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Author's Chapter Notes:

Author's note:  OMG, I'm so sorry. I never meant to make y'all wait almost a year for another chapter! In fact, my original goal had been to put this chapter out by Christmas 2020 or New Year's Day and then wrap it up around Valentine's Day 2021.

But. Three freak snowstorms, power failures in sub zero temperatures, three hail storms, a new roof, a totaled car, some insane work hours, a Delta surge, and a couple of dire family emergencies later? 2021 has really tried to outdo 2020 in my neck of the woods and it's not done yet.

So. Anyway. How are you? That's nice. Good to hear. Here is chapter four. Finally. 

P.S. THANK YOU to all who stuck around hoping for more of this story and to all of you who said nice things about it. It's so very much appreciated, you have no idea. Given the state of things the final chapter of this story may be delayed as well, but hopefully not nearly as long.

 

oOo

Chapter Four

 

This was a spectacularly bad idea.

The second the waters closed over his head, Trip knew he'd made a grave mistake. Everything he'd ever learned about diving, every rule, every safety procedure, every lecture about how even experienced divers wound up dead, came screaming back through his brain at a million miles an hour.

To make matters worse, he'd plunged right into a dense silt cloud. Superfine particles of sediment were still suspended in the narrow vertical shaft, likely from deposits disturbed by the child's fall. Visibility was near zero past his feet and even the light from the Vulcan mid-day sun, shimmering and wavering through the water above his head, was rapidly growing dimmer as he sank. 

Ordinarily he would stop, float, and wait for the particle cloud to settle while keeping an eye on his tank levels. But he didn't have tanks. Or fins. Or a mask. And he was sinking fast. 

Too fast, he realized abruptly. Vulcan's higher gravity was pulling him down more rapidly than he was used to on Earth, and right through the kind of disorienting whiteout conditions that made cave diving so deadly. He hadn't expected to free-dive to scuba depths without a counter weight against buoyancy so he hadn't bothered to grab a boulder or large rock to help him descend. Or, well, he hadn't bothered to a grab a rock because he hadn't actually planned this through, he reluctantly admitted to himself, but he was still sinking fast and unexpectedly. He was just heavier here, and just barely enough so as to throw off his expectations of how he should be moving.

Alarm gripped him as the already dim sunlight above him finally vanished before he could stall his descent. He fought back the urge to take a deep breath to quell a rising panic.

He needed light. He needed a guideline.

He needed air. 

Out of nowhere, an unassailable sense of calm came over him, the panic immediately banished for a sudden and startling clarity of mind. That, too, was bad news, he realized, since a sudden sense of tranquility could be the signs of nitrogen narcosis. But, he pondered, as he stretched out his arms and pushed out with his feet to brace himself against the ever-widening vertical shaft, that usually came with an overblown sense of confidence too. 

He'd managed to halt his downward motion but he definitely didn't feel confident about going forward with this non-plan. He looked up from where he'd fallen. Apparently the sunlight hadn't completely vanished - he thought he could see just a tiny bit better now - and - he looked down again - he could just make out the dim edges of the bottom of the shaft. If he'd fallen any further, he'd have dropped out of the shaft and might never have found his way back up. 

That thought alone should have sent his heart racing, but the preternatural sense of serenity still filled him. He had the skills to do this, yes. Even in an alien environment. He was Starfleet trained after all. But this unprepared dive wasn't working and he was going to drown himself if he didn't rethink and regroup. 

With a shove against the surrounding rock that kicked up more of the fine silt, he blindly propelled himself back towards what he hoped was the sinkhole's entrance. Luckily, buoyancy - though weirdly off from his personal experience - still worked according to the laws of physics. He was propelled towards dim light once again, breaking the surface just as he though his lungs were going to explode.

 

 

oOo

 

 

Strong hands helped to lift him out of the water until he came to rest on the crumbling soil and rock side of the sinkhole. He'd barely managed a deep breath while he lay there, sprawled across the ground, before he was surrounded.

"Your mate has provided an equipment list..." started one of the Vulcan youths who'd helped pull him up.

"...and the military will transport it here momentarily." The other youth finished the thought. "For now, the Superintendent has located some kefsov and has gone to retrieve it in case it is needed."

"Kef-what?" Trip coughed as he glanced around, trying to catch his breath.

The first of the younger Vulcan males still held Trip's arm in a strong grip while he lay there on the unstable ground but the calm that had suddenly filled him moments before fled just as suddenly, leaving him wildly disoriented. In its wake, he felt a rush of emotions: defeat by the circumstances and shame at his own impulses, frustration and embarrassment at the wasted precious time. But if anyone else noticed, they were too busy to say anything. 

He'd emerged into a veritable hive of activity. 

The park's air vehicle was airborne again and halfway to the landing pad on the mountainside. Another air vehicle, one with an emblem he couldn't place, was kicking up dust as it settled where the park's service vehicle had been. Medics had already arrived and were speaking softly with the parents, who sat on a stone bench nearby. To Trip's left were the two youths - young adults or perhaps only in their late teens, Trip couldn't quite tell. Nearby were several other Vulcans, other park visitors from the looks of it, systematically climbing up and over natural features, and peering down into the crevices between exposed tree roots.

And then there was a cluster of monks from the monastery, seated close together on the ground and circled around an exhausted looking T'Pol. She was kneeling on the ground, head in her hands. Trip frowned and started to rise. 

"Kefsov," said Evkah, as he stepped into Trip's view, halting his attempt to get up. "It is, essentially, a supplemental air supply. Many are primarily oxygen. The Ministry of Transportation ensures emergency supplies are at all points of entry for our off-world visitors." 

Disoriented again, Trip just stared up at the lanky botanist. 

Evkah raised an eyebrow. "This is perhaps not the use it was intended for, but it should assist your efforts until personnel and equipment arrive from a research team in the Voroth Sea." He indicated the park's returning air vehicle with a jerk of his head. "Neavik went to fetch several canisters."

He held out a PADD, so Trip reached out and took it, even as he tried to peer around Evkah at the monks and T'Pol, trying not to let his hands shake as he did so.

"As I said before you suddenly began your rescue," Evkah continued smoothly, "My observations of bacterial colonization of pfalla root structures indicate there may indeed be a surface breach here..." he leaned down to indicate the spot on the map. The nearness seemed to clue him into to Trip's disorientation, because his expression and voice suddenly softened. "Do you require oxygen now?"

All three Vulcan males leaned in to stare in concern at Trip, who suddenly felt every inch the fact that he was soaking wet and in nothing but his underwear in a public place. It was either the embarrassment, or the calm determination of those around him, but something seemed to settle inside of him. 

"No," he shook his head. "I just need a second to catch my breath and regroup." He looked at the PADD, trying to ignore the stares and refocus on the task at hand. Precious minutes were slipping away. "If there's air getting' through, why not try to reach the child from the surface?"

Evkah nodded at the various search parties covering the nearby tangles of roots and rocky uplifts. "We are. But the conditions here are similar to The Forge," he used the Standard term for it rather than the Vulcan name, "and scans are unreliable at best."

Trip's heart sank and he quickly looked down at the PADD, trying not to let his thoughts show on his face. If they couldn't detect the child via scans, unreliable or not, the kid was probably already dead. A tangle of emotions starting bubbling up in his chest again and he white-knuckled the PADD. 

"We are certain he's still alive," a gentle voice added, and he looked up to find Neavik returned, canisters in hand. We may not express emotions but we are sensitive to them. That's what T'Pol's mother had said to him years ago. The last few days had been proof enough of that.

T'Pol.

"Is she okay?" Trip asked, craning his neck to indicate the figure at the center of the circled monks, concern coloring his voice.

Evkah glanced back at the group and then stepped aside for Trip to get a better view. "She is tired but she will recover. The monks have agreed to help your t'hy'la with the kash-naf."

"My what with the what now?" 

Neavik looked as if she was about to explain, when a pile of equipment materialized in the pathway. For the next few minutes everyone's attention was focused on distributing lights and scanners and soon Trip was being handed things.

 

 

oOo

 

The speed at which it all came together was impressive but not surprising. He had to admit, although his working career with Vulcans had started out a little rocky, Trip had come to appreciate their sense of purpose and efficiency. 

Well... maybe one particular Vulcan's sense of purpose and efficiency most of all. But still - he glanced over the gathered equipment and then let his gaze take in the search parties and the medics - he was really getting to like these folks as a people.

He now had a belt with a thin guide rope in an easy-release coil as well as a collection of duranium u-pins to secure it with. A light was strapped to his left and another to his right ankle, and a couple of canisters of oxygen were taped around the back of his waist. (He smirked at the hack. Straight from the engineer's unofficial flow chart: Should it move? No? Use duct tape.) 

Ordinarily he'd have a mask, fins, BCD, regulators as well, but this would have to do. Well, he did have a mask now, but not necessarily one that was meant to be used underwater. He hefted the modified medical mask, then pulled it on his head, suitably impressed with the alterations one of the young Vulcans had quickly made to it with some sort of coating and indicator out of the supplies in the park's air vehicle, a small knife and some adjustable straps. He'd have to find out if that kid was interested in a career in Starfleet engineering. Later. 

There was one problem, though. He judged there to be only enough oxygen for half to be used on the way down, and the other half on the way back, completely ignoring the rule to have a third left in reserve. He was likely to need that extra to bring the kid back up with. At least now he had a clear sense of where he was going to try to look, PADD in hand. And he had a scanner. It was unlikely to be terribly reliable, and it'd probably be completely ruined once it got waterlogged but he just need it to work for a minute or two once he was down there. But even better prepared as he was he hoped the crew from the Vorath Sea got there before he needed to surface again.

As ready as he'd ever be, Trip indicated a rope in the pile nearby. "Secure that end and then send the other on down. As far as you can. We'll need that to get the kid back up here." He didn't voice his concern that he might not have the strength to bring the child back to the surface in Vulcan's gravity and thin atmosphere. Just the short dive-mostly-falling-down had nearly wiped him out. "If you turn up any other oxygen canisters, just send ‘em on down to the end of the rope."

This time, when he looked up again from one last review of the underground cavern system, he caught T'Pol's eye from where she sat in the circle of monks across the pathway.

She looked recovered, but he silently mouthed, "Are you okay?" anyway. She nodded, looking more her usual confident and unflappable Vulcan self than she had in days.  

He straightened up and nodded back. They'd find this kid. All of them, together, they'd find the child safe and sound and bring him back. They had to. 

He looked in turn at Evkah, Neavik, and the two teenagers whose names he still hadn't caught, nodded to himself and, without another word, took a gulp of air, slipped the mask in place and dove back into the sinkhole.  

Chapter End Notes:

 

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