The hum of the engines was soothing.
If he was entirely honest, Trip would admit that he really didn't have much to do right now – the T'Muna-Doth was operating as well as this old bird was capable of without tearing her down and rebuilding her, all of the busy-work he'd come up with was done, and thankfully, none of the Boomers were awake at the moment – so he closed his eyes and concentrated on peace. T'Pol was there, waiting, like usual, a tiny knot of emotions and presence that he could never quite ignore, even when she was being particularly trying and doing her level best to start a fight. That thought almost made him smile but he thrust the emotion aside and concentrated on his breathing. His engineering watch wasn't over for another forty minutes and he knew that T'Pol would very probably tackle him the instant he joined her on the command-bridge since she'd been fighting with Miss Mazaheri again. About what, Trip didn't know – he generally tried to steer clear of the two when they were in a combative mood – nor was he particularly enthusiastic about finding out.
By his calculations, just under seven months had elapsed since they departed the deuterium colony where they had picked up the Morales and Miss Mazaheri. One hundred and ninety-eight very long days with only each other as company and very few options to break the monotony. Strangely, Trip found himself thinking that Miss Mazaheri had it the worst primarily since she was, for all intents, a fifth wheel. He had T'Pol and Teban had Karrin, but Miss Mazaheri was all alone. As something of an expert on how lonely one could be when surrounded by other couples, Trip empathized with the woman even though he wouldn't touch her with a three meter pole. They could have made better time if it wasn't for the T'Muna-Doth's always tempermental engines. How many weeks had they lost cruising at impulse while trying correct the warp field imbalance?
"Are you asleep?" Karrin Morales asked when she entered engineering thirty-six minutes later. From where he sat on the floor, legs crossed and hands resting on his knees, Trip opened his eyes and glanced up at her. The expression on her face seemed torn between amusement and irritation.
"No," Trip replied calmly. "You stood in the hatchway for five minutes before going to the kitchen and then returning," he said, delighting in the surprise that flashed across her face though he didn't show it.
"That is really creepy," Mrs. Morales said as Trip rose to his feet. He gave her a very tight smile before gesturing toward the pulsing warp core.
"It's all yours," he remarked. "Everything is still operating in amber parameters," Trip added, grimacing slightly as his eyes flashed over the still fluctuating warp field. They'd already done everything they should to stabilize it but he tapped the readout again, as if that would actually change anything. It didn't, of course, but he had to make the effort.
"Go," Mrs. Morales said with a shooing gesture. "Go get some sleep." She made a face. "And keep the subcommander from blowing my idiot sister out of the nearest airlock."
"The impossible takes a little longer," Trip replied in a slightly flippant voice though he suspected it did not show on his face based on her reaction. When was it, he wondered, that he'd stopped knowing how to act around other humans? Was this T'Pol's training or just the school of hard knocks that had battered the two of them so very hard for several years now? Six of one, half dozen of the other, he mused as he deviated to the kitchen/med-bay to retrieve food for T'Pol. He wasn't sure if it was this bond thing or just his knowledge of how her brain worked, but he doubted she'd eaten anything since he forced that soup into her last night.
When he climbed through the small hatch, he found her seated on her meditation mat, eyes closed and an angry scowl on her face. Well, it was an angry scowl to him. To any of the other humans, she probably looked like she normally did or maybe appeared to be suffering from some mild indigestion. Trip paused as he set the covered bowl down beside her, his eyes instantly going to her hands.
They were trembling.
He didn't bother speaking. Instead, he took a seat next to her and all but dragged her into his lap where he wrapped both arms around her and held her tightly. T'Pol trembled, almost as if she were cold though he knew that wasn't the case, and Trip winced very slightly at the torrent of alien emotions that blasted through their strange, magical connection. For a change, she did not immediately clamp down on the flood of sensation and Trip rode it out, concentrating on his breathing and focusing on being calm. Right now, the last thing T'Pol needed was his own emotions hitting her in the face.
They could no longer deny that her Pa'nar was resurfacing from the strange remission it had gone into. Her emotional control was in tatters, she could barely sleep or meditate, and the less said about her appetite the better. If Trip wasn't here to all but bully her into eating, he had his doubts she would ever do so and it was already taking a terrible toll. Never a particularly large woman, T'Pol bordered on gaunt at the moment. Even worse, she was categorically incapable of entering a healing trance.
"Thank you," she murmured softly an eternity later. She made no effort to leave the circle of his arms so Trip maintained his hold, wishing there was something – anything – he could do to make the T'Muna-Doth go faster. T'Pol needed medical attention and she needed it now. He opened his mouth to reply, to remind her that they were in this together.
And in that moment, the T'Muna-Doth lurched out of warp.
Alarms began shrieking immediately as onboard systems automatically hard-sealed all of the hatches throughout the ship. T'Pol sprang up instantly, wobbling only slightly as the ship's internal gravity momentarily faltered, and Trip scrambled to his feet a heartbeat later.
"Nausicaan corvette on hostile approach," T'Pol hissed as he fingers flew across her console. "Initiating evasive maneuvers." Trip cursed softly as he took the other station.
"We hit some sort of pulse beacon," he said darkly. "It completely blew out nacelle three." There was no way they would be able to hit warp now, not with the damage alerts flashing all over the board. He tabbed the intraship. "Brace for emergency maneuvers," he ordered. "Nausicaan hostiles on attack vector."
Engines howling, the T'Muna-Doth dove, corkscrewing away from the much faster, much more dangerous Nausicaan corvette that was already maneuvering to bring their weapons to bear. Trip glanced at the sensor feed again – there were four other ships at the very edge of the T'Muna-Doth's sensor capabilities, but there was too much interference for him to identify them. The feed fuzzed over for a second as one of the four vanished.
"We need more acceleration," T'Pol said through clenched teeth. The T'Muna-Doth rocked and shook as the Nausicaan opened fire. Emerald pulses of light burned across the void, and even the near misses were trouble. Already, alerts were flashing, warning of critical overloads through the hull polarization system. Trip scanned the available systems before abruptly killing power to the comm array. His fingers darted, deactivating unnecessary power draws and redirecting as much as he could to the main reactor. If the hatch wasn't sealed, he'd be making a beeline to the engineering deck where he knew he'd be able to do this faster but right now, it would take more time to circumvent the main computer's programming than it would to just work here.
A quick glance to the sensor confirmed his worst fears – the Nausicaan was drawing even closer – and he bit down on the flood of fear that turned to ice in his stomach. They were so damned close to home.
"Brace for impact!" T'Pol exclaimed. She sent the T'Muna-Doth into a sharp dive that was almost enough to evade the lethal disruptor fire.
Sizzling streams of energy stabbed into the heart of the T'Muna-Doth, burning through the antiquated defenses and tearing apart critical systems. Explosions shook the Vulcan craft, throwing it into a wild, uncontrolled spin that the inertial dampers were only partially capable of compensating for as another nacelle blew apart under the sudden overload that tore through the EPS conduits. Safety measures failed through the ship – core containment began to fail and the entire vessel was abruptly flooded with dangerous levels of radiation. Junction boxes self-destructed and through the hazy fog of near-unconsciousness, Trip realized that they were looking at a runaway cascade failure. He instinctively keyed in the override code, hoping to God that the emergency ejection system would not fail.
Naturally, it did.
He stared at the flashing alert on his console with uncomprehending eyes. Triggering of this override should have blown the aft cargo bay free and ejected the rapidly failing warp core. Why … ? Oh. Engineering still had someone inside and the error-riddled computer system was crashing as it facing conflicting directives. He started to reach for the console, fighting against the implacable crush of gravity holding him down in place. Trip knew what had to be done, knew he had to trigger the ejection, but still, he hesitated.
But Karrin Morales took the decision out of his hands.
The pulsing green alert abruptly changed to amber as the manual release was triggered. Tiny explosives detonated, tearing the aft cargo free, and bare seconds later, T'Muna-Doth spat her malfunctioning warp core free. Trip had a fantastic imagination and could all too well guess what Engineering was like right now. Vented to space, the atmosphere was sucked free along with anything … or anyone still present. He wanted to close his eyes but couldn't.
Twelve seconds later, the warp core went critical. And two seconds after that, the shockwave slammed into the T'Muna-Doth with hull-crushing force.