She longed for meditation.
Six days had passed since she last saw Trip in person and, even though she knew exactly where he was and what he was doing at the moment, T’Pol could not shake the growing sense of unease building in her stomach over his continued absence. It did not matter that all four of the surveillance drones were deployed and circling Trip’s location, or that she could see him on the main display as he worked, or even that she could feel him through their fascinating psychic connection. All that truly mattered was that he not here, at her side, where he belonged.
With the near catastrophic failure of their previous attempt to acquire supplies, they had decided again to make an attempt to infiltrate one of the Alliance-controlled cities and the supply depots within. As before, Trip had made the argument for being the person most suited for this mission and, as before, T’Pol had been unable to entirely refute his logic, especially now that the Pa’nar seemed to slowly be creeping back out of the unusual remission it had been in. Anger skittered across her consciousness, anger and despair that this short time she had with Trip truly was going to end before she was ready to give him up, but she pushed the emotions down, wrestled them into submission and focused again on the images of her mate.
At the moment, Trip appeared safe. He was dressed in the uniform of an Alliance soldier, laboring alongside Ekosian men ignorant of Tucker’s identity. This had not been part of their plan – originally, his intent was to sneak into the depot, place transporter tags on supply crates, and then depart without detection, but instead, he’d found himself noticed by the locals and pressed into service loading those same supplies onto vehicles bound for offensive theaters. Trip had adapted more quickly than T’Pol would have, improvising an explanation for his presence that appeared to be acceptable to the guards, and sliding into the role of common laborer without hesitation. Once again, he’d utilized the easy charisma that had drawn T’Pol to him in the first place, and within the first hour, the Ekosians he was working alongside laughed and joked with him as if he were an old friend.
So, for the last four and a half days since Trip’s discovery, T’Pol had watched as her mate loaded crates aboard trucks, or ate alongside the Ekosian soldiers, or slept on uncomfortable-looking cots set up for these workers, all the while struggling to suppress her worry that he would be found out. The amount of time she was willing to spare from monitoring his status was minimal, so she had not meditated properly since before he departed the T’Muna-Doth, and the naps she managed were unfulfilling at best. In between that, she also operated the barely functional transporter device to beam aboard the supply crates that Trip discreetly tagged during the course of his work.
Or rather, try to beam aboard. Thus far, the average success rate of these transport attempts continued to fluctuate between eighteen and twenty-two percent success, with streaks where the device functioned perfectly or not at all. No matter how much work she or Trip put into the device, it seemed to be intrinsically flawed in some way they could not quite detect.
Her console chirped, and T’Pol refocused her full attention on the main viewer before her as data began crawling down the screen, informing her that Trip had placed the last of his transmitter tags and it was moving. With her left hand, she tapped her control board and changed one the many images before her to a larger overview of the city. A dark green dot began flashing upon the screen – the location of the transmitter tag – and T’Pol frowned at the anomalous sensor readings that appeared next to it. Frustration bubbled within her but she successfully bit it back. These sorts of glitches were routine whenever the surveillance drones were deployed, no matter that the resources they all shared should have been more than enough to compensate for any data-lag. Trip had theorized that it was due to the wear and tear of the starship’s systems over the years, coupled with the late Subcommander’s Tykath’s apparent incompetence. The sensor dish, just like the communications array, had evidently been in such poor shape before the Orions seized the T’Muna-Doth, that it made repairs without the benefit of a spacedock exceedingly difficult. T’Pol had witnessed this firsthand, when they cannibalized the Starfleet satellite in an almost futile attempt to craft functional ship-to-ship comms. Currently, they were capable of communicating out to sixty light minutes or so with no discernible transmission delay, but long-range contact was still beyond their capabilities.
The anomalous reading – a sensor ghost Trip would have called it – continued to flicker in and out of existence, sometimes indicating bio-matter, sometimes not. With a flick of her wrist, T’Pol increased the intensity of the scan, but with minimal results – the ongoing system errors limited the T’Muna-Doth’s sensors to less than thirty percent capability. She could not determine the size of the anomaly, how far it was from the transport tag, or even if there was actually anything there. T’Pol gave her panel another quick once-over – if she landed one of the surveillance drones, the corresponding increase in system resources might be adequate to isolate the anomaly before the vehicle was out of range … but doing so would potentially endanger Trip by removing one piece of his support structure. She frowned tightly. No, T’Pol decided firmly. Under no circumstances would she divert even one of the drones away from its tracking pattern. Trip remained her first priority.
Before she could further consider the situation, a sudden flash of sensation caused her to glance up at the viewscreen highlighting Trip’s location. To her surprise, he was moving steadily away from the loading dock and the cluster of bio-signs that represented the Ekosian workers. Tucker’s intentions, always confusing, had suddenly become a wild cacophony of thoughts and emotions and images she couldn’t begin to comprehend. The ‘open channel’ symbol abruptly appeared on her screen, indicating that Trip had activated his comm.-line. “What are you doing?” she demanded by way of greeting, not even bothering to conceal the concern in her voice.
“Just saw someone I shouldn’t have seen,” he replied. “Can you give me remote control of a drone?”
“Yes,” she answered automatically as she input commands into her console. “The loaders,” she began.
“Aren’t important,” Trip finished. “It’ll be an hour or more before they notice I’m gone.”
The designated drone suddenly altered its course, this time flying under Trip’s direction. T’Pol didn’t bother pointing out that Tucker wasn’t supposed to be carrying anything with him that was even capable of remote-piloting the aerial vehicle, and instead simply sat quietly in her seat. Knowing that her mate was no longer in immediate danger allowed her to relax slightly, which turned out to be something of a mistake. The stress of the previous six days pressed in upon her and T’Pol once more longed for meditation.
“Where the hell did you go?” Trip mumbled under his breath, his words clearly not meant to be heard over the comm.-line, but before T’Pol could even consider commenting, a sharp spike of emotion – surprise, excitement, worry, fear – erupted through their mental connection and caused her to flinch. The video image from the drone zoomed in on a young adult male picking his way through the rubble of the city’s southwest corridor. He was dressed like a local but still, T’Pol’s eyebrows rocketed up.
It was Urri. One of the Zeons who had aided them so long ago.
“Gotcha!” Trip hissed. The image panned around – clearly, the drone was now circling – but always remained focused on Urri. “Correct me if I’m wrong,” Trip stated softly, “but that looks like a camera in his hand.” T’Pol blinked.
“Agreed.” She watched the Zeon for a moment, noting without surprise that he seemed oblivious to the fact that he was under surveillance. Noiseless and barely the size of a small bird, the aerial drone would attract very little attention providing they remained at a safe distance. “It appears to be far more advanced than Ekosian culture should be capable of,” she said of the camera in Urri’s hands.
“Yeah.” Trip was silent for a moment. “We should follow him,” he said. “Find out what the hell is going on. Why he’s half a continent away from the rest of his family.”
“I concur,” T’Pol said. She sat quietly for a long moment, aware of but not really paying a significant amount of attention to Urri since Trip was monitoring the Zeon. Instead, her eyes were focused on the flashing light on the city overview indicating the location of the last transporter tag. It was already nearing the periphery of the transporter’s range; she had five minutes, maybe six before it was gone and Trip’s efforts were wasted.
After another moment of consideration, she reached for the controls of the transporter and keyed in the commands to activate it. Twenty long seconds passed as the antiquated systems labored to obey her instructions, which was a small eternity to someone long accustomed to modern hardware. Once, so long ago, she’d mocked Enterprise’s sensors, stating that Vulcan children played with toys more advanced than the best detection suite the humans could field, but right now, as she waited for the transport sequence to begin, T’Pol longed to have human ingenuity at her fingertips once more.
Another thirty seconds elapsed as the primitive transporter struggled to successfully maintain the pattern lock it had acquired upon the target. From her understanding of the mechanics behind this process, the item was first scanned on a quantum level before the matter stream systematically broke it down into subatomic particles before reassembling it at the destination point, in this case, the cargo bay. Despite being effectively two decks away, T’Pol could hear the whine of the energizing coils as they powered the annular confinement beam that would rebuild the supply crate, quark by quark, lepton by lepton, atom by atom. She fought the urge to grimace at the pitch of the noise but a nanosecond later, T’Pol felt her stomach tighten.
Something was wrong.
She frowned at the data crawling across her screen – there was already a twenty-five point three two percent increase in the power usage and it was increasing – and keyed in another series of commands. Instantly, the main viewer shifted to an internal diagnostic – she barely fought down the urge to mutter one of Trip’s favorite curses; of course he would choose now to not be here, when his creative engineering skills were most needed – and T’Pol raised both eyebrows at what she saw. The pattern buffer was at capacity and still data was incoming. It could mean only one thing: Bio-matter, and of a complexity significantly greater than that of foodstuff.
A lifeform. An Ekosian. A sentient being.
Bile swam in her stomach and she could feel Trip’s sudden reaction to the flare of her emotions, but T’Pol drew in a sharp, steadying breath. Her fingers danced across the keys – one of the viewscreens immediately transformed into a view of the cargo bay and the semi-materialized shape within – as she transferred all available resources to the transport sequence. The remaining three surveillance drones she quickly landed – one in the river that crawled by the city, the other two in abandoned buildings already shattered by artillery fire – while leaving the fourth under Trip’s control. Every spare joule she could locate, she poured into the transporter, and entire terabytes of data from the previous crew’s mission of exploration was deleted to make room for the swelling demands of the pattern buffer.
But it still wasn’t enough.
With a sharp pop that echoed throughout the ship, the transport sequence abruptly terminated, and the matter stream coalesced into a vaguely humanoid shape. He was frozen in place, a hideous distortion of a sentient being, with misshapen limbs and distended flesh blisters bubbling up off his skin. Wooden slats from the partially materialized crate that Trip had targeted were embedded within the Ekosian’s flesh, but the re-integration was such that there was no way to determine where he began and the box ended. His muscles twitched and convulsed, and his skin was too shiny, as if it had been recently bathed in liquid. T’Pol stared at the image with horror stamped on her face.
And then, he exploded.
“T’Pol!” Trip’s voice echoed loudly through the ship’s comm.-system, snapping her out of the fugue state that had momentarily frozen her in place. Even if she could not hear the terror in his voice, she could certainly feel it across the surging psychic connection. Her control in tatters, T’Pol deactivated the cargo bay image and half crawled, half fell out of the command chair. She dropped to her knees and barely managed to get clear of the flight console before retching upon the floor. Again and again, she vomited and her muscles quivered spasmodically as she purged herself. Finally, long moments after the last of her dry heaves subsided, control returned.
And with it came a crippling guilt that threatened to destroy her utterly.
“Trip,” she rasped softly, her voice harsh and ragged, “I need you.” It was the height of Vulcan impropriety to admit such a thing out loud, but T’Pol no longer cared. Without her mate, she would collapse under the crushing tide of guilt over the unintentional death at her hands.
“I’m on my way,” he replied tightly. He didn’t ask why, didn’t ask for further clarification regarding her loss of emotional control and T’Pol felt a tiny bit of the shame pressing down upon her ease fractionally. Her mate was coming. He would make things better.
But that didn’t stem the tears that began to trickle down her face.