ultimately self-destructive.” Just thinking about those lessons allowed him to regain his equilibrium. It didn’t matter how far they took her … he’d follow, even if it meant storming the gates of hell themselves. Surely he could find a bucket of water somewhere.
The lights turned out to be another military encampment, this one significantly larger and better fortified than the one that had encircled the lodges. Trip ditched the ATV a kilometer or so away from the nearest sentry point, and then spent an hour trying to find a weak point in the perimeter. His stomach growled as he watched the sentries make their rounds, but he ignored the hunger for the moment and sprinted toward the gap.
No one paid him much attention once he’d penetrated the sentry line and it wasn’t difficult to emulate the exhausted look of a soldier returning to his bunk for a few hours of sleep, even with the rucksack on his back. It was rare to see an Ekosian without a beard, so he didn’t stand out, even with his lighter than average hair color. Still, he didn’t try to press his luck and hugged the outskirts of the camp. It drew a few eyes, but each time he started to suspect he’d been noticed, Trip started fumbling with the front of his pants and casting his attention around. Invariably, he would be pointed toward a latrine, most often by the soldier giving him the hairy eyeball.
And it was at one of those hastily dug pits that he found the confirmation he needed that he wasn’t going mad.
Three men were already at the makeshift latrine, standing silently in a way that reminded Tucker of every urinal he’d ever seen. At any other time, he might have laughed at what appeared to be a universal law of males.
“Did you see it?” one of the soldiers asked abruptly, glancing toward the soldier standing near the center of their uneven row. The target of his questioning shot the other man a fierce glower even as he adjusted his trousers and continued to urinate. “I heard you saw the fetch,” the first soldier said.
“Didn’t look like a fetch to me,” the peeing man declared. “If not for the ears and the blood, I would say she was a sight of beauty.”
His first instinct was to pounce on the man who had seen T’Pol and beat her location out of him, but he somehow managed to push down the sudden urge. There were four right here, and possibly thousands more without shouting distance. And he was so tired that his very bones throbbed.
“I heard the field-adjutant soiled himself at the sight of her,” the third man declared with a hearty guffaw. “Ordered her on the first rail to take her to the staff-adjutant at the skyfield.”
“Truth,” the first man said. “I heard and saw that firsthand.”
“The field-adj is a fearful man,” the man who had seen T’Pol mused, before shaking his head. “Even if she is a fetch,” he said, “I would not wish her into Ferran’s grip. He has a sinister name.” His business complete, the man glanced in Tucker’s direction. “What say you, brother? Is she truly a fetch or just an illusion to us footsloggers?”
And in response, Trip yawned widely and shrugged as if he didn’t care.
The man laughed loudly and turned away, readjusting his pants as he began walking toward some tents. His two companions followed him, still discussing whether the fetch was real or just rumor. Trip waited another few heartbeats before heading in the opposite direction, his heart pounding loudly. He’d run out of time. If T’Pol was being taken to a ‘skyfield’ – he guessed that was the equivalent of an airfield – then God only knew where they could take her without him being able to catch up.
Like hell, he reflected darkly.
All of the vehicles were parked together near a small path leading toward the main road with only a single bored-looking guard standing watch over them. He didn’t even hear Trip’s approach and struggled for only a few seconds when Tucker caught him in a choke hold from behind. Concealing the unconscious guard in one of the larger vehicles after tying the man up and gagging him, Trip then piled as many of the fuel cans as he could into one of the ATVs chosen entirely at random. He consulted T’Pol’s scanner before putting the trike into gear and pushing it toward the road. It was tough going for a few moments, but the moment the hill began to slope downward, he sprang into the driver’s seat and let gravity carry him away from the camp. As soon as the hill began to level out, he started the engine and punched the gas. The ATV sprang away quickly and Trip clung to the two steering levers with a dead man’s grip.
“I’m coming, T’Pol,” he murmured into the wind.
Unmoved, the moons twinkled brightly in the night sky.