His communicator chirped.
Trip rolled off his bunk instantly and covered the five steps to where the device was resting in two long strides. Ostensibly a civilian model, the communicator was actually of Vulcan manufacture and possession of this model by anyone outside of V'Shar operatives was considered a crime against the Vulcan government. He flipped it open and stared at the single number message blinking on the tiny screen: 9. Trip inhaled deeply, held the breath for a long moment, and then exhaled it through his nose.
Nine minutes. Okay. He could do that.
From his pocket, he pulled out the hacking pad that Malcolm had provided him on Enterprise five days earlier. It was tiny, barely three centimeters square, but was one of the most advanced pieces of tech he'd ever had the opportunity to study. Trip had spent the first two days aboard this transport trying to forget he carried this thing, then all of day three attempting to figure out a way to take it apart without ruining it. Yesterday, he'd finally given into the urge and disassembled it before putting it back together. Would the Special Operations Group be pleased or upset that he'd already figured out five different ways to improve its function? Providing he bothered telling Harris, that was.
The patch he applied to the main power cable on the desktop computer. Almost instantly, the miniaturized tech within activated with a soft whir and, within seconds, had successfully broke into the transport's datacore. Hacking worms cut through the normally effective firewalls with the ease of a laser through warm butter. On his screen, a countdown appeared for mere moments: 8:45.
Alarms began shrieking as the transport stumbled out of warp. Right now, Trip knew, the engineering team would be scrambling to figure out what was happening. They would see only a reactor going into meltdown with no sign of why. And, as this particular vessel had already suffered three near breaches in the last seven months, panic would be setting in, regardless of the fact that the crew was Vulcan. Trip knew he had perhaps a minute.
He didn't even glance to his duffel bag sitting on the floor near the far wall. It had been mostly for show in the first place and had been filled with easily replaceable clothes. The truly important things he would need were already secured in the pockets of his pants and jacket. He touched each item quickly, mentally cycling through his checklist. Everything was in place. It was time to go.
The door whisked open, revealing a corridor that was rapidly filling with other Vulcans, all of whom were looking around with dispassionate expressions. Two of them looked him over, disdain momentarily crossing their faces, but Trip ignored them as he marched directly toward the access hatch leading to engineering.
He found Tokov, the ship's former captain, standing before the main display of the reactor, shock and dismay fighting to shatter his control. Trip already knew what the Vulcan would be seeing – a series of rapid collapses of containment that were leading to an imminent cascade failure – and also knew that this vessel was doomed. After all, he'd designed this particular program at T'Pol's suggestion once they'd decided to accept Harris' offer. It was only logical – he'd managed to prevent exactly this sort of total system collapse on his first trip to Vulcan and now, he was just righting that wrong. And if it further ruined a specific Vulcan's career, well that was fine. Tokov should not have called T'Pol an illogical deviant the first time they were aboard.
"We must evacuate the ship," he said in his carefully measured Vulcan. Tokov glared at him but Trip pointed to the display. "We have … five minutes. Perhaps six if you get out of my way."
One of the younger engineers reacted long before Tokov could make a decision, covering the short distance to the emergency action panel and triggering the abandon ship alert. Soft sirens began wailing – to a human, they would not sound strident enough, but the Vulcans visibly winced at the noise before they began filing out.
And then, Tokov did something utterly stupid and heroic that threatened to completely ruin the plan.
"How may I assist?" he asked. Inwardly, Trip cursed. He needed Tokov out of the engineering bay, dammit.
"You cannot," Trip replied flatly. "Get out so I can work." He let a tiny bit of the excitement and fear leak into his voice, hoping that it would be enough. Tokov raised an eyebrow, clearly intending to argue the point and insist that he was more than capable of assisting.
So Trip hit him.
He chose a specific nerve cluster in the Vulcan's side that, according to T'Pol, would cause excruciating agony in a male of her race without actually doing any lasting damage. It wasn't quite a knee to the groin but the result was pretty much identical. His unexpected blow sent Tokov to the deck with a howl of pain, which was enough to draw the attention of two junior engineers. They hesitated for a moment, clearly confused, but Trip pointed.
"Get him clear!" he ordered. "Go!" He glared at them like they were his engineers and he'd caught them slacking instead of cleaning the injectors as instructed, and something in his tone or body language convinced them to obey. They seized Tokov, who was still groaning though it looked like he was beginning to recover, and dragged him out. Trip followed them to the hatch before slapping his hand on the emergency shut. With a boom, the door sealed.
Four minutes, thirty seconds, he told himself. That would be cutting it damned close. He shrugged out of his jacket and pulled the first piece free. The temperature climbed rapidly as the reactor continued its inexorable slide toward critical failure. Mentally, he chopped an additional thirty seconds off the time-table and pushed himself to work faster. An all too familiar tickle at the back of his brain turned into an almost tangible sense of concern, but Trip shoved it aside.
Three minutes and forty-five seconds later, he finished assembling the small pattern enhancer. It powered up almost as soon as he fit the final piece into place and Trip felt his communicator vibrate again. Grinning madly, he stepped into the ring of technology. The transport began instantly.
It was like diving naked through burning ice, with the always uncomfortable sensation of both being in two places at once as well as being stretched like a rubber band that was on the very verge of snapping. Time had no meaning even though he knew it was only a handful seconds at most. When he opened his eyes, Trip found himself staring at familiar walls.
She'd been repaired and heavily refit, under Soval's direction and paid for by Harris' division. Hardly any component was original and the newer equipment allowed for certain operational enhancements. Turning the meditation chamber into a functional two-person transporter was an especially inspired decision and Trip wondered if Starfleet would be pleased that SOG had allowed Vulcan technicians to gain access to the specs. He shrugged. That wasn't his problem.
T'Pol was seated at the pilot's console when he climbed up the ladder and entered the command deck. She gave him a quick look before returning her attention to the main display. Trip examined the readouts for a moment.
"All lifepods have launched," T'Pol said, answering the question he was just beginning to form in his head. "No lifesigns detected aboard the transport."
"Have they noticed us?"
"No." She raised an eyebrow. "Stealth systems fully functional." Trip eased a sigh of relief as he sank down in the other chair. New heat sinks had been installed throughout the ship, but especially within the three nacelles, that would absorb and disperse the heat generated by routine shipboard operations which had the benefit of providing a significantly lower sensor silhouette, thus making it more difficult to identify the starship. The hull itself had been coated with a darker, absorbent material (the specifics of which were classified, though Trip intended to poke around when he got the opportunity), and their running lights were completely gone. Even the impulse exhaust was concealed from view. Shy of an actual, functioning cloaking device, they were as invisible as they could be.
With a fierce flash, the main reactor of the Vulcan transport went critical, tearing the small vessel apart in an eyeblink. The ship had been too small for the explosion to threaten the lifeboats but T'Pol loitered long enough to verify that none had been damaged before accelerating away. There was already a D'Kyr-type combat cruiser conveniently within range that would be capable of rendering assistance within thirty minutes. An hour from now, Trip would be listed as missing and believed lost in a tragic accident, but Soval had assured him that the Vulcan government would not release this information publicly out of fear it would further incite human anger against them. They would not hide it, of course, so anyone intentionally looking for such data could find it, but neither would they advertise that shoddy maintenance on one of their transports had cost his life.
By this time tomorrow, a paper trail for T'Pol would also be in place which was why she had needed to depart ahead of him. Officially, she was recovering from an unspecified illness at Gol which, to Vulcan eyes likely mean the Fullara or an attempt at kolinahr, both of which were understandable given her publicly known relationship with an emotional human. For all intents and purposes, they were both dead or otherwise out of the picture. Only a handful of people – Harris, Soval, T'Les, Jon, Malcolm and Lizzie – knew otherwise and Trip trusted all but one of that select group to disseminate the truth to those who needed to know.
"At our current velocity," T'Pol said, "we have six hours and forty-three minutes until we can safely accelerate to warp six." Trip's eyes widened.
"Damn," he murmured. "They really did upgrade her, didn't they?" T'Pol gave him the wry almost-smile of hers before bringing up star-charts.
"I estimate nineteen days until we reach Adigeon Prime," she said. "At that point, we may begin phase one."
"This wasn't phase one?" Trip frowned. "I just faked my own death."
"I apologize," T'Pol said wryly. "I may not have been paying adequate attention and might have missed that." Despite himself, Trip had to give her a soft smile. He opened his mouth to reply when the communications board in front of him beeped. Glancing down, he scanned the system-wide alert that was being transmitted on all bands and his stomach clenched. He felt T'Pol's immediate concern.
"The Salem One station has been destroyed," he said. T'Pol made no reply, though he could feel her thoughts racing and suspected she was thinking along the same lines as he was. It could only be the Romulans. Salem One had been intended to serve as a joint-species hub, a sort of unofficial location that would act as neutral ground for all Coalition races so they could hash out their differences without resorting to warfare, and now, it was so much debris. They were barely getting started and already, events threatened to outpace them. All of the estimates Trip had seen agreed that the Romulans were unlikely to move again for a year, maybe even more, yet here they were. The threat of war wasn't twenty months off, or twelve, or even six. It was here now.
Trip exhaled another tense breath and forced himself to relax. There wasn't anything they could do about that now. He looked at T'Pol and she looked at him.
And then, they went to work.