They stood there in silence for a long while, watching the spires of the distant city shimmer and shift, and long, thin clouds float past the upper reaches of the mountainside monastery.
Over T'Pol's shoulder Trip could see a vast area - a little hazy at this distance but its features still clearly distinct - surrounded by a low, ornately carved stone wall. Inside this expanse was a multitude of spectacular-looking plants, tall rock formations, and winding pathways.
Suddenly desperate for something other than silence, he nodded at the enclosed area. "What's that?"
"It's a preserve." If Trip didn't know better he'd say she was relieved to engage in something that amounted to innocuous small talk.
"As you know, aside from a few small seas, there is little surface water on Vulcan." T'Pol continued as if she was at her station on the bridge of Enterprise, though her voice was soft. "As such, most reservoirs are underground in extensive cave systems. This area is home to one of the major aquifers that nourishes the Shi'Kar province and was set aside as a wilderness preserve many years ago."
T'Pol paused for a moment, and then inclined her head at the path that wound down and away from the monastery. "This way. You can see it better from a platform some meters below."
Trip nodded and followed her down the path and past the small landing pad. A warm breeze tossed his hair and made him squint as they walked.
As they made their descent, Trip could feel his breathing speed up and his heart rate rise. It didn't seem to matter that he was a trained, and fit, Starfleet officer. Vulcan's thinner atmosphere and heavier gravity always reminded he that he'd grown up at sea level. At least T'Pol had set a comfortable pace that didn't leave him winded right away.
Trip glanced at her. They hadn't spoken much, not since that moment in her quarters when he'd tearfully told her what Phlox had discovered. Learning that Elizabeth had died because of a flaw in the cloning process that Paxton's doctors used, and that a Vulcan-Human child was possible, she'd taken his hand.
Now, she looked lost in thought, and still sort of... fragile. He turned his attention back to the path. Now that he knew what to listen for, he could feel her in the back of his mind, like a tune that he couldn't forget. The analogy brought the barest tug of a smile to the corner of his mouth. Yeah, he thought, that fit her - a tune he couldn't forget. He sneaked another peek at her, walking beside him.
The psychic bond they now clearly shared was both comforting and a source of confusion and anxiety. There were moments when he felt a calm that he knew wasn't his own, but that he was grateful for. Likewise, there were moments, especially in the last six days, of a sort of kindred mental presence that made him feel less alone in aftermath of everything that had just happened. Other times... well, he was beginning to wonder if the red-hot rage bubbling in his breast was entirely his.
Truth to be told, he wasn't sure what was real or imagined from moment to moment. Moreover, he suspected that T'Pol, being inexperienced with the previously taboo subject of Vulcan psychic abilities, was struggling with the extra burden of a very un-Vulcan mental presence. Trip had no idea how to help.
As the landscape below came into clearer view, he could now see hundreds of sinkholes, some larger or smaller than others, scattered about across the plains, and continuing throughout what looked like limestone uplifts.
A flash of color caught his eye and he stopped walking. Placing a hand on T'Pol's shoulder to get her attention, he raised his eyebrows and indicated a spot right at the cliff edge of the path with a nod of his head.
They moved closer, to peer over a small rise of rock into what appeared to be a small infinity edge pool of water, glowing red to a deep purple from edge to edge and perhaps only a few meters across in each direction. A streak of vibrant green meandered through it and appeared to disappear into the sky.
"It's a taivotik muzh," T'Pol said. "Literally, a bacterial pool. The minerals in the pool create the reds you see and the bacteria create the flow of green."
To the left and right of the pool Trip could now clearly see the plateau below where the preserve sprawled. They'd walked almost all the way down the side of the mountain and he could no longer see the farthest ends of the wall, but he could still see over it. He could also see what appeared to be interpretive signage or kiosks scattered about, and at least one Vulcan family on an outing.
He was suddenly struck by a feeling of nostalgia and familiarity, despite the fact that this was an alien landscape to him.
"Reminds me of some places in Arizona or Nevada. Or Yellowstone." Trip nodded his head at the horizon and leaned against the small rise of rock, watching the family in the preserve move to another kiosk. "I wonder what all this looked like millions of years ago."
"Likely it appeared very much as it did just a few thousand years ago. This landscape was created rapidly after the wars that led to The Time of Awakening."
Trip frowned. "Vulcans did this?"
"Not directly. The plateau's topography is karst - various soluble carbonate rocks. Thus the presence of the aquifers. It, and other areas like it, were strategic targets during the wars that preceded The Awakening."
"Cut off the water supply..."
"Precisely. The destruction of the protective uplifts and some upper strata left this layer more exposed, and centuries of acidic rain following the wars created this particular landscape."
Silence fell again between them as he scanned the horizon. Some of the openings were difficult to see, tiny holes that slid sideways under layers of rock and plants. Others were wide but deep, with steep sides leading to the water. A few were right at the surface, glassy in appearance until small breezes disturbed their surfaces enough that they glittered in the afternoon glare.
The family he'd spotted was now approaching one of the smaller surface ones. It was reddish-orange, and shimmering multi colors in the light. A small ridge encircled one half of the edge while the rest was enclosed by an ornate iron railing. The colors seemed to both blend into and pop from the plateau itself.
Trip pointed. "That one reminds me of a blue hole."
T'Pol arched an eyebrow. "Blue hole."
"A geologic feature on Earth." He watched as the small family group of Vulcans approached the feature he was talking about. "Literally a hole - a vertical marine cave or sinkhole underwater. Blue, instead of red like that because they're in Earth's oceans. There are some similar features on land, called cenotes. They're both popular with experienced divers."
"You're an experienced diver. An instructor, correct?"
Trip nodded. "Yeah. I was Capt'n Archer's instructor." He smiled a bit. "In fact, I took Jon on a dive into Devil's Hole."
"That one's in Nevada." Trip said. "Not to be confused with Devil's Hole in Bermuda, or Devil's Hole in Gainesville, where my family used to go some weekends durin' the summer. People have been rope-swingin' there for nearly two hundred years." Seeing her expression, he actually chuckled for the first time in what felt like centuries. "Rope swingin'. It's a ... a...uh... you know, we outta just visit Earth sometime so I can show you."
He charged ahead before she could answer that invitation. "Anyway, The one in Bermuda... the collapsed roof of the cave makes some eerie sounds via the tides so..." he nodded. "Hence the name."
Trip watched the Vulcan family - a couple and their young son - consult an information padd next to the still pool, then turned to face T'Pol.
"I dove a couple of the marine sinkholes in Belize too, includin' the Great Blue Hole, and Dean's Blue Hole in the Bahamas. Dove a few cenotes in the Yucatan. Lots of caves too. Cave diving's popular where I grew up. North-central Florida has lots of springs that are openings into the aquifer." He realized he was babbling now, maybe about a different kind of loss, but he couldn't stop himself. "There's one near Tallahassee that spans two counties. I dove that one from Wakulla Springs, just before I left for Starfleet."
"It sounds... intriguing."
"It's somethin'... that's for sure." He regarded her with a faint smile, "You've seen Wakula Springs."
"I have never been to Florida."
He nodded. "Movie night."
T'Pol raised an eyebrow.
He lean on his side against the rise of rock and looked up at her. "Creature from the Black Lagoon, and the all three of the Tarzan movies you saw."
"Those were filmed near your home?"
"At Wakula Springs, yes." He paused for moment, remembering, and then continued. "The places off the beaten path are really nice but it can be a dangerous sport." He glanced back at the preserve for a moment, then ducked his head. "You don't have to be a diver to appreciate them though. They're beautiful from the surface."
T'Pol nodded, thoughtfully. "I would like to see one someday."
That was the opening he both needed and dreaded.
Trip straightened up and, taking a deep breath, turned to face T'Pol. "And I'd like to show you. But T'Pol ... I... I..." Well, damn. Now that he knew what he wanted to say, he had no idea how to say it.
He scanned the sky as if it would help him discover words for something that was more feeling than thought. Finally, he said the only thing that he could drag out of his swirling thoughts.
"I gotta know... where are we now? What we are now?"
They'd been listed as parents in one classified report to Starfleet after the Xindi mission, but one could argue that Lorian had never happened once they'd changed the timeline. There was no arguing that Elizabeth had existed though, and the entire known galaxy was aware that the two of them were her biological parents. But beyond that, what were they?
"I feel like we keep startin' over, startin' at the beginnin'." He looked at her again. "And every time we have to start over, we're right back to tiptoein' around each other like perpetual teenagers."
T'Pol nodded but stayed silent, toying with the edge of her sleeve.
Trip pressed on. Even if it hurt like hell, it was now or never. "Look. When I found out about the baby ... when I saw her for the first time ... I thought of us as a family."
"As did I."
That simple admission from her lifted about twenty tons of weight that had settled somewhere around his heart. His vision blurred a bit as he struggled again to find the words to speak about something deeper than the landscape around them.
For a moment it looked like T'Pol would save him from having to. She'd straightened up and taken a breath to something but suddenly stopped, her gaze going over his shoulder as if she'd heard something. Vulcan hearing. He twisted around to follow her suddenly concerned gaze.
There was an even larger group of Vulcans now gathered around the red "blue hole" that he'd been watching.
"What's goin' on?"
"They appear to be agitated."
Years ago he might have given her an incredulous look at that statement - but not anymore. Whether it was the bond they shared or plain and simple experience with reading Vulcans, it was clear to him too that the group of Vulcans were upset about something. The way one of the women had her eyes closed and held her hands to chest as if she was trying to meditate on the spot. The way an elderly one kept shifting his robes around as he spoke into a portable communication device. The way several of the younger males were circling the geologic feature.
Trip gripped T'Pol's arm, as the sudden realization of ‘what's wrong with this picture' came to him in a flash. With his other hand he pointed at a rippling surface surrounded by a now collapsed barrier, once section of which was missing.
"Where's the child?"