Author's Note: Thanks to JustTripn for meaty beta, kindly supplemented by Escriba. Thanks to the reviewers for the reviews and debates!
Kendra awoke after dozing off for she didn't know how long and wondered how much oxygen they had left. Vehlen had said the eight hours in one canister should be more than sufficient. There were more canisters in the cargo container, but they were on the other side of the false floor they were lying under.
She wished the meal he'd told the desk he wanted to go out for had actually occurred, because she was now very hungry. On the other hand she probably would have had to pee by now if she'd had anything to drink. Instead of leaving for the dinner he'd spoken of, Vehlen had bundled her into this container the tradesman had delivered and then joined her, with the help of the tradesman, who apparently had been content to keep their secret in exchange for his money and the stash of blue beverages that had been in the false bottom when they first uncovered it.
Vehlen began to softly cough. His lungs were no doubt slowly filling and he would inevitably start coughing more. Ultimately, she could end up trapped in a tiny dark space with drowning, panicking man.
She began trying once again to push up on the false bottom.
"What are you doing?"
"You need to sit up."
He rasped for a moment, then said. "Let me." He rolled away and Kendra heard a soft 'click'. Then he pushed up.
Nothing happened. Vehlen exhaled impatiently.
"Did that guy lock us in?" she asked.
"There's no lock. Probably there's just too much on top. Apparently I don't have quite the strength I used to have." He coughed again.
She joined him in pushing up, and felt a little movement. "It's coming," she said, grunting, and gradually the end of their false ceiling lifted a bit. They shook it until stuff began to shift out of the way. Still, their progress was minimal, perhaps 10 centimeters, and holding it up wasn't easy.
"How the hell were you expecting us to get out of here?" she said.
He let go and lay back breathlessly. The false floor settled back over them again. "They'll have to get us out."
"Your comrades." He coughed, louder.
"How do you know they're even on board? Or that if they are, they're expecting us to be in the bottom of a cargo container?"
"We don't know for certain if they're on board. But if they are, the message I sent them should have made it clear."
Kendra blinked in the darkness. When had he sent a message? "So we could just be stuck in this thing until we run out of air? Or are poisoned by our own carbon dioxide?"
"I put a CO2 collector in with us. That won't be a problem. But lack of oxygen will be, if we can't get at the other canisters. You should probably try yelling for help before this one runs out." He was definitely wheezing.
She stuck the mask on his face. "When will that happen?"
"I don't know. Soon." He coughed. "I'm sorry, Kendra. If I had a weapon with me, as I normally would, I could have simply burned through this panel."
"With oxygen canisters lying around?"
He was silent for a long moment. Then, sounding truly mortified, he said, "Perhaps I'm losing my edge."
Hell of a time for him to figure that out.
Kendra started yelling. She yelled until she lost her voice. There was no response. She tried pounding on the side of the canister. It was not made of a material that carried sound very well and she had little hope that anybody who wasn't standing close by would hear it.
It took her awhile to realize the canister wasn't hissing anymore.
No response, just rapid, shallow wheezing.
"Vehlen." She shook him. He groaned slightly but didn't rouse. Vulcans could get by on much less oxygen than humans, so this didn't exactly bode well for her. On the other hand, Romulans might be different. Or at least Romulans in heart failure might be different.
She tried to school her breathing. Unfortunately, attempting to slowly count and breathe 1-2-3, 1-2-3 in her head, an old calming technique from her residency days, somehow just emphasized that her respiration was in fact much faster and shallower than it should be. No doubt her body was trying to cope with the thinning air.
She hoped Trip and T'Pol were still alive, somewhere. Perhaps they'd make better speed home without her in tow. Maybe they could still help to prevent a war, or to win one.
She didn't dare think that they might already have been captured.
Think about rejoining your family, she thought, and tried to summon up her children's faces in her mind's eye, but instead she found herself clasping Vehlen's warm hand in hers and imagining that he returned at least some slight pressure. There was no doubt something really fucked up in her relief that she wasn't alone in here, that she was sharing her final moments with the man who'd hatched this ridiculous plan.
Was that a noise outside? She pounded on the side of the container without much hope, and was shocked when it tapped back at her. A voice said something, but it sounded very far away. She knocked again. Then there were more voices, some clanking. Her hope rose, but whatever it was that was being done was taking awfully long. She was gasping like a fish out of water now. Perhaps she'd dreamed the tapping. Perhaps it had been a hallucination brought on by apoxia, like the odd grey light that now began to bloom around her.
Somebody was messing with her face.
She took a deep breath. A long, deep, cleansing breath, and then another. She blinked rapidly and squinted up into the blurry face of a Romulan framed by a hood.
No, wait - it was T'Pol. T'Pol! Vehlen had given her at least the suggestion of forehead ridges with some make-up he had on his ship.
T'Pol put a finger on her mouth, and Kendra stayed silent, content simply to breathe. The overhead panel that had trapped them was gone and she was lying buried in a pile of the container's contents with just her head exposed. Next to her, Vehlen was hidden under a cloth but his breath came in short rattles that were so loud in her ear Kendra was surprised they weren't being heard by anyone else in the room.
If he awoke, he would surely start coughing. She darted an alarmed look at T'Pol.
"I'm afraid I will have to discipline my slave about this packing job," T'Pol said loudly, raising her head to address someone else. "These contents have shifted badly."
"Look, lady," a man's nasally voice said. "We warned you to carry any luggage you'll need during your trip into your cabin with you. We can't have people diving into the cargo bay whenever the whim takes them."
"Unfortunately I didn't learn about this container's delivery until shortly before departure," T'Pol said. "I would be delighted if you could transfer it to our cabin."
"A whole container?" the voice protested. "It wouldn't fit through the door."
"Then I will need some time to set it in order. If you would be so kind as to escort my slave here?"
"I'll get him," the voice said sullenly. "Don't touch anything that doesn't belong to you. The captain has killed for less."
T'Pol raised her voice. "Do you have some sort of cart or trolley? I will of course want to transfer anything I am likely to need to my cabin so we won't need to importune you again."
Kendra heard the man depart, grumbling.
"Assume that we are being monitored," T'Pol said softly, with her hand over her mouth. "It took some time to persuade them to let me access this container. I apologize for the delay. It was most unfortunate." She paused. "Vehlen appears to be unconscious."
"Hand me another oxygen canister," Kendra rasped out, her voice ravaged from yelling for help earlier. "We should have kept them closer." T'Pol rummaged and handed one to her. Kendra hurriedly uncovered Vehlen, whose face had turned grey, and replaced the canister. "He's going to start choking as soon as he comes around," she warned T'Pol. "We won't be able to keep him quiet."
T'Pol frowned. "Then we will need to create a distraction. Unless we can prevent him from waking."
Kendra looked up at her, startled. Just what did she mean by that?
T'Pol merely raised a cool eyebrow and looked up as a noise sounded some distance away, presumably the hatch. "Slave! Your packing job was inexcusably poor. You have a great deal of work to do, and clearly this time I will have to supervise it myself."
The original crewman's voice rose. "I have other duties, I can't just stand around here waiting for you to pack up your things. You have about twenty minutes. When I come back, that container is going back in its place whether you're ready or not."
T'Pol drew herself up. "Do you know who you're talking to?"
"Can't be too special if you're on this ship," the man sneered, and left with a slam of the hatch.
"Guess he told you," Tucker murmured, and peered down at Kendra. Vehlen had attached a facial appliance to his nose and dyed his hair brown and explained that he was now a Bajoran, which meant nothing to them. Vehlen had said it was a good fit for Tucker because the species was notorious for its bad attitude.
"Don't be insolent," T'Pol said now, and whacked him lightly on the back of the head. More softly, she added, "We are under surveillance."
Tucker grimaced. "What do you want me to do, Mistress?"
"Bring that cart here," she said. "First I want to transfer a great deal of this to our cabin. I want these hangings and my bedclothes," T'Pol said, pointing at both Kendra and Vehlen. "My cabin is appallingly under-appointed. Since speed is of the essence, I will assist you."
"Med supplies," Kendra whispered, and T'Pol nodded.
Soon Kendra was lifted out, wrapped in cloth, which felt even more claustrophobic than lying in the dark bottom of the container. They set her down next to a mass that had to be Vehlen, since it was audibly wheezing, and then the weight increased slightly on top as they added various items, presumably to further disguise their presence or perhaps because they might need them.
"Now are you quite sure that's all you need, mistress? You're sure you don't want to try to empty the entire container into this cart?" Trip asked, and then said, "Ow!"
Then they were gliding smoothly along. Apparently the cart had an anti-gravity function.
"Hey!" she heard a strange voice say. The cart stopped. "What do you think you're doing?"
"Transporting my luggage," T'Pol said coldly. "Your crewman declined to move my container to my cabin."
"You're not supposed to be in the cargo bay," the voice said. "I made that clear to you when you first came aboard."
"You can hardly expect me to stay in a cabin that is so utterly lacking in amenities. I required these items simply to bring it up to the barest standards of dignity."
"If dignity was what you wanted, you should have chosen a passenger liner. This is a freighter."
"Yes. Unfortunately, speed was also of the essence."
There was a slight pause, before the voice asked, "And why are you making this trip again?"
T'Pol kept silent. Kendra wondered how the man could avoid hearing Vehlen's wheezing, and perhaps Tucker had the same thought because he began to cough.
The man said, "If you're running from someone, lady, perhaps you should care less about dignity and more about discretion. And in the Praetor's name, what do you need that panel for?"
"I require a barrier between me and my slave while I sleep."
"I certainly hope you're not planning to try to smuggle ale through the port at Kalpurnia without that panel in place. You could get all of us in trouble."
"I would hardly lower myself to carrying contraband!"
"Right," the man said skeptically. "Tell you what, blossom. My other passengers never showed up. So you can have the second cabin if you want it - for the same price, of course."
"It would only be for my slave."
"A cabin is a cabin. Same price."
"Very well," T'Pol said, after a moment's hesitation. "I will take it."
"You can bring me the money at dinner." There was a pregnant pause, and Tucker began to cough industriously again. Then the man said, "Or we could arrange a barter... if you'd appreciate having more appropriate company in your cabin."
"That is hardly likely," T'Pol said.
"Oh, you may change your mind after you get to know me better," the man said, and laughed as he walked off.
More gliding, a clunk or two, and then Kendra was being gently unrolled from her cloth prison. "You all right?" Tucker asked, once they had her standing.
She nodded, breathing deeply and shaking herself out. "Vehlen?" she asked.
They unwrapped him from where he had been cocooned with his oxygen mask and lay him on the bunk.
"No, no, sitting up," Kendra said, and leaped forward to arrange pillows behind him. She began to pat his cheeks. His eyes fluttered but didn't open. His breathing was labored and crackling with moisture. "Where's the scanner?"
T'Pol looked at Tucker, then went to find it and handed it over, along with the bag of medical supplies the apothecary had brought. Kendra scanned; by now she had learned to at least roughly interpret its readings and they weren't good. She scrabbled through the medicine, which seemed to be in single dosages, so even though she couldn't read the labels she went ahead and administered a hypospray. Maybe it would help. It was hard to believe anything could hurt at this point.
"Well, he did get us on another ship," Tucker said. "Though I'm not sure it's going to be as easy to abscond with as he made it sound."
Kendra frowned unhappily. It sounded to her as if Trip was already writing Vehlen's obituary.
"We will gather more information during dinner," T'Pol said. "We need to know how many crewman are on board. So far I have only seen three."
"There has to be more than that," Trip said. He explained to Kendra, "This ship must do a lot of smuggling. It's riddled with sensor baffles. You can't get a good scan of anything. But that also works in our favor, with two extra life signs in here."
Kendra looked up from Vehlen, chilled by a sudden thought. "What if they're monitoring us right now?"
Tucker smiled crookedly and pointed up at a corner of the ceiling. "Their device has developed an unfortunate fault."
"Which they will no doubt attempt to fix," T'Pol said. "Possibly during dinner. We need to devise a way to hide Dr. Gonzalez and Mr. Vehlen."
"There's not exactly a lot of room to play with here," Trip said, hands on hips. "Especially if he's unconscious. Unless, of course, he can stay unconscious."
"That's not an option!" Kendra said, irritated. She tried patting Vehlen's cheeks again. "Come on, Vehlen," she said. "You've got to wake up. Time's a wasting, mon." She molested his face until he began to turn it away from her. "That's it. Come on. Wake up. I need you to wake up now!"
He began to cough and choke and gag and Kendra couldn't believe how beautiful the sound was. "That's it," she said, encouraging him. She turned her head to Tucker, "You know the routine. Let's get him up."
Tucker flashed a look at T'Pol that Kendra understood all too well: Why were they wasting their effort on this?
"He can still help us!" Kendra insisted.
"He can still sell us out, too," Tucker muttered, but he helped her get him upright.
"He won't," Kendra said. She rubbed Vehlen's back as he coughed.
"What makes you so sure of that?" Tucker said.
For once, she felt certain. "Because he has nothing to gain by it."
Vehlen stiffened, but didn't say anything. He had no breath to say it with.
x x x
Once Vehlen had recovered sufficiently for conversation, he wanted to hear about their interactions with the crew. "There probably won't be more than five or six crewmen in total," he said. "And most of them will be asleep during the night shift. So that's the ideal time to act - tonight, before anyone back on Vierra figures out that we're here."
"How do you know they haven't already figured it out?" Tucker said.
Vehlen was slowly pacing back and forth, partly because Kendra had urged him to walk. "Well, they think you're dead, if we're lucky. As for me and Kendra, I'm hoping they won't expect us to be exactly where we said we would be after we failed to show up. But sooner or later, they'll track us back to the tradesman, even if he does have every incentive to keep quiet, and it's safe to assume they'll figure it out after that. That's why we have to take control of this ship as soon as possible."
"From five or six crewmembers ... with one particle weapon," Tucker said.
"One particle weapon and the element of surprise," Vehlen said. "But there is a possible complication."
Vehlen sighed, which made him cough. "I have no reason to think the captain of the Trevia is anyone other than your average low-life scumbag smuggler. However, it's possible he's actually a Tal-Shiar agent. If so, he will be very dangerous, and this ship may also be rigged with a self-destruct mechanism. For that matter, any other member of the crew could also be Tal Shiar. So our appropriation of this ship must be fast and complete, with no opportunity for reaction from any of the crew."
"Oh, is that all," Tucker said sourly.
"I suggest you gather as much information as you can over dinner," Vehlen said. "And if you can find a way to lure the captain into this cabin later tonight, that would probably help." He looked at T'Pol. "The man is somewhat notorious for his appetites."
T'Pol said, "Yes. I don't believe that getting him here will prove difficult."
Tucker scowled. "May I please be the one who shoots him?"
"I would suggest a Vulcan nerve pinch followed by tal-shaya," Vehlen said. "The faster and quieter the death, the better. If he's Tal Shiar he could have a self-destruct device embedded in his teeth, or almost anywhere." When T'Pol and Tucker stared at him, he said to T'Pol, "You are familiar with tal-shaya?"
T'Pol said. "I'm familiar with it. I've never employed it on a living being. You would have me kill an unconscious man?"
"Unconscious, conscious, what's the difference, as long as he ends up dead?"
T'Pol and Tucker looked at each other.
"Look, do you want to get safely home or not?" Vehlen said. He threw his hands up in the air. "You know, this is why your planet is doomed! You people simply don't have the stomach for war. If you don't accept that tonight the entire crew of this ship has to die, you might as well just hand yourselves over to them right now. But do me a favor and let me do myself in first, because I don't want to be here when it happens." He stopped and bent over, hands on his legs, trying to catch his breath.
Kendra stared at her comrades. They looked as sucker-punched as she was. It was one thing to fight for control of a vessel - quite another to contemplate the efficient murder of every member of its crew.
Vehlen sat down heavily on the bunk and looked up at them, his expression haggard. "What'll it be, children?"
"I don't believe the choice needs to be quite that stark," T'Pol said.
"No, it doesn't - if you don't really care whether you succeed." He coughed and shook his head in disgust. "Look, these are smugglers. They are maggots." He struggled to catch his breath. "They would sell you out in a second if they knew who you were." He pointed a finger at Tucker. "And believe me, if this captain thinks he can safely blackmail your bond mate into fucking him, he will."
"I simply meant that we could put any survivors into an escape pod and jettison them," T'Pol said calmly.
"Where they could be picked up and tell their story. I don't need to remind you that this is a shipping lane, do I?"
"Then we will have to keep them under guard until we find a suitable place to deposit them."
Vehlen clenched his jaw, then spoke with exaggerated patience. "We barely have enough people to run this ship as it is. You think you can also guard hostile prisoners who may have the means and desire to destroy this ship and everyone in it?"
Trip said, "He's right, T'Pol."
T'Pol turned to him. "You would have us murder the entire crew?"
Trip's eyes looked harder than Kendra had ever seen them. "We need to get those energy signatures to Starfleet. They could be our only defense against their cloaking devices. We don't have the luxury of worrying about our consciences. This has to work flawlessly, or it could all be for nothing."
T'Pol swallowed. "We do not know that war has even been declared yet."
"Then maybe having these signatures could keep war from breaking out in the first place."
Kendra had known when she joined Starfleet that she might be in the position of defending herself and her shipmates with deadly force someday. Somehow she'd never imagined that she'd ever have to be on the offensive. "A hypospray can also be a weapon," she said. "I can sedate them. And I can keep them sedated, at least for a day or two. Perhaps that would buy us time to find a more humane solution."
Vehlen shook his head. "You want to be humane? Losing these few lives could spare many millions more."
"You can't know that," T'Pol said. "If we behave as ruthlessly as our enemy, what makes us any different from them? As a Romulan yourself, you are perhaps not equipped to fully appreciate those differences ... or to understand our objection to murdering noncombatants. I think your suggestion has merit, doctor."
"It's a mistake!" Vehlen said.
T'Pol's eyebrow rose. "It might also be useful to Starfleet to have access to at least one ordinary Romulan who is untrained in intelligence, and may provide a different outlook on your people than you would. If you feel strongly about killing yourself before we start, however, that is of course up to you." The invitation was implicit.
Kendra stared at her, appalled, but Vehlen grimaced and said nothing. Apparently it had been an idle threat.
T'Pol turned to Tucker. "We will do as much planning as we can at this point, gather more information at dinner, and make any necessary adjustments afterwards. And we will endeavor to prevent the unnecessary loss of life - but only in so far as we can do so without endangering ourselves or our mission."
Tucker folded his arms, looking a little skeptical, but nodded.
Vehlen said, "You'd better hope that nobody you spare is a Tal-Shiar agent. At least try to find out who the newest member of the crew is, or if there are any other passengers."
"We will do that," T'Pol said.
Vehlen nodded. He looked grim, even depressed.
Was it because T'Pol had not taken his advice? Or was it something else?
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