When T'Pol entered the science lab there was a pleasant quiet, apart from the muted swearing of Enterprise's chief engineer. She approached the device, that she and Captain Archer had brought forward from the 21st century, and the man working on it, slowly, one eyebrow rising. "You are not making progress?"
"Can't even power the thing." Tucker looked up with a rueful grimace, but no surprise at her presence. "If I'd dare to."
"At least your caution will ensure Enterprise's safety."
"Yeah. But what the hell help will it be?"
Her response to the rhetorical question was to change the subject. "We have located a potential source for the components you require,"
Blinking, but taking the hint not to pursue his frustration, he took the PADD and scanned the data. "What will they take in exchange?"
"That is yet to be determined. They wish to discuss the matter in person."
"The cap'n want me along?"
"Naturally. The away team will leave at 0700." Her dark eyes skimmed the tangled profusion of wires, etched computer chips and supporting components, but she never met his eyes.
"OK." He sighed and took another look at the equipment he had no real idea how to tackle, his mouth pulling to one side as he rubbed the back of his neck. "I'm gonna call it a day." They moved towards the door and he added casually, "You know the cap'n's agreed to another movie night?"
T'Pol gave him one brief, unreadable look and quickened her pace. "Our neuro-pressure sessions already take up a great deal of time, Mr Tucker, and I am busy. Good night."
Tucker halted to stare after her, confusion battling with hurt. Something had gone wrong between them but he had no idea what. The unexpected camaraderie they had developed over the past two years might have been a figment of his imagination for all the warmth the science officer had shown him lately. Ever since he had been discharged from sickbay after his near fatal head injury, T'Pol had been cool, continuing with the neuro-pressure therapy, but somehow distancing herself from him. It was making Tucker miserable as hell to have her slip away, but he didn't know how to fix a relationship that neither had ever acknowledged. Movie night had evidently not been the answer.
Leaving one's seat in a descending shuttle pod wasn't recommended Starfleet procedure but Tucker was far too interested in the view below them to remember little things like safety protocols. The fact that he had to lean on the back of T'Pol's seat and peer around her so that they were barely centimetres apart was purely incidental. "Have you ever seen anything like that?"
"Yes." The comment was provocative enough in its flat dismissal of human naiveté to distract him from the view of kilometre after kilometre of broken-backed mounds of metal and plastic that had once been space-worthy vessels. T'Pol met his glare with only a hint of amusement and clarified. "There is a major salvage operation centred around Qualor II. This is a similar facility."
"Let's hope they've got what we want," Archer interrupted from the helm. "Are you getting clearer readings from down here, T'Pol?"
"Slightly," she turned back to her status board, seemingly oblivious to the fact that Tucker was quite literally breathing down her neck, "although there is still considerable interference. It is an extremely toxic environment: high levels of radiation and chemical pollutants," she hesitated, "including Trellium-D."
That earned her a sharp look from her captain. "Then you'll return to Enterprise as soon as we land."
She shook her head slightly. "That will not be necessary. The traces of Trellium-D appear to be highly localised. We are unlikely to encounter any."
"Any danger from the rest of that stuff?" Tucker enquired and T"Pol turned slightly, slanting her head back to meet his eyes. He jerked his head back from the smooth motion that had brought them to within a hair's breadth of touching.
"No, provided our exposure is limited to less than 48 hours, although short-range communications will be problematical at best."
"We'll deal with that at the time," Archer pronounced firmly and nodded at the view ahead of them. "That's our landing site."
The control centre for the salvage operation was located in the cavernous cargo bay of a ship that must once have been a dozen times the size of Enterprise, but was now reduced to a few struts that jutted skywards from its recycled belly. The manager greeted his potential customers with enthusiasm and didn't flinch at the fact that they were accompanied by an equal number of heavily armed, alert and silent MACOs, who Archer didn't bother to either introduce or excuse. The dark-skinned alien led the way into the interior, past a large number of others of his species all engaged in cataloguing a seemingly random mix of components and containers, and on into a room constructed against the curving side wall of the structure. Tucker hung back, curiosity already piqued, only following the others when T'Pol returned to tug sharply on his jacket. "Did you see those warp coils?" he muttered and she gave him a long-suffering look.
"Warp coils are not on your list."
"Only because I didn't think we'd find something compatible. I could "
He sighed and pulled a face at the back of her head, but trailed obediently after her, followed by the MACO who was covering their rear. If the well-armed woman was amused at the bickering of the officers she was assigned to protect, she kept it well out of sight.
Archer and the manager were cautiously probing each other's intentions when the other two joined them, the MACOs taking up a position by the door. "Mr Jaelok here believes that he can supply what we need, Trip." If the Captain's pleasant tone didn't ring true to his officers it probably fooled the alien.
"Good to hear, Cap'n." Tucker picked up the cue readily. "It's an impressive operation you have here, sir."
"I'm glad you think so. Now what are your exact requirements?" He studied the pre-translated list with a good deal of head-shaking and tut-tutting that sent Tucker into a coughing fit, earning him a glare from T'Pol for his lack of decorum. "Extensive. Very extensive."
"We may be able to compromise on some items." A fractional widening of T'Pol's eyes in Tucker's direction told him to keep quiet and he scowled back.
"Oh, I'd like to think that won't be necessary. What form of remuneration were you considering?"
"Spices." Tucker and T'Pol spoke together and again exchanged frustrated looks while the manager shook his head dubiously.
"I don't think that sounds acceptable."
"Perhaps," this time T'Pol got in first, "Mr Tucker could inspect the quality of the components you have to offer, while we seek a method of payment."
He scowled at her for spoiling his fun, but both Archer and the manager were nodding. "Of course." The alien pressed a control on this desk. "I'll summon my head technician and Ah, she wasn't far away." The door had opened to reveal a tall woman who moved gracefully into the room, giving the visitors the time to register that the angular features of the manager looked good on the female of the species. "This is Head Technician Hael. Hael, perhaps you'd be good enough to show Commander Tucker here around and let him take a look at what we have on offer."
"Of course." Eyes that appeared black were studying the human with interest and Tucker grinned back, visibly brightening at the prospect of spending time with a pretty woman who appeared to like what she saw. "If you'd come with me, Commander Tucker?"
"Sure." He followed her to the door, T'Pol's eyes moving after him. "My friends call me Trip."
"Corporal Cole!" The MACO stiffened at the Vulcan's sharp order. "Kindly escort Commander Tucker."
"Yes, ma'am," and the woman turned smartly to follow the pair, tucking away for later consideration the fact that she had seen nothing between first officer and chief engineer other than a prickly professional relationship. From what she'd observed, the chief was an open book as far as men went, virtually every emotion was right there in his eyes. He seemed like a decent sort. But the first officer was as responsive as a stone wall.
Cole had only ever seen Vulcans from a distance and they all seemed disturbingly similar. She had trouble telling the men apart; they were all tall, dusky skinned, dark-haired and pointy-eared. They all wore variations of earth tones, except for the ambassadors. They weren't, well... they weren't human and it showed in more than their physical features. There was no warmth in the way they talked. Everything a Vulcan said sounded rude. As far as she could tell, the sub-commander was no different.
There was no way a warm man like the chief would be interested in a Vulcan. Sure, Cole had heard the rumours along with the rest of the MACOs. The scuttlebutt concerning the 'two commanders' was top of the heap. Supposedly, they spent all their off hours together in T'Pol's quarters, but Cole had checked on that one. It was just three nights a week, and unless Vulcans scheduled their recreational activites down to the minute, though she wouldn't put it past them, there was no chance the two did much more than talk. Heck, maybe it was some strange alien ritual.
Cole wasn't about to disrespect either of the two officers, but she liked to take opportunities presented to her. The commander was outside her own command structure and therefore within limits and there were officers' prerogatives to consider. Even a casual relationship with him could have perks. Besides, from what she'd seen in the gym, he was cute... and he liked people to call him 'Trip'.
T'Pol watched the small group leave, aware of irritation that for once was directed not at Tucker but herself. For the last few weeks, Archer's presence sometimes filled her with an unexplainable feeling of quiet desperation and an urge to spend yet more time in the chief engineer's demanding but oddly supportive company. The eruption of Sim into her life and that of Enterprise had complicated matters, however. The clone's honesty had terrified her, forcing her to face the fact that Tucker's feelings for her might go beyond simple friendship, and therein lay a culture clash. If Enterprise were a Vulcan craft, there would be no unsolicited courtship, but the humans, despite their blatant emotionalism, were masters of social subterfuge in a way alien to her own culture. It made it impossible for her to judge the nature of the engineer's affection.
In a region of space that seemed designed to destroy her, she needed the intellectual companionship presented in the Commander. As he would say, she required his friendship and so she found herself vacillating, insisting that the neuro-pressure sessions that she had initially viewed with distaste had to continue, and yet rejecting any signs of a closer connection between them. Perhaps she was being unfair to the human. Perhaps he did look upon her as a friend, a substitute for the lost closeness between him and their captain. If so, she regretted her mistrust of his motives. If not . She did not want to know.
T'Pol's attention was focused on the carefully probing conversation between Archer and the manager, but that did not stop her from noting the return of Cole minus the man she had been sent to protect. The science officer slipped away from her captain's side, deducing that he would not want to be distracted from his search for information on the Xindi to deal with a security situation. "Where is Commander Tucker?"
"Looking at something that's got him really excited, ma'am," Cole drawled. "He sent me to get you, Sub-Commander. Said he wanted your opinion."
The tone of voice alerted T'Pol and she sharpened her scrutiny of the young human female. Ah, there it was: a tell tale twitch of the lip, the marginally elevated brows and widened eyes. There was a falsehood coupled with amusement. She leaned forward slightly. "Why did he not simply call?"
"Communicators weren't responding."
T'Pol flicked a quick look to where Archer was still engrossed in questioning Jaelok while that gentleman tried to agree exchange rates and nodded towards the entrance. "Tell the captain where we have gone." That was directed at another MACO, then she was through the door, striding swiftly away.
Cole unhurriedly kept pace, her phase rifle slung at the ready across her chest, hands clasped around the grips to keep it from jostling. "I don't think Commander Tucker'll appreciate your hurry, ma'am."
T'Pol suppressed the urge to make a sharp response. The Corporal was unacquainted with Commander Tucker and had undoubtedly misinterpreted his behaviour.
"He and the alien woman were ..."
"Need I remind you, Corporal, that we are in a hostile region? Solo expeditions of any manner are foolhardy in the extreme."
Wisely, Cole didn't bother with a reply, stepping into the lead to show the way, although a smile tugged briefly at her mouth before she snapped into surveillance mode. T'Pol, for her part, chose to ignore the other woman's amusement. Surely their recent experiences had been enough to discourage even the Commander from indulging in his weakness for sexual dalliance.
The location to which Cole led T'Pol was piled high with what looked suspiciously like the phase arrays used in Vulcan tractor beams - she could see why Tucker had been excited; he had always coveted that particular piece of technology - but it was empty of life. T'Pol gave the area a careful visual survey then raised an eyebrow at the other woman. "You are certain that this is the correct location?"
"Positive." The MACO eyed the Vulcan warily. "Maybe it's none of our business where they've got to, ma'am."
She got a hard stare before T'Pol turned away, reaching for her communicator. "T'Pol to Tucker. Commander, please respond." She left it a moment then tried again. "T'Pol to Captain Archer." That brought no response either and T'Pol could be quite certain that her captain was not behaving recklessly - he hadn't had time. She returned the useless communicator to her pocket and pulled out her scanner instead, setting it to locate human lifesigns.
"Anything, ma'am?" Cole queried and T'Pol approached her slowly, head down.
"Nothing." She halted barely two metres away. "I cannot even detect you beyond this range.
The MACO grimaced and took another futile look around. "Maybe we should fetch the Captain's dog. It could smell the Commander out."
T'Pol was still fiddling with her scanner, trying to filter out the interference, and didn't raise her head. "I can do that if necessary."
The shock in the other's voice penetrated the Vulcan's concentration and she looked up into Cole's baffled expression. "The sense of smell of female Vulcans is at least as acute as that of Earth's canines."
Cole's mouth was twisted into an expression T'Pol interpreted as distaste, so she returned her attention to the near useless scanner. It had been some time since she had encountered such a reaction in a Human and it was an unpleasant reminder that some Humans still thought that anything different was wrong. The olfactory glands were vestigial, hinting at a time in Vulcan history when the females would scent and stalk males, either as prospective mates or to repel them violently from chosen territory. The glands were as significant as the Human coccyx and as prone to injury.
"That must be weird."
"Unpleasant, without the use of a nasal numbing agent." T'Pol began to move away. "Fortunately, it will not be required. I believe that I have detected activity in this direction."
Manager Jaelok had finally managed to bring Archer around to the subject of suitable trade items when he was thwarted again, this time by the roar of a distant explosion that had both the MACOs and the Captain reaching for their weapons. The alien's expression flickered briefly into anger then smoothed out as he caught his balance. "Please, Captain Archer, there's no need for alarm."
"That was an explosion," Archer growled the obvious.
"When you deal with large quantities of unstable materials, I'm afraid these things do happen."
"I see." A year ago, the captain might have believed that kind of excuse, but the multitude of workers sorting material so meticulously left him doubtful. How could such good practise leave explosive, probably valuable, fuels mixed in with debris? Slowly Archer returned his phase pistol to its holster, moving after the manager who was edging towards the exit. "Perhaps we can help. If there are casualties "
"That won't be necessary." Jaelok's hand was on the door, waiting to close it behind him. "Please make yourself comfortable, Captain. I won't be long."
Archer frowned after the man then realised that he was missing a first officer. "Where's Sub-Commander T'Pol?"
The senior MACO jerked his head outwards. "She went with Corporal Cole and Commander Tucker, sir."
The captain nodded curt acknowledgement and pulled out his communicator. He wasn't happy when his crew disappeared, even if they were perfectly capable of looking after themselves.
While the area immediately around the control centre had been busy, the rest of the site seemed deserted. It took fifteen minutes of careful exploration before T'Pol finally tilted her head, listening carefully, then pocketed her scanner. "This way."
The MACO followed, automatically checking the setting of her phase rifle as she reflected that she had heard nothing but the faint sound of cooling metal. This time, however, she wasn't even going to ask. If the Vulcan woman's hearing was as acute as her sense of smell, Cole would rather not know, although she would make sure never to have a personal conversation within a hundred metres of the other woman. The potential for a personal conversation with a certain engineer momentarily caused her concentration to slip, just at the moment when the explosion knocked them both off their feet.
Thoroughly professional once again, Cole rolled to a kneeling position, and automatically raised her plasma rifle. Her eyes watered and she squinted against the dust cloud enveloping them. A scan of the vicinity showed the Sub-Commander kneeling and calmly, as if nothing untoward had occurred, rising without so much as a head shake. Fine. Officer unharmed.
She looked away to resume searching. "Ma'am, we should - " Someone was beside her. Looking up, Cole jerked back, twisting in her crouch to lash out with a sidekick from the ground.
"Ma'am." Cursing her nerves, Cole did shake her head and grimaced even as she groped for her fallen rifle. Those eyes.... "Are you all right, ma'am?"
T'Pol ignored the pointless question, lifting Cole effortlessly to her feet. "Come."
"Ma'am. Sub-commander!" The Vulcan didn't turn back and Cole had to chase after her. "We should regroup. That explosion could have been aimed at us."
"Unlikely." Cole received a cool look over one shoulder. This time, the eyes were a normal shade of brown rather than a filmy white, but the memory would haunt the Human for some time to come. "We are still alive."
"Which means it was probably a warning shot."
The Vulcan slid a glance in Cole's direction, as if sensing her need to argue. "We are a small party in an isolated location. It would be more efficient to strike us directly, rather than draw our attention. Therefore, we were not the targets."
"We should pull out."
"Commander Tucker was no doubt in the vicinity of the explosion."
"How do you know?" Cole thought the other woman sighed.
"Prior experience dictates that he will be at the epicentre of chaos."
The MACO nodded soberly before the true meaning of the statement hit her, then suppressed a grin. Even being new to Enterprise, she already knew that trouble followed Commander Tucker like a lost puppy. The Vulcan was right; where else would he be?
They had been barely fifty metres from the centre of the explosion, although fortunately shielded from it by the bulk of a half dismantled ship. The effect on those in the direct path was tragically obvious as they rounded the hulk and halted at the sight of half a dozen broken bodies lying in front of another smaller ship. A freshly torn breach in the hull, edges glowing a dull red, indicated where the blow out had occurred. Scanning the scene for survivors, Cole didn't notice the emotion that flickered across her companion's face before the expression smoothed out and T'Pol moved forward cautiously, scanner in one hand, stooping occasionally to check a body for signs of life. The MACO followed, wary of a secondary attack, but she too was looking for a blue Starfleet uniform amongst the drab colours of the salvage workers.
A moan drew them both to one side as they approached the site of the blow out, Cole remaining on her feet to keep the area under surveillance as T'Pol knelt beside the woman she had last seen leaving the control centre some hour before. "Where is Commander Tucker?"
Hael blinked, raising a hand to her head. "What? I don't "
"You were with Commander Tucker. Where is he?"
The alien woman sat up slowly, peering around her with dazed eyes. "He was here. He's not " she was staring at the bodies now, "he's not dead?"
One of T'Pol's eyebrows rose in disdain that Hael should be so concerned for someone she had just met when a number of her colleagues were dead. "We have not located his body."
The sound of running feet distracted them as Jaelok came into view, a squad of relief workers at his heels who immediately separated to check the fallen while he approached the three women. "I do apologise for this, Sub-Commander T'Pol. Please let me escort you back to the control centre."
The Vulcan rose gracefully to her feet. "Commander Tucker has disappeared. We must locate him."
"I'll arrange a search party immediately, but now I must insist that you return to the control centre for medical assistance." He stretched out a hand towards T'Pol's cheek and she jerked her head back, eyes widening at the attempted intimacy. "That's a nasty cut."
"We will assist your search party."
"Shouldn't we report to Captain Archer, ma'am?" Cole interposed as the polite argument threatened to extend indefinitely, a view that the manager immediately endorsed.
"A very good thought. I'm sure he'll be concerned." He tried to take T'Pol's arm this time and again she pulled away although she nodded in resignation.
"Very well," she conceded and he had to content himself with supporting the still dazed Hael from the scene.
"T'Pol!" Archer strode across to confront his first officer when the group appeared in the control centre. "What happened?"
She avoided the hand reaching out to her by the simple expedient of taking the nearest chair; the disorientation she had experienced in the immediate aftermath of the blast had not completely dissipated. "Corporal Cole and I found ourselves in the vicinity of an explosion."
"I do not know. We were searching for him at the time." She turned a hard stare on Hael who had been in quiet conversation with Jaelok. "Technician Hael says that Commander Tucker was with her, but she does not know where he is now."
Delicately Jaelok cleared his throat. "Perhaps your colleague was disorientated by the accident and wandered away. Hael tells me ."
He broke off to return Archer's concerned look apologetically and T'Pol said firmly, "It was not an accident." They all looked at her in various levels of surprise and she continued evenly, "My scans detected traces of high yield explosives."
"Probably left over fuel "
Archer's expression hardened. "What's going on here, Jaelok? I want an explanation for this and don't try to brush me off with excuses, this time."
The man hesitated and Hael said hesitantly, "They deserve to know, Jaelok. If one of their own has become involved . "
He frowned her to silence but turned back to Archer with clear resignation. "This facility is divided between a number of operatives. My team sells components to customers such as yourselves. Another team searches for derelict vessels in space to bring them here. A third harvests the reusable elements from the ships on the ground. There have always been," he paused as if searching for a polite term, "tensions between the groups. Recently the ground crews have become more vociferous in their demands. There have been a number of incidents such as the one today, aimed at my people."
"Which does not explain Commander Tucker's disappearance," T'Pol pointed out with admirable single-mindedness and the manager sighed, shrugging slightly.
"I'm afraid he may have been kidnapped."
Tucker's initial reaction to the pain in his back was to assume that T'Pol had encouraged him to try out a new neuro-pressure position that wasn't suited to human physiology. Then his brain woke up sufficiently to register that he wasn't in his bunk on Enterprise but stretched out on a hard metal floor. "Damn it," he muttered and pushed himself up into a sitting position, reaching for the sore place behind his right shoulder blade: probably an energy weapon on a stun setting. Because Starfleet training demanded it, he got to his feet and tried the door, but it didn't respond to a vigorous hammering and neither did anyone come to see who was doing all the shouting.
Disgusted with himself, Tucker slumped back to the floor. It was definitely his fault this time. He'd been shot in the back about thirty seconds after he'd sent his MACO escort to find T'Pol and neither she nor Archer would let him hear the last of such carelessness. He did wonder what had become of Hael. He was the only occupant of the cell and at the point his memories stopped she had been standing right in front of him.
"Damn it," he mumbled again, too angry to keep silent. "What is it with me? Aliens bury me in sewage. Aliens hit me over the head with vases. Aliens shoot me in the back." He grimaced, tipping his head back against the wall behind him. "Aliens won't make dates with me."
The door opened and he came to his feet, irrationally guilty at verbalising something very private, and glared at the man who stood in the doorway. His apparent captor was a new face, though of the same local species, not dressed in salvage yard garb but in something that looked to be of a personal design. Tucker sorted away that information. Someone obviously had a problem with officialdom. "What I am doing here?"
"Feeling sorry for yourself," the other said dryly.
Tucker shrugged his good shoulder and put on a sanguine face. "Not really. Just a bit irritated at getting dragged into someone else's turf war."
The other man narrowed his eyes. "Maybe a few days stripping down a contaminated cargo hold would give you a new perspective on life."
"You've still not told me why I'm here."
"You're a hostage."
He sucked air between his teeth, making a further show of disinterest. "Afraid you miscalculated one little detail. My cap'n won't negotiate."
"What do you want?"
"Oh, the usual things. Clean water, medical supplies, a decent share of the profits."
"That's nothing to do with us."
"It is now." The man produced a device and levelled it at Tucker. "Smile for the camera."
T'Pol was trying to adjust her scanner to cut through the interference, but her efforts were not helped by the Human pacing restlessly around the control centre. When he paused by a window to peer out, fingers drumming on the pane, she finally cracked. "Captain Archer!"
He swung around, eyes wide in expectation. "You've got something?"
"No. Nor am I likely to unless you cease to disrupt my concentration." He stared and T'Pol realised that she had never spoken so sharply to him before; she usually reserved that tone for Commander Tucker. "The adjustments are delicate. Perhaps you could pace elsewhere."
"T'Pol, are you feeling OK?"
For some reason Archer's concern did nothing to ameliorate her irritation. "I am fine."
"Are you sure? You said there was Trellium-D around. If you want to return to Enterprise "
"That will not be necessary. There is no need to repeat the question." Although it had been remiss of her not to check for heightened levels of that compound during the abortive search for Tucker. Therefore, it was possible that she was mildly affected. It would certainly explain her lack of patience with Archer and the feeling of guilt that she was responsible for Tucker's disappearance. If she had not suggested that he check the quality of components ... T'Pol quashed that entirely irrational thought. The suggestion had been logical and it had not been she who had seen fit to overlook basic security arrangements in favour of a potential sexual liaison.
Archer gave her a frowning look then resumed his pacing. T'Pol closed her eyes briefly. He was worried for his friend and patience was a virtue that Surak advocated most strongly. She had always known that it was required when dealing with humans, especially some of the more obstinate ones who would do the opposite of what was recommended.
Jaelok picked a good moment to return, halting as Archer swung on him. "Have you located Trip?"
"What's that supposed to mean? If you'd allow more of my crew "
"That wouldn't be a good idea." The manager held out a small data crystal. "We've received this." T'Pol joined them as the man slipped the crystal into a slot on the top of his desk and tipped the screen towards them.
The man who appeared was of the same species as Jaelok and Hael but considerably grubbier and a lot less friendly as he stared out of the imager. "You know what we want. We'll give you until this time tomorrow and then," the image cut to one of Enterprise's chief engineer standing in the corner of a small room, arms folded as he glowered at whoever stood before him, "we'll start to return him - piece by piece. I don't think his friends will like that and they've got a very capable space ship. I think they might turn that on you if you don't agree to our terms." The image cut back to the alien again. "You might want to warn your customers not to try to rescue their friend - it doesn't take long to slit a throat. Until tomorrow."
T'Pol felt a tightness in her face and forcibly relaxed the muscles to rid herself of the incipient snarl. These people were animals. For all their faults, the Humans had learned to negotiate rather than resort immediately to violence. Space travel in and of itself did not make an enlightened race. Her people were correct about that, but she would go further: space travel could be undertaken by animals.
The Captain was watching her, lips tight as he suppressed the urge to ask, once again, if she was all right. Taking a deep, measured breath, she smoothed her expression and gave him a brief nod.
By the time Tucker's next visitor arrived he had proved to his satisfaction that there was no way out of his prison and nothing that he could use as a weapon and had resorted to practising his breathing exercises. Maybe if he showed sufficient progress T'Pol would forget to give him hell for getting caught. He looked up with studied indifference as the door opened then came sharply to his feet, temper slipping. "Neat trick! What did you do? Signal to someone behind me?"
Hael's expression didn't waver and neither did the gun she had levelled on the engineer. "I did what was necessary, Commander Tucker, I'm sure you can understand that."
"Betray my own side? Haven't tried that one."
"You don't understand the situation here."
"I understand that I've been kidnapped because your side wants something from the other side. It doesn't make a difference to me which of you is right or wrong."
"Are you hungry?" The abrupt change of subject confused Tucker although the mention of food made his stomach growl and he shrugged reluctant agreement. "Then come with me - but don't try anything. Everyone here has instructions to shoot you if you try to escape."
Tucker grabbed for the opportunity, hands raised in cowardly denial. "Hey, I'm just an engineer! I don't do heroics." The woman's amused look spoke agreement and Tucker stifled his annoyance as he stepped cautiously around her and the gun and out into the chamber beyond the cell, stopping abruptly at the scene in front of him. "Hell."
"I'm glad you think so." Hael's voice was dry. "This is how most of the population live. Does it help explain why we take every opportunity to try to force Jaelok to treat us with common decency?"
Looking around the cavernous room that was crowded with filthy, starving people, many obviously sick, Tucker found he couldn't answer that one. Somewhere along the way and despite his words, he'd lost the faith bred into his generation that there was always a clean solution to any problem.
T'Pol returned from updating Enterprise on their situation - the higher power transmitter in the shuttlepod could just about cut through the atmospheric interference - to find Archer and Jaelok pouring over a map of the salvage yard. She joined them, an arched eyebrow expressing her disquiet. The area to be searched was even more extensive than she had supposed and, without effective scanning equipment, the derelict vessels provided endless opportunities for concealment. Archer glanced up at her, the tension showing on his face. "Anything?"
"Enterprise's sensors are still unable to isolate individual bio-signs."
He scowled, blue eyes shadowed, and turned the expression on Jaelok. "You know where these militant groups are located," he stated more than asked, the threat inherent in the grim tone.
"They move constantly, Captain, and we are traders, not soldiers. My people are doing their best but you must realise we have to move cautiously. You heard what was threatened. I assure you, it was no idle threat to your officer. They will kill him."
A man appeared at the door and he hurried across to take the latest data report, T'Pol stopping Archer before he could follow. "Captain, I do not believe that these people have the skills to locate Commander Tucker in time."
He sighed. "Neither do I, but I'm not about to risk Trip's life by flooding the area with MACOs." The muscles in his jaw were flexing, his chin low to his chest.
T'Pol considered her answer. Archer was concerned justifiably for the safety of his oldest colleague. Commander Tucker was important not only for his engineering skills, but to keep Archer's mental health stable. Humans were fragile in that respect. "I concur. However one person acting alone may well succeed."
The Captain's eyes flicked in her direction, a crease forming between his eyebrows. "Where are you going with this, T'Pol?"
"I have the skills necessary to recover Mr Tucker."
He frowned. "I know you're trained for it, T'Pol, but it's been a long time since you were in the field and " She stared levelly back, daring him to state outright that he didn't think she was capable. She had been chosen for the Enterprise mission specifically because of her background in covert operations.
"What about the Trellium-D concentrations?"
"My exposure will be of limited duration."
A hand rose to rub the captain's mouth. "I'd prefer to send some of the MACOs with you." T'Pol didn't bother pointing out the fallacy inherent in that remark and Archer nodded reluctantly. "All right. But I'll go. You stay here and "
"Captain, you have neither the training nor the experience. I do and you are required here in order to allay suspicion."
For a moment more, T'Pol thought that yet again her captain was going to ignore her entirely logical advice but for once he conceded the point. "Very well, Sub-Commander, but don't take any unnecessary risks. I can't afford to lose you too."
She inclined her head in acceptance of both the mission and the compliment and headed for the door, wondering if Archer actually believed what he had just said. In her opinion, Enterprise's chief engineer was far more vital to its mission than its first officer and she would ensure that he was returned to his rightful place. Then she would address his tendency to fall headlong into trouble.
The portion of mush that Tucker had been served was small and unappetising, but it wasn't what put him off eating. He was very conscious of the hungry eyes of the child next to him and after the first mouthful he pushed the plate aside, watching as it was pounced upon and the contents devoured. He looked up to find Hael watching him approvingly. "I guess I wasn't that hungry."
He grimaced, unwilling to admit to compassion, and indicated her equally small serving. "Your protein re-sequencer needs calibrating."
Her laugh was as bitter as her face was hard. "We can barely keep it working."
Tucker hesitated, mouth pulling to one side as he considered the matter, chewing the inside of his lip. "Want me to have a look at it?" Hael's surprise was obvious and he gave her an indignant look. "I'm a good engineer!"
She thought about it for a moment then nodded. "Very well - but no tricks."
The protein re-sequencer had been repaired so often that Tucker doubted it contained any of its original components. He poked around for a few moments then sat back on his heels. "You actually eat what this thing produces?"
"We don't have a choice." Despite his efforts to make her lower her guard, Hael still insisted on keeping a weapon aimed at him. It was not something Tucker enjoyed. "Can you fix it?"
"You need a new one," he replied absently. Then, allowing a moment for her exasperation to grow, he put on his best winning smile. "Want me to build you one?"
The barrel of the gun fell a few centimetres, the astonishment and doubt softening Hael's face. "You could do that?"
"Sure." He gestured vaguely around them. "If you let me find the right components." He could see that she wasn't convinced, although whether of his ability or his honesty he didn't know, despite his best efforts to look trustworthy. "What have you got to lose?"
T'Pol had performed sufficient research during her trip to Shuttlepod 2 to put her plan into immediate effect, which meant that an unsuspecting salvage worker would wake half an hour later minus her protective and all-enveloping environmental suit. Dismissing a faint sense of relief at being able to act without human interference for once, T'Pol donned her disguise and went to mingle with the rest of the workforce. Vulcans might condemn the tendency of other races to gossip, but the Ministry of Security had yet to develop a better way of gathering intelligence than the employment of an intelligent observer with very sharp hearing.
Even though he was still a prisoner, Tucker would have been forced to admit that he was enjoying himself. The chance to poke around the innards of a strange ship, even a derelict one, was as good a way to pass the time as any and if a few components went into a pocket instead of the pile destined to become a protein re-sequencer that was all well and good. Better yet, Hael had been persuaded to put her gun away, although Tucker couldn't be certain whether that was due to his efforts to appear harmless or the need to help him carry the reclaimed equipment. He thought he might have overdone the charm - if he acted like that around T'Pol, he'd get a stern look and a question regarding his health - but Hael seemed to approve. She'd even left him alone for several minutes to fetch a micro-welder, giving him the opportunity to slip the perfectly serviceable one he'd been using inside his jacket. He'd be in serious trouble if they insisted on a body search.
Now he smiled his thanks as she returned with the new tool, her fingers lingering on his as she handed it over before seating herself at his side, ready to assist if required but seemingly more interested in continuing their conversation. "Do you have anyone on your home planet?"
He'd told her about the Xindi attack on Earth so the question seemed to follow naturally. "Yeah." Memory saddened his expression. "We're a big family - even now."
"I meant a partner."
Tucker smiled at that although he kept his attention fixed on the circuitry he was constructing. "Nope."
Hael was watching him very closely. "But there is someone dear to you?" He didn't reply and she reached out a finger to turn his head towards her. "Isn't there?"
"Not the way you mean it." Tucker couldn't keep the regret out of his voice, even as the finger slid caressingly over his cheek. It looked like winning charm had been effective in more ways than one, but he was tired, cranky and not about to ignore past mistakes involving pebbles and cultural confusion.
"Then she's a fool."
That made him smile again, even as he returned to work. "Not her."
The unsuspecting man left the communal dining area, not noticing the slight figure that followed him until he was pinned up against a wall, one arm twisted behind his back while his other wrist was held in a vice-like grip. The soft, polite female voice came as something of a surprise. "You claim to have knowledge of the alien being held captive here."
"No, I don't."
The hand on his wrist tightened, compressing the central nerve of his forearm with uncanny precision, and he whimpered as the bones shifted. "You will find lying an unpleasant experience. Where is he being held?" The voice remained implacable.
"I don't know!" The discomfort slid into pain and he gasped. "I don't! I'm not part of that cadre."
"Then tell me what you do know."
"I saw him I think." As the pain eased, he tried to glimpse the face, hidden by orchestrated shadows. All he could see was a glint of amber from the eyes.
"Where and when?"
"Just before the bomb attack. They were taking him north."
"They looked like Rorik's men but I couldn't be sure."
"Thank you." He just had time to resent the courtesy before accurate pressure between neck and shoulder sent him into unconsciousness.
T'Pol let the limp body slide to the ground and stared down at it, breathing rather more quickly than normal as she struggled to suppress fierce satisfaction. To take pleasure in the intimidation of others was abhorrent. To wish to kick the unconscious man at her feet was illogical. So why were the primitive emotions threatening to swamp her?
There was one obvious answer to that: Trellium-D. She had again omitted to check the concentration in the area and must have stumbled into a pocket. She should return to the control centre, report her findings to Archer and allow him to take over the search for Commander Tucker, while she returned to Enterprise before the effects of the chemical poisoning became dangerous, both to herself and to anyone she encountered. She should, but she wouldn't. Finding Commander Tucker was her responsibility and she would not fail, not again.
Tucker grinned rather smugly at the woman beside him and she raised a wondering, almost worshipful face to his, something like a smile breaking across her features. "You are amazing!"
"Glad to be of assistance."
"Pity he can't ensure a supply of organic materials to use with it." The man's tone suggested he was a lot less impressed with Enterprise's chief engineer than Hael. "It's late. Lock him up and get back where you're supposed to be. You've spent too long here today."
"Jaelok thought I was resting," she placated him, but he only shrugged irritably and walked away. She sighed. "Well, if Rorik won't thank you, Trip, I will."
He nodded, assuming she had just done so. There were more important issues at hand than good manners. "Can you get supplies for the protein re-sequencer?"
Heal gestured for him to follow her across the living area towards the small cell where he had been confined before. "Would it annoy you if I said that that's one of the things we're hoping to use you to buy?"
He halted at the door, looking back at the people now busily eating. "I guess not."
"I'm glad you understand."
"I have to secure you in here." Hael's eyes were fastened to his as she closed the short distance between them. "Unless you'd consider an alternative."
Her mouth was warm and skilful and Tucker responded instinctively, too surprised to think of anything except that he'd been celibate a very long time. But when their lips broke apart he stepped back, expression growing sheepish. "I'm sorry."
He saw hurt and anger flicker across the woman's face before she turned away to grasp the door, gesturing him to step into the room. "You're very loyal," her tone had turned cold, "considering the woman you want doesn't reciprocate." She paused on the verge of slamming the door in Tucker's face. "You should re-think your strategy, Commander Tucker. You probably don't even remember what you're missing."
When Archer emerged from Shuttlepod 2, after another frustrating conversation with Reed, he found Hael in conversation with his MACO escort, although she turned to him at once, her expression concerned. "No one's been able to locate Commander Tucker?"
"No." The captain started for the control centre, curbing his anger for politeness' sake. "Are you feeling better?"
"Yes, thank you, Captain. I'm sorry to hear that the Sub-Commander isn't well."
Archer flicked a quick look at the MACO beside him, who looked imperturbably back. "I'm sure she'll be fine."
"Would she like some company? She seemed very worried about Commander Tucker."
"She said she'd prefer to be alone."
"I see." Hael smiled and waved an arm towards the rear of the building. "Excuse me, Captain Archer. I have something to see to."
"Of course," and he headed on to continue to give Jaelok a hard time, dismissing the woman from his thoughts.
T'Pol knew she was getting near the end of her search: logic told her so, although logic could not stop the hot, angry thoughts from bubbling up in the back of her mind. She was very angry indeed with the people who had captured Commander Tucker and put her to so much trouble. She was angry with the engineer for allowing himself to taken hostage. She was angry with Captain Archer for having brought her to this place, and most of all she was angry with herself for being angry.
For the third time in an hour, T'Pol was forced to stop and try to focus herself. Panting, she pushed the hood back from her head and lifted her sweating face to the cool night air. She had to find him or he would die and it would be her fault, just as it had been the last time. That would not happen again. She would find Commander Tucker. She would find him and free him from the improbable scenario in which he had become embroiled and then .... T'Pol's less than rational thoughts trailed off in a scatter of images she didn't understand and she moaned softly. She would find him. The rest could be resolved later.
She straightened, though only to rest against a wall, in an alley formed by the shanty housing dotting the scrap yards. It had seemed a safe place and still did. The darkness was soothing against her eyes and her vision was better than that of any Human and, no doubt, that of the natives of this planet. Of course, that was an assumption, but it was usually true, so it was probably true here also. She blinked, slowly, uncertain of the validity of her logic.
She had not failed last time she needed to rescue the Commander. She had failed to rescue, no, not to rescue but to locate, another individual entirely. That person had been Vulcan and the incident many years ago, whilst she was serving with the Ministry of Security. It seemed so long ago. Had he been a friend? Or had she been working with a friend? No, that wasn't the word. Friend was a Human word, an inadequate translation for a much more subtle Vulcan concept. Associate. She had associated with him, except in Human speech that meant to be intimately involved. So now this was different, but she was also angry, as in the past, so then it was also the same. Her head hurt. She could not find her target and she was failing.
T'Pol broke from the wall, hand reaching for her phase pistol, more a reflex than the result of rational thought. The time for logic was past. Action was now required.
Tucker was working on the booster for his communicator when a commotion outside the cell gave him just enough time to drop his jacket over the evidence of his escape plan before the door was thrown open and a limp figure thrust roughly inside. He didn't even remember moving, somehow managing to cushion T'Pol's fall although it meant she ended up sprawled across his lap, head on his shoulder and he on his bruised back again.
He brushed the fringe of her hair aside to see her face, but her eyes were closed and her mouth was slack. She was unconscious and he glared up at Rorik who had appeared in the doorway. "What have you done to her?"
"Same as we did to you." A smirk curved the man's mouth. "You people have no idea. She didn't even see us." The smile widened. "We hardly needed Hael's tip-off that she was on to us." He laughed softly at Tucker's furious reaction and swung the door shut.
T'Pol stirred, her hands twitching, and Tucker hurried to untangle himself. "Are you OK?"
Her eyes flew open and he found himself staring into their hot brown depths. "You are a fool!"
"Sub-commander?" He watched her eyes, seeing that her gaze seemed fixed beyond him, the widened pupils not contracting in the light of the room.
"Why do you persist in endangering yourself?"
"I had to find you."
"Yeah." It took a great deal to suppress the engineer's sense of humour. "But couldn't you have found me a little less successfully?" The Vulcan's reaction was a snarl of fury and she jerked away from him, almost throwing herself to the other side of the room. Tucker followed, momentary lightness banished. "T'Pol, what's wrong with you?"
She was breathing deeply and didn't look around, ignoring their renewed proximity. Her hands were folded together, thumbs pointed at her forehead, but they shook and soon the formal arrangement dissolved as she dropped her head forward to rest against them. "Trellium-D. I must have encountered more more than I anticipated."
"And you call me stupid?" That did make her look up, eyes wide with anger, the lower half of her face shadowed by her upraised hands. "You should have backed off."
"Stupid," she bit out, turning one word into two. "You Humans are so foolish in your assumptions. You think because I prefer the wisdom of listening to aimless gossip that I am stupid? You think because I know to be silent in the face of ignorance, that I am stupid? You think that because I do not fight back, I am stupid?"
Tucker moved slowly, leaning back to a safer distance. T'Pol's face was twisted, her lips pulled back from her teeth in a feral grimace. For all that she had spoken of historical Vulcan barbarity, it had never seemed real until now. Before, he had always equated it to human cruelty, not this snarling condemnation of his own character. He chose his next words with more care. "I didn't mean it that way, Sub-Commander. I was using a figure of speech to . . . to express my shock and dismay."
Her left eye twitched, her face smoothing as abruptly as her anger had appeared. "I had to find you." She launched up, brushing past him again. "You are you are necessary."
"I don't want anyone else dying for me!"
T'Pol stared at him as Tucker realised that he had blurted out something he hadn't even realised himself until that moment. "Sim did not do it for you." Her voice was unsteady and not with temper this time. "He did it for your sister - for his sister. People do not die for you." She licked her lips, an absent gesture. "They die for honour and loyalty and to escape and sometimes they just die."
"I'm sorry." He wasn't entirely sure why he was apologising except that he had never seen her look so stricken. He wondered if it was even Sim she was talking about. For all that he teased her about her age, it had never occurred to him that she could already have lost friends, and on the whole he preferred to think that it was someone else. Being jealous of your own clone was just too weird.
She shook her head, whether to dismiss his apology or her own emotion Tucker couldn't tell, and began to roam around the small cell. Her movements soon took on an aspect of pacing, three strides along each wall, pivoting at the fourth, repeating. "We must escape."
"Not from here. That door opens straight into the living quarters. We'd never make it and a lot of people would get hurt if we tried."
"We must try!"
"T'Pol, listen to me." Cautiously Tucker intercepted her pacing. "I've been helping make repairs. When they let us out to carry on tomorrow, we'll make a break for it."
"You have been helping terrorists?"
"They have a valid case."
He got the look of frustration and disbelief that he had so often encountered before, this time unmitigated by Vulcan control. "Will you never learn to delay forming an opinion until you are in full possession of the facts?" She continued before he had to chance to defend himself. "Valid cause," she spat the words into his face. "Can't you see past the horizon of your own planet? What do you think gives you 'valid cause' to embroil yourself in the local politics of a culture you do not understand?" She was staring at him again, the creases of anger reforming.
"The fact that these people don't get enough to eat or basic medical care?"
"Five died in the bomb attack used to cover your abduction. The means, as usual, do not justify the end."
Fortunately Rorik returned before Tucker learnt that arguing with a Vulcan suffering from the effects of Trellium-D exposure was not a safe thing to do. The man was grinning, obviously having heard the raised voices from outside the cell. "Nice teamwork! You," he pointed to Tucker, "out."
The engineer didn't move. "Why?"
"I've a job for you. Pity Hael's not around for you to impress today."
The burning look T'Pol turned on Tucker went unnoticed as he shrugged. "Fine, but it'll go quicker if you let T'Pol join me."
"She's an engineer too?"
"Yeah. Plus she looks good holding a micro-welder."
The man shook his head but gestured for T'Pol to join Tucker, although she remained stubbornly in place. "I will not help you."
"Yes, you will." Tucker grabbed an arm and hauled the reluctant woman to his side, dropping his voice to a mere breath. "Play nice, T'Pol. You're here to rescue me, remember. Besides, I'm not leaving you alone in there."
Hayes jumped to the ground from Shuttle Pod 1 and jogged to Archer's side, phase pistol already in his hand. "What's the situation, Captain?"
"There's been a change." Archer's voice was hard. "We've received word that the kidnappers now hold T'Pol too."
The MACO snorted rudely. "So much for Vulcan superiority. You want us to go in?"
"Not yet." The Captain wasn't going to admit quite yet that he didn't know where to send his soldiers. "There's still a chance they'll release the hostages if the authorities here hand over the ransom."
"You'll do a deal?"
"I won't, Major, but I'll not stop someone else doing one; not when I won't be around to deal with the consequences."
The water purifier was located a long way from the living accommodation, deep in what might once have been storage lockers. They were certainly lockable: Rorik left them alone after making it clear that they were to be sealed in until he came back for them. Tucker shrugged amiably and began to inspect the defective equipment like a cooperative prisoner, ignoring the clunk of the door closing behind him and the disgruntled Vulcan to one side.
"Hael is a double-agent?"
"I guess so."
"Was it your engineering skills that impressed her?"
"No!" He took the time to glare at T'Pol, surprised at her biting, downright vicious tone. "My good looks and charm. Now d'you wanna escape or stay here and trade insults all day?"
"The door is locked."
"Not for long." He ripped off the cover to the door's control circuitry and ran an assessing eye over it. "Now if I just Ow!"
"Most impressive." Her voice dripped with unconcealed saracasm. "Perhaps I should help by holding the exposed wires directly to your skin."
Tucker scowled briefly at the woman close beside him. "I like you better when you're in control. There," the door slid open, "is that better?" She slid past him and he hurried after her. "Slow down! I checked out the layout yesterday. If we go down from here we should be able to get out through one of the exhaust vents."
She halted, assuming what Tucker privately believed to be the standard Vulcan posture of 'waiting impatiently'. Her head was low, thrust slightly forward, shoulders dropped and she watched him obliquely. "Which way?"
Despite Tucker's claim to know the way, it took some time to work their way through the partially dismantled vessel and T'Pol's condition started to deteriorate further before they reached their destination. That Tucker had a problem on his hands became evident when he noticed that the science officer was no longer at his side and retraced his steps to find her a few metres behind, back to a wall, mouth trembling as she stared wildly around her.
"T'Pol." She turned a wide-eyed stare on him, air hissing through her teeth, and he grimaced at the naked emotion. "What's wrong?"
"We have to get out."
"Yeah," he said slowly. "That's what we're doing, T'Pol."
"I am losing control."
"I noticed. You'll be okay." Cliché or not, there wasn't a lot else to say.
"I must not lose control. I have to save you. I cannot fail."
"You won't fail." Gently he took her shoulders, trying to project reassurance. "We'll be out soon and then Phlox can sort you out again. Come on, Sub-Commander," he hoped the use of her old rank might steady her as it had before, "let's go. Just follow me."
She stared back at him then slowly nodded, a little of the tension draining out of her, and he released her to continue down the corridor, startled when she moved so close to his side that he could feel the inhuman warmth radiating from her body. He drew a deep breath and gave her an encouraging smile, deciding that an out-of-control Vulcan scared the hell out of him.
Afterwards they deduced that the rear section of the ship must still have retained its Trellium-D coating, but without a scanner there was no way they could have identified the problem and not a great deal they could have done about it even so. At the time, Tucker just knew that T'Pol was becoming increasingly irrational until finally she sheered away from him to crouch on the floor, arms over her head, moaning softly. "T'Pol." Feeling a little desperate, Tucker crouched beside her. "T'Pol, we have to keep going. The cap'n'll be worried about you. Let's get you back to him, huh?"
It was a shot in the dark but for a moment Tucker thought it had paid off as she lifted her head to look first at him then at their surroundings again. "I must get away."
"That's the idea."
"I must get away!" Off-guard he wasn't prepared for the sudden violence and her stiff armed shove sent him crashing metres back along the corridor. By the time he picked himself up, T'Pol was out of sight and he cursed and chased breathlessly after her: she was heading straight back the way they'd come.
T'Pol was fast on her feet and had a head start. By the time Tucker got her in sight she was almost back to the living quarters. He presumed she thought that there was an exit from there - if she was thinking at all - and made a final effort to catch up but she burst into the main chamber seconds ahead. He heard the screams before he arrived and halted panting on the edge of a battlefield. The first man to try and grab T'Pol must have been deceived by her slight build and was lying groaning the floor while Tucker's calm, compassionate, pacifist therapist kicked hell out of the half dozen or so now trying to re-capture her. She wasn't even trying to restrain the force of her blows, judging by some of the painful noises he heard from their bodies.
He should have dived in to help, but was shocked into immobility at the expression on the lovely face. Reed had told him how passionately angry T'Pol had become on the Seleya, but he hadn't truly believed the Englishman, and even the temper she'd shown on first awakening hadn't prepared him for this. There were people lying on the ground around her already, and some of them weren't so much as twitching. And there was blood on her uniform and it wasn't green.
Tucker only snapped out of his shock when he saw one of the men trying to get a clear shot on T'Pol and charged forwards from where he had been standing unnoticed by the entrance, knocking up the weapon and dropping its owner with a boot below the belt. The butt of the confiscated handgun took out another trying to pull T'Pol off a third and he was beside the woman, pointing the weapon up to the ceiling and pressing what he hoped was the fire' button. The result was satisfyingly loud in the enclosed space and, as the echoes died, Tucker levelled the barrel at Rorik who stood only a few metres away. "Call them off!"
Whatever he read in the engineer's eyes had the desired effect. As his people looked around for guidance, the gang leader's hand drew them back and Tucker grabbed for T'Pol to prevent her following. She brushed him off as easily as if he wasn't twice her weight but stopped stalking her next victim, taking a half-intelligent look around. "T'Pol." This time she didn't move away as Tucker sidled towards her, gun still trained on Rorik. "That way."
She obeyed his instruction, backing away at his side and Tucker allowed himself to hope again: it would be far more dangerous than trying to sneak out, but they might still make it. He hadn't reckoned on the appearance of Hael, however, blocking their way out as she halted in surprise. Before Tucker could stop her, T'Pol lunged at the other woman, one hand wrapping around her throat, the other grasping one of the woman's wrists and twisting it so viciously back and outwards against the joints of the elbow and shoulder that Hael screamed in pain as a bone snapped and the joints dislocated.
"T'Pol!" Appalled at the Vulcan's action, Tucker's attention wavered and Rorik jumped him, both falling to the floor as they struggled for possession of the gun. T'Pol growled in frustration, dropped Hael and went to aid her colleague, another mistake as it gave one of Rorik's people a clear shot. On stun, with T'Pol high on endorphins, it didn't put her out, but she screamed in pain and fury as she fell to her knees, distracting Tucker again.
Rorik came to his feet with the gun and the engineer collapsed back to the ground panting and cursing. "I knew Hael was wrong about you." The man wiped blood from his mouth and aimed a savage kick at Tucker that he didn't see coming, grunting in pain as it landed. T'Pol bared her teeth at Rorik and tried to launch herself at him, succeeding only in falling over the Human she wanted to defend as he tried to prevent her causing any further disasters. "Get up."
Tucker scrambled to his feet, hauling the still growling T'Pol with him; the will to keep fighting might be there, but she certainly wasn't physically capable of doing so. "She's ill. You have to let her go."
"Your ill friend just killed some of mine, by the looks of it." Rorik trained his weapon at the top of T'Pol's head.
Licking suddenly dry lips, Tucker tried to hold her drooping form a little closer to his own body. It wasn't much protection at this range. "She's a very high ranking officer on my ship," he warned quietly, hoping their captor would understand the implicit threat of retaliation.
"Then your friends had better pay up promptly." The gun jerked in the direction of their cell. "Move."
Sick with frustration and worry, Tucker obeyed, knowing they had no choice. He'd hold this over T'Pol's head as long as they lived - which hopefully would be for more than the next few hours.
They were in the cell when Rorik said idly, "Tucker," and, as the Human looked back, casually aimed and fired. Taken totally by surprise, the engineer cried out and collapsed, a hand clutched to his thigh, as the other man swung the gun on T'Pol, who had fallen with Tucker and was now crouched beside him, teeth bared. "Perhaps you'll stay where you're put this time." The door slammed as T'Pol propelled herself over Tucker's body and hit the door with both fists, shouting something incomprehensible after their captor.
"T'Pol." The engineer sat up slowly, teeth closing on his lower lip. "T'Pol, stop that." She was still pounding rhythmically on the door, apparently trying to batter it down with her bare fists. "You'll hurt yourself." He took a deep breath, trying to block the pain in his leg. "I don't want you to hurt yourself."
She swung on him, panting and furious. "We have to escape."
"And whose fault is it we didn't?" Tucker knew he was being unfair when T'Pol wasn't responsible for her behaviour, but he was in pain and worried about her and neither helped his temper.
"I must rescue you!"
"I was doing fine by myself!"
She snarled and began to prowl the cell, running a hand over the walls as if seeking a way through them. "You do not understand. You never understand," she drifted off, her voice descending into a child's whine.
Tucker eased himself back against one wall, wincing as he probed gingerly at the singed hole in the leg of his jumpsuit. "Then tell me."
For a long moment he didn't think he was going to get an answer then the Vulcan said softly, "I will hurt you."
Startled he looked up to find T'Pol pacing the back wall. "What d'you mean?"
"I cannot maintain control."
"Yeah, noticed that one." She was still moving restlessly backwards and forwards. "T'Pol, will you quit that? You're making me dizzy and my head hurts enough as it is." He got a burning look but she halted, leaning against the wall, head tipped upwards. "You're not gonna hurt me."
"You are human. You are so ... fragile."
"What's that gotta do with it?"
"Inferior, violent, emotional, arrogant "
"I thought we were friends."
"Rude, impulsive, opinionated "
"So we are friends."
"Loud, untrusting "
"T'Pol!" Finally she dropped her eyes to his, far from the unemotional woman he knew. "Are you my friend?"
There was a long pause. "Yes."
"Then you're not gonna hurt me." Her gaze didn't shift which was an improvement, under the circumstances. "T'Pol, I need your help. My leg's bleeding." For a moment he didn't think she cared enough to respond to the appeal, but then she moved slowly to his side, stripping off her jacket and tearing at the outer covering to produce a makeshift bandage. It was spattered with alien blood but he felt it best not to complain, and at least the activity gave her something to focus on. He watched her closely as she tied up his wound, the effort she was making to control herself clearly visible in the rigid features. "Thanks."
Her mouth trembled as she raised a tormented face to his. "I will hurt you."
He decided to ignore her repeated insistence that she would hurt him. He just couldn't bring himself to believe that she'd turn on him, however wildly she was behaving. It probably meant as much as her previous obsession with escaping, an obsession for the sake of obsession. He could understand that. An impossible workload wasn't the only reason he stayed in Engineering past his duty shift. "The cap'n'll get us out." He'd meant it as a reassurance and didn't understand the pain that twisted her mouth.
"He will forget."
"What are you talking about? The cap'n never leaves anyone behind."
There was a pause as she frowned in thought. "I do not know. I... I did not make sense. I do not understand."
"That makes two of us." He had been gently rubbing the arm nearest him, fighting his instinctive human reaction that said that what T'Pol needed was a good old-fashioned cuddle. "You'll be okay, T'Pol. There can't be much Trellium-D here." She hadn't pull away from his touch and he allowed himself to hope that she might even find it comforting. "You were worse than this on the Seleya, weren't you?" She nodded and he squeezed her arm once more and dropped his hand: there was only so much temptation he could take. "D'you think neuro-pressure would help?"
It was a relief when she nodded; intimate the technique might be, but there was a discipline to it that helped him keep a lid on desire. "Then kindly disrobe." His smile mocked her gently for their shared memory of the first session that had nearly ended in terminal embarrassment for them both. She glared half-heartedly, but began to strip.
T'Pol fell asleep part way through the session with her head on Tucker's lap, disquietingly close to his groin. Looking down at her with rueful tenderness, he wondered if she ever took into account the fact that he was male, an undisciplined human who hadn't had sex in far too long, then answered his own question: of course she didn't, he was a friend, his gender was irrelevant.
He grimaced. It was about time he stopped denying the truth. He didn't keep going to T'Pol's cabin for the occasional glimpse of her breasts or even because the neuro-pressure helped him sleep. He went because he'd fallen in love with his Vulcan first officer and didn't know how else to spend time with her. They were in different departments and generally didn't meet on duty. Off duty, she refused to socialize during meal times or exercise sessions, and spent the remainder of her time reading or meditating.
He was most definitely the fool she'd called him because he knew it was hopeless. The best thing to do would be to take Hael's advice and seek comfort elsewhere, before he disgraced himself and destroyed their friendship, but it wasn't easy. T'Pol was the smartest, most compassionate person he'd ever met and the only one on Enterprise who equalled him on technical knowledge. The other officers who came close were all under his command and so off limits, and he liked discussing science as much as arguing over dinner. No, he didn't want a substitute for T'Pol.
A faint smile tugged at his mouth as his hand began to stroke the ruffled brown hair of the woman asleep with her head pressing painfully into his wounded leg. Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds'. Well, he'd seen the composed and rational woman he'd always known turn into a homicidal maniac and it hadn't changed how he felt, so it must be love. And the fear and vulnerability she'd shown had simply aroused every protective instinct he possessed. T'Pol murmured, rolling her head away from his caressing hand, and Tucker jerked back guiltily, cursing himself for taking liberties with the sleeping woman. Massage might be pretty sophisticated medicine in the Vulcan world, but the sort of petting he'd been indulging in was a different ball game entirely.
He needed to get on with plan-B because they'd not be given another crack at plan-A. Some rescuer T'Pol had turned out to be! Gently he moved her onto the floor, covering her with the remains of her discarded jacket, and, sliding his own under her head, returned to his purloined stash of components.
It took Tucker a couple of hours but he'd always known he would succeed - leaving him his communicator, even if it was ineffective, had been a big mistake and allowing him the opportunity to scrounge spare parts had been another. He hooked the signal booster up to the communicator and cautiously activated the latter, keeping his voice as low as possible. "Tucker to Cap'n Archer." Now he just had to hope that his captors didn't bother to monitor communication channels.
"Trip." The response was flatteringly prompt. "Where are you? Are you all right?"
"I'm OK, Cap'n, but T'Pol's with me and she's not. She's been exposed to Trellium-D again. You have to get her out."
"What's your location?"
"About five kilometres north of our landing site. You should be able to get a lock on this signal."
There was a brief pause then the captain came back. "Got it. Trip, your captors have said they'll kill you if we try a direct assault. Can you create a diversion?"
"I don't know, Cap'n." Tucker was looking anxiously at the Vulcan woman's motionless form. "T'Pol's really not good."
"Do your best. Trip," Archer's voice had slowed, "watch yourself. Last time she was affected well, let's just say T'Pol still has some issues with humans."
"Acknowledged." He'd had the entire litany; at least he hoped there wasn't anything else about him T'Pol didn't like. "Tucker out." He flipped off the communicator and concealed the booster and only then did he notice that T'Pol's eyes were slitted open. "The cap'n's gonna get you out." She just lay there. "Feel up to a little diversion, Sub-Commander?"
She sat up slowly and cocked her head to one side, assessing his words, then very deliberately moved to kneel in front of him, raising her chin. "Khavorta."
Obediently he fitted his fingers to the pressure points along her jaw; at least she trusted him enough to let him help her. He tried not to let his smile show.
T'Pol seemed calm when the door to their cell opened but Tucker reached for her, having no idea whether she would become hysterical with fear or blind fury again - neither option seemed like a good idea to him. She stiffened as Rorik appeared, gun levelled, and Tucker tightened his grip: angry T'Pol it was.
"You." The gun indicated the Vulcan and jerked towards the door. "Out."
"I said out'!"
"What d'you want with her?" Tucker had done the maths and was hoping that Archer had come across with a plan.
Rorik grinned nastily. "It seems she's more valuable to your friends than you are. They've paid her ransom. Of course," and the smirk made Tucker want to wipe it from the other man's face, "we did put your price up. Good engineers are hard to find."
The engineer in question gritted his teeth and released T'Pol, giving her a gentle push towards the door. "Go on."
"No." She was almost snuggled into his side, just where Tucker had always wanted her, although not quite under these circumstances. "I came for you."
"T'Pol, you're gonna get out. Go with him."
"Will you quit saying that?" She didn't take her angry, implacable gaze from Rorik and Tucker sighed, addressing the other man. "Who brought the ransom?"
"Said his name was Archer."
Tucker breathed a sigh of relief. "Let him in here. She'll go with him; she trusts him."
The terrorist leader glowered, but he'd seen how T'Pol reacted to physical restraint and wasn't about to try to drag her bodily from the cell. A few moments later Archer's tall figure appeared, tense and worried but reassuringly dependable to Tucker's eyes. "Cap'n."
"Trip," the man acknowledged, although he was looking anxiously at the Vulcan woman who had inexplicably pressed even closer to the engineer. "Let's get you out of here, T'Pol."
She turned a wide-eyed look on Tucker then faced her captain again. "I have not completed my mission."
Tucker lifted his eyes skywards and propelled her firmly towards Archer. "Just go."
She shied away as Archer reached for her arm and backed up to the far wall of the cell. "No. I came for Mr Tucker. I will remain."
"There's been a change of plan, T'Pol," the captain said firmly. "We'll be back for Trip later."
Her gaze was hostile, even as she shook her head. "No. I must save him."
Rorik had watched the scene with going impatience and finally snapped, stepping fully into the cell. "What the hell's going on here? Do you want the woman or not?"
The two humans were too confused to answer, but his intervention seemed to drive T'Pol over her own personal threshold. In one smooth motion she stepped behind Tucker and raised her hands to his neck. "You cannot have him!"
There was barely time for the look of horror to form on the engineer's face before he collapsed bonelessly to the floor. Both men stared in shock, but T'Pol let no such feeling influence her as she leapt across the floor to seize Rorik's rifle, swinging the butt ruthlessly into his face to leave him senseless. She meted out the same treatment to the man behind him, before slamming the door closed and firing at the lock to fuse it solid.
"T'Pol," Archer's voice was strangled, "what "
The gun swung dangerously in his direction. "Call the MACOs."
"T'Pol," the captain was kneeling at the engineer's side, "Trip's dead! You killed him."
"You asked for a diversion."
With a snarl of mingled fury and frustration, she flung the rifle at him and knelt at Tucker's side, hands surprisingly careful as she explored his neck. A second later he moaned, a hand rising to his head as T'Pol glared across his reviving body to the stunned captain. "He is my friend. I would not harm him."
The fire-fight was short and vicious, but ultimately successful for the MACOs, who were a much tougher proposition than an over-trusting engineer and an irrational Vulcan. The most embarrassing part of the operation for Archer was being rescued along with his officers. He certainly didn't like the smirk when the MACOs' mission commander finally got the jammed door open, brushing past Hayes to confront Jaelok, who had accompanied the relief force. "What happens now?"
The manager took a look around at the disarmed men and women under MACO guard and gestured to a line of his own people filing into the room. "We'll take over from here, Captain Archer. You'll find that your supplies have been loaded into your shuttle. There'll be no charge."
Archer hesitated but it was a generous gesture and both Tucker and T'Pol needed medical treatment; the captain didn't like the hostility in T'Pol's eyes even if she did seem docile enough as long as Tucker applied some outlandish Vulcan massage technique. He nodded to Jaelok and fell in at the centre of the pack of MACOs along with his chief engineer and science officer, who hadn't moved far from each other all the time he'd been with them.
They had just stepped out into the open when the sound of weapons fire brought them to a stop, the MACOs moving into an outward facing ring around the Starfleet officers, before Hayes said flatly, "That's no fight." He looked over at Archer, expression grim. "That's an execution."
"What?" Aghast, Tucker took a step back the way they had come - or would have done if T'Pol had allowed him to.
"You can do nothing," she said with a chill in her voice quite unlike her normal cool tone, eyes trained on the ground in front of them.
"But they're slaughtering them like animals!"
"Yes, they are."
Tucker was shaking his head, reeling from the admission. "How can you...."
"How can I not take sides? How can I condemn both to continue their errors? How can I be so Vulcan?" T'Pol snapped her gaze off the ground, directly into his eyes, but only for the moment it took another gun blast to echo. That was when he saw the flicker of something, some feeling he hesitated to put a name to, and he realized he needed to stop arguing.
Archer ignored his old friend's appeal for justice, seeming to look straight through him. "We got what we came for. Let's go."
Stunned and disbelieving, Tucker followed his captain, stumbling as his injured leg gave out. T'Pol beat one of the MACOs to steady him, a strong, slim arm going around his waist. Startled out of his disillusion over Archer's behaviour, he looked down to meet her eyes for what seemed like an endless moment, missing his opportunity to pull away, before she broke the contact and turned slightly to help him onwards. He let himself dwell on that moment all the way back to Enterprise.
"Ow!" Tucker opened his eyes to glare at the woman kneeling in front of him. "That hurts!"
"It should not."
"Well, it does!"
She leant forward to run exploring fingers up the back of his neck and he gasped, less at the discomfort than at the fact that she had put herself within kissing distance and his self-control was feeling shaky. "The vertebrae are properly aligned."
"Fine." Cautiously he rotated his neck, wincing. "Maybe that death grip of yours doesn't work too well on humans."
"It immobilises the subject. It does not kill."
"Phlox said it could have." He glimpsed her hands, folded neatly in her lap again. Where was the line between neuro-pressure massage and a pinch meant to debilitate?
"Then do not induce me to try again."
And how easy would it be to use the same principles to more lethal effect? He pushed that thought away and gave her a look of hurt innocence, but she simply indicated that he should lie down and, once he was arranged to her satisfaction, began to knead his shoulders, a shade more gently than normal. "Are you feeling better now?"
"Yes." There was a pause in which Tucker began marshalling his courage to ask something rather important.
Then she added quietly, "I should explain my obsession with your extraction." She halted while her hands soothed away the sudden tension in his back. "Some years ago, during my time with the Ministry of Security, I was sent to retrieve a captive colleague. I failed."
The soft voice continued, outlining the incident in a manner that precluded questions, although she need not have bothered. Tucker hardly heard, focussing on his breathing, on the ache in his leg, on anything at all except the fact that some damn fool human had started to believe that a Vulcan cared for him as much as he did for her.