Snow crunched underfoot as they crept toward their target, and T’Pol winced at the sound.
Thick, gray clouds filled the night sky, blotting out the moons and the stars, and draping the entire valley in an oppressive darkness that the subcommander loathed. Perspiration dotted her forehead, though it came more from the stress of being almost completely blind than from exertion. Reflexively, she tightened her grip on Charles’ hand as he carefully led her through the inky blackness. That he was able to see anything at all seemed beyond comprehension, though she had long since grown accustomed to his superior vision at night.
The distant crack of wood snapping caused her to freeze in place and yank Charles to a stop as well. She sensed rather than saw his glance at her, and held up her hand to forestall any question. He tensed, seeming to recognize that she had detected something with her greater sense of hearing or of smell, and was silent as he waited for further instructions. When the sound did not repeat – she guessed it was limbs breaking under the weight of too much snow or ice – she nodded.
“Proceed,” she murmured, just loud enough for him to hear her voice.
They continued their slow approach, inching toward the overturned shipping cars of the derailed train. Even to T’Pol’s poor night vision, the containers loomed large, dark voids of utter blackness in the already impenetrable night, and she silently wondered at the wisdom in their mutual decision to investigate now. Moving once the sun went down was obviously the best tactical option, but she could not help but to think she was slowing Charles down. It was ironic, she mused, that he remained self-conscious about his own contribution to their survival yet seemed utterly unable to fathom just how much she relied upon him at night.
Fifteen tense days had passed since they blundered into the combat zone, and the continued hostilities raging around them had forced them to abandon plans for a quick escape even if they had managed to acquire additional fuel. In the first two days, they had been forced to relocate their rudimentary camp site three times to avoid detection by the arriving guerilla reinforcements intent on capturing the derailed train. Near dusk on the second day, however, Charles discovered an ideal hiding spot for them to lay low until the situation resolved itself. Situated in a sandstone caprock escarpment and sheltered from view by thick, snow covered bushes, the hidden cavern he happened to stumble upon while relieving his bladder extended just over six meters into the rock and provided an adequate view of the conflict zone. Wide enough for the ATV to be backed into it, the cave appeared to have been carved out of the largely sedimentary rock by wind, rain, and snow over centuries, yet remained surprisingly devoid of native animals.
With little to do apart from remaining undetected, they spent the time formulating plans and training. Although his dedication was admirable, Charles continued to struggle with the lessons he was being presented, whether it was the basic maneuvers of Suus mahna or the advanced mental techniques many Vulcans took for granted. Rather than coddle him, though, T’Pol continued to push him hard, knowing how much he detested someone patronizing him or his abilities. The intensity of these sessions left him frustrated, sore and occasionally hostile toward her; she suspected he recognized on some level why she did not let up, however, as their evenings invariably ended with neuropressure (which was quite difficult to do with the limited space and the inability to disrobe) and soft, friendly conversation. When they retired for the evening, it was always together, and Charles neither commented nor complained that she shared his blankets and body warmth against the bitter cold that continued to seep into her very bones.
To her great surprise, T’Pol found herself more content during those nightly dialogues than she recalled being since her father died. She had long known that Charles Tucker was an enjoyable conversationalist, but without the distraction of potential engineering problems or unexpected interruptions by Captain Archer, Tucker revealed a side of himself that she found absolutely fascinating. They did not limit themselves to topics both were already familiar with – his grasp of warp mechanics would always be superior to hers, just as her understanding of stellar dynamics far exceeded his – and instead turned to subjects that would not normally come up in their daily interactions. Charles surprised her with his knowledge of Surak’s tenets, for example – he admitted to having read the book she gave to the captain as well as having taken a Vulcan philosophy course during his years at the University of Florida – and even brought up a number of valid points regarding the interpretation of those teachings, though she remain satisfied that she had adequately defended her stance. More often than not, they argued, though it was rarely heated and began to take a more affectionate, almost teasing tone as the days passed. That these discussions almost always occurred during neuropressure or while they were wrapped up in blankets together only served to increase the sense of intimacy T’Pol had been fighting to avoid.
With the apparent cessation of hostilities in the valley below and the near exhaustion of their food stores, T’Pol had suggested they investigate the wreckage of the train in order to hopefully replenish their supplies. Tucker insisted on them venturing out at night, despite her night blindness, and T’Pol finally agreed that it was the most logical course of action.
Now, however, she wasn’t so sure.
“I think this is a truck,” Charles whispered as he drew abreast to one of the overturned cargo containers. T’Pol frowned when he let go of her hand and she instinctively took a step closer to him. “Yeah,” he repeated a moment later, “definitely a truck. Looks a little like an ambulance from World War Two.” He glanced in her direction. “If I can get this thing runnin’,” he said softly, “I really think we should ditch the ATV.” At her look, he shrugged. “Yeah, yeah,” he said, “I know it’ll draw more attention than the trike, but at least with this thing we can carry some actual supplies.”
“Can you?” T’Pol asked, shuffling closer to him in an attempt to make out the vehicle he was referring to. Like the trike, the ambulance shared the three-wheeled frame, though it bore only a single wheel in the front and a pair of extraordinarily thick ones in the aft. The truck bed was enclosed, no doubt to provide cover for the wounded it was meant to transport, but she doubted there was sufficient space for more than a single patient and the attending medic. Still, she had to admit that the extra cargo space and the possibility of a sleeping cot would be greatly appreciated. An unusual symbol was emblazoned upon the side of the vehicle: three concentric, orange circles of equal size oriented in such a way that they would be centered upon the angles of an unseen equilateral triangle. Currently, the truck was tipped over on its side and, based on what little T’Pol could see, appeared to have been knocked free from the freight container when the train derailed. “Repair it, that is?” she added, purposely speaking in her native tongue to test his comprehension.
“I have absolutely no idea,” Charles replied. She froze in place at the feel of his hand upon her waist, but the protest she was about to voice at his audacity died when he pulled her scanner free. Charles did not seem to notice. “We’ll need to roll it over, though,” he murmured as he began circling the vehicle. T’Pol followed without hesitation, her eyes as wide as possible.
“That could be difficult,” she remarked, wincing when she stumbled over something unseen. “There are only two of us and it appears to be quite heavy.” Charles stopped so abruptly to face her that she nearly collided into him.
“I thought you Vulcans were supposed to be really strong,” he said, and T’Pol could hear the tension in his voice.
“We’re not that strong,” she retorted wryly. His answering chuckle was soft, but sounded forced and did nothing to soothe the knot of worry twisting within her stomach.
A moment later, one of the moons peeked through the cloud cover, bathing the entire valley in a pearly luminescence that gave the fractured landscape an eerie, almost unreal sense to it. T’Pol’s breath caught at the horrific sights before her and she suddenly understood Charles’ discomfort. Bodies, broken and mangled, littered the entire field of battle. Most were covered in a soft blanket of snow and ice, which explained the general lack of smell; she could only imagine what this valley would smell like once the region warmed and the cold could no longer slow decomposition. T’Pol counted twelve off-road vehicles in various states of disrepair scattered throughout the combat zone; only four of them appeared to be of the same style as the one she and Tucker had acquired months earlier. Even more ominous was the presence of a large tracked vehicle at the very edge of the forest; once, it had likely been an armored personnel carrier, but with the damage it had received, it was little more than scrap metal.
“I think I can get it runnin’ again,” Charles declared as he stepped closer to her. T’Pol could not help but to notice that he kept his eyes firmly locked on her or the ambulance, as if he were attempting to ignore the charnel field they were standing in. “But I’m gonna need some more light,” he continued. “Can we risk it?”
“We have no other choice,” T’Pol said in response. She reached for the scanner and he relinquished it without comment. For a moment, she frowned at the fluctuating life signs detected by the device – they were weak and thready, almost as if the scanner could not quite determine what to make of them – but the lack of significant biological signatures within one hundred meters eased her concern. Programming the scanner to alert her should new life signs enter the detection zone, she attached it to her belt and turned her attention back to Charles.
“You know,” he said as he tested the stability of the ambulance, “this reminds me of my junior year in high school.” Pushing hard against the vehicle, he nodded for her to do the same. “Me and a bunch of guys went to Interlachen and ended up with two trucks, a bus and a car in Chipco Lake.” T’Pol raised an eyebrow as they let the ambulance rock back before applying more force.
“How did they get into the lake?” she asked, knowing she really shouldn’t ask. Tucker flashed her a grin that lit up his face.
“Now that is a really good story,” he replied. “It was all my buddy Tom’s fault, since he brought his pet gator into the dorms…”
Several minutes – and one incredibly unlikely tale of juvenile misbehavior – later, the truck was back in its normal upright position. T’Pol checked her scanner once more.
“I am detecting no coolant leaks,” she said once the sweep was complete, “and the fuel tank is full.” Charles nodded.
“Ignition system looks fine,” he offered. “Can I start her up?” T’Pol gave her scanner another look, frowning at the continuing instability of the readings. She spent a moment trying to isolate the abnormalities without success.
“No life signs detected,” she finally declared. Charles nodded before scrambling into the driver’s seat. A moment later, the truck’s engine rumbled to life.
“You keep an eye on the engine,” Tucker said as he slid out of the vehicle, “and I’ll start lookin’ for supplies.” That had been the condition Charles insisted upon for ‘allowing’ her to accompany him tonight rather than venture forth alone – he had threatened to sneak out when she was asleep if she did not agree to it – and his concern about her safety was both frustrating and oddly touching.
“Do not venture too far,” she instructed coolly before offering him her scanner. “I would prefer it if you did not get lost.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Charles said with a smirk. Even with the limited light available, T’Pol could see his amusement fade quickly as he glanced at the corpses strewn about. He visibly pushed aside his emotions – she felt a flash of pride at how well he had taken to the lessons she’d offered but quickly suppressed it – and focused on the task at hand.
Suddenly, the scanner chirped softly and Charles froze in place. A second beep followed the first as he hurriedly offered the device to T’Pol – she accepted it with a touch more haste than was entirely appropriate for a Vulcan – before drawing his phase pistol.
“Faint life signs,” T’Pol declared, pointing as she spoke. “Approximately three meters in that direction.”
“How did you miss it?” Charles demanded. He crouched alongside the ambulance, his weapon at the ready, and peered into the darkness to find the source of the signal. T’Pol joined him.
“I do not know,” she replied. Even now, the scanner was displaying wildly fluctuating readings. Worry suddenly washed over her: what if the device was damaged? She would need to carefully examine it in the light of day at the earliest opportunity.
“It’s a person,” Tucker announced. “There’s somebody alive out there.” As if in response to his comment, a pained moan echoed across the valley, muted by the noise of the idling engine. Before she could reply, he darted forward, keeping low as he moved. The urge to curse died in her throat – she should have known that Charles’ natural empathy would cause him to act without thinking – and T’Pol reached into the cab of the truck to turn the engine off. A heartbeat later, she began creeping forward, eyes straining to make out shapes in the dimness.
She found Charles mere seconds later, kneeling alongside a girl barely out of puberty but wearing a distinctive uniform. The child’s wounds were horrific – shrapnel had perforated her torso and abdomen, spilling her intestines out and into the snow. Fractured ribs were exposed to the freezing weather. Blood was everywhere. T’Pol could not fathom how this girl had survived as long as she had, not with the wounds she had sustained in a firefight two days old.
“We cannot help her,” T’Pol murmured in English. “Even Doctor Phlox could not save her.” Charles grimaced, but remained where he knelt, holding onto the girl’s hand and stroking her hair. T’Pol hesitated, momentarily unsure what they should do. Abandoning the badly injured girl was the logical course of action, but she knew that her companion would see it as unnecessarily cruel.
For that matter, T’Pol did not think she could abandon someone to perish in this way.
“Nobody should die like this,” Charles said, his voice thick with emotion.
“Hurts,” the girl whimpered. “Hurts … bad…” Her face was twisted in agony, a hideous mask of torment that forced T’Pol to look away. Sense memories long thought to have been locked away suddenly assailed the subcommander – the stench of seared flesh and smoke, the screams of the dead and dying, the heat of flame licking her skin – and T’Pol closed her eyes. She was stronger than this! Her muscles trembled as she struggled for control.
The whine of a phase pistol discharge snapped her head around, and she stared at Charles with wide eyes. With an expression so resolute that a kolinahr master would have been pleased, he stood, the weapon clenched tightly in his left hand. As he awkwardly holstered the sidearm, T’Pol could see that the selector switch on the pistol was set to ‘kill.’ He turned away without a comment but barely managed a dozen steps before dropping to his knees in the snow and vomiting loudly. Unsure how to offer aid, T’Pol joined him, wincing at the acrid stench of the regurgitated matter as she knelt alongside her companion.
“You did her a service,” she said cautiously. “Her injuries were too severe … the pain would have been excruciating.”
“I know,” Charles replied. “God, I know.” He ground the palms of his hands against his eyes, as if he were trying to force the memory away. Hesitantly, T’Pol reached out and placed her own hand upon his shoulder. Tucker leaned toward her, his entire body shaking, before abruptly straightening. He rose quickly. “We need to get those supplies and get the hell outta here,” he said. T’Pol nodded as she stood.
“Agreed,” she said. She did not bother asking him if he required assistance, and instead simply followed him through the darkness as he retraced his steps to the derailed train.
They worked in relative silence for nearly two hours, recovering more than enough equipment and fuel to keep them on the road for some time. When they found the bulk of the supplies they needed already gathered in a central location, T’Pol theorized that the guerillas who had attacked the train in the first place attempted to do exactly what she and Charles were doing, but had been caught unprepared for the military’s response. Tucker merely grunted in response.
A third hour passed before they had retrieved all of their belongings from the cave and secured them within the ambulance. Trip stared at the entrance of the cavern, an expression on his face that T’Pol could not begin to comprehend. He gave her a sidelong look, his eyes suddenly old.
“I’m afraid this planet is gonna kill us, T’Pol,” he said softly. She blinked before stepping closer to him, consciously invading his personal space so she could rest her hand upon his shoulder.
“Only if we let it,” she replied. “Together we are greater than the sum of both of us.” He offered a wan smile that did not touch his eyes, and T’Pol hoped he could not see through her bluster.
Because deep within her katra, suppressed under layers of iron control, she was terrified that he was correct.