A/N Last chapter and epilogue coming up. Hope you've enjoyed the story as much as I've enjoyed writing it. If so, please review, and many thanks to all who have already done so. Writers live for reviews, even those with constructive criticism.
Trip gasped in agony as the aliens repeatedly zapped him with their pain sticks, alternating that with pressing on his injured leg.
"Give us the information and we will stop."
"I can't give ya anythin'. You've gotta understand, I swore I'd never tell anyone."
"Then you will die, pointlessly and painfully."
With that, the torture continued until his head swam with pain. He could dimly hear them calling his name and he ignored it, refusing to allow them to use psychology on him.
"Commander…come on, sir, waken up! Trip, for pity's sake, open your eyes."
Trip recognised the clipped English vowels and briefly wondered when Malcolm had been captured. Reluctantly, he opened heavy eyes and felt the soft rain hitting his face.
"You were dreaming, Commander, and shouting out. We've managed to avoid detection thus far, but if you keep on yelling, our luck won't last."
Malcolm looked at Trip with concern etched onto his face. The engineer was dressed only in his blue skivvies, and like them all, was drenched to the skin. However, none of the others had to contend with serious blood loss and broken ribs. His teeth chattered and he shuddered from the cold. His blue eyes, now that Malcolm could see them, were bright with fever, and Malcolm touched the commander's forehead.
"You're burning up, Trip."
"N-not from where I'm sittin'…c-cold."
A sudden fit of coughing wracked his body and Malcolm watched in dismay as bright red blood appeared at the corner of Trip's mouth.
"That's it. I'm going to get you some help. Not everyone on this God-forsaken planet can be hostile."
Trip shook his head, vehemently. "N-no way, Malcolm. I'll take my c-chances, just s-stay outta there." A sudden realisation hit him. "Where's T'Pol?"
Malcolm squirmed a little before answering. "She left a few hours ago to make her way back to the shuttle. She's going to bring it here, since you were in no condition to go to it."
"An' you l-let her g-go, on her own?"
"Actually, Commander, she outranks me, and technically she's not alone: Crewman Murphy's with her, and as soon as they reach the shuttle, Briggs and Barr will be there, too."
Trip let it go, too weary to continue, and knowing only too well that they'd split up because of him. It frustrated him that he was so weak, such a burden to his friends. And now T'Pol was out there, susceptible to attack because he was once again a liability.
'If I hadn't been so ready to show Goff around Enterprise, I wouldn't be in this mess, now. Gotta get more like Malcolm and T'Pol: suspect everybody!'
He hadn't realised he was mumbling aloud until Malcolm gave him a curious look.
"Sorry, Commander, were you speaking?"
Johnson edged over beside the Armoury Officer. "He's losing it, Lieutenant, he's mumbling now."
Malcolm turned sharply on a hapless Johnson. "The Commander's injuries have led to him developing a fever. That's why he's losing it, as you put it. Stay with him while I have a quick scout around. And try to keep him quiet!"
"Aye, sir, and how exactly am I supposed to keep a senior officer quiet?"
"Use your initiative, crewman, just don't let either of you get caught. I won't be long."
T'Pol and Murphy had made good progress through the forest in spite of the near-stygian darkness. Their Starfleet issue torches had been lost in the hovercraft's crash. Murphy secretly harboured the feeling that the Vulcan science officer was a she-devil, anyway, so the fact that she seemed able to see in the dark only added conviction to his beliefs.
It took several hours of dodging branches and roots, but eventually they found themselves standing in front of the shuttle. T'Pol activated her communicator.
"Ensign Barr, this is Sub-Commander T'Pol, please open the hatch."
The side panel opened, spilling out light and warmth into the night air. T'Pol and Murphy clambered aboard, as Briggs shut the hatch after them. Barr was feeling better, although pale and blood-smeared. Briggs had filled him in on developments since he'd taken his nap.
"So, Sub-Commander, did you manage to locate Commander Tucker?" he asked.
"We have retrieved the commander, but experienced some difficulties in our escape. We had to split up, and as you are in no condition to fly, I will pilot the shuttle to where the others will be waiting. But first I must apprise the captain of developments."
Ensign Barr moved out of the way to allow her to sit at the helm and contact the ship.
Hoshi's sharp hearing, and never-wavering attention picked up the hail through the static.
"Captain, we have contact again. It's the Sub-Commander."
Jon had been pacing the bridge like a man demented, worried for his missing crew, and feeling useless so far from them. At Hoshi's call he fairly sprinted back to his chair.
"T'Pol, what's happening down there? We're going out of our minds with worry."
T'Pol arched an elegant eyebrow. "That is an unnecessary over-reaction, Captain. I have returned to the shuttle and am about to rendezvous with Lieutenant Reed and the commander. If all goes unhindered, we should be returning to Enterprise in several hours. I will give you a detailed report on my return."
"Ok, it'll wait until then, but I've felt so helpless up here…what about Goff? Is there anything we can do about him?"
"I believe he was attempting to procure a ticket on a cargo vessel leaving Kendal Prime. He was using Commander Tucker as a means of payment."
"Slavery! Ye gods, I thought we'd put that behind us centuries ago. So, do you think he got his ticket off?"
"When I last saw him about 3 hours ago, he had been rendered unconscious by the lieutenant. Do you want me to track and detain him?"
"No, it's too dangerous, who knows how many allies he has down there. I guess we just have to walk away from this. I've already sent another message to Zena, informing them of his last known whereabouts. That's all we can do. Let's just concentrate on getting everyone home."
"Commander, please sir, you have to keep quiet," Johnson pleaded.
"Wassamatter?" Trip queried, much too loudly.
Johnson cringed at the unwelcome volume of the commander's voice. He'd heard the sounds of an approaching patrol, and if Commander Tucker continued his mutterings, they'd be found without any difficulty.
He whispered in Trip's ear, "The enemy is very close, sir. I need you to be quiet or they'll find us."
"Bad guys? Here? Lemme at 'em, I'll blow their socks off."
Johnson stared in horror as Trip attempted to stand, an imaginary pistol in his outstretched hand. He had to do something, but the only thing he could think of was unthinkable. The footsteps were almost upon them as he thought frantically of a way out of their predicament.
"Oh for Heaven's sake, I hope I don't live to regret this!" He drew his phaser, checked the setting was on 'stun', and shot his chief Engineer squarely in the chest. Trip collapsed in an unceremonious heap.
"I am so dead for that, but at least he's quiet," he reasoned with himself.
He whirled round as steps approached behind him, and lowered his pistol in relief as Malcolm returned from his scouting party. Malcolm looked at Trip's still form, and crossed anxiously to check his pulse.
Johnson held his finger to his mouth and indicated the searchers who were by now, very close. Malcolm brought his pistol up to get a bead on the figures, but suddenly recognised the distinctive sound of an Enterprise shuttle overhead. A blast from the shuttle's plasma cannon scorched the ground near the Kendalies, causing them to scatter in all directions. Those who inadvertently ran towards Malcolm and Johnson were felled by stun shots. T'Pol manoeuvred the 'pod into a gentle landing close to Malcolm's position. As the hatch opened, Briggs jumped out, running towards them.
"Hurry, sir, before they muster their attack again."
Johnson and Briggs hoisted Trip's unconscious body off the ground and clambered on board. Malcolm gave one last look around the inhospitable planet, and followed them in. As they settled the unconscious man gently onto a bench and covered him in a thermal blanket, Malcolm turned again to the unfortunate crewman.
"I believe you still owe me an answer, Mister Johnson."
Johnson gulped nervously before replying. "Well, sir, they were so close, and he kept babbling on, what with the fever, and you said to keep him quiet. 'Use your initiative' you said, so…I shot the commander…sir."
T'Pol's elegant eyebrow almost disappeared into her hairline. Malcolm sat open-mouthed as he took in what he was hearing. He finally got his mouth working again.
"Let me get this straight. You shot a senior officer, and you're trying to blame me? When I said 'use your initiative', I didn't mean that."
Johnson hung his head. "I'm sorry, sir. I guess I panicked. Does the commander have to know about this…or the captain? I suppose he'll wonder at the phaser burn on the commander's chest."
Malcolm began to relax and see the crewman's point of view.
"You haven't had a good look at the commander's present state of health or you wouldn't be worrying about one more bruise. But I'll have to explain it to the captain, and knowing him, he'll probably call it 'mitigating circumstances'. As for Commander Tucker, I think we'll just keep this between ourselves. What the commander doesn't know, won't hurt him."
"Doc, come on, lemme outta here! I've been wired up to your infernal monitors for three days now. I tell ya, keepin' me here's doin' more harm than good to my recovery."
Phlox regarded his cantankerous patient with a benign smile. Over those said three days he'd watched the human's struggle against infection and injury, initially fearing for his patient's life. But, as always in the past, Commander Tucker had held on tenaciously to life, pulling through, with a little help from Phlox's less orthodox treatments.
The fact that most of the crew had stopped by, frequently, had helped, too. The young engineer was one of the most popular crew members, and Phlox had had to restrict visiting at the start of his recovery, to allow the exhausted man some rest. But now, judging by his plaintive cries for freedom, the commander was well on the way to a full recovery.
"Commander, no matter how much you badger me, I refuse to release you yet. Your body is recovering more with each passing day, but you must remember that you had serious injuries as well as a fever. Whilst I enjoy our little spats each time you frequent my establishment, perhaps a distraction might help to occupy your time better than arguing with me."
Trip snorted. "Don't ya think I'm distracted enough? I just want ta get back to normal, lie in my own bed for a change. No offence, Doc, I really appreciate all ya did for me, again! It's just…"
"Doctor, perhaps I may be of some assistance," T'Pol interjected, serenely entering the fray as she silently entered Sickbay. Phlox beamed her a look of supreme gratitude, and Trip strained to see what was behind her.
"Hey T'Pol, whatcha got with ya?"
She stood aside to let him see two crewmen setting their unfinished chess game onto a moveable table.
"I wondered if we might resume our match, unless you think I would be taking an unfair advantage of you in your debilitated state, Commander."
T'Pol knew her opponent's weaknesses, and she had worded her statement deliberately. She saw the flash of fire in his eyes at the very idea of being thought of as under par.
Trip grinned. "Take as much advantage as ya want, Sub-Commander, 'cause debilitated or not, this boy's gonna whup your ass!"