The closer they got to the hangar, the harder Trip's heart pounded.
At his side, T'Pol concealed her use of the scanner behind the lantern taken from the two unconscious soldiers they left tied up in the dark. Her long hair was tucked into the back of her jacket or underneath the absurd-looking hat that the natives wore, but neither did anything to hide the fact that she was definitely not a man by any stretch of the imagination. If the ill-fitting uniform she wore was any tighter, it would have to be made of spandex.
Not that he would normally complain, of course.
Thanks to the darkness and the general lack of effective lighting, though, none of the Ekosian soldiers in the vicinity of the hangar seemed to notice. Most appeared more concerned with keeping their heads down or getting to where they were going than giving either of them a second look but Trip simply couldn't shake the feeling that they were walking into a trap. And, from the way T'Pol was tensing, he wasn't the only one, so it was hardly a surprise when they both jumped at the voice that accosted them.
"You there!" a familiar-sounding male called out. "Sentries!" Staff-Adjutant sut'Tanaros Mikal Ferran stalked forward out of the darkness, his swagger stick tucked under one arm and a fierce expression on his face. "What in the name of the stone do you think you are doing?" Trip automatically took a half step in front of T'Pol in an attempt to shield her from the Ekosian's sight and opened his mouth to reply, but Ferran continued speaking without even waiting to hear an excuse. "Has this facility lapsed so completely in discipline that night sentries patrol with open lights?" he asked angrily. "Any of our foes could see it!"
And any one of them could hear you, Trip mused darkly. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed another pair of sentries exchange looks before quickly changing direction to avoid Ferran's ire.
"Where is your adjutant?" the Ekosian man demanded, and, on instinct, Trip nodded in the direction of the hangar. Ferran pivoted on his heel and marched away, pausing only long enough to give them a distinctive hand gesture indicating that they should follow. Trip looked at T'Pol and she nodded slightly while sliding the scanner into a pocket. Without a word, they fell into step behind Ferran. At least this would get them within striking distance of the ship.
Once inside the hangar, the staff-adjutant angled sharply in the direction of a small office currently manned by a single soldier who looked to still be in his teens, despite the pathetic-looking beard he was trying to cultivate. He sprang to his feet when Ferran stormed in and darted out from behind the desk he'd been sitting at.
"Where is your adjutant?" Ferran asked without waiting for the young boy to speak.
"It is after sundown, Master," the terrified soldier replied. "He is likely abed." The staff-adjutant's face contorted in anger.
"I want him here at once!" Ferran snarled. "This facility's utter lack of discipline must be corrected at once!" The Ekosian soldier began to back out of the small room. "And find my scout!" the staff-adjutant added abruptly as the boy disappeared through the door. "That Undil lout. I mean to have words with him."
Trip's breath caught, even as he felt a flash of quickly suppressed alarm through the weird bond thing he shared with T'Pol. If Pater Undil was here, then there was absolutely no way they'd be able to pull this off. Time had officially run out.
"Master," he began, his lip twisting at the ridiculous honorific, but Ferran was no longer looking at him. Instead, his eyes were locked on T'Pol who still had her head downcast in order to hide her features. Trip felt his stomach plunge.
"By the stone," the staff-adjutant remarked abruptly, his eyes narrowing, "you are no man." He stepped closer, frowning. "Lift your eyes, woman," he ordered darkly. Her nostrils flaring, T'Pol obeyed and Ferran recoiled in shock, recognition stamped on his face. He opened his mouth to cry out a warning.
But Trip was faster.
He lunged forward, his right fist connecting with Ferran's jaw even before the man realized he was under attack. As the staff-adjutant reeled back a step, Trip advanced, quickly wrapping his left arm around the Ekosian's throat and locking him in a tight sleeper hold. With his other hand, Tucker grabbed Ferran's wrist and twisted, jarring the swagger stick free so it couldn't be used as a weapon. They struggled for a long, extended heartbeat as the staff-adjutant tried to get free of Trip's hold to shout out a warning.
By then, T'Pol had reached them.
Almost casually, she reached forward and clamped her fingers down on Ferran's neck. He instantly went limp and Trip let him slide to the floor, not even bothering to stop the man from smacking his head against the nearby desk. Instead, he gave T'Pol a look.
"Undil," Trip began, but she turned away, fishing her scanner out of her pocket. It buzzed as she rapidly input commands.
"We will need to move quickly," she stated before frowning. "A distraction of some sort would be most helpful," she added wryly.
"Got just the thing," Trip replied. Reaching under his shirt, he extracted the functional phase pistol and popped it open, noting with some slight amusement how closely T'Pol watched what he was doing. He pulled the appropriate energy connector loose before inching toward the door. A moment later, he found his target – what appeared to be an acetylene tank for a nearby welding torch currently abandoned – and took aim. "Give me the word," he whispered. To his slight surprise, T'Pol placed her hand on his shoulder.
"Now," she ordered. Trip squeezed the trigger.
And a heartbeat later, the tank exploded.
The reaction of the Ekosians was exactly as he'd hoped – to a man, they darted away from their posts and toward fire-fighting equipment so they could combat the flames threatening to envelop other tanks. None of them seemed remotely aware of Trip and T'Pol's flight to the primary access hatch of the Vulcan starship, nor did they notice the vessel's landing ramp silently extending in compliance with the code T'Pol had sent. Trip let her take the lead into the starship and backed through the darkened hatch, the phase pistol held at the ready in case they were detected. The moment he crossed the threshold, T'Pol pressed a button on a nearby wall panel and the hatch sealed as quietly as it had opened. Even the retraction of the ramp was noiseless.
In slow, incremental steps, the internal lighting within the starship began to activate, gradually increasing in brightness over a period of long seconds until it actually began to hurt Trip's eyes. T'Pol, he observed, barely seemed aware of just how intense the lights were until he brought his hand up to shield his eyes. A sheepish expression flickered across her face for the briefest of seconds.
"Illumination," she said sharply in her native tongue, "half intensity."
"Thanks," Trip muttered as the lights faded to something far more reasonable. He glanced around, blinking the spots away.
Despite its size, the Vulcan ship had a single actual deck, which was oriented around the reactor in the very center of the ship. A central corridor wrapped around engineering and, from what Trip recalled about this class of vessel, there were five other compartments on this deck – the living quarters, with fold-down beds and toilet facilities; the science lab; the combined kitchen/medical station; a storage compartment for supplies and spare parts; and a miniature gymnasium that doubled as a meditation chamber. The ship itself was flown from a small 'mini-deck' at the top of the ship, which had only two stations – the pilot/commander and the communications/sensors.
The first thing Trip really noticed was how clean the inside of the ship appeared. Based on what T'Pol had told him of the Orions and their general disposition, he'd envisioned them as green-skinned Blackbeards, with metal peg-legs and maybe even robotic parrots, an image even he admitted to himself was pretty silly, but the complete lack of clutter or detritus inside this vessel seemed entirely at odds with her description of the pirates as barbarians of the worst order. If he hadn't known better, he'd have assumed that this ship was still being operated by Vulcans. Even the floor appeared clean of dust, which after he thought about it, wasn't that big of a surprise if the life support systems continued to function. Recycled oxygen would keep any dust particulate from accumulating … although he honestly didn't know if Vulcans constantly actually lost skin cells like humans did.
"The T'Muna-Doth," T'Pol said suddenly, her words jerking him out of his reverie. He looked in her direction and found her standing before an ornate-looking Vulcan glyph on the bulkhead that he guessed was the equivalent of the dedication plaque. "This vessel was lost sixty-one years ago," she continued. Despite his better instincts, Trip grinned.
"And how old where you then?" he wondered. She gave him an unamused look.
"Four," she answered calmly. Ignoring his surprised expression, she pointed to a ladder. "I will be on the command deck," she said.
"I'll see what I can do about the reactor," Trip replied, pushing down his shock at how casually she mentioned her age. An eternity ago, she had told him that Vulcans considered some information intimate, and he felt both humbled and intimidated by the fact she seemed to think nothing of revealing something like this to him.
And it didn't escape his notice that neither of them mentioned what their next course of action would be if this ship, this … T'Muna-Doth wasn't capable of flight.
He spent several minutes just trying to keep from losing his temper at the general state of disrepair of the warp core that he saw. Oh, it wasn't anything that a non-engineer would notice, but Trip fumed at just how poorly the ship had been maintained long before it ever landed. Just glancing over the preliminary status readouts, he found at least half a dozen lazy mistakes that should have grounded this vessel long before the pirates seized it. None of the injectors seemed aligned properly, the intermix ratio was just flat out wrong, and he doubted the warp coils themselves had even been touched since this pretty lady was originally launched. It was positively criminal to abuse a starship like this.
"It's all right, girl," Trip muttered as he patted the bulkhead. "I'll take care of you."
Several more minutes passed before he finally finished examining the automated system log. According to what he read, the reactor was barely drawing a tenth of a single percent of the power it could normally generate, but automatically cycled up to twenty percent capacity every twelve hundred hours. As a result, the deuterium tanks were still half full, although he wouldn't know if the fuel had remained uncontaminated until he got his hands dirty. The impulse manifold seemed entirely functional and ready to go, but some of the structural damage to one of the three nacelle pods worried him. They could fly, he realized, but not well and probably not far. He reached for the intraship comm. panel.
"Tucker to T'Pol," he said, automatically lapsing into old habits. When she responded, he could swear that he heard actual amusement in T'Pol's voice.
"T'Pol here, Commander," she said, emphasizing his Starfleet rank in such a way that it made him smile.
"I'm gonna bring the reactor up to twenty percent," he said. "Let's stay in the atmosphere until we've done a full diagnostic."
"Agreed." She was silent for a moment. "Do we have weapons?" she asked. Trip blinked.
"Didn't check," he admitted. "Why?"
"The Ekosians appear to have discovered we are aboard and are most displeased." Tucker frowned and gave the readouts another glance.
"I'm coming up," he said.
The command deck was smaller than he expected it to be, with a viewscreen that seemed to encompass the whole curving wall. T'Pol was seated in the commander's station, cycling through the various systems now coming online, but Trip's attention was immediately drawn to the sheer number of Ekosian soldiers arrayed around the starship. Ferran was there, he noted, as was a sour-looking Undil and several other vaguely familiar soldiers. The staff-adjutant was using a bullhorn, but there was no sound apart from the muted rumbling of the reactor as it began building.
"Four minutes to optimum power levels for lift-off," T'Pol announced as Trip slid into the other chair. He tapped a few buttons and the image on the viewscreen shifted to one of the roof above them. Another button brought up a shipboard damage report.
"Looks like only one of the particle cannons is functional," he said with a frown. "And even that one is only capable of putting about ten or eleven percent power."
"Against the hangar roof," T'Pol remarked wryly, "I suspect ten or eleven percent will be more than sufficient." She returned the image on the viewscreen to Ferran, only this time, there was sound.
"-exit the vessel at once!" the staff-adjutant was saying.
"Or what?" Trip wondered. "He'll shout us to death?" A frisson of amusement through the magical bond caused him to glance in T'Pol's direction, but her placid expression was unchanged. She did, however, push a series of buttons that caused several Vulcan characters to crawl down the screen. Trip's eyes widened as he mentally translated them: external speaker activated.
"I regret that I am unable to comply," she said flatly in the local dialect and the effects of her booming voice echoing through the hangar were comical. The Ekosians visibly reacted, some backpedaling rapidly while others sought cover. Ferran recoiled as if he had been slapped and Undil's eyes widened. T'Pol's eyes narrowed suddenly and Trip winced at the bright flare of fury he felt from her. "We shall be departing now," she said through clenched teeth, "but before we go, please express my most sincere apologies to Pater Undil for being unable to fulfill my part of our agreement." All eyes – including Trip's – turned to the former farmer turned scout as the blood drained from his face. "He was most helpful in assisting us to locate this vessel," T'Pol continued grimly, "but I fear that we will not be able to support his lowborn coup as promised." She deactivated the external speakers with a flip of her hand.
"That wasn't very logical," Trip remarked with a slight smile and more than a little approval. On the screen, he could see Undil desperately shaking his head and pleading with a furious Ferran even as several of the soldiers advanced on the former farmer.
"No," T'Pol replied, "it was not." She glanced in his direction. "It is your fault, of course. You are a very bad influence on me, Trip." He grinned broadly and her young-old eyes returned to the viewscreen. "Perhaps a measure of justice will be enacted for the beings that man murdered," she mused before glancing at her control board. "One minute," she said.
"Powering up the particle cannon," Trip announced as he tapped a couple of commands into his board. "Firing … now."
Emerald fire exploded from the concealed weapon and lanced out to smash into the thin aluminum roof, ripping great chunks of it apart. Trip fired a second time, shifting his aim slightly this time, and the effect was identical. Metal debris rained down around the ship, and the Ekosian soldiers either scrambled for cover or began shooting with their primitive rifles, none of which could even do the slightest bit of damage to the hull of the vessel.
"Engaging impulse drive now," T'Pol said. With a soft whine, the T'Muna-Doth slowly lifted off the ground and climbed into the sky, rapidly accelerating to speeds the natives could not begin to emulate with their primitive propeller-driven aircraft. The landing struts at the base of the starship immediately rotated into flight position and retracted under the nacelle array, and the last image Trip had of Mikal Ferran before the viewscreen automatically shifted to a forward-facing view was of the staff-adjutant staring at the departing Vulcan starship with horror in his eyes.
Trip decided that it was a good look for the man.
"Curious," T'Pol murmured as she began leveling the T'Muna-Doth off. "I am detecting faint Starfleet transmissions above this continent." Trip gave his own panel a quick glance.
"Observation satellite," he guessed. He tried to open a hailing frequency with the spy-sat, but an error message crawled down his screen. "We've got no communications," he said sourly. "The Orions must have intentionally targeted the comm.-array when they attacked."
"That is a logical assumption," T'Pol said. She adjusted their course slightly and Trip watched as their field of view indicated a slight turn. Clearly, T'Pol had a destination in mind.
"Where are we going?" he asked.
"South," came the instant reply. T'Pol half turned in her seat and gave him that not-quite-there smile of hers. "I have tired of being cold," she admitted, "and thought an isolated island would be an ideal location to land while we conduct repairs." Trip smiled.
"A tropical island," he said brightly. "A beautiful woman." To Trip's delight, T'Pol blushed slightly and quickly looked away. "And a pretty starship who needs some TLC," he finished. "Best vacation ever," he finally pronounced before pushing to his feet. "I'm gonna go check out the reactor and make sure I didn't miss anything." On impulse, he leaned forward and kissed T'Pol lightly on the cheek. "Let me know if you need anything, darlin'," he said before heading for the ladder leading to the alpha deck. As he climbed down, he saw her reach up and touch the spot where he'd just kissed her, her eyes wide with what he could only call wonder.
Trip was still smiling when they touched down.