Her body ached.
They had spent two days, nearly three, concealed in the undercarriage of a rail car. As hiding places went, it was one of the worst T'Pol had ever had the misfortune of knowing. There was barely enough room for one person, let alone two with a pair of lightly packed rucksacks between them, and their proximity to the central wheel assembly meant she and Trip had to maintain an almost constant balancing act atop a steel column. Since he required more space, Trip had the dubious honor of spending the entire trip on his back, his hands holding onto metal gaps as if they were handles. This meant that T'Pol was astride his body for the duration of their journey, her own hands and legs awkwardly braced against the internal superstructure of the rail car in a desperate attempt to maintain balance. Even at night, when the train slowed to a virtual crawl, they were forced to constantly be aware of the dangerous situation they were in. Sleep was possible, but only in shifts, and the one awake had to be even more alert.
Early in the trip, she had felt the evidence of Trip's arousal against her leg at their intimate position, and T'Pol was startled to realize that she could also taste it through their mysterious psychic connection. He had been embarrassed at his body's reaction at first, but that quickly faded once he felt her hesitant but honestly curious interest across their cerebral linkage. T'Pol knew that she should not encourage him, not with the lingering possibility that she had infected him with Pa'nar yet hanging between them, but she had never experienced sensations like those coursing off him and, like an addict, she drank them in. They were … intoxicating and, if their situation were not so dire, she suspected that she might very well do something they would both regret.
Or something they would both appreciate. She couldn't quite figure out which, and was silently grateful when his arousal gradually faded away in the wake of their precarious balancing trick.
Conversation, which would have made the difficult journey easier, was not an option, both with the constant noise of the train – T'Pol had not removed the specially formed earplugs taken from her almost depleted survival pack a single time since they fashioned this possibly ill-advised course of action – and the ever-present threat of detection, so they spent almost the entire fifty-three hours without speaking a single word. It was not altogether unlike how they often slept – T'Pol's head tucked underneath Trip's chin and the offensive beard he had been unable to completely rid himself of, and she could feel his warm breath upon her filthy hair – but neither of them was remotely well rested when the train finally came to a lumbering but complete stop.
Lifting her head from his chest, T'Pol met Trip's eyes and raised a questioning eyebrow. He nodded silently and slowly released his hold on the train, grimacing as he lowered his arms to her waist where he could anchor her against him. She flinched at the lances of phantom pain she knew to be his before following suit, hissing with displeasure as her own muscles protested the long abuse. With Trip's hands at her waist, she slowly reached up and pulled one of the earplugs free.
Sound struck her like a physical blow and T'Pol almost recoiled in shock and pain. Only Trip's hands – one at her waist, one against her back – held her in place and she gave him a grateful look before shaking off the worried question in his eyes. She focused on deciphering order from the unrelenting cacophony and spent several long minutes isolating different noises. Even to someone with as acute hearing as hers it was difficult to discern the muffled orders and shouts of the soldiers from the loud groans and hisses of the train. Finally, she found what she was seeking – a masculine voice she recognized, demanding familiar concessions and identifying their location – and glanced up to give Trip another slow nod.
They had arrived at the Salt Flats.
Nearly an hour passed before they dared to begin easing from their place of concealment, and it took almost another sixty minutes for them to regain full mobility. Even before they crept out from underneath the train, the sun had vanished below the horizon and, with thick cloud cover overhead blotting out the moons, the entire complex was cast into darkness. There were a few lights here and there, but they seemed to be illicit flashes – matches used to ignite smoking materials, or lanterns to guide a patrolling soldier's path. Dark shapes loomed around them and, although T'Pol knew the shapes to be buildings, her utter inability to identify them sent a jolt of unexpected fear through her. Trip glanced quickly in her direction, apparently sensing her uncontrolled emotions, and she glanced down slightly in embarrassment.
That did not stop her from accepting the hand he offered a moment later.
Trip led them toward a dark blob that T'Pol suspected was a building, but she pulled back on his hand the moment she heard the sound of approaching footsteps. Together, they navigated around the numerous guards patrolling the complex – Trip's eyesight and her hearing were a more than effective combination – and finally located an ideal vantage point. Located near the outer perimeter of the complex, it was an apparently abandoned storage building that stank of animal feces and long decayed plant matter. An old ladder was propped against the side of the construction and, after leaning his rucksack against the building, Trip scrambled up the rungs with barely a sound before clearing his throat in a signal for her to join him. T'Pol followed more slowly, wincing at each creak or groan the wood made, but reached the top without incident.
Trip was already stretched out atop the roof, his binoculars pressed against his face as he swept across the complex, and T'Pol crept closer to him. She thought nothing of the casual physical contact with him that was necessary to get into position, and it was not until she was next to him, their shoulders and legs bumping into each other, that she even realized how often she touched him now. Was it because he was human? She had no recollection of her parents being particularly affectionate with one another. In fact, one of the many reasons she'd long dreaded her marriage to Koss was due to the distance and constant formality she'd witnessed between her mother and father. T'Pol had always longed for something else, something … deeper than traditional Vulcan relationships, something that was unmistakably more emotional. She gave Trip's shadowy form a sidelong glance and silently shook her head in wry amusement. Mission accomplished, she reflected with a slight smile that she did not bother to conceal.
A sudden spike of surprise from Trip shot through her mind and T'Pol froze in place. When Trip spoke, he did so in a hushed whisper.
"The ship," he said, shock and disbelief in his voice. "It's Vulcan." T'Pol turned to look at him and he pushed the binoculars into her hands. "One o'clock," Trip murmured. "About twenty meters." Even with the night vision setting activated, she had difficulty locating the building in question until Trip leaned closer to her and pointed it out. Her breath caught at the unmistakable lines of an old Vulcan starship. "That's the same kind of ship that made first contact with Cochrane," Trip said with surprise in his voice. "The one Solkar commanded."
"The T'Plana-Hath," T'Pol replied softly. "A type four deep-space exploratory vessel," she identified. From her vantage point, it was clear that the landing ramp was not deployed and the outer access hatch remained sealed. Carbon scoring marred the reddish-brown hull and T'Pol could see the distinctive marks atop the upper airlock she took to indicate a boarding party, which was likely how the Orions acquired this vessel. With a frown, she lowered the binoculars and handed them back to Trip before sliding her rucksack off her shoulders.
"T'Pol?" Trip's voice was confused as he watched her extract her still damaged scanner from the pack. Its energy cell was nearly expended, but she suspected there was still sufficient power for what she planned.
"How long would Enterprise remain functional if the crew simply abandoned it?" she asked.
"Depends on what systems were active at the time," Trip answered automatically. He frowned. "You think this thing is still running?"
"Vulcan starships are equipped with automated power-saving systems that activate when no life signs are aboard for extended periods of time," T'Pol said. "Theoretically," she continued, "a type four exploratory vessel is capable of remaining in such a … stand-by mode for a century or more." Trip grunted. "I am detecting only faint power signature readings," she added as the results of her scan crawled across the tiny screen, "but they conform to a functional power plant in stand-by mode."
"You want to get closer," Trip said. It was not a question and T'Pol frowned at his sudden reticence. "T'Pol, there are at least twenty guards in there," he pointed out. "We have exactly one working phase pistol between us and you're as blind as a bat." Trip shook his head. "Charging up there just to see if it still has power is a very bad idea." He opened his mouth to continue elaborating his opposition to the plan, but T'Pol reached out with her hand and placed two fingers atop his lips in an attempt to silence him. Trip's emotions flared brightly – painfully, she had to admit – but when she held up her other hand and tilted her head, he recognized her warning.
Long heartbeats later, a pair of patrolling Ekosian soldiers walked into view, pausing for several seconds to angle the light of their foul-smelling oil lamp around the area. Both were men, a few years younger than Trip, but neither seemed particularly interested in finding any potential opposition and their search was haphazard at best. The shorter of the two yawned broadly as they continued their slow patrol around the perimeter.
"I am obligated," T'Pol whispered, inching slightly closer to Trip so he could better hear her words, "by my duties as an officer in the High Command to make every attempt to ensure that our technology is not abused by non-Vulcans." Trip frowned and, in doing so, abruptly reminded her that her fingers were still touching his lips. She yanked her hand away and looked down. A long moment passed in silence and, when she glanced up, T'Pol found Trip studying her, his face devoid of any actual emotion.
"We'll need clean uniforms," he finally remarked, "and a good reason to be near the hangar." Without another word, he pushed the binoculars back into her hands and slid off the roof, dropping to the ground with barely a sound. T'Pol blinked in surprise – it was moments like this that made her wonder if she would ever understand him – before raising the binoculars to her eyes so she could track his movements. At no time did she even consider trying to join him; her night blindness would make her a liability to him and she was confident in his the skills he possessed to both defend himself and to accomplish his goal.
Exactly as she suspected, Trip crept toward the two patrolling guards, pouncing the moment he was within range. Now fully healed from the bear attack, he seemed almost exponentially faster than the pair as he struck and both were sprawled out on the ground before they seemed entirely cognizant of the fact that they were under attack. T'Pol bit her lower lip and pushed down a sudden surge of guilt. She had done this to him, had turned an idealistic explorer into a living weapon. Even if this starship turned out to be entirely functional and they were able to reach civilized space without incident, could Trip ever return to the life he had before?
For that matter, could she? It was yet another question with no answer.
By the time she reached the edge of the roof where they'd climbed up, Trip had already dragged the two unconscious Ekosians into the darkness behind the small building. T'Pol grimaced at her fumbling attempts to locate the ladder and blew out a frustrated breath.
"Trip," she called out softly. A moment later, she felt his fingers touch her wrist.
"A little more to the left," he instructed, pushing her hand in that direction. "Wait," Trip added as her fingers contacted the wooden ladder. A half second later, she heard a sharp crack and his hand fell away from her wrist as he sprang back off the ladder. "Dammit," he growled under his breath. T'Pol strained to make out his form as he did … something and she bit back a gasp at the sharp spike of frustration course through their connection. "The damned ladder is broken," he revealed. "It's a wonder this stupid thing held up under our weight in the first place." He shook the ladder, as if testing its stability, before sighing. "This thing is comin' apart at the seams, darlin'," he muttered, and T'Pol raised an eyebrow at both the sudden thickness of his accent and the unexpected term of endearment.
"Then you will need to catch me," she declared after a second of consideration.
"You trust me?" Trip asked and T'Pol's lips twitched upward.
"With my life," she said, using his words from days earlier. Once again, another emotional surge coursed through the bond and she could hear him inhale sharply.
"Hold on," he muttered before moving the ladder completely out of the way. "Okay," he said. "I'm ready." Nodding at him, T'Pol swung her legs over the side of the roof before rolling onto her stomach. She wiggled backwards, relaxing the instant she felt Trip's hands grab her legs. Her grip on the ledge tightened as she continued to inch herself off the roof. "I've got you," Trip said as he stepped forward, sliding his head between her legs so that she effectively sat on his shoulders. T'Pol raised an eyebrow – that was not how she had expected him to assist her, although she had to admit it was surprisingly effective. "You can let go now," he said and she obeyed, releasing her death grip on the roof and quickly transferring her hold to his shoulders. A moment later, he knelt and she slid to the ground.
"Thank you," she whispered, cocking her head and listening for any indications this minor misadventure had been detected.
"You don't need to thank me, T'Pol," Trip replied as he led her to where the two unconscious Ekosians were laid out. "We're in this together, remember?" He knelt and began stripping the clothes off the taller of the two males. "Can you remotely access the landing ramp?" he asked. T'Pol pursed her lips before crouching next to the other Ekosian. She had just enough ambient light to make out the buttons on his jacket and began undoing them.
"I believe so," she replied to his question. "There is a master access code hardwired into all Vulcan starships that only Ministry of Intelligence field personnel are aware of. It should function for this ship as well." She frowned. "If it does not," she added, "Type Fours have a biometric identification system that should recognize me as Vulcan. The security protocols should be programmed to consider me part of a salvage party and grant access."
"I'm hearing a whole lot of 'shoulds' in that," Trip grumbled. He twisted his discarded shirt around and began using it as a rudimentary rope to bind the hands of the man in front of him. "Why would a modern security code be able to access a ship of a class decommissioned forty years ago anyway?" T'Pol raised an eyebrow. She should not have been surprised that he was aware of the specifics of Vulcan starships, not with his background in warp mechanics, but she was nonetheless.
"Thirty-eight," she corrected softly, wrinkling her nose in distaste at the smell of the Ekosian male's shirt she was now donning. Either this part of the planet had not discovered soap or this man was simply an extraordinarily unclean individual. "And this code has remained unchanged for almost one hundred and three human years."
"Well, that's not very logical," Trip said. "How close do you need to be before you can try your master code?" he asked.
"Three meters," she replied. "Perhaps less depending upon the strength of the signal I can generate with my scanner." Even in the dark, she could tell that he was frowning.
"Great," he muttered before standing. He picked up his rucksack and slid his arms through the straps before hefting one of the rifles taken from the two unconscious me. "Ready when you are," he said. T'Pol exhaled and stood as well.
"I am ready now," she said.
And together, they stepped out of the darkness.