They were minutes from arrival.
Leaning back in her command chair, Captain Erika Hernandez drew in a steadying breath. Discomfort pulsed through her as she gave the junior lieutenant manning the tactical board a discreet glance. This would be the first time since Columbia had launched that Hernandez had gone into action without Commander Cross at TAC and, though she didn't want to admit it, she wasn't comfortable with his absence.
A part of Erika was proud that her exec had been given command of the Triton for the duration of this op; when the previous commander of the old Neptune-class had been diagnosed with stomach cancer, it had been to Commander Cross that the commodore had turned. It spoke volumes about Aidan's command capability that Starfleet Command had put him in charge of a ship that he had never before set foot on mere hours before they would launch for a massive combat campaign.
At the same time, however, Erika was concerned what it would mean for her first officer's career. While it was an entirely legal transfer – Cross held the appropriate rank and had originally served aboard a Neptune-class before his assignment to Columbia – the rapidity of the orders absolutely reeked of patronage. Commodore Burnside Clapp had been Cross' first commanding officer and the two men still maintained a close friendship. No matter where Aidan served after Triton, some members of Starfleet would probably whisper that he hadn't quite earned his rank. Rumors like that could destroy a career, and Hernandez prayed that Cross wouldn't have to face that sort of thing.
For the time being, though, she was content knowing that Aidan and Triton had Columbia's back.
"Tactical alert," she ordered, and Lieutenant Kobasew nodded in acknowledgment of the instruction. Around them, lights dimmed as the weapon systems and defensive suites sucked up energy. Erika shook off a sense of deja vu as she turned her attention to her acting first officer. "Fleet status?" she asked, and Lieutenant Commander Jansen looked up from the Science board.
"Combat wedge," the lieutenant commander relayed. "Athena and Invincible have taken point." Jansen consulted her scans. "Prometheus and Odysseus moving into position. Receiving instructions from Indefatigable now." Once more, Hernandez shook her head slightly at the oddity of Commodore Burnside Clapp: despite the proven reliability of Enterprise-class ships, the man preferred to command from the deck of an obsolete Neptune-class. The Indefatigable had been the commodore's flagship for nearly six years now, and it had been from the bridge of that ship that he had commanded the ultimately unnecessary planetary defense force against the second Xindi incursion.
"Incoming transmission," Lieutenant Benitez announced from the communication board. Touching her earpiece, the lieutenant listened for an additional moment before looking to Erika. "Uploading new telemetry from Stockholm," the COM officer stated before tapping several keys on her console. A chirp sounded.
On the main viewscreen, a tactical display appeared. It was a two-dimensional display of the Acheron system, with Romulan ships highlighted and identified by their class. Hernandez found herself glowering at the image as the hairs on the back of her neck started to stand up. For the duration of the journey, the fleet and ship commanders had been studying the transmissions from Stockholm with competing hope and concern. The optimists were convinced that the Romulans were making a serious tactical mistake, while the pessimists were worried about a trap.
Erika counted herself among the latter group.
At a glance, she could see that there were four warbirds circling the drydock. At least sixteen birds of prey were prowling the system in groups of four, and twice that number of drones were attached to the patrolling ships. One of the groups of patrol ships was in the vicinity of Second Fleet's arrival point, and, as Hernandez studied the data, two of the birds of prey were abruptly highlighted by another bracket.
"Receiving targeting package from Indy," Lieutenant Kobasew said from the tactical board. He cracked his knuckles in anticipation of the coming engagement, and Erika winced at the sound. Before she could comment, a chirp from the COM panel drew her attention.
"This is Fleet Command to all ships." Commodore Burnside Clapp's voice was calming. "Revert to sublight on my signal." Seconds later, a loud chime sounded and Erika's senior helmsman, Lieutenant du Bois, dropped them from warp.
It had to be an impressive sight: ten ships slowing from warp speed in perfect formation at the same moment. Athena and Invincible, both Neptune-class, were in the very forefront of the armada, with a pair of Daedalus-class ships less than a dozen kilometers behind them. Columbia was at the heart of the arrangement, two more Daedalus-class ships on her flanks which were in turned flanked by a pair of Neptunes. The last of the old Neptunes in the fleet, UES Triton, was directly aft of Columbia. Seen from above, the pattern looked like an arrowhead and was designed to maximize the firepower of the taskforce.
Within seconds of slowing from warp speed, the formation was engaging Romulan forces. Caught unprepared by the sudden arrival of the Starfleet ships, the quartet of Romulan birds of prey broke into a spiraling dive as phase cannon fire and photonic torpedoes slammed into their intended targets with explosive results. Two of the patrolling drones were destroyed instantly, followed quickly by a third as one of Columbia's torpedoes ripped into its hull with devastating force.
Even as the Romulan ships were scattering in surprised panic, the combat wedge was breaking apart into previously designated hunter-killer teams. Flanked by the Indefatigable and Athena, Columbia banked in tight pursuit of the quartet of birds of prey. Torpedoes flashed out from the trio of Starfleet ships, detonating against the nearly invisible force screen that surrounded one of the birds of prey; as the shield generators of the ship failed under the crippling barrage, scarlet beams of phase cannon fire slashed out, burning deeply into the hull plating and slicing into the Romulan ship's superstructure. A second salvo of torpedo fire slammed into the ship, ripping it apart with flashes of atomic fire.
"Warbirds are en route," Lieutenant Commander Jansen relayed from the Science board, and Erika nodded. Everything was going as planned.
"How many?" Hernandez asked as she observed a second bird of prey shudder under concentrated fire.
"Only one." Jansen paused as she studied her readouts. "A second is moving to engage Fifth Fleet." That tracked with the battle plan, and was the reason for the Fifth’s arrival at the opposite end of the system. Appear at points which the enemy must hasten to defend, Hernandez quoted mentally.
"And the other two?" Erika already suspected the answer and was not surprised when her acting first officer spoke.
"Remaining in defensive orbit over the drydock," Jansen stated.
"Incoming from Fleet Commander," Lieutenant Benitez declared from the communications board. "Shift target to incoming warbird."
"Acknowledge," Hernandez ordered. "Helm, let's go say hello. Tactical, full barrage as soon as we're in range."
"Aye, ma'am," the two men replied simultaneously. Under du Bois' hand, Columbia banked hard and accelerated toward the rapidly approaching warbird, still flanked by Athena and Indefatigable. As the fastest of the three, Columbia quickly pulled ahead. Mere seconds passed before the warbird was in weapons range and began exchanging shots with the NC-02. Columbia shook as her shields absorbed massive amounts of incoming fire. A trio of torpedoes raced through the void toward the NC-02 but were torn apart by Columbia's newly installed point-defense weapon systems.
"Fire!" Hernandez ordered, and Lieutenant Kobasew obeyed without question. Columbia shuddered as photonic torpedoes screamed from her launch tubes. Phase cannon fire splashed against the shields, momentarily sketching out the nearly invisible force screen. The two ships roared by one another, mere kilometers apart. Weapons barking fire at near point-blank range, the two rocked under their onslaughts as they began circling one another like hungry sharks.
As Columbia shook under the concentrated assault and alarms shrieked warnings, Erika glanced at the sensor feed installed in front of her command chair. Stay focused on us, she urged the warbird. Pay no attention to the other ships.
To her surprise, the Romulan commander seemed to obey. As the warbird continued to pound away at Columbia, the lethal combination of Athena and Indefatigable pounced. Phase cannon fire and photonic torpedoes slammed into the warbird's aft section, punching through its already weakened shields and ripping into the superstructure with fierce explosions that vaporized metal and flesh. Huge chunks of polarized hull plating were torn free in the blast and sent tumbling into the void.
"Ha!" Kobasew laughed as the warbird finally responded to the arrival of the other two ships. It was too late, though, and the three Starfleet ships pounded the Romulan craft mercilessly, systematically ripping it to shreds.
"Status of the other warbirds?" Erika demanded, and Jansen glanced up from her board, eyes wide.
"One is on intercept vector!" the lieutenant commander revealed urgently.
"Break off," Hernandez ordered quickly. "Tactical, reorient weapons." Columbia's engines began to growl as Lieutenant du Bois fed them more power and sent the NC-02 into another hard bank. "Communications, inform Fleet Commander." The second warbird loomed ominously in the sensor feed, and Erika found herself swallowing the concern that was building in her throat. Everything was proceeding exactly as it should, and that bothered her.
Glancing quickly at the sensor feed, she could tell that Second Fleet was continuing to brutalize the Romulans. Even with the arrival of a second quartet of the birds of prey and their attached drones, damage to the fleet remained minimal. The UES Invincible under Commander Sitter was living up to its name as the venerable Neptune-class led Ardent, Prometheus and Odysseus into the thick of the fray, disrupting an attempt by the Romulans to regroup with brutal fire. Triton was the only ship in the fleet suffering any significant damage and, from the radiological scans, it appeared to have been inflicted by either friendly fire or a launch tube explosion; despite the damage, however, the ship was still in the fight as it followed the two Daedalus-class ships in its combat wing.
This is too easy, Erika mused before turning her attention back to the incoming warbird.
She hoped she was wrong.
It just wasn't right.
Standing in front of the holo-table, Jonathan Archer studied it intently, frowning at the relative ease with which Second and Fifth Fleet were tearing through the Romulan defensive network. Damage remained minimal, with only the UES Triton of Second having suffered significant damage. Six birds of prey had been destroyed in the opening seconds of the assault, and the debris of twice that many drones was already scattered throughout the system. At least one warbird was drifting, powerless and no longer a threat.
A frown appeared on Jon's face as he scrolled across the holographic image of the ongoing engagement. The Romulans were responding slowly to the assault, almost as if they had been caught completely by surprise at the sudden appearance of the Starfleet ships, something that seemed categorically impossible. Unless Romulan sensors were far worse than intelligence suspected, they should have been able to detect the two incoming fleets.
"Time on target?" Archer asked grimly as he continued to study the display on the holo-table. Once more, his attention was drawn to the drydock that was Endeavour's target. A single warbird was guarding it, along with several dozen armed drones. Ten satellite-sized objects orbited the construction facility; preliminary scans seemed to indicate that they were automated defense systems.
"Five minutes," Lieutenant Reynolds replied from his station. Like the other four members of the combat control team, the lieutenant was wearing a headset that would connect him to the two ships that he was to direct during the operation. "Comm check," Reynolds ordered the rest of his team before inputting commands into the console in front of him. "Endeavour, Horizon signal ready," he said a moment later.
"Achilles, Gallant ready," Lieutenant Esque announced.
"Hyperion, Puissant standing by," Ensign Dill stated.
"Champion, Telemachus standing by." Lieutenant Junior Grade McNurlen didn't look up from her board as she spoke.
"Charlemagne, Dauntless are green," Ensign Lunceford declared.
Jon was barely aware of the quiet reports from his team as he stared at the updated telemetry being received from the Starfleet ships engaged in the battle. The UES Triumph, one of Fifth Fleet's Neptunes, was reporting heavy damage. One of Second Fleet's Daedalus-class ships – Prometheus – was experiencing wide scale failures of the port nacelle due to enemy fire.
"Two minutes," Reynolds stated into the brief silence, and Jon looked up, his expression bleak.
"Mark your targets," he instructed. "Endeavour to focus fire on the warbird." Reynolds nodded. "I want covering fire from destroyers," Jon continued, momentarily allowing himself to marvel at the absurdity of even considering a Daedalus-class to be a "destroyer." Originally intended to be a joint colonization/exploration ship, the Daedalus-class was gradually turning into the standard ship-of-the-line for Starfleet as the Icelands and Neptunes were destroyed or heavily damaged. Crews of the awkward-looking ships had even begun to delight in the sheer unattractiveness of the hull design, claiming that "ugly was beautiful."
"One minute," Lieutenant Reynolds declared, and Archer drew in a steadying breath. Here we go, he told himself.
Fifty-five seconds later, Endeavour and Sixth Fleet slowed from warp. Almost instantly, the rumble of photonic torpedoes being launched echoed through the deck plating, and Jon studied the results on his display. Scarlet phase cannon beams flashed out, slicing into the protective force screen that surrounded the warbird with no apparent effect; point-defense weapons from the Romulan ship began spewing fire at the incoming torpedoes, ripping them apart before they could reach their target. As the warbird began to accelerate toward the approaching Starfleet ships, the automated defense satellites began orienting toward the human force.
"Destroyers," Archer said sharply, "take out those satellites!"
Endeavour abruptly banked to the right, and the sudden shift in direction pressed Jon down in his seat as the inertial dampeners struggled to compensate. Torpedoes screamed toward the NC-06, and the space around the Starfleet ship was suddenly alive with pyrotechnics as automated countermeasures came alive. Point-defense x-ray lasers savaged the incoming ordnance, as Endeavour returned fire with its phase cannons. For the briefest of moments, Archer was distracted by the sheer firepower being unleashed by the two warships at one another: in that moment, he was inexplicably reminded of ancient seagoing battleships exchanging brutal broadsides.
On his screen, Jon could see the four Daedalus-class ships lumbering toward the drydock, weapons spitting fire as they moved to engage the defensive satellites. The five Neptunes assigned to Sixth Fleet were maneuvering as well as they concentrated fire on the unmanned drones that swarmed around the fleet. One of the drones abruptly exploded under the bracketed fire from the Neptunes, and debris from its destruction slammed into a second one, sending it spinning uncontrollably into the void.
A flash of light momentarily blinded Endeavour's exterior sensor array, causing the holo-table to lose realtime telemetry.
"What the hell was that?" Archer demanded as the table image began to reset.
"Prometheus' warp core breached," Lieutenant Esque revealed grimly, and Jon glowered at the table. Fifty men and women, gone in the blink of an eye. He couldn't help but wonder how many of them had children back on Earth or Alpha Centauri, or any of the other human colonies out there.
Endeavour suddenly shook hard, knocking Ensigns Dill and Lunceford from their seats. In the distance, Archer could hear shipboard alarms shrieking, but he pushed his concern down. There was still a job to do. Focus on the big picture, he reminded himself as he fought down the urge to head for the bridge. Glancing at the holo-table, he frowned at the continuing stalemate. Five of the defensive satellites were gone, but Achilles had suffered heavy damage and was even now limping away. A trio of drones swarmed around the heavy Daedalus-class ship, harassing it with disruptor fire that sliced into the already weakened hull plating.
Steady streams of phase cannon fire ripped into one of the drones, and Horizon raced forward to aid Achilles, engines burning bright. Despite the situation, Jon found himself smiling slightly at the almost heroic idiocy of the crew of the Neptune-class. Since receiving a field commission at the rank of commander, Paul Mayweather had turned into an unlikely Starfleet officer with a growing reputation as something of a maverick. In the four combat engagements that Horizon had participated in since Mayweather assumed command, the crew of that ship – ex-Boomers all – had already become the most heavily decorated in all of Starfleet.
"Damn it, Trip," Archer muttered as Endeavour exchanged another volley of fire with the warbird. The two ships continued to circle one another, trading shots as they maneuvered to gain better angles of fire. "Kill this sonuvabitch!" Jon growled as Endeavour shook under retaliatory fire.
To Archer's surprise, the Starfleet ship began to spit a steady stream of photonic torpedoes. Instead of being directed at the warbird, though, they seemed to have no target as they raced into the silent void. For a heartbeat, Jon suspected a failure of the targeting computers, but that theory vanished the moment he realized that each of the warheads was beginning to arc back toward the warbird, perfectly staggered to arrive at the same moment. Too late, the commander of the Romulan ship realized what was happening, and eighteen Mark VI photonic torpedoes slammed into the warbird's shields within nanoseconds of one another.
A steady stream of phase cannon fire sliced into the Romulan ship's hull as its shields collapsed under the unexpected onslaught. Remora torpedoes raced from Endeavour's launch tubes, breaking apart into multiple and independently targeting warheads that ravaged the warbird's hull with smaller explosions. Large slabs of hull plating were torn free or simply vaporized under the heat of Endeavour's guns. Leaking atmosphere, the Romulan warship twisted into a desperate dive to evade incoming fire.
"Get Achilles out of there!" Esque was shouting into her headset, and Jon's breath caught at the level of damage being detected on the large Daedalus-class. Pouncing on the weakened ship, the surviving drones spat steady streams of disruptor fire at its exposed superstructure. Wreathed in fire, Achilles suddenly shuddered as something exploded from within. Bodies were sent tumbling into the hard vacuum as great chunks of burning hull plating snapped apart.
"Get to the life pods!" Jon urged the crew of the doomed ship, already knowing it was too late. A heavily damaged drone darted forward, slamming into the engineering hull of Achilles with crushing force. Moments later, the entire secondary hull exploded with a fiery flash that sent massive slabs of debris spinning into the immense spherical command section. A series of secondary and tertiary detonations systematically tore the primary hull apart, spilling even more bodies into the unyielding vacuum.
There were no life pods.
"Stay focused!" Reynolds snapped at the two wide-eyed ensigns who were staring at the holo-table with horror on their faces. Both jumped at the harshness of his order, but immediately obeyed, turning their full attention to the consoles before them.
"Cruisers to shift fire to drydock," Jon ordered as he watched the Romulan warbird begin to break apart under Endeavour's unceasing fire. "Endeavour to shift fire to drydock." Once more, he pushed back the nagging worry that something wasn't right.
Everything was proceeding according to plan.
Everything was proceeding according to plan.
Despite this fact, Subcommander D'deridex found himself shifting awkwardly as he stared at the holo-tank that dominated the battle-control deck. Stretching from floor to ceiling, the tank was an entirely enclosed display that presented a three dimensional outline of the system that Rihannsu star charts referred to as LV-426. Brightly colored images represented the starships currently engaged in combat; red for Rihannsu, green for Terran. It was a technological marvel that utilized dozens of carefully placed relays throughout the system to present a clear picture of the ongoing battle. At any other time, D'deridex would have gladly studied the tank without even attempting to conceal his abject fascination for it.
Currently, however, he was too busy attempting to hide his discomfort.
With each passing second, loyal Rihannsu warriors were dying in what could ultimately prove to be a senseless waste. Males and females that had served with honor and distinction were being sent to their deaths with no consideration for their mates or families. D'deridex swallowed as another red image winked out of existence, and he shifted his feet slightly.
"You appear troubled, Erei'riov D'deridex," Admiral Valdore said from where he stood in front of the enclosed holo-tank. His hands clasped behind his back, the admiral turned his attention away from the holo-tank. There was no condemnation in his expression, merely polite curiosity.
"We are losing many good warriors, sir," D'deridex pointed out cautiously. He still wasn't sure what he had done to earn the prestigious assignment of serving as the admiral's adjutant, but in the weeks since he had been assigned to relate false information to the Terrans, D'deridex had grown to enjoy the role. In the twenty-one eisae that had passed since that moment, the subcommander had learned more about strategy and tactics than he had previously learned in his entire career.
To his absolute surprise, Admiral Valdore had assumed the role of teacher and mentor with apparent eagerness. Every question that D'deridex had asked about the operation, the admiral had answered, going so far as to explain the more esoteric elements of the strategic plan. Valdore had displayed an almost paternal pride when the subcommander showed his own skill in the area.
It was discomforting, actually.
"A commander who is afraid to put his forces into harm's way has already been defeated," the admiral stated in reply to D'deridex's question. He gestured toward the holo-tank. "These officers and crews die for a reason."
"What reason is that, Daise'Khre'Riov?" A flicker of sadness crossed the admiral's face for a heartbeat, but was gone almost before D'deridex saw it.
"They are bait for our trap," Valdore said as he refocused his attention on the battle. "An effective trap requires believable risks. Too few defenders, and the Terrans would see it as the trap that it is. Too many, and they would not risk their forces." He began walking around the holo-tank, eyes still on the representations of the battle within it. "It is probable that they suspect a trap, but there is sufficient motivation for them to launch the assault despite these suspicions." The admiral frowned at the results of one such engagement before continuing. "Thus, these loyal warriors must be sacrificed to make the trap a believable one." He gave D'deridex a sidelong look. "You disagree." It wasn't a question, and the subcommander did not treat it as such.
"I do," he replied carefully. In his short time with the admiral, he had quickly learned that Valdore abhorred dissembling nearly as much as he hated disrespect. "We have sufficient ships present to break the Terran assault, yet we do not deploy them." D'deridex swallowed as another image representing a Rihannsu warship winked out abruptly. "Instead, we continue to allow loyal warriors to die."
"We do not strike, because it is not time." Valdore returned his focus to the holo-tank, frowning at what he saw. "If we strike too soon, the advantage of surprise is lost," he pointed out. "And the dead you speak of died for no reason." Abruptly, the admiral looked up with a scowl. "You know these things," he accused, anger dripping off his words. "To command effectively, Erei'riov, you must be without mercy. At your command, warriors will be sent to their deaths, planets will burn, and the galaxy will be torn asunder, all in the name of Empire." D'deridex blinked at the hint of contempt in the admiral's voice, but did not interrupt. "Emotional weaknesses such as mercy or compassion or loyalty have no place on this battlefield, and you must cast them aside." Valdore pinned him with a cold look. "Victory requires no explanation," he said in reminder, quoting one of the oldest Rihannsu axioms about war as he spoke. "Defeat allows for none."
"I apologize for my failure, Daise'Khre'Riov," D'deridex replied, appropriately chastised. Valdore grunted.
"Do not apologize," he ordered. "Instead, learn from the mistakes of the past." D'deridex frowned at that, wondering what sorts of mistakes the admiral could be referencing. Before he could ask, Valdore spoke again. "This ship," he said as he highlighted one of the Terran vessels, "is unique in appearance. What is it?"
"Endeavour," D'deridex identified, pronouncing the unfamiliar ship name with subtle emphasis. "Its commander was once the chief engineer of Enterprise."
"Tucker." The admiral glowered darkly for a moment, and D'deridex gave him a startled look. From the venom in Valdore's voice, one would assume that he had had personal experience with the Terran officer. "Enarrain Archer will be aboard this craft." Visceral hatred rolled off the admiral as he spoke the human commodore's name, causing D'deridex some surprise. Never before had he heard Valdore speak with such raw emotion. It was gone almost instantly, and the subcommander wondered if he had truly witnessed it. "I think I shall dispatch Ael'Riov Chulak's ship to engage this craft when the time is right," Valdore declared with a tight smile, a sinister glint in his eyes as he spoke. "Regardless of that outcome, it will be ultimately satisfying."
It was an understandable comment on Valdore's part. Since even before the Terrans launched their expedition to retake LV-426, Ael'Riov Chulak had been urging alterations to the tactical plan. Chulak, the son of a senator and with clear political aspirations of his own, argued in favor of a more aggressive tactical assault; this had led to a number of tense disagreements between the two senior officers. It was only the Senate's continual demand for success that led the commander to even consider questioning the admiral's battle plan.
With the dissolution of the Delphic Expanse, the timetable for reconquest of the heretical Vulcans had been pushed forward. Though they concealed it behind perfectly simulated patriotic zeal, many senators were clearly frightened by the loss of the buffer zone that separated them from their ancestral brothers. The discovery that Terrans were responsible for the destruction of the Expanse only stoked the fires of debate into a fever pitch. As humans continued to interfere with sector politics, key members of the Senate began to perceive the Terrans as a potential threat. Displaying an uncanny ability to forge alliances with their enemies, the humans seemed poised on the brink of uniting the entire sector in a loose confederation that could conceivably oppose the Rihannsu invasion fleet.
"If he survives," D'deridex suggested of Chulak, "you could assign him to deal with the Xin'di." It was a duty that no officer truly desired, as it required interacting with the volatile reptiles while encased in the specially modified cyber-suits that many of the marines had taken to calling "suicide shells." Negotiations with the Xin'di remained difficult as, contrary to their initial appearance, the reptiles had proven to be canny diplomats. At every stage, they resisted sharing their transmat technology.
Surprisingly, Valdore gave him a sharp look, almost as if he had been startled by the notion. Not for the first time, the subcommander wondered at the mysterious and secret communications that had taken place between the visiting Xin'di and the admiral on numerous occasions. It was due to Valdore's interference that several military plans to simply seize the transmat technology from the Xin'di had been discarded. The admiral clearly saw the Xin'di as integral to the overall war plan, even if no one else within the ranks did. For a moment, D'deridex was afraid that he had overstepped himself.
The moment passed.
"I am more inclined to assign you to that duty," Valdore rumbled, a cryptic expression on his face. D'deridex blinked in slight surprise; from the admiral's body language, he clearly did not see the assignment as a punishment detail. What am I missing? D'deridex wondered.
"I am honored, sir," he replied by rote. Admiral Valdore smirked then, a clear indication that he recognized D'deridex's hesitation for what it was.
"Have the transmitters brought online," the admiral ordered as he leaned forward to study the holo-tank with narrowed eyes. "And inform the fleet to stand by for maneuvers. It is nearly time for them to strike."
"I obey, Daise'Khre'Riov," D'deridex said in reply before turning toward the communication panel. He gave the holo-tank one last glance.
Everything was about to change.
Nothing had changed.
Not for the first time, Charles Tucker found himself grateful for the Vulcan discipline he had learned from T'Pol. His stomach clenched tightly as he stared in horror at the image of the UES Achilles breaking apart on the main viewer, yet somehow he managed to retain his clarity of thought. It was both terrifying and exciting to realize that he was capable of making rational decisions in the midst of such tragedy, that he wasn't too horrified to forget that he was the captain and still had a job to do.
Out of the corner of his eye, Trip could see T'Pol reacting to the image on the screen with her usual facade of Vulcan dispassion. To those who did not know her as he did, she seemed almost bored or perhaps even indifferent to the deaths being displayed on the viewer, but Tucker could feel her anger and sadness at the lives lost through the magical bond that never ceased to amaze him. Sensing his morbid thoughts, she gave him a glance. Warmth washed over him in that moment, immediately reminding him of sunny July days from his youth in Florida.
Almost reflexively, his mind flashed to memories of the night before. She had come to him without warning, joining him in bed for long hours of slow but passionate lovemaking that remained indelibly stamped upon his memory. That had, after all, been her intent: if they were to die today, T'Pol had wanted them both to carry glorious memories into whatever the afterlife held for them. It had been a ridiculously romantic sentiment coming from a Vulcan, but Trip found himself clinging to those memories with every gram of his willpower.
He wasn't going to let this war destroy him.
"Incoming transmission from Fleet Command," Lieutenant Devereux announced, shattering the moment and causing Trip's focus to snap back fully to the present. To his mild surprise, he realized that even in that moment of reflection, his attention had never really wavered from the sensor feed installed in front of his command chair. It was yet another example of the continuing oddities of his life that he had learned to take for granted, even when he knew that he should be worried. There was no good explanation why he was abruptly able to multi-task in such a way, or why he was in better physical shape now than he had been fifteen years earlier. He had decided to blame it on T'Pol's influence, even though he knew she was just as unable to explain it herself.
"Shift fire to drydock," Devereux continued, relaying the instructions from Commodore Archer's team. A steady stream of data crawled across the sensor feed that was installed in front of the command chair, and Tucker found himself frowning darkly at the additional instructions from the commodore. Part of him understood the necessity of relaying certain sensitive orders only to the commanding officer of the ship via the sensor feed; it was entirely possible, after all, that the fleet commander would have to order a ship to its doom in order to accomplish the strategic objective, and relaying such instructions through the ship's communications officer was an effective way to cause panic. That didn't stop Trip from experiencing a flash of guilt over having information that the rest of the crew – sans T'Pol, of course – didn't have.
"Send: acknowledge," he ordered the COM officer before giving T'Pol a quick glance. She recognized the unspoken cue and responded instantly.
"I am detecting forty-eight mass signatures in orbit around the drydock," T'Pol revealed instantly. She leaned forward and began looking through the viewer on her station. "Tentatively identified as holographically cloaked mines."
"Mister Eisler," Trip said coolly as he began scrolling through the data on his personal sensor feed. "Remoras are green."
Surprisingly, the tactical officer merely grunted in response, and Tucker shot him a look. Lieutenant Commander Eisler was glowering at something on his display, and, as if sensing Trip's eyes, glanced up. Instantly, Tucker's mental alarms began sounding at the ex-MACO's grim expression.
"Sir," Eisler growled, "the Romulans are targeting the bridges of our ships."
"Can you confirm?" Trip asked T'Pol. Tucker's eyes bounced back to the data display before him, and he pushed back the concern that was threatening to bubble forth. Shields were holding at under sixty percent, but a concentrated burst of fire could theoretically punch through them at a single location and inflict massive damage. Once more, he found himself lamenting the fact that a ship class designed for exploration had been forced into a combat role; tactically, it made no sense to put the command deck on the very top of the saucer section where it was easily exposed to enemy fire.
At the very moment that thought occurred to him, Trip felt another piece of the explorer that he had once been slip away from him. He wished he had the time to grieve for that loss.
"Stand by," T'Pol replied to his question. Her fingers danced across her board, inputting commands with amazing speed. She looked up, an almost frown on her face. "Confirmed. UES Dauntless and Charlemagne have suffered structural damage near the bridge." Without glancing away from the display in front of him, Trip pressed the comm button on his command chair.
"Tucker to auxiliary command," he said once he heard the chirp announcing a live connection. The response was instantaneous.
"This is Ricker."
"Stand by to assume operations," Trip ordered. A thought occurred to him and tumbled from his lips before he could think about it. "Commander T'Pol will be there momentarily to assume command." He hesitated for the briefest of seconds, wondering if it was the right thing to do. Sending T'Pol to take over auxiliary command was not an attempt on his part to keep her safe ... was it? He needed his best officer there to be in charge of Endeavour while he transferred the rest of the bridge staff out of the vulnerable bridge, and there was no one better than T'Pol.
Despite knowing that, however, he experienced a moment of doubt. T'Pol had accused him of letting his emotions dictate his decision-making in the past, and he honestly couldn't say that it wasn't affecting him now. Unexpectedly, Trip found himself getting angry. It was yet another reminder of why the commanding officer should not be romantically involved with a member of his crew – as if he needed such a reminder – and Trip found himself fighting to avoid glaring at the screen. Now is not the time to start second guessing myself, he reminded himself darkly.
"Acknowledged, sir," Lieutenant Ricker replied from auxiliary command. Retrofitted from the extra space where Endeavour's engineering section had been prior to the refit, the location now served as a "battle bridge" from which the ship could be commanded safely. It was also immediately adjacent to the heavily fortified command lounge in which Commodore Archer was now ensconced.
"Go," Trip ordered, noting T'Pol's expression instantly. He felt her approval, and mentally chastised himself for his momentary lapse of judgment. "Once you're set, let me know so we can begin transfer," he finished.
"Aye, Captain," she replied quickly. Another flash of self anger washed over him as she stood from her station and headed toward the turbolift, causing her to pause at the threshold and give him a quick, concerned look. Even as she was entering the lift, an ensign whose name Trip couldn't remember stepped forward and manned her station almost instantly.
"Remoras away," Eisler declared suddenly, and Trip glowered at the sensor feed. Four torpedoes rumbled from the launch tubes, splitting apart within kilometers of Endeavour. Even as the individually tracking warheads began homing in on their targets, another pair of the Remora torpedoes were fired. The space around the massive drydock was suddenly alive with incandescent explosions as the warheads slammed into their targets and detonated. Phase cannon fire began flashing out from the attacking ships, slicing into the outer hull of the construction facility with searing fire. Trip frowned as he studied the damage being wrought by the six ships making their attack runs. He recognized the reason immediately.
The drydock wasn't operational.
"Captain..." The ensign at the SCI board looked and sounded worried. Tucker gave her a quick nod to indicate that he was listening. "Sir, I'm detecting system wide energy spikes."
"System wide?" Trip speared the anxious-looking girl with a look. "Planetary system or throughout Endeavour?" Silently, he cursed himself for sending T'Pol away; if she had been manning the SCI board, he wouldn't have had to ask.
"The star system, sir." The ensign – Ling, her nameplate read – frowned at the readings. "It's everywhere." Trip blinked as he felt T'Pol's surprise at the sudden revelation; such energy spikes hadn't been there beforse. He inhaled sharply at an unexpected sense of motion; without having to ask, he knew that she had arrived on D Deck and was now running toward auxiliary command.
"Confirmed," Eisler declared from his board. "It looks like a tightbeam relay grid," he continued. On the main viewer, the drydock was beginning to break apart under the combined firepower of the five Neptunes and Endeavour; at that moment, however, Trip felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up. A tightbeam grid could only mean one thing: someone, somewhere was watching this entire engagement.
"Isolate its destination," he snapped quickly. His eyes jumped to Lieutenant Devereux. "Inform the commodore!"
"Multiple warp signatures detected!" Ensign Ling suddenly shouted, her eyes wide.
"Energy spike!" Eisler bellowed at the same time.
A second later, everything went dark.