He was tired of waiting.
For the last thirty days, they had been shadowing Urri as he wound a long, circuitous route across the continent of Tandos on what was clearly a mission of espionage. If it were not for the advanced technology they had at their disposal, Trip had to admit that the Zeon would have lost them weeks ago thanks to the positively insane lengths that he went to in his attempts to avoid notice or detection. Rather than taking a well-traveled road, the Zeon would instead risk a dicey midnight mountain climb or a crossing of a fast-moving river overflowing with water from melting snow. Trip wasn’t able to tell if the man was brave beyond measure, insane, or a mixture of the two.
The T’Muna-Doth’s aerial surveillance drones proved to be a godsend. Small, stealthy, and so quiet even a Vulcan would have trouble hearing them, they were equipped with a sensor array that never ceased to amaze Trip. The bio-sniffer was especially fascinating – keyed to Urri’s distinctive molecular pheromone signature, the small devices were able to keep a steady lock on him no matter the weather. Once, an eternity ago, T’Pol had arrogantly told him that Vulcan children played with toys more advanced than the sensor suite aboard Enterprise, but Trip had scoffed, thinking she’d been making an idle boast.
Clearly, she hadn’t.
Shifting anxiously in his seat, Trip pushed the thought away and once more concentrated his full attention on the sensor board in front of him. Today marked the fifth day in a row that Urri had remained concealed within the small cave he’d retreated to just before a late evening rainstorm reduced visibility to around zero, and Trip couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t right. He knew the Zeon was still there – the T’Muna-Doth’s sensors confirmed that, even from this great distance – but the fact that Urri had inexplicably decided to take a break … well, it was throwing up all sorts of red flags.
For a long moment, Trip wondered if his concerns were sufficient to rouse T’Pol from the healing trance she’d been in for the last week – six days, three hours, and twenty-two minutes actually, but who was counting? – though he discarded the notion as quickly as it occurred to him. Yes, he missed talking to her or feeling her touch or just hearing her breathing, but her well-being was too important to risk on just a hunch. He could barely close his eyes anymore and not see the raw anguish on her face as her guilt over the dead Ekosian overwhelmed her.
Automatically, his attention drifted to the monitor displaying the view from inside the meditation chamber. Her eyes closed, T’Pol sat in the very center of the room, breathing calmly and regularly. At any other time, Trip would have let himself enjoy the sight of her nude body (which could have had … unfortunate results), but the worry that had been hounding him for the last month overwhelmed his base instincts. The first week had been the worst, with T’Pol alternately catatonic or virtually hysterical as the overwhelming emotions that her species struggled with on a daily basis ran amok and shattered her self-control. She’d required constant physical reassurance of his presence – a touch here, a caress there – but, as long as he was there, she’d managed to enter her trance-state with minimal difficulty. For his part, Trip had done his best to keep his own overpowering self-disgust in check, knowing that the very last thing she needed was to deal with his guilt on top of hers, even if he was firmly convinced that this was sixty to seventy percent his fault – whose idea had it been to build the damned transporter in the first place? T’Pol had tried to talk him out of this, had pointed out the numerous flaws in his reasoning, and now a man was dead because of his refusal to listen. But that wasn’t relevant then or now, not with her depending on him to provide her with a sense of equilibrium, so he swallowed the crippling dismay and did what was necessary to help her. And it seemed to work: by the middle of the second week, the openly anguished expression she wore while meditating had begun to transform into a puzzled one.
“There is something wrong with me,” T’Pol had announced when she emerged from her third week-long meditative trance. Her tone had been matter-of-fact and Trip didn’t need a psychic mental connection to recognize that she was more curious than worried. “My memories are inconsistent regarding my time with the Ministry of Intelligence,” she’d added, as if it were a trivial matter that didn’t really warrant discussion.
“Inconsistent how?” Trip had asked and T’Pol gave him that sidelong ‘don’t be dense, you silly human’ look he loved seeing on her face before responding.
“I have overlapping memories of events that conflict with one another,” she said. “This will require further investigation.” She refused to comment further on the matter because it was not ‘relevant’ at the moment, but Trip could tell she was worried. She had spared only a few hours to eat, drink, shower and seduce him into bed – which admittedly hadn’t been that difficult – before returning to the meditation chamber, and now, almost a week after that all too brief interaction, Trip was getting antsy.
Antsy and just a little bored.
Beyond the polarized viewport, lightning danced across the night sky, flashing and flickering at intermittent intervals and illuminating a barren landscape straight out of nightmares. None of the three moons were readily visible – the bigger, uglier one hadn’t risen yet and the other two were hidden behind swollen gray clouds. Rain fell in heavy sheets, pounding away at the skeletal leafless trees and drumming a steady cadence against the T’Muna-Doth’s hull. Thanks to the Vulcan starship’s soundproofing, Trip couldn’t hear the thunder booming across the horizon, but having ventured outside just a few hours earlier, he knew it was fierce. All in all, it was not a day one wanted to be caught unprotected. Even the local wildlife was steering clear of the forest – a quick glance at the sensor feed confirmed Trip’s previous scans: there wasn’t anything more advanced than bacteria within fifty kilometers of Urri’s current position.
And just like that, the pieces fell into place.
With a frown, Trip began cycling though the data he’d accumulated over the last five days. Yes, this storm was pretty bad, but Urri had started acting weird long before the first raindrops fell. In fact, now that Tucker thought about it, the Zeon hadn’t started acting squirrelly until he reached the outskirts of this forest a week earlier, at which point he’d begun taking evasive measures that were extreme even for him. The results of his search crawled across the screen: thanks to the utter lack of nutrients in the region, nothing lived in this forest.
Especially not vaguely bird-shaped recon drones …
“You stupid sonuvabitch,” Trip muttered softly to himself as he reached for the control panel and brought up the scan results on the secondary monitor. They confirmed his worst suspicions – there wasn’t an actual bird within a hundred and fifty kilometers or more – and he bit back a curse. A subtle chime drew his attention to his T’Pol-cam – she was stirring slightly and her life signs were elevated, which he took as her detecting his furious self-recrimination – and Tucker inhaled a deep, steadying breath. I will permit it to pass over me and through me, he recited carefully. Almost at once, the analytical part of his brain kicked in.
One. Two. Three. Five. Seven. Eleven. Thirteen.
He was at one hundred and thirty-seven when T’Pol’s biosigns finally slid back to trance normal and the anger he felt toward his sloppiness was adequately suppressed. Now wasn’t the time to focus on the mistake he’d made – he could do that later, when T’Pol was stable and able to withstand his emotions flaring up. After only a brief moment of hesitation, he keyed in a new set of commands to the drones. The one that had the clearest view of Urri obeyed immediately, relocating to a position that essentially put rocks between it and the Zeon.
And exactly as Tucker expected, Urri shifted his own position to maintain clear line-of-sight.
Trip slumped back in the chair and sighed. He drummed his fingers against the armrest and chewed at the inside of his mouth. Automatically, his eyes sought out the image of T’Pol. She was thinner than was probably entirely healthy thanks to their crappy diet and, though she tried to hide it from him, the Pa’nar was beginning to show signs of coming out of remission. Her hands shook, she suffered from headaches, and he knew for a fact that she wasn’t sleeping well, even before the transporter incident. This goddamned planet was killing them by centimeters and Trip was sick of it. They needed Phlox.
His decision made, he leaned forward once more and cycled through the various command options at his disposal. Minutes passed as he calculated the best way to make contact. In the end, he decided to go all out. If you’re going to do something, his dad had always told him, do it right and do it with style.
The engines of the T’Muna-Doth came alive with barely a sound and the lift-off was equally smooth, although the engineer in him couldn’t help but to frown at a subtle shudder running through the deckplates. Nacelle Three still worried him – the microfracture in the warp coil he’d detected hadn’t gotten worse, but none of his stopgap measures were that effective and those jury-rigs had the unfortunate side effect of messing with the maneuver drives as well. A quick glance at his T’Pol-cam indicated that she hadn’t stirred, which he took to mean she hadn’t noticed the reactor powering up or the main drive firing. That wasn’t a major surprise since the meditation chamber was hermetically sealed and heavily soundproofed.
Thirty seconds out, Trip activated the landing lights.
On the sensor feed being transmitted by the drone, he could see Urri reacting to the T’Muna-Doth’s descent – abandoned were the Zeon’s attempts at stealth, only to be replaced by open wonder. Urri stumbled out of the cave, ignoring the pelting rain, and watched with wide eyes as the Vulcan ship broke through the gray clouds and rotated into the landing position.
“Fascinating.” T’Pol’s dry remark caused Trip to jump and his head snapped around to where she perched atop the ladder leading down to the alpha deck and leaned on the floor of the bridge, half in and half out. She was wearing one of the heavy robes that had likely belonged to the previous ship commander and the expression on her face showed only a few hints of her recent struggles. “Were you planning on informing me before inviting Urri aboard?” she asked with an eyebrow upraised. If it hadn’t been for the wry almost-smile, Trip might have thought she was legitimately angry.
“It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission,” he said with a soft smile before pushing himself to his feet. “How did you know something was up?” he asked.
“I sensed your excitement,” she replied calmly. Trip flinched – he thought he had done a better job at hiding that – before gesturing toward the main viewer where Urri could be seen, still staring at the T’Muna-Doth with open-mouthed disbelief.
“Do you want to handle this?” he asked.
“No.” The succinctness of T’Pol’s answer almost caused him to laugh out loud. “I will be in the meditation chamber.” She disappeared through the hatch without another word. Trip shook his head – this had been his idea, after all – and followed her off the command deck.
A biting wind greeted him as the main hatch curled open long minutes later and Trip automatically lifted a hand up to protect his eyes from the driving rain. He took a single step forward, glancing around for any sign of Urri. The Zeon hadn’t moved from where he stood. Trip smirked before thumbing the remote control for the drones. Instantly, the three surveillance devices powered up, abandoned their places of concealment and zoomed toward him. He took a step forward so as to allow the trio enough space to enter the T’Muna-Doth without hitting him.
“Urri, son of Aron,” Trip said loudly as he stepped onto the landing ramp, a broad smile on his face. How many humans, he wondered, legitimately had a chance to say these words? “We come in peace.”