They waited until midnight to make their move.
Their target was a military convoy – seven trucks carrying food supplies to the northern front – and they had intentionally held off from making their move until now. The caravan’s route had taken them into rugged, mountainous terrain, and the road it was following curled around some of the smaller foothills like a coiled serpent. Rarely was the dusty path wide enough for more than a single truck, which forced the convoy to travel in a slow, single-file column. The soldiers themselves were sufficiently alert to be a problem – according to the radio reports T’Pol had intercepted, a particularly troublesome band of highborn partisans was making things difficult for the Tandos Alliance on this part of the continent.
Originally, the plan had been for him and T’Pol to sneak into a city once they located a supply depot that met their criteria, but the Alliance had tightened their stranglehold on the population centers to the point that doing so was no longer an option. Trip had even suggested they try a different continent, but that hadn’t worked out either, especially once they realized that they couldn’t understand the local language without the use of a translator. Continent number four was even more troublesome, as its inhabitants were all much darker than even Travis, so they naturally returned to Tandos where they at least had a rudimentary grasp of the political situation.
All of which led Trip to his current situation: perched at the top of a fairly large mountain overlooking a caravan of vehicles, parked for the night, in the middle of the woods. He was dressed entirely in black, wearing what T’Pol had identified as a ‘covert excursion uniform.’ Most of the outfit was skin-tight, but the hardened chest and back pieces provided some decent protection against small arms fire should this entire operation blow up around him (which, knowing his luck, was better than sixty percent likely.) A throat mike and earpiece made communication hands-free, which would be essential for a stealth mission like this. The night-vision goggles that were part of the uniform’s hood doubled as a heads-up display that could receive valuable senor information from the nearby T’Muna-Doth, and Trip had to admit that he was looking forward to experimenting with them.
Even so, he’d made a point of not asking her why an exploratory ship would even have equipment like this aboard. Although she’d insist otherwise, T’Pol always got a little tetchy when he questioned the High Command’s more illogical decisions.
“Sentries are moving,” T’Pol’s voice informed him, and even across the comm.-line, he could hear the tension in her voice. Underneath the mask that concealed his face, Trip smiled tightly. This entire operation had been her idea, but Tucker had lobbied hard to keep her sidelined aboard the T’Muna-Doth while he did the more physical (and dangerous) part, no matter that her training would normally make her a far better choice for this task. Having some idea how her brain worked now, he’d made a point of relying entirely on logic when framing his argument. First, he’d pointed out that there weren’t any women in this convoy and, if it went south, he could more easily pass as a local. The person on the ground was also going to need an expert sensor operator to act as an overwatch, and the one left behind on the ship would need to be able to easily divide their attention between the sensors, the communication system, piloting the T’Muna, and operating the transporter when the time was right. Sure, Trip could theoretically do all that, but she was far, far better at it than he was. Mentioning how her hand still occasionally trembled – not as often as before, but enough that it was noticeable even to him – wasn’t necessary since she knew better than he did how often that happened and T’Pol was nothing if not honest regarding her own capabilities. He also factored in their ignorance about just how far her image had been disseminated by Ferran’s people following her capture, and, when those arguments didn’t sway her, Trip had simply let himself envision how unbelievably sexy she’d look in the covert excursion uniform. Afterward, once they recovered and dressed, T’Pol had grudgingly conceded that he was ‘probably’ the best choice to go in on the ground.
Trip didn’t gloat even once. Instead, he simply pretended like that had been her idea in the first place. It was always safer that way.
“Do I have a go?” he asked softly, double-checking the rappelling gear as he spoke.
“Stand by.” T’Pol was silent for a moment that seemed to stretch on forever. Just as Trip was about to speak or fidget or just do something, she spoke. “Go.”
Without hesitation, Trip sprang forward and jumped over the ledge. He fell quickly, but the Vulcan deceleration cable attached to his the back of his cuirass slowed him just enough so that, when he hit the ground long heartbeats later, it was softly enough that he barely felt the impact. Automatically, he slapped a hand on the quick-release button on the center of his chestplate, detaching the cable from the harness, and it retracted up the cliff face without a sound, leaving Trip crouching in the darkness. He glanced in either direction, mostly ignoring the scrawl of Vulcan letters appearing as the integrated heads-up display on the goggles identified numerous different targets while concentrating on trying to locate the target vehicle. When he found it, he darted forward quickly, scrambling up and into the back of the truck. Keeping low – it didn’t have a back cover – he reached into the tiny pack secured to the bicep of his left arm and pulled out the small transmitter tags that T’Pol had designed. If they worked like they were supposed to for a change, they would greatly increase the chances of a successful transport. Each one was barely the size of a quarter, but easily attached to the wooden crates inside the bed of the truck.
“Receiving uplink information,” T’Pol announced. “Initiating transport for tag one.” Trip winced at the soft whine of a transporter beam as it enveloped one of the crates, and eased one of the phase pistols out of its holster – it was the one on his right that fired a significantly lower-powered beam T’Pol was confident would only stun an Ekosian rather than kill them. The other weapon had been modified to fire a full power beam that would be mostly invisible to the naked eye; he had five, maybe six shots with it before the focusing crystal fused and the pistol turned into a projectile weapon good for one throw. “Transport … failed,” T’Pol declared a moment later. “Initiating transport for tag two.” Once more, the transporter beam whined and long seconds passed as the crate dematerialized. “Transport success,” T’Pol said. “Correction,” she stated abruptly and he could hear the frown in her voice. “Transport failed.”
“What happened?” Trip asked softly.
“Molecular de-coherence,” T’Pol answered. “The cargo bay will need to be cleaned,” she added a heartbeat later and Trip winced at the mental picture that painted. He opened his mouth to comment and a jolt of foreign emotion spiked through his brain. “Ekosian bio-signatures approaching your location,” T’Pol warned suddenly. If it wasn’t for the weird sensations in his skull, he’d almost believe she wasn’t the slightest bit worried.
“From where?” Trip hissed. He tensed his muscles in preparation for action.
“North,” T’Pol replied and Trip blinked the moment he realized that he didn’t know what the Vulcan symbol for north was. He glanced once at the remaining two crates that he’d already tagged before mentally flipping a coin and sliding out of the truck bed.
Naturally, he picked the wrong side.
The two sentries froze in surprise when they saw him, but reacted quickly. Both shouted out warnings as they fumbled with their slung rifles and tried to bring the weapons to bear, but Trip was faster and his weapon was already out. He squeezed the trigger of his pistol twice, sending short bursts of phased energy into the chests of the two soldiers. They fell without another sound, dropping to the ground like marionettes whose strings had just been cut, and, although he knew it was dangerous, Trip hesitated for a single, extended heartbeat, his eyes locked on their still forms. He exhaled with relief as soon as he saw they were still breathing.
“Move!” T’Pol hissed through the comm.-line, the obvious concern in her voice snapping him out of his momentary hesitation, and Trip threw himself into a sprint down the road. “Multiple bio-signs converging on your location,” she continued, and he winced at the sudden flare of fear he felt spike through his brain. Behind him, he could hear shouts of alarm and fear as the Alliance soldiers responded to the cries of the two now unconscious men. Another frisson of terror coursed through him – it wasn’t his – and it was so intense that he actually stumbled in mid-step.
“Not helping,” he growled tightly as he righted himself. Loud cracks pursued him down the trail and the angry whines of bullets screaming past his head sent another jolt of fear through him that was definitely his own. “Lightning strike!” Trip snapped a second before a trio of solid impacts against his back knocked him off balance and sent him tumbling forward. He hit the ground and rolled.
And exactly two seconds later, the space around the convoy exploded with sound and fury.
To someone familiar with advanced technology like Trip, it was clearly a low-yield particle cannon being fired from behind cloud cover, but to the Ekosians, it must have seemed like an astoundingly accurate artillery strike that flattened trees and smashed one of the parked trikes into a smoking wreck.
“Seek cover!” someone from behind him bellowed, and fully half of the soldiers scrambled away from the smoking crater and shattered fragments of a three wheeler. Unfortunately, that left ten or twelve men still in hot pursuit, and none of them seemed inclined toward ignoring him. At a glance, Trip could tell their already substandard night vision had been spoiled by the explosion if the way they were blinking rapidly or rubbing their eyes was any indication, so he took the opportunity to spring back to his feet. Down the road he ran, thunder pounding in his ears, beating time with the triphammer that was his heartbeat. He was vaguely aware of T’Pol’s voice, but the overpowering (and distinctly alien) fear coursing through his veins made it hard for him to focus on anything but escape.
The sound of gas-powered engines snapped him out of the weird as hell brain meltdown, and Trip drew in a sharp breath the instant he realized that there were ATVs coming up the road. He skidded to a halt, glancing quickly in the direction he came – there were still a number of Ekosians coming toward him, all armed with longarms and if his ears weren’t deceiving him, they had dogs too – and then to either side of the trail. The mountain face to his immediate left would take too long to climb, and the sheer drop to his right was … it was …
It was his ticket out of here.
“You’ve got me on your screens?” he asked as he slid this phase pistol back into the holster at his side and secured the weapon.
“Yes,” T’Pol replied hesitantly, and Trip could feel the muted buzz of her thoughts pushing against his. She was terrified that he was in mortal danger – which, he had to admit, he kind of was – and that she wasn’t smart enough or fast enough or creative enough to save him. The only thing she had at her disposal was a transporter that barely functioned correctly. Panic and fury were warring within her, and leaking into his thoughts. Trip ground his teeth together – this was worse than the first time he’d gone up in a starship with a mischievous Jon at the helm. How the hell did Vulcans manage to even step foot out of their damned doors?
“Then I need you to catch me,” Trip snapped, fighting the nearly overwhelming urge to fall to the ground and curl up. Instead, he sprang forward once more.
Toward the edge of the cliff.
He half heard, half felt T’Pol’s gasp of astonishment in the second before he threw himself off the mountainside, but her surprise was washed away in an instant and replaced by a rush of thoughts, emotions, and calculations that came so quickly they hurt Trip’s brain. Wind tore at the black uniform as he plummeted toward the ground, and he had a magnificent view of the far distant lake near the base of this particular mountain. Not wanting to watch the digital altimeter on the goggles tick off, he closed his eyes, hoping that his latest stupid decision hadn’t totally thrown T’Pol for a loop.
The air around him changed suddenly, and the moment Trip opened his eyes, he realized he was facing the aft of the T’Muna-Doth. Her running lights were completely deactivated and she was fully in stealth mode, making it virtually impossible to make out more than a dark shape that was otherwise impossible to identify. A flash of greenish-blue enveloped him, tugging him toward the waiting cargo bay, and he pulled his legs up to his chest to minimize any damage. The very second he hit the internal bulkhead – hard; apparently, T’Pol was a little annoyed at him – the outer airlock door was sliding shut and Trip could feel the artificial gravity aboard the ship shudder slightly as T’Pol demanded some sort of evasive maneuvers.
With a groan, Trip slowly forced himself to his feet, wincing at the complaints from his muscles as he pulled the hood off his face. Already, he could feel his heart rate sliding back to normal and he took a few long seconds to focus on his breathing like T’Pol had taught him. No longer in purely fight or flight mode, he suddenly became aware of just how badly his back was throbbing, and he’d barely stumbled to the small hatch leading up to the primary deck when it slid open, revealing a seemingly composed T’Pol standing there. Her nostrils were flaring, though, and her lips were pressed together so tightly that Trip expected to hear teeth grinding.
“Shouldn’t you be flying this thing?” he asked wryly as he began climbing up the small ladder.
“We have landed,” T’Pol replied flatly. Trip gave her a quick, surprised look that she ignored. “We are at the bottom of the lake,” she admitted. Her frown deepened once he was out of the cargo bay and she stepped closer to him, her fingers coming up to the back of the hardened cuirass. Once again, Trip winced at the blatant flash of emotion – terror, surprise, relief, despair, all rolled up in an intense bundle that burned his brain like liquid fire. “You are very fortunate,” she murmured softly, her voice thick as she began unstrapping the chest piece. Trip started to reply but froze when she pulled the backplate free and offered it to him.
There, directly over where his heart would have been, were three indentions that could have only come from bullets. Trip swallowed and mentally saluted the aim of the shooter in question.
“At least he didn’t aim at my head,” he muttered, the comment earning a sharp glare that T’Pol didn’t even try to conceal. “Please tell me this wasn’t a waste of time,” he said a moment later, glancing back at the mess in the cargo hold. The walls were splattered with … something that bore a startling resemblance to gelatin. Two supply boxes were present, but one was a misshapen mess that looked partially melted.
“As you can see,” T’Pol replied, her voice still tight and her fingers still working on removing the covert excursion uniform from Trip’s body, “only one of the boxes maintained pattern coherence during transport.” Trip flinched – twenty-five percent success was terrible – and then jumped when T’Pol’s warm hand touched his bare skin. He gave her a startled look, swallowing at the emotions swimming in her eyes.
“T’Pol?” he asked softly. He could feel his body stirring at her obvious intent.
“My control was inadequate,” she declared, “and it endangered you.” She stepped closer, her hands busy with his pants. “You felt my concern for your safety,” she said. It was not meant to be a question, but Trip decided to treat it as one.
“Yeah,” he said in a husky voice, “I did.” With two fingers, he pushed her hair behind her ear and stroked the subtle point, smiling when she shivered. “We’re gonna haveta do something about that,” he admitted. T’Pol nodded before wetting her lips with her tongue. Their eyes met. Her sudden need sang to him through their magical connection – she desperately craved some form of validation, some proof that he was fully intact and uninjured, and Trip briefly wondered if it was a purely subconscious thing, if she was even remotely aware of it. But when she brought her hand up, index and middle fingers extended, Trip mirrored the gesture instinctively and the bond sparked between them, exploding like a supernova that ignited the blood in his veins and sweeping away any fears over lack of control or psychic feedback.
T’Pol’s need called out to him.
And willingly, eagerly, he went to her.