Trip wasn’t sure which one of them started sprinting down the rest of the path first, rocks and pebbles skittering away from their feet as they ran, but they were both through the austere stone arch of the park in what seemed an instant.
It was like stepping into a vivid painting of Earth’s Cretaceous period that Trip remembered from elementary school - artwork that included giant dinosaurs. So powerful was the sensation that he couldn’t help but slow a bit and give a quick, nervous glance at the tops of the oddly shaped trees, his breath now in hitches due to Vulcan’s gravity.
The mountain monastery shadowed this part of the park in the afternoon sun and he could see the entrance clearly through the treetops. He was surprised to see that the heavy wooden doors were wide open and that a handful of the monks had gathered halfway down the mountainside, peering over the same rocky ledge he and T'Pol had stopped by earlier. He looked away, shaking his head to clear it and catch his breath. The child inside him had been half-expecting to see a brontosaurus nibbling the tops of the trees.
Child. He took a deep breath and picked up the pace to hurry after T'Pol - the landscape, the mountain, and the monastery forgotten once again.
Despite the tangle of tall, curling fronds from thick patches of cycads, wicked looking cactus-like vines laden with berries, and limestone juts creating sharp turns in the park’s pathways, they knew exactly where to go. A small desert flyer with the park’s insignia sped past them overhead and voices became clearer as they rounded each bend.
Though it felt as if it had taken them a geologic age to reach the scene, in fact it was mere minutes. In that short time a small crowd had gathered, and Trip immediately had the sense that someone had taken charge and done the logical thing.
A tall and lanky Vulcan, wearing sturdy and stained work clothes, spoke rapidly into a communicator. After few sharp words that Trip couldn’t understand, the man snapped the device shut and stepped quickly towards a middle-aged woman exiting the desert flyer that had landed nearby. Closer by, two other men had climbed beyond the broken railing and closer to the edge of the pool, half-hidden now by the sloping sides of the feature. Trip could see a thick strap coiled around the shoulder of one. The young couple, the child’s parents he assumed, clung to the edge of what remained of the ornate railing, eyes locked on the still pool of water below. Four others stood nearby, two young women and an elderly couple, in what appeared to be comforting closeness.
He frowned and coughed. “Why don’t they just…”
He stopped and looked at T'Pol, who turned back towards him and nodded.
“It is likely no one can swim,” she said, in a tone tinged with enough distress that he could hear it in her voice and not just feel it in his mind. Her typically calm visage radiated tension and she gave him a concerned, appraising look. “However, they appear to be doing what they can. We should not have run this distance. You…”
“I’m fine,” Trip cut her off. Then, more gently, partly because he instantly regretted his sharpness and partly because he was painfully out of breath, “Really.”
Closing his eyes, he breathed in deeply and willed his heart to stop pounding against his chest before he ended up with a headache. “We’re at a lower altitude now. I just need a minute.” Opening his eyes and avoiding hers, he nodded at the scene in front of them. “What are they saying?”
T'Pol looked him up and down for a moment before turning towards the group, listening.
“Attempts are being made to locate the child,” T'Pol translated from the numerous conversations going on. “To bring him to the surface. The park’s botanist has called emergency services and medics. The superintendent has brought what equipment she could think of.” She paused and Trip stepped to her side.
“Apparently no one has ever fallen in.”
“No… Not in their memory, but…” She paused again, listening.
Trip looked from one face to another, feeling powerless yet again. The agitation was palpable. Despite the fact that Vulcans often professed that they experienced no emotions, he knew that they actually did actually have them. Strong emotions were a part of their ancient history, the violence of them etched across the very landscape they stood on, though time worn now into soft shadows and gone from living memory. The last several years of Starfleet service with and around Vulcans had taught him how important their culture of logic and control was to them, to the strength their society, to their own peace of mind. But despite the activity around him, Trip was certain now that he could sense a sort of grimness about the group. Despair even.
Vulcans might be able to control their emotions through the application of logic, and conceal any failure to do so via rigidly held bodies and stoic expressions, but their eyes revealed all. The younger man that Trip assumed was the child’s father, had glanced at him when he arrived. Trip instantly recognized, in those Vulcan eyes, the same desperate hope that had gripped him while standing over Elizabeth’s bio-bed in sickbay.
“Not in at least four centuries, according to park records. And even those unfortunates from centuries prior, did not fall into a deep system…”
T'Pol trailed off, her voice bringing him back to the present moment. The way her shoulders suddenly dropped, along with another wave of strong emotion in the back of his mind, made Trip realize it was not the couple that was struggling with feelings of despair, but T'Pol.
“The child is likely…” her voice broke.
Oh no. Oh HELL no.
Trip grabbed T'Pol hand. Not so soon after losing their own child! The determination in his thoughts must have been a category five hurricane in T'Pol’s mind because her eyes went wide. He mustered everything she’d ever taught him about breathing and control to calm his mind, for both their sakes.
It worked, because another thought occurred to him. He spun her around and grabbed her shoulder to look her in the eye. “I know Vulcan physiology is different from Humans. How long can a Vulcan child hold their breath?”
T'Pol was not reassured by the hopeful thought. “Considerably longer than a Human child. But it has already been too long, and he has not resurfaced.”
“Maybe not here. But… the ranger said… ‘a deep system’. Do they mean a cavern system?”
“The park superintendent. Do they have a map?”
T'Pol apparently understood where he was going with that question, because she nodded. Together they hurried over to the two Vulcans near the desert flyer.
“I am…” T'Pol began to introduce herself.
“Commander T'Pol and Commander Tucker. Starfleet.” The middle-aged woman spoke in understandable Standard. “I am Neavik.” Her voice was even and calm but her eyes wide as she glanced from Trip to T'Pol and then briefly up at the mountain monastery. All of Vulcan probably recognizes us by now, Trip thought.
“Do you have a map of the cave system below this feature?” T'Pol asked.
The tall and lanky man, the park’s botanist, handed over a PADD and tapped the screen. A detailed map of the underground aquifer system appeared, with multiple vertical shafts, caverns of every size and long, stair-stepped horizontal systems.
“Evkah and I have discussed the possibility the child may have emerged in a side shaft,” Neavik said, echoing Trip’s own thoughts. Her finger tracing down one vertical shaft to the first horizontal one and up again. “Here. Or here.”
“But those are closed systems,” added Evkah. “There are no surface entrances from those that I have observed.”
Trip examined the map, his heart sinking.
“We have called for submersibles, but it is taking longer than expected to locate a functioning one.” Neavik added. “These maps are old and might not be reliable source of information.”
“How old?” asked T'Pol.
“Four hundred years.”
Trip’s head shot up and he blinked. “Four hundred years?” The hope he’d had was dwindling fast and the tension he’d felt all afternoon returning to every muscle in his body.
Evkah regarded him. “The aquifers are performing efficiently. There has been no need for a renewed survey in the last two generations.”
“If the boy tried to surface but became trapped in a side shaft, then there is a chance he is alive,” T'Pol said, her voice quiet.
“Not according to the map,” Neavik contradicted gently. “These…” She tapped the two possible contenders for the child’s location. “…would have no breathable air.”
Evkah canted his head. “It is possible that multiple surfaces breeches, of any size along here,” he indicated on the map, “over the last four centuries could have brought in surface air. My observations of bacterial colonization of pfalla root structures indicate this may be a possibility…”
That was all Trip needed to know.
He didn’t remember even thinking about it, but in one quick motion he’d dropped his ceremonial robe to the ground and then pulled off his boots. After a moment’s hesitation, in which she looked as if she was weighing whether or not dissuade him from what he was about to do, T'Pol helped him off with his tunic even as he moved towards the gap in the ornate iron fencing. As the group of Vulcans stared, he stripped down to his underwear and then slid down the remaining feet of distance from the path to the edge of the water.
Without explaining anything to anyone, he took a deep breath, slid over the travertine edge and plunged beneath the surface.