Set around Season Two.
Gabi2305 and RoaringMice were my beta readers for this. Thank you both.
§ 1 §
It had perhaps only been ten minutes, but the dark and the damp were already settling into Trip's bones. Eyes on Malcolm whose flashlight was bobbing just ahead of him, Trip tried to keep up with the man – how the hell did he manage to be that damn quick on such slippery terrain? – and shivered, cursing himself for having virtually begged the Captain to bring him along on this mission. Gawd, what had he been thinking? Well, he knew what...
After weeks spent in the starship's artificial environment, all he had been able to envision, when he had heard the words 'M-class planet' and 'away mission', had been the rather utopian picture of green meadows and blue skies. As a matter of fact the sky was a beautiful deep periwinkle blue - outside the damn caverns. At the time he hadn't known that the most interesting feature of this planet was its intricate system of caves with their different types of ore.
The sun had been pleasantly warm, and as soon as he had stepped out of the shuttlepod Trip had turned his face to it, soaking it in. His eyes had been semi-closed, but he hadn't missed the subtly amused grin Malcolm had flashed him from behind the bent arm the man had raised against the glare.
"Did you bring your sun lotion, Commander?" Malcolm had murmured teasingly to him.
"Why, ya forgot yours?" Trip had drawled back, keeping his own voice low.
Despite being a few meters away, Archer had obviously caught their exchange, for he had turned to them with a glint of humour in his eyes. Then he had smiled one of his satisfied smiles, that which might grace the face of a father happy to see his children have fun on the family outing.
Focussing back on the present, Trip scowled. This wasn't exactly his idea of fun. Hell, he had ached to breathe something that wasn't recycled air, but this musty-smelling reek hardly qualified as –
His foot slipped on the slimy rock, and to avoid landing with his butt on the ground he put out a quick hand to the rock wall, scraping its palm on the rough surface.
Malcolm jerked his head at Trip's muttered curse. "Everything all right?"
"Sure," Trip bit out through gritted teeth. "I cut my hand open and might get poisoned by some deadly alien bacteria, but otherwise everything's just peachy."
The cone of light from Malcolm's flashlight danced around Trip's midsection as it looked for the injured appendage, finally settling on its target. "Let me see," Malcolm said in commanding tones.
Pulling back, Trip huffed. "Malcolm, I was joking. It's only a scratch."
Malcolm raised his flashlight to just below Trip's gaze, and Trip did the same, managing to illuminate steely and unrelenting grey eyes.
"All the same, Commander, would you please…"
"Is there a problem?" Archer who had been a few metres behind them interrupted, coming up and moving his own torch from one officer to the other, careful not to blind them.
"I scraped my hand against the rock wall, that's all," Trip said sullenly. He reluctantly showed the Captain the bloodied palm of his left hand.
"It would be advisable to disinfect and bandage the wound," The-Voice-of-Logic supplied, joining them.
Trip rolled his eyes, truly hoping his pissed-off expression would come across even in the semi-darkness. "This is hardly a wound, T'Pol," he said flatly. "And…"
"Shut up, Trip; she's right," Archer decreed, proceeding to fish out a med-kit from the backpack he had lowered to the ground. "Scout ahead, Malcolm" he added, with a glance at Reed. "This tunnel seems to be getting narrower and steeper. If it keeps that way, we might want to explore another section of these caves. It's not as if there's no choice, after all. I don't want to risk anyone's neck."
As a peace gesture Malcolm offered Trip his canteen, and he accepted it with a wry, lopsided smirk, reaching out for it with his right hand while at the same time he stretched his left arm towards T'Pol, to allow her to dress his wound. Before taking a swig he watched the Lieutenant move off and followed for a moment the dancing light of his flashlight, as it faded and disappeared with the man around the next bend.
It was when T'Pol's eyes went wider and became subtly expressive that Trip first realised that something was wrong. A second later came a low rumble and slight quivering under his feet.
"What the hell...?" he exclaimed.
Archer, his brow furrowed, turned abruptly to his Science Officer, who was already checking her instruments.
"We must leave the caves at once," T'Pol said in the direct tone of voice Trip had learnt to be the Vulcan equivalent of urgency. "I am reading seismic activity."
"Malcolm…" Trip said tautly, jerking his head towards the dark tunnel where the Lieutenant had disappeared. A more perceptible jolt sent his heart a couple of floors up, to some place at the base of his neck.
"Go. Now," Archer barked, reaching for his communicator as they took off. "Archer to Reed," he paged without stopping.
"I've felt it, Sir," Malcolm's voice came back.
"We need to get the hell out of here," Archer shouted as the ground shook again, setting small rocks rolling.
There was a seemingly interminable delay – in fact no more than two or three seconds – before Malcolm's reply. "Acknowledged. I'll be right behind you," his voice finally crackled out.
Trip's attention was briefly caught by the edge that, even through the communicator, rang clear in his friend's voice. But another, more violent shock brought his focus dramatically back on his personal predicament as he and the others were sent off-balance and crashing against the rock wall.
"You ok?" he asked T'Pol waveringly, helping the fallen Vulcan back to her feet.
"Go, go!" Archer ordered, urging them – if indeed there was any need – not to waste any time.
They took off again, arms over their heads to protect themselves as best they could from any falling debris. Trip heard coughing behind them and turned to see a light dancing in the distance: Malcolm. He prayed that his friend's much envied nimbleness would serve him well and allow him to catch up with them.
The ground was now moving constantly in a swaying motion, and the more sandy parts of the cave began to crumble, filling the air with dust, which made them wheeze and cough, and got into their eyes.
Trip's own eyes were watering, but through the mist of his tears he managed to see the mouth of the cave appear, some ten meters beyond Archer and T'Pol. "Almost there!" the Captain shouted to him over his shoulder. T'Pol was already reaching the outside. Good to have that Vulcan extra strength.
Suddenly a violent jolt sent Trip to his knees. A moment later a thunderous sound made him roll up instinctively into a ball, and cover his head with both arms.
"Trip, get up!" Archer cried out, panic in his voice. "Get to your feet, dammit!"
Startled out of his immobility, Trip pushed to his feet just as the tunnel behind him began to collapse. He watched the scene in horror, frozen in place, an icy knot forming in his gut as the light from Malcolm's flashlight disappeared behind the falling debris. He wanted to cry out, but his mouth had gone completely dry and his tongue was stuck to his palate.
Archer's voice was desperate, and Trip turned to see him standing a few meters outside the cave, with T'Pol holding him back by one arm. He stared at them for a couple of seconds; then swivelled once more to the other side, unsure of what to do. He could hear Malcolm's muffled coughing, and through the dust he could see that the tunnel was now partially obstructed - too obstructed for a man to pass. His heart was thumping painfully in his chest. Safety on one side, a friend trapped on the other. Trapped. His feet were still stuck to the ground and his mind fogged. Seconds, perhaps minutes, went by - he didn't know. All he knew was that his pulse and breathing were out of control.
"Can you see him?"
Archer's voice caught his attention again. He turned to see the Captain approaching with tentative steps, and suddenly realised that the tremor that shook his body was no longer a consequence of the quivering ground but of his own shock and fear. The earthquake seemed to have stopped. T'Pol had remained outside, and was concentrating on her scanner.
Trip wiped a shaky hand over his tearing eyes. "No," he replied, his voice no steadier than his limbs. Get a grip, he told himself. Feeling grit in his throat, he wrapped an arm over his nose and mouth to filter out the dust that was hanging thick in the air.
Malcolm's voice sounded damped, and a moment later the man had given in to another fit of coughing. Trip started back in his direction, moving his flashlight to inspect the mountain of debris. He found an opening, and directed the light through it.
"Are you injured?" he called. But Malcolm was still too busy coughing up his lungs to reply.
"The tunnel's virtually obstructed, Capt'n," Trip shouted tensely over his shoulder to Archer, who was still advancing slowly. "Malcolm's trapped…"
Trip's mind reeled. They'd been tipsy that night, yet…
"I'm fine, for the moment," Malcolm choked out, interrupting his thoughts. He sounded out of breath, and Trip suddenly feared it wasn't only because of the running or the coughing.
"Get out of here and make sure the seismic activity has ended, before you try to free me," Malcolm added in a taut, throaty voice.
Trip swallowed hard.
The cone of light from Archer's light was already becoming more focussed, signalling his proximity, when T'Pol's voice rang out, uncharacteristically loud. "Captain, it's resuming!"
Trip's head snapped back to her.
"Out!" Archer barked, back-pedalling as the ground started quivering again.
"Malcolm!" Trip shouted back to him as his breathing got ragged with alarm and uncertainty.
"We'll come back for him. Out! That's an order!"
"You heard the Captain, Trip, go!"
Trip bit his lip, torn between self-preservation and... Dammit, but he couldn't go. He'd promised…
He turned to see Archer reaching safety and almost gave in to his legs, which really wanted to take off at a run after him. A harder jolt, though, made the decision for him: the mouth of the cave came crumbling down, and as Trip instinctively crouched in a protective stance, he watched in horror as his crewmates disappeared like actors behind the final curtain.
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