The viewscreen was dark.
"Report!" Commander T'Pol demanded as she entered the battle bridge. At a glance, she could see that the officers and crewmen manning the auxiliary stations were terrified and seconds away from total panic. The relief on Lieutenant Ricker's face as T'Pol entered was so evident that it nearly caused the Vulcan commander to stumble in surprise.
"Sensors are being jammed!" Ricker responded immediately from the Science board, and T'Pol gave the flickering viewscreen a quick glance. The image on it crackled in and out of existence, immediately reminding her of an incident many years earlier when she had served aboard the Seleya. Pursued by Orion raiders, Captain Voris had ordered the ship into a dense nebula to avoid combat, despite the fact that sensors were rendered virtually useless.
With quick strides, T'Pol approached the Science board and glanced over the readings crawling across the displays. She fought the urge to frown at the unreliable readings she saw there.
"How many warp signatures were detected before the jamming began?" she asked calmly.
"Thirty-six," Ricker replied grimly. She input a command; almost instantly, a sensor log appeared on the small display and T'Pol spent several seconds studying the data. Based on their mass, the sensor contacts were tentatively identified as twelve warbirds and twenty-four birds of prey. Estimated time of arrival was three minutes. The frown that T'Pol had been struggling to contain defeated her control when she glanced at the chronometer and mentally revised that estimate to one minute, thirty seconds. She retreated to the small command chair in the center of the battle bridge.
"T'Pol to bridge," she said into the comm. Trip's response was instantaneous.
"This is Tucker."
"I am in auxiliary command." T'Pol lowered herself into the captain's chair, fighting back the trepidation that always struck her when she was forced to assume command. Before Azati Prime, she would not have given it a second thought, but in the wake of that battle, she found herself nearly constantly second guessing herself. Fourteen officers and crewmembers had died because she failed them, fourteen men and women who would never see their full potential realized because she had lost herself in a drug-addled haze all in an insane attempt to experience emotion. Memory of Trip's horrified expression at her confession during their journey to Vulcan appeared in her mind's eye, and she forcibly suppressing the shame that threatened to overwhelm her. He had forgiven her – mostly – although she knew that she would never be able to forgive herself.
Never again, T'Pol declared to herself, knowing that she could never pay a penance sufficient enough to redeem herself. If she was entirely honest, it was one of the reasons she had refused Minister T'Pau's latest offer to resume her commission with the Science Directorate; the humans had accepted her with open arms following the Expanse mission and T'Pol had no intention of letting them down, even if it cost her life.
"Copy," Trip stated to her report. "I'm transferring command to you now. Stand by." T'Pol inhaled through her nostrils and exhaled through her mouth as she focused on control. The fleet was depending upon her. Endeavour was depending upon her. Commodore Archer was depending upon her.
Trip was depending upon her.
"Command transferred," she said as the sensor feed installed in front of the captain's chair suddenly lit up. "Helm, full evasive," T'Pol continued without pause. Even half-blind, Endeavour had a greater chance of survival while moving, particularly given the Romulan propensity for targeting Enterprise-class ships. The likelihood of a collision was so slim that it was negligible; most people forgot just how large space truly was.
The rumble of Endeavour's engines vibrated through the deck plating as the enlisted helmsman quickly obeyed her instructions. T'Pol swallowed the slight lump in her throat.
"Tactical?" she queried, her attention shifting to Lieutenant Junior Grade Melissa Kornegay. Assigned to Endeavour only hours before departure, the tactical officer looked more like a body builder than a woman with twin doctorates.
"Targeting arrays can't get a firm lock, ma'am," Kornegay replied sharply, annoyance and fear in her voice. "WSO is shooting blind." T'Pol frowned at the comment as Endeavour made an abrupt change in direction. She looked at the flickering viewscreen with barely concealed frustration. For the briefest of seconds, she could see Romulan warships...
"I'm reading multiple transmitters," Ricker announced grimly as she leaned over the holo-viewer. "I think they're blanketing the entire system with some sort of sensor-dampening gear," she continued. "It's canceling out our active scans." A muttered curse from her caused T'Pol to quirk an eyebrow; the Vulcan had never expected to hear such words from the lieutenant.
"We need those sensors," Kornegay said sharply from her station. Lieutenant Ricker didn't bother to respond to that beyond a single grunt. A moment passed before the science lieutenant looked toward T'Pol.
"Ma'am," Ricker said softly, "you're better qualified for this."
T'Pol blinked in surprise at the lieutenant's words before quickly nodding and standing. Mentally, she planned the commendation that she intended to write for Ricker; in T'Pol's experience, few officers – human or Vulcan – would willingly admit that they needed assistance in their area of expertise. That the lieutenant did displayed a level of maturity that was too rare.
Her fingers dancing across the Science board, T'Pol barely noticed Lieutenant Ricker take her place in the command chair although she did hear the lieutenant begin to issue soft commands to the helmsman. If the situation had not been so dire, T'Pol would have nearly smiled at the young woman's audacity.
Within seconds of taking the Science board, T'Pol had isolated the source of the sensor baffle; it consisted almost entirely of a rotating frequency of radiation wavelengths, tuned to Starfleet sensor and communication arrays but of an inverted frequency. The result was similar to certain noise or light-dampening equipment that T'Pol had used in the past; by broadcasting the inverse of the sensor frequency, the Romulans effectively scrambled Endeavour's scanning and ship-to-ship capability.
Armed with the source of the threat, she easily input new instructions to the sensor array that would allow them to penetrate the sensor jamming. She paused for a heartbeat, momentarily confused at the similarity between the new frequencies she was utilizing and certain Vulcan military protocols that had remained virtually unchanged for centuries. The moment passed as the viewscreen suddenly snapped back to life.
Lieutenant Ricker gasped.
It took every gram of T'Pol's control to keep from doing the same as she looked up and studied the chaos that was prominently displayed on the main viewer. Wreckage from starships littered the view as Romulan reinforcements pounced upon the confused and disorganized Starfleet ships. Nacelles, torn free from destroyed Neptunes and Daedalus-classes, tumbled end over end, even as the command hull from a Daedalus – the UES Charlemagne according to its markings – self destructed with a fiery flash.
"My God," Lieutenant Kornegay whispered, horror in her voice. Her attention was riveted on her tactical board. Even as she spoke, a pair of Romulan warbirds were on a clear attack run for Endeavour. Instinctively, T'Pol began inputing commands into the SCI board with her right hand; the sensor arrays responded immediately and began broadcasting focused beams designed to the confuse the Romulan targeting systems. With her left hand, the Vulcan began uploading revised sensor profiles of the inbound warships to the weapon system officer deep within the bowels of the ship; these updated profiles would aid the efforts of Lieutenant Hayes and his team to acquire accurate target locks.
Even as her board chirped acknowledgment of both commands, Endeavour's weapon systems were reorienting on the twin warbirds. Phase cannon fire slashed out, slicing into the protective energy field that surrounded the lead warship. A steady stream of photonic torpedoes began leaping from the launch tubes and surged toward the Romulan ship; most were ripped apart by the warbird's point-defense systems, but a trio of exploded with negligible results.
"Evasive maneuvers!" Lieutenant Ricker ordered as T'Pol continued to divide her attention on the multiple tasks before her. Endeavour's engines growled as the Starfleet ship banked hard, even as the Romulan warbirds were spitting retaliative fire. Incandescent energy splashed against the shields, as several trios of torpedoes raced through the void. Automated countermeasures were deploying almost instantly, filling the space around Endeavour with a dazzling display of pyrotechnics. The point-defense systems began tracking and firing nanoseconds later, spewing invisible x-ray laser pulses that savaged the incoming warheads.
"Shields are down to twenty percent," Kornegay was reporting as T'Pol continued to input additional commands into her board. "Damage control parties on B Deck!"
Another distant explosion could be seen upon the main viewer and T'Pol's fingers continued their rapid dance; instantly, the source of the warp core breach was isolated, and she felt a surge of sadness at the image of the UES Atlantis slowly breaking apart. She found herself inexplicably glad that Trip had not yet arrived; he had liked Captain Amy Ebadi a great deal.
Endeavour shook under a second salvo of Romulan fire even as the helmsman sent the Starfleet ship into a twisting climb to evade the warbird's guns. A sharp pain suddenly lanced through T'Pol's side, and she barely managed to restrain a gasp at the sensation that wasn't hers.
On the heels of that, however, she felt a pulse of emotion that had a distinctive Trip taste to it. He was angry – no, he was furious! – and T'Pol shivered at the primal emotion that simmered within her mate. She could sense his simmering rage as an exploding conduit had badly injured Lieutenant Devereux and Ensign Jefferson.
"Incoming from Fleet Commander," Ricker suddenly announced, her attention on the data screen installed in front of the command chair. T'Pol blinked in sudden realization; the destruction of Atlantis meant that Rear Admiral Khanolankar, the operational commander, was also dead. Commodore Archer was in command. "Rally all forces!" Ricker continued.
Before T'Pol could respond, Endeavour seemed to shudder. An instant later, the hull breach alarm began to sound.
The hull breach alarm was beginning to give her a headache.
Shifting awkwardly in her radiation suit, Anna Hess glowered darkly at the screen display in front of her. Not for the first time, she silently cursed Captain Tucker's insistence that all engineers wear the bulky protective suit while on duty. Part of her understood his reasoning behind the order, especially after the hard call he had been forced to make at Thor's Cradle, but the part of her that actually had to wear the damned thing wanted to knock some sense into her old chief. Whoever had designed them had clearly never tried to actually work in them.
"Damage Control teams to B Deck," she ordered as the data crawled across the screen in front of her. She shifted her feet once more as she tried to find a more comfortable stance, but the uncomfortable tightness around her waist didn't abate. This must be what wearing a corset feels like, she grumbled mentally as she gave the DC master display another look before glancing in the direction of the humming warp core.
It bore little resemblance to the engine that Henry Archer had designed years ago, although with close inspection, one could still see his core design at the heart of the reactor that now powered Endeavour. Captain Tucker's influence was even more pronounced, though, with the field displacement manifold's vertical orientation instead of the previous horizontal orientation, and the numerous ladders in place for ease of access. One of Tucker's many complaints around his fellow engineers had been that a "damned pilot had screwed up the design" of Enterprise's reactor.
He had made it a point to never repeat those complaints within earshot of Jonathan Archer, the pilot in question.
"Rostova to Engineering!" The ensign's voice crackled out of the DC console in front of Hess, and she snapped her attention back to it. With the COB transferring to auxiliary command, Anna had turned over normal operations to her 2IC so she could focus on directing the damage control teams, knowing that Lieutenant Riggs was more than capable of keeping the reactor operational. As much as it pained her, she'd long since admitted that the lieutenant had a better grasp of warp dynamics than she did which, for the ChEng, was embarrassing. Many of the recommendations that she had forwarded to Trip during the refit had been Riggs' ideas and had already earned him several commendations.
"This is Engineering," Hess said into the comm as she input another command into her board. Instantly, Ensign Rostova's personal locator beacon was located on F Deck, and Anna frowned at the young woman's close proximity to the starboard aft torpedo magazine.
"I have an emergency situation!" Rostova declared, causing Anna to quickly hit another button. At once, a static-filled image appeared on the monitor and Hess drew in a sharp breath.
A mangled body that she recognized as one of the STAB personnel was sprawled out just beyond the magazine accessway, still smoking from the fire that had killed her. The door itself had been blown apart, and shrapnel from its demise was everywhere. Smoke billowed out, crawling up to hug the ceiling, and horror suddenly washed over Anna. Fire itself was dangerous enough on a starship, but a blaze inside a torpedo bay?
"Need immediate backup at my location!" Rostova was shouting into her comm even as she was advancing toward the magazine. Like all damage control teams during combat operations, the ensign was wearing a modified environment suit equipped with the helmet-mounted vid-cam; it was that camera, after all, that was giving Anna the view that she currently had.
"Hold on, Nat," she ordered as she gave the DC board a quick glance. A curse bubbled up in her throat at the instant realization that Rostova was the only member of her DC teams available on F Deck; the bulk of the damage control parties were currently needed to deal with the hull breach on B Deck since it was dangerously close to the port deuterium tank. Hayes' weapons teams were responding to Rostova's alert, but the lieutenant himself was needed in the forward port armory. Another look at the real-time image caused Anna's blood to run cold.
Fires were everywhere.
Hess didn't pause as she made her decision. A single explosion in the magazine could conceivably destroy the entire ship. Despite the various safety measures, it remained a concern and would likely always be one.
"Take over," she ordered the crewman standing behind her as she bolted toward the turbolift. She was buckling the suit's helmet into place even as she entered the lift. "F Deck," Anna snapped. "Emergency override: express alpha romeo." It was a command that she had never given before; coded to her voice authorization, it caused the lift to accelerate faster than safety parameters allowed for. Her knees buckled at the abrupt lurch, and she quickly reached out to grab the hand rail as she was sent staggering.
Mere seconds passed before the lift screeched to a halt, once more throwing her against the wall even as the doors slid open. She had to duck to avoid the overhang, recognizing instantly that the lift hadn't properly seated itself before opening the doors. Pausing only long enough to grab an extinguisher from the wall, she darted forward.
Fire alarms had finally begun sounding as she rounded the corner to see Ensign Rostova dragging an unconscious STAB crewman from the armory. The ensign's EV suit was scorched and blackened, but she seemed otherwise unhurt. At sight of Anna, Rostova's eyes widened.
"Ma'am!" the ensign said in surprise as a Roughneck wearing the distinctive black combat armor emerged from the armory; he too was dragging a wounded crewmember.
"What's the status of the fire?" Hess demanded instantly. She frowned at the spiderweb crack in Rostova's faceplate, as well as the numerous burns on the ensign's EV suit. At least one of the scorch marks was significant and had clearly caused a breach before the suit's autosealer activated. Standing this close to the ensign, Anna could also see that Rostova was having some trouble breathing as she struggled to suppress small coughs.
"Still burning," the ensign replied with a slight cough. "Fire suppression systems aren't working." The young woman started to lower the unconscious man to the ground.
"Get him clear," Anna ordered before rushing toward the damaged magazine. She frowned instantly at the apparent ineffectiveness of the fire suppression system. White foam was coating everything, but still, flames danced around the room, far too close to the stacked torpedoes for comfort. At a glance, Anna could see that the autoloader that transferred the photonic torpedoes to the delivery system in the aft-facing armory had violently self-destructed, toppling a now damaged torpedo to the deck.
Ignoring the fires, Hess darted to the upended torpedo, heart pounding. Terror turned her legs to rubber when she realized that the warhead was armed ...
And counting down.
"Seal the pressure doors!" she yelled over her shoulder as she slowly felt for the release catch on the torpedo's outer casing. "I've got a live torpedo!" Gritting her teeth, she fumbled awkwardly for a moment before finally withdrawing her hand so she could remove the glove. A rumble vibrated through the deck plates, and she heaved a mostly silent sigh of relief that the pressure doors had been sealed. At least now, they could evacuate the air and kill the fires.
She tried not to think of what effect the depressurization would have on her exposed flesh.
The glove removed, she began feeling for the release catch once more. It slid open under her touch, revealing a badly damaged targeting array. Keying in an override code was not an option. Oh, Christ, she groaned before turning to look for tools.
Sight of Ensign Rostova at her back, fighting the fires with Anna's own discarded extinguisher, gave her a moment's pause. Sensing Hess' eyes on her, the ensign glanced briefly in her direction before refocusing her attention on dealing with the blaze before her.
"I need your tools," Anna snapped, glad that the ensign was wearing the standard DC party suit. Slightly heavier than a normal environmental suit, it had a basic tool set secured to the back in an attachable bag. Rostova backed closer, still spraying the fire with the extinguisher but getting close enough to allow Hess to pull the tool bag free.
Within seconds, Anna had become so focused on the task in front of her that she ceased to notice the constant rolling and shaking of Endeavour as the ship conducted evasive maneuvers. Even the hull breach sirens, once so annoying, were no longer the distraction that they had once been. All that mattered was the torpedo in front of her. Sweat trickled down her face, stinging her eyes, but she merely blinked the pain away as she used the hand laser to slice away the casing that protected the warhead's onboard computer. Perspiration began making the tool slippery, and Anna found herself biting her lip so hard that she could taste blood.
When the casing fell to the deck, she studied the exposed circuit board with some trepidation. This wasn't her area of expertise, and she found herself fervently wishing that Rick was here instead of her. As she started to reach for the tool kit, she found Rostova already waiting, the penlight that Hess needed already in hand. Fear was bright in the ensign's eyes.
"You should get clear," Anna suggested as she glanced at the shattered display. There was no way of telling how much time they had left.
"Defuse the damned torpedo, ma'am," Rostova retorted sharply as she aimed the penlight beam at the now exposed circuit board. Despite the situation, Anna smiled.
Her smile quickly faded when she realized that the damage to the warhead's logic functions were beyond her ability to repair. For a moment, she floundered as she tried to figure out what to do. She was a warp field specialist, dammit, not a weapons officer!
"Get the AG dolly," she ordered as she leaned back. Rostova reacted without hesitation and rose to her feet. Seconds later, she had returned with the tool. Based on recently acquired Vulcan technology, the anti-grav device was essential for moving very heavy objects but, due to its voracious power consumption, was used only sparingly. Moving quickly but carefully, Anna secured the torpedo to the dolly before powering the tool up. She rose to her feet slowly, making sure to avoid any rapid and jarring motions.
"Ma'am?" Rostova asked, clearly not understanding the plan, and Anna flashed her grin.
"We're gonna use the torpedo tube to get rid of this sonuvabitch," Hess replied as she began to creep toward the doorway leading to the armory proper. The ensign swallowed before darting toward the opened door, presumably to prep the tube for launch.
A high pitched beeping drew Anna's attention to the AG dolly, and she cursed loudly at the rapidly dwindling power supply. Abandoning her efforts to be steady, she began fast stepping toward the tube. Rostova was already there, prepping the launch computer. She gave Hess a quick glance.
With an angry whine, the anti-grav dolly failed just as Anna was placing the torpedo onto the launch rack. She inhaled sharply at the loud clank as the warhead bounced once before settling into the proper position.
"Deploy now!" Hess said loudly as she began to back away. An answering chime sounded as Ensign Rostova pressed the appropriate buttons, and, with a muted growl, the torpedo slid forward slowly. Sparks suddenly exploded from the launch tube as the small pressure seal meant to close behind the torpedo before launch failed. Even as Anna was trying to backpedal away from the rack, a howl of escaping oxygen let her know that the outer tube door had opened.
And seconds after that, the torpedo exploded.
The explosion rocked the ship.
Worry washing through him, Commander Paul Mayweather leaned forward, focusing his attention on the sensor feed installed before his command chair as Horizon shuddered under enemy fire. For the briefest of moments, he felt completely overwhelmed. It was too much. Sixty-four men and women were relying on his decisions to get them through this nightmare alive. It was almost enough to cause a sane man panic.
But Paul did not panic. As the anxiety and fear mounted, he concentrated on the problem, focused on what his father and what Travis would do in this situation, and the worry melted away. Sometimes, he could almost sense his brother's presence, as if Travis was standing right there to lend support with a broad smile. Despite his current straits, Paul found himself smiling at the idea of his baby brother standing watch from beyond the grave.
There were worse people to have as a guardian angel, he reckoned.
"Come about to one-three-three mark five-nine," Paul ordered confidently, his fingers dancing across the sensor feed. Without hesitation, the helmsman – a young ensign by the name Farzaneh – obeyed, banking the Horizon sharply in a starboard direction. Like every other member of Mayweather's crew, Mehran Farzaneh was an ex-Boomer who had survived Thor's Cradle. While Starfleet Command still struggled with the best way to integrate the massive number of Boomer volunteers, Paul and other ex-ECA captains simply moved forward, accepting only men and women who had spent their entire lives in space. It wasn't bigotry that fueled Mayweather's decision, though. He simply wanted people whom he knew had grown up dealing with the harshness of the black.
"We're red on torpedoes," Lieutenant Commander Mick Berry announced calmly from the tactical board. They had grown up together on Thomas Mayweather's Horizon, and no one knew Paul quite as well as Mick did. If Berry had decided not to volunteer for service in Starfleet after the Cradle, Mayweather knew that he wouldn't have been able to either. The idea of spending a single hour aboard this ship without Mick was one that Paul couldn't stomach.
Even as Berry was speaking, Horizon was unleashing the last of her ordnance. A pair of torpedoes corkscrewed from the launch tubes, smashing into a Romulan drone that was beginning a combat run on Endeavour. Flashes of atomic fire ripped the unmanned vessel apart and sent lethal shrapnel spinning into a second of the drones. As the second vessel shuddered under the unexpected damage, the six phase cannons mounted upon Horizon opened up, slicing into the wounded craft with ruthless precision. Hull plating was burned away, exposing the delicate inner workings of the drone. A second barrage of fire expertly cut the craft in two.
Almost instantly, a trio of drones and a single bird of prey oriented themselves upon Horizon, banking sharply away from their attack runs. The venerable Neptune-class seemed to groan as Ensign Farzaneh sent her into a tight, spiralling dive to evade the incoming fire. It was to be expected, after all. Horizon's job was to protect the command ship of the fleet, even if it meant sacrificing themselves to do so. Every officer and crewman on the NC-26 Horizon was aware of this fact.
And that was the other reason that Paul recruited whom he did. Every single crewmember of Horizon would have been dead at the Cradle had it not been for Endeavour, and nearly all of them had outlived their ships in some fashion. They were homeless and entirely without prospects; had it not been for Starfleet offering them a place to serve, many would have been at a loss about what to do. They owed their lives and fortunes to Starfleet, and every one of them was willing to lay down their lives if necessary. Unexpectedly, an old saying popped into Paul's head: There is nothing more fanatical than a convert.
He tried not to think about how accurate that statement was.
Incandescent flashes of energy flashed through the void as the four Romulan starships continued to bracket Horizon with fire. Torpedoes streaked across the endless night, detonating with fierce ribbons of destructive energy that rattled the twenty-year old ship. Hull breach alarms began shrieking but, at a sharp glance from Paul, the chief petty officer manning the damage control board silenced them.
Lumbering forward with ungainly grace, the UES Hyperion surged into weapons range, offensive systems spitting fire. A quartet of photonic torpedoes struck the bird of prey amidships, exploding with such concussive force that the the warship was sent tumbling into one of the drones. Phase cannon fire carved angry gashes across the bird of prey's hull, burning away hull plating and sending streams of molten metal into the darkness.
"Helm, reorient," Paul ordered instantly. "Weps, full barrage on that bird of prey."
It was a dangerous order and Mayweather knew it. With hull breaches already across the ship and no torpedoes remaining, Horizon was in no shape to continue the fight. Another commanding officer would have backed down and gone defensive, but that wasn't Paul's style.
Even as Horizon began to maneuver toward the bird of prey, the Romulans were regrouping, now focusing on the less maneuverable Hyperion to the exclusion of everything else. Like furious hornets, the drones began peppering the slow-moving Daedalus-class with their disruptor cannons as the bird of prey went evasive. A trio of torpedoes leapt from the manned Romulan warship, spiralling up and around to home in on Hyperion. Paul drew in a sharp breath as the explosive ordnance collapsed the heavier ship's shields and ripped into hull plating.
Engines screaming, one of the unmanned drones – the one previously damaged by the collision with the bird of prey – dove toward the Hyperion, slamming into the now exposed bridge section with a fierce explosion. Fires could be seen in the moments before the hard vacuum consumed them, and Hyperion shuddered. To their credit, the gunners on the Daedalus-class continued to fire their weapons, and another brutal salvo of fire savaged the already damaged bird of prey.
In that moment, Horizon pounced.
Of the six phase cannons on the Neptune-class, only four were currently functional as Horizon barrelled forward. Burning streams of energy slashed across the darkness, searing into the Romulan warship's weakened hull plating. One of the beams cut deeply into the engineering section, puncturing what could only have been a fuel tank of some sort. An explosion of bluish fire ripped the entire compartment open, spilling fragile bodies into the void. Less than a heartbeat later, the entire ship violently self-destructed with a fierce flash of light. Burning debris tumbled through the darkess.
"Incoming from Fleet Command!" Sandra Dyer announced from the communications board. "All ships to rally on Endeavour!" The lieutenant studied her board for one moment longer before glancing in Paul's direction.
Mayweather nodded even as he continued to study the sensor data crawling across his feed. To his surprise, Hyperion was beginning to maneuver in the direction of Endeavour, phase cannons still barking fire at the drones that harassed the heavy ship. Nearly half of the Daedalus-class ship's saucer section was gone, destroyed in the explosive collision, yet somehow, some way, the ugly-as-sin starship was still in the fight. Paul shook his head in stunned amazement.
"Incoming!" the sensor operator shouted mere seconds before another wave of drones and birds of prey came into weapons range. Pulses of burning energy flashed through the darkness, slamming into their targets with blistering fury. Explosions ripped the night asunder as torpedoes slammed home with fierce detonations. Hull plating was ripped free and Paul watched in stunned horror as Gallant and Dauntless died fiery deaths. The Daedalus-class Charlemagne shuddered under the incredible onslaught, and, for a second, appeared poised to weather the brutal assault. Secondary and tertiary explosions suddenly began to erupt from within the massive ship and, like a poorly constructed model, the Daedalus-class fell apart.
Farzaneh sent Horizon into a stomach-lurching dive, and Paul winced at the swarm of drones that rushed to pursue. At a glance, he counted over ten. Only one had given Enterprise trouble, and Horizon was easily fifteen years older than Archer's old ship.
I guess this is it, Mayweather reflected, surprised to discover that there wasn't a trace of fear coloring his thoughts. Glancing in Mick's direction, he caught his XO's eye and shrugged at Berry's questioning look. At least they were going to go down fighting.
"Let's make them pay," Paul said with a cold smile. "On my mark, hard to starboard. Weps, fire at will."
As if in agreement with his intention, Horizon groaned.
She woke with a groan.
The stench of burned flesh struck her even before she opened her eyes, and Erika Hernandez winced at the foul smell. Pain lanced through her side with each breath, and she fought the overwhelming urge to slide back into the dark oblivion that beckoned. The steady whine of hull breach alarms slowly penetrated the fog that her brain seemed shrouded in, and she pushed herself off of the deck with a groan.
Almost at once, she wished she hadn't.
Fires were raging everywhere, and the spray of the suppression system inexplicably reminded her of snow. The COM officer, Lieutenant Benitez, was unmoving, her face frozen in a mask of surprised horror at the meter long rod that had impaled her through the chest. The helmsman was face down on the deck, a growing pool of blood around him. Most of his right arm was missing, having been torn free by flying shrapnel. At the damage control board, Ensign Sheldon was trying to stauch the flow of blood from his leg, but Erika had seen enough lethal wounds since the war had started to recognize that it was a futile attempt. Impossibly, Lieutenant Kobasew appeared unhurt as he clung to the tactical board so tightly that his knuckles were white.
The assault had come only moments after they received the comm pulse from Endeavour that allowed Lieutenant Commander Jansen to penetrate the nearly system-wide jamming. They had barely enough time to recognize the danger they were in before a shattering salvo of fire had smashed into Columbia's already weakened shields and hull plating; both had been overwhelmed almost instantly, and it was a miracle that the ship was still mostly intact.
"Damage report," she demanded sharply, grimacing at the effort it took to speak. Her left leg abruptly buckled, forcing her to quickly grab the overturned command chair to keep from falling. She was only mildly surprised at the lack of feeling in the leg.
"Massive structural damage on all decks," Ensign Sheldon declared in an emotionless voice from the DCO board. He continued his attempts to slow the bleeding from his leg as he spoke.
"All weapon systems are down," Lieutenant Kobasew interrupted. His eyes were wide.
"Port nacelle is leaking warp plasma," Sheldon continued as if the lieutenant hadn't spoken. "And the impulse manifold has been fractured. Core containment has been lost and Commander Lokotz has ordered an evacuation."
Dragging her unresponsive leg, Erika half limped, half hopped the the helm station, collapsing into the blood-soaked chair with a grunt. Her eyes traced over the board before her, noting what was still functional and what wasn't with rapidly sinking hopes.
"Rad levels?" she asked, and Sheldon stared at his board for a long moment. Hernandez frowned. "Ensign?" she prompted, and he winced.
"Shipwide six sieverts and climbing," the shellshocked young man revealed. Erika's expression tightened in horror. Lethal exposure levels, she reflected grimly.
Without another word, Erika gave her science officer a glance and felt her stomach clench at the seared features of Lieutenant Commander Jansen. They had served together since before Columbia had launched, aboard the Republic under Captain Jennings, and Hernandez counted the young woman as a friend. Wincing with each word, the science officer answered the unspoken question.
"Romulan forces are maneuvering to dock," Jansen reported.
An overwhelming sense of failure washed over Erika in that moment as she understood how and why Columbia had survived the initial assault. She wanted to howl with fury.
"Captain." Jansen continued, her voice raspy, but strangely urgent. "I've identified their command ship."
"Where?" Hernandez demanded. If they could relay the position to the rest of the fleet...
"Six point nine nine light minutes from our present position." Jansen tried to suppress a hacking cough and was mostly successful. "Course two-nine mark seven-two." The lieutenant commander grimaced. "Boarding parties sighted on C Deck."
For the first time in her Starfleet career, Erika found herself wishing that a self-destruct capability existed upon her ship. Even if the fleet commander was not aboard as the Romulans likely expected, Columbia was still too valuable to be captured. She weighed her options and realized that they were remarkably limited.
Based on the helm sensor feed, she could see that Second Fleet was reeling under the Romulan assault; Athena was gone, Ardent and Hermes were crippled, and the other five ships of the fleet were suffering heavy damage. Action needed to be taken, and Columbia was the only ship capable of it. Never before had making a decision been so difficult and so easy at the same time.
"Sound collision," she ordered sharply as she begin inputting commands into the already damaged helm. "Seal off the bridge and order all hands to evacuate."
Under her hand, Columbia's already stressed engines growled in protest as she demanded power. Rad alarms began shrieking as the core containment, already unstable, failed completely. No longer sealed away, even greater levels of radiation began spilling through the ship. Erika glanced at the DCO, noting sadly that Ensign Sheldon had passed out from blood loss. She desperately wished that there was something – anything! – she could do for him.
For that matter, she wished there was something she could do for her entire crew.
Hollow booms echoed through the ship as lifeboats launched. There was no way to determine how many of them would actually be picked up by the other Starfleet ships; it was a grim certainty that many would be destroyed by the Romulans and even more would likely be captured by the mysterious aliens.
"We are warp factor three capable. Time on target?" Erika asked softly, and Commander Jansen answered immediately.
"Fifteen point five seconds, ma'am." The science officer paused as she studied her board. "I'm detecting multiple displacements around the command ship ... I think they're birds of prey."
"Picket ships," Hernandez identified grimly. The helm board chirped once more, indicating that Columbia was now oriented on the far distant target. Erika hesitated for only a fraction of a second before engaging the warp engine.
Columbia surged forward, vanishing from the combat zone in a streak of light that caught the Romulan forces not yet docked to her by surprise. Her abrupt acceleration caused her to rip free from the bird of prey that had docked on the starboard side, and emergency bulkheads automatically slammed shut against the vacuum.
Gripping the helm tightly, Hernandez fought against an overwhelming surge of nausea that pounded through her body. The sound of someone vomiting – Lieutenant Kobasew, she thought – caused her own stomach to roll and squirm. Her vision swam, and she closed her eyes against the wild vertigo. A scientist by training, she recognized the symptoms: terminal radiation exposure. She wondered briefly how many sieverts they had been exposed to.
Opening her eyes, she struggled to concentrate on the sensor feed as her vision swam in and out of focus. The Romulans protecting their command ship were beginning to maneuver, clearly realizing the danger that raced toward them at twenty-seven times the speed of light. One of the smaller birds of prey crossed into the threshold, placing itself squarely between Columbia and the much larger command ship. It wouldn't be enough, though, not at the velocity Columbia had already attained.
Fifteen seconds was an eternity ... but passed in an instant. A single thought flickered across Captain Hernandez's mind, a single regret revolving around the man who had come to mean the world to her. She hoped he escaped this nightmare alive, prayed that there was an afterlife so they could be reunited if he didn't.
I'm sorry, Jon, Erika thought in the nanosecond before Columbia reached its target.