The target was gone.
Eyes unblinking, Jonathan Archer stared at the holo-table with stunned disbelief. There was no way that Columbia could have survived, no way that Erika could have survived, and he found himself struggling to accept what he had just seen. He recognized shock setting in and tried to fight it.
He was only partially successful.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Lieutenant Reynolds give him a quick assessing glance before quietly assuming command. The part of Jon's brain that was wasn't reeling in horror silently thanked the lieutenant for giving Archer this moment, and began to mentally draft the letter of commendation for Reynolds. Jon swallowed the lump in his throat, wondering how he was still able to function at all after what he'd just seen.
When Columbia's digital image had vanished from the holo-table, sensor scans had immediately identified her sudden leap to warp speed. It had taken the computer just over ten seconds to calculate her trajectory and likely destination, and a couple more to identify what appeared to be what appeared to be a larger than normal Romulan warbird at that location. Knowing Erika as he did, Jon instantly recognized what she was doing.
By then, of course, it was already too late.
The collision between Columbia and one of the birds of prey defending the command ship had occurred in the exact moment that Archer realized Erika's plan. Both ships were instantly destroyed, and the energy released at the point of impact was nothing short of cataclysmic. The resulting shockwave smashed into the other picket ships with hull-crushing force; at least one of the birds of prey was sent tumbling into the command ship, and, even now, Endeavour's sensors could detect significant structural damage on the warbird itself.
Anger pulsed through Jon's veins, a furious wrath that caused his hands to tremble and his vision to blur. The hatred that he had reserved for the Xindi after their attack seemed a paltry thing compared to the emotion that now thundered through his mind, and he grit his teeth tightly together to prevent from venting his fury in a scream. Now was not the time. Too many lives were depending upon him to lose control.
As he buried his emotions under a rigid layer of control, Jon felt a familiar sensation at the back of his mind that felt amazingly like approval. It had a distinct Vulcan flavor to it, one that Archer had experienced off and on in the years since Surak's katra had been removed from his mind. Most of the time, it was barely noticeable, an uncanny ability to suppress his emotions when absolutely necessary as well as an insight into Vulcan culture that occasionally caused his fellow officers to look at him with curiosity. But sometimes, like now, it was all he could do to avoid speaking in ancient Vulcan.
On the holo-table, Archer could see the Romulans already in the process of regrouping. Many had pulled back from the area of engagement following Columbia's disappearance, and at least half of the combat force present was now maneuvering toward their crippled command ship. Archer spent a moment studying the tactical display, any hope of salvaging a victory out of this situation rapidly dwindling as he took in the sheer scope of the forces arrayed against them. He glared at the screen.
"Send to all ships," he said abruptly. The sharpness of his voice caused the combat controllers to jerk in surprise and all of them looked up from the table. Archer struggled to keep his expression as confident as possible. "Broken Arrow," he declared grimly. Unsurprisingly, Reynolds reacted first.
"Understood. Broken Arrow is given," the lieutenant responded before giving his fellow officers a sharp look. "Send to all ships," Reynolds ordered, glaring angrily when the junior officers hesitated. "Now!" he snapped, causing Ensigns Dill and Lunceford to jump.
It was an old code, one that had originally been used by Americans in reference to an accidental event involving nuclear weapons or components. Later, it had become an emergency code used by military ground forces needing emergency close air support while in danger of being overrun by enemy troops. During the latter part of the Eugenics Wars, it had undergone yet another change, becoming the retreat command for all forces when facing an overwhelming defeat.
As the team issued the emergency retreat command, Jon could see an immediate response on the holo-table. Already suffering heavy losses, the surviving three ships of Fifth Fleet – two Neptunes and a trio of Daedalus – quickly began accelerating away from the combat zone in an attempt to get clear of the planetary gravity well. Two of the Daedalus-class ships lurked in the rear of the formation, absorbing heavy damage as they provided covering fire for its escaping cohorts.
"Incoming transmission from Indefatigable," Reynolds announced, and Jon gave him a nod.
"Broken Arrow acknowledged." Commodore Burnside Clapp's voice was heavily distorted as it emerged from the comm system, but still recognizable. "There are a lot of deployed lifeboats..." The Australian trailed off, and Archer's expression darkened as he studied the holo-table for another long second.
"Recover what you can," Jon ordered grimly, "but only if they are in your exit vector." It was a hard decision, one that Archer hated to make and Jon felt the last vestige of the wide-eyed explorer he had once been wither and die.
"That is an order, Commodore." Archer spoke with as much authority as he could manage. "No unnecessary risks." The words were tumbling from his lips before Jon even realized what he was saying. Once again, he could almost sense Surak's approval at his usage of absolute logic.
"Understood," Burnside Clapp replied. From his voice, he didn't approve but Jon simply knew that he understood. It was one of the military maxims that was drilled into Starfleet officers upon graduation: the burden of command sometimes required hard choices. Frowning, Archer tried not to think about how he had briefly lost focus of that in the Expanse, even as he struggled to ignore the tickle in his brain that was Surak. T'Pau had warned him that there might be a residual trace of the long dead Vulcan, but right now, it felt like a lot more than a trace.
"What about the survivors?" Lieutenant Esque asked, her expression bordering on horror. Archer gave her a look, once more reminding himself that this was her first actual combat mission. She had never before been faced with the hard truths of war. "They'll die or be captured!"
"Spunau bolayalar t'Wehku bolayalar t'Zamu il t'Veh," Jon said in response, drawing a curious look from Reynolds as he spoke.
"The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few," Reynolds translated softly for his junior officers, and Archer could see the sick comprehension settling in on them.
"Or the one." Jon rose from his seat as he spoke. "I'll be on the bridge," he stated. There wasn't anything else he could do here, and staying would only remind him that Erika was gone. He was through the door before Lieutenant Reynolds was even able to acknowledge him.
The turbolift did not immediately open at his summons, and Jon glared at it for a long moment. His tension mounted in the long moments that passed, and he glowered darkly at the flickering lights denoting their current alert status. As he was reaching to press the summons button again, the doors slid open, revealing Trip and most of his command staff. Both the communications officer and navigator were injured, with the former bleeding from a scalp wound and the latter thoroughly unconscious.
"Get them to Sickbay," Trip ordered the master chief holding the helmsman before looking at Jon. "What's wrong?" he demanded quickly as he quickly walked from the lift. Archer fell into step alongside him as the gruff tactical officer flanked them.
"I've issued a Broken Arrow command," Jon replied grimly. Tucker nodded, a sour expression on his own face; there was no hint of surprise in his features.
"T'Pol is in Auxiliary Command," he revealed. "I could use an experienced pilot," Trip continued, jerking his head in the direction of the turbolift. Archer nodded as they approached the door leading to the battle bridge.
It opened with a hiss.
The door would not open.
Desperation fueling his muscles, Subcommander D'deridex strained against the vacuum seal that prevented him entry into battle-control deck. Around him, fires raged unabated and the howl of hull breach alarms echoed loudly through the ship. Sparks rained down upon him from exploding junctions, burning his exposed skin and causing him to grit his teeth against the sharp pain.
"I need assistance!" he shouted loudly, even as he doubled his efforts to pry the door open. Another explosion vibrated through the deckplates of the Ra'kholh, forcing D'deridex to brace himself against falling. With a loud crack, the electro-plasma system conduits along the corridor suddenly ruptured, spraying a pair of approaching Rihannsu crewmen with the superheated gas.
Neither had a chance to even shriek.
His breath catching, D'deridex stared at the two bodies in stunned horror as they were rapidly consumed. At temperatures in excess of three million degrees, the ionized electro-plasma was more lethal to living tissue than any acid that the subcommander could name. The acrid stench of seared flesh washed over him, and he bit back the urge to gag.
Fumbling with the latch on the wall-mounted suppression system, D'deridex began coughing as the atmosphere scrubbers started to fail. A familiar alert sounded as his fingers danced across the keypad and he forced himself to keep working to engage the automated failsafes. Behind him, the heat of the electro-plasma leak washed over his body. Sweat began dripping into his face, and he winced at the rapidly escalating temperatures.
"Unable to comply," the computer suddenly announced in response to his inputted commands, and D'deridex smashed his hand against the terminal interface, hoping to jostle its circuits sufficiently to obtain an alternate response. The hiss of the plasma leak suddenly became louder, and he glanced back in time to witness the explosion.
With a flash of blood green fire, the electro-plasma ignited, ripping apart metal as it did so. Screaming loudly, D'deridex dove away from the searing heat, slamming into a closed corridor access point with as much force as he could manage. The sound of tearing metal filled his ears as he tumbled onto the deck and scrambled for cover. Microseconds later, the roar of the ignited plasma preceded the angry firestorm as it thundered through the corridor.
Hands over his ears, D'deridex crouched behind the cover, forcing his body into the smallest area possible. Waves of heat lapped over him, scorching his flesh and sending spasms of agony shooting through his body. He was screaming, he realized with some surprise, as the fire raged around him, consuming the oxygen of the ship like some wild beast intent on destruction. A part of him knew that screaming was dangerous, but the fear ... the terror was too overwhelming to ignore.
The distant whine of a hull breach alarm penetrated the fog of panic, and D'deridex suddenly realized that the fire was gone. He opened his eyes, wincing at the sharp pain that lanced through his body with each movement. At a glance, he could see that his exposed flesh had been badly burned. Large blisters were apparent, and his skin was much darker than normal.
Climbing to his feet, D'deridex pushed the pain away. He didn't have time to focus on his own pain, not when the admiral could need his assistance. Glancing around, he swallowed in amazement that he survived the firestorm at all. There was no way to identify the contents of the cabin he had sought refuge in. The blaze had consumed it all. He should not have survived.
Ra'kholh shuddered once more, and D'deridex recognized the distinct feel of a change in the atmosphere of the ship. Pressure doors had been lowered, hopefully an indication that other survivors existed and were even now conducting rescue operations. Limping toward the broken door, the subcommander stepped into the blackened corridor and retraced his steps to the sealed doorway leading to the battle-control deck.
Per standard procedure, Admiral Valdore had sealed the deck once Ra'kholh entered the fight. It was a preventative measure designed for the admiral's safety, both from ship damage and from any potential assassins hoping to use the chaos of the engagement as an opportunity. Once the vacuum locks were engaged, the battle-control deck's life support system would come online.
Anger and frustration pulsed through D'deridex as he reached the door. The access panel, which had already refused to accept his override code, was now a pile of smoldering junk. Plastic parts and circuits had been melted by the searing heat of the plasma fire, and even the duranium outer casing was misshapen and distorted. With a growl, the subcommander slammed his fist into the useless mess before turning away. He paused, mentally studying the Ra'kholh's deckplan for a moment. His eyes snapped open, and he lurched forward into a halting sprint. Sweat broke out on his brow as he struggled to ignore the blinding pain that screamed through his body.
A trio of heavily armed and badly burned centurions were clustered around the airlock that was D'deridex's destination, and they gave him shellshocked looks as he struggled to pull the tool kit from the inner wall. One of them finally seemed to remember his role and awkwardly assumed a position of attention, despite the pain he was in.
"Sir?" the centurion asked. It was sufficient to remind the other two of their inferior places in the command hierarchy, and they too straightened.
"The Daise'Khre'Riov is still in the oira," D'deridex declared, his voice raspy. "I require your aid to gain entrance."
"Ssuaj-ha!" the trio acknowledged in unison. The largest of the three shouldered D'deridex out of the way and ripped the tool kit free from the metal restraints that held it into place. The trio exchanged a curious look, one that D'deridex could not quite decipher, before marching from the airlock.
As the three centurions worked on unsealing the vacuum door with fusion torches, Subcommander D'deridex found himself emerging from the shock that had clouded his mind. Concern began bubbling within his stomach as he noted the discreet glances that the three soldiers kept exchanging. It was an uncomfortable realization that he was unarmed should they pose a threat.
With a booming clang, the door fell to the deck, prompting the three centurions to jump away from the dangerous weight. D'deridex ignored them as he entered the oira, momentarily setting aside his concerns as he took in the shattered battle-control deck with a startled gasp. Debris littered the oira, and smoke was thick in the air as dozens of small fires raged, voraciously consuming flammable components. The holo-tank was a shattered ruin and flickered haphazardly. Admiral Valdore was sprawled out on the deck, his uniform stained with blood. To D'deridex's relief, the admiral was still breathing.
One of the centurions stepped forward, his face devoid of expression as he drew his disruptor pistol in a smooth motion.
"Ael'Riov, Chulak sends his regards," the centurion growled as he aimed the weapon at the unmoving admiral. He squeezed the trigger before D'deridex could react.
But the weapon did not fire.
Even as the centurion was snarling a curse at the fire-damaged pistol, D'deridex was lunging toward him. The subcommander's hand, balled tightly in a fist, slammed into the centurion's throat with crushing force, and D'deridex could feel the man's trachea collapse under his attack. With a strangled gasp, the centurion staggered backwards, dropping his weapon as his hand instinctively went to his throat. Moving faster than he had any right to, D'deridex caught the falling disruptor with his other hand. He spun on one foot, tracking the other two centurions with the weapon. One of them was going for his pistol as well, and the subcommander squeezed the trigger.
A sickly green pulse of energy flashed from the damaged pistol, burning into the second centurion's face with much less power than it should. It was enough to cause the soldier to cry out in pained surprise, and D'deridex darted toward him, discarding the useless weapon as he did so. He slammed into centurion, the force of their collision lifting the other man off of his feet. They fell backwards, D'deridex atop him, and the centurion suddenly screamed as the jagged slabs of transparisteel of the shattered holo-tank punched through his flesh and sliced into his internal organs. D'deridex rolled to his feet, his hands quickly ripping the man's dathe'anofv-sne free of its scabbard.
The third centurion had not moved and stood staring at D'deridex with wide eyes.
"I did not know, Erei'Riov!" the centurion stammered. He dropped to his knees, offering his neck in supplication. Another strangled gasp drew D'deridex's attention to the first centurion and he offered a smile devoid of any emotion at sight of the man slowly asphyxiating.
"Draw your weapon," D'deridex ordered the third centurion as he gestured to the choking man with the captured smallblade. "And execute this traitor."
"I obey, Erei'Riov." The centurion stood and brushed past D'deridex as he drew his disruptor pistol. Placing the barrel at the choking centurion's head, he squeezed the trigger without hesitation. Valdore's words came back to D'deridex as he observed.
"To command effectively, Erei'Riov, you must be without mercy." Nodding, the subcommander understood the admiral's teachings and acted.
Without hesitation, he plunged the Honor Blade into the third centurion's exposed back.
The blade sliced through the man's spine with the ease of a laser through butter, and the centurion collapsed in an unmoving heap. Face set in a frown, D'deridex gave the three traitors a momentarily look, assuring himself that they were dead. Kneeling down, he lifted the unconscious Admiral Valdore from the floor and carried him from the battle-control deck.
Behind him, the fires continued unabated.
There were fires on all decks, reports of hull breaches throughout the ship, and most of the weapon systems were offline, yet Lieutenant Daniel Hsiao was having the time of his life.
Standing in the center of Hyperion's battle bridge, he fought to keep his expression as stern and unyielding as possible. As the ranking officer aboard the nearly crippled Daedalus-class, command had fallen to Dan when the bridge was destroyed. In what had clearly been meant as a calculated insult, Commander Rivers had ordered Hsiao to the auxiliary command station where Dan was to stand by until contacted. Up until the Romulan drone had smashed into A Deck, obliterating the bridge on impact and killing the entire command staff of Hyperion, Hsiao had done nothing since their arrival in Zeta Reticuli beyond pacing.
He tried not to think what it said about his personality that he was finding the current situation absolutely exhilarating.
"Incoming from Fleet Command," Lieutenant Junior Grade Nicole Watt announced from her station at the COM board. The next highest ranking officer still alive, she was now Dan's acting first officer even though this was her first combat operation. Green and relatively inexperienced, she was competent and smart, which was, Hsiao reckoned, a perfect combination for an executive officer. He gave her a look at the sharp intake of breath he heard her take. "Broken Arrow," she declared.
Instantly, Dan clenched his hands tighly as he recognized the retreat command. The feeling of failure churned in his gut as he nodded.
"Send: acknowledge," Hsiao ordered, before turning his attention back to the main viewer. A deckplan of the Hyperion was displayed, with entire sections highlighted in bright red to indicate known hull breaches. Reports from the DC teams were filtering in, updating the damage report on a minute by minute basis. "Engineering," Dan said, his words directed to the chief petty officer manning the DCO board. "Status on warp core."
"Functional," the CPO replied instantly, her eyes locked on the board before her. "ChEng reports warp field steady." Dan opened his mouth to ask who Chang was, before recognizing the abbreviation for chief engineer's title. He frowned at his ignorance, once more finding himself frustrated at the almost foreign language the crew of Hyperion used. It had taken him the entire twenty days of travel time to gain sufficient understanding of the shipwide jargon to issue commands that weren't misunderstood. Even now, some of their expressions simply eluded comprehension. How hell was he supposed to know where the "goat locker" was or, for that matter, what the hell it was?
"Weps," he snapped, bracing himself as Hyperion shook under another enemy barrage. More sections on the primary hull were highlighted red on the main viewscreen. Despite his dislike for the appearance of the Daedalus-class, Hsiao had to admit she was tough.
"Two torpedo tubes working," the petty officer said in response. He was the palest man that Dan had ever seen. "Only one phase cannon operational, sir," the PO3 continued, frowning at the data on his board. "WSO is on it."
"Damage control teams reporting plasma fire on E deck," Lieutenant Watt said abruptly. She looked up in suppressed horror. "It's close to torpedo room four!"
"Seal off the section," Dan ordered instantly. He could vividly recall Captain Tucker's voice at Thor's Cradle and found himself emulating the older man's posture. Tucker's coolness under fire had made a serious impact on how Dan looked at situations like this; action had to be taken and it was the job of the commanding officer, no matter how difficult, to step forward and take that action.
"There are crewmen in there!" Watt pointed out, and Hsiao gave her a tight-lipped frown.
"Evacuate the oxygen in the entire section," he continued, ignoring her horrified gasp. Pinning the DCO with a fierce gaze, he spoke again. "That is an order, Chief."
It was a hard call, knowing that at least five crewmen could perish of asphyxiation if they weren't wearing the appropriate gear, but Dan was astounded at how easily he was able to make the decision. The ship's survival took precedence over the lives of those crewmen, and nothing was more dangerous than a fire in or even near a torpedo room, especially with the unstable Mark VI photonic torpedoes that Starfleet insisted on deploying. A single one of the warheads prematurely detonating could ignite the entire electro-plasma system that powered the ship and such an event would be catastrophic. With effort, he pushed down dark memories of his first duty station.
"Failure in pressure door echo three tee eight!" the DCO declared suddenly, tension thick in her voice. She banged on the damage control console as if that would inexplicably force the malfunctioning vacuum door to work. A moment passed as Dan weighed options. He could only think of one.
"Stand by to open airlock echo seven," he decided. "Weps, I want you to open the torpedo tube to vacuum at the same time. We're only going to get one chance at this." The two non-comms nodded, quickly recognizing his intent. "Lieutenant Watt, inform the DC team." Dan paused for a moment. "Execute."
He could easily imagine the wail of oxygen as it was sucked out of the ship, as well as the horrific image of a plasma fire being channelled toward the open airlock like a horizontal tornado. Hsiao's first tour of duty was aboard the Neptune-class Ganymede, and he still had the occasional nightmare of the plasma fire that had nearly killed him. Unable to shut off the leak, the ship's first officer had ordered the chief engineer to vent the entire section to space. Twelve crewmembers and the commanding officer had been lost fighting the lethal conflagration, but the ship had been saved. That near death experience had ultimately prompted Dan to request a transfer to flight operations. After all, pilots weren't killed as often as engineers.
He tried not to think about Lieutenant Commander Selma Rodriguez, Hyperion's XO and chief helmsman, gone in a blink of an eye. Thoughts of her would invariably lead to memories of the previous night and how she tasted when she kissed him, or how she sounded when nearing climax. War will make corpses of us all, Dan quoted bitterly, trying hard not to begin grieving for a new lover lost too soon.
"Section has been vented," the enlisted DCO stated, and Dan glanced at her nametag, suddenly feeling guilty that he didn't even know her name. They could be dead in the next couple of seconds and she was just the enlisted damage control officer to him.
"Is the fire out?" Hsiao asked, and CPO Koeppel nodded. "Tactical display," he ordered as the ship shuddered once more.
The image on the main viewscreen blinked and switched to a 2D overview of the combat zone. A frown crossed Dan's face at the sheer number of hostile blips, each representing a Romulan ship. Well, he reflected with morbid amusement, that explains the Broken Arrow. One of Sixth Fleet's surviving Neptunes – the UES Horizon, by its IFF code – was reeling under a concentrated assault by Romulan drones, and Hsiao frowned darkly.
"Set two seven one mark zero," he said as he sat in the uncomfortable command chair. "Weapons free and hot." He forced an unconcerned expression on his face, as if they were just going out for a quick test flight instead of a suicidal frontal assault. He glanced at the petty officer manning the tactical board and mentally memorized the man's name as well.
"Two phase cannons functioning at seventy percent, sir," PO3 Vlachko relayed, clearly anticipating Dan's question. "One phase cannon at twenty percent."
"Good enough," Hsiao remarked as he leaned forward. "Let's open up a hole for Endeavour to get clear."
Engines growling, Hyperion accelerated toward the center of the Romulan formation, cannons barking nonstop. She shook under incoming fire, the blistering energy of enemy disruptor beams slicing into the already overstressed hull plating. Metal evaporated under the searing heat, and klaxons shrieked their warnings. Hold together, Dan urged the rumbling ship as they neared the exit vector point. Just a little longer...
She held together.
She was holding up nicely, despite the stress.
As he stepped through the doorway and into auxiliary command, Trip Tucker felt a sudden flash of guilt at that thought. He instantly shot an apologetic look toward T'Pol, noting without surprise that she was firmly parked at the science station. Sensing the direction of his musings, she glanced briefly in his direction, raising an eyebrow as she did. There was no hint of reproach in her thoughts despite his own self-recrimination for doubting her abilities, and, for that, Trip was grateful. In the years since she had revealed her self-inflicted mental damage, he had gone out of his way to avoid placing her in a situation like this, knowing how little she wanted to command.
From the command chair, Lieutenant Ricker looked back at his arrival and rose to her feet instantly. His face set in a bleak frown, Commodore Archer pushed past Trip and quickly moved toward the pilot's station, relieving the enlisted helmsman without a word. To Tucker's surprise, Eisler shook his head slightly when Lieutenant Kornegay started to move from the tactical station; almost instantly, Trip realized the wisdom of that action since the lieutenant had a better grasp of the current tactical situation than the lieutenant commander. The ex-MACO took up a position behind Kornegay to study the readouts on her board.
"Damage report," Trip demanded as he took his place in the command chair.
"Minor hull breaches throughout the ship," Petty Officer 2nd Class Daley replied from the DC board. "All stations report functional."
"Shields at five percent," Kornegay revealed on the top of that. "Hull plating holding at eighty percent. Aft torpedo tube Beta nonfunctional. Phase cannons Gamma, Delta and Epsilon inoperative."
"Controls are sluggish," Archer muttered as he sent Endeavour into a tight, spiraling dive to avoid incoming fire. The inertial dampeners struggled to compensate against the abrupt change in direction, and, for a moment, gravity pushed Tucker back into his seat.
"What's the fleet status?" he asked.
"All ships are proceeding toward the exit vector," T'Pol responded instantly, her fingers still dancing across her board. "UES Telemachus has transitioned to warp. I am detecting massive structural damage on all remaining ships."
"On screen," Tucker ordered. He winced instantly at the image on the main viewscreen as the UES Hyperion shuddered under Romulan fire. Great chunks of hull plating were missing, exposing the internal superstructure of the Daedalus-class. The entire upper section of the primary hull was missing, the result of what appeared to have been a collision of some sort. Trip pushed down his concern over Dan Hsiao; worrying about whether the lieutenant had survived could wait until the ships were out of danger.
As Tucker opened his mouth to issue commands, he was astounded to see an equally battered UES Horizon lurch into the image, phase cannons spraying sizzling streams of energy at the Romulan ships that were harassing Hyperion. A trio of Romulan drones were hot on the Neptune-class ship's tail, disruptor cannons firing almost nonstop. One of Horizon's nacelles was already shattered, spraying warp plasma as she maneuvered through the void. The other nacelle was flickering wildly, a clear indication that it was about to fail completely and strand the Neptune-class ship in the system.
Not on my watch, Trip growled mentally. He glanced at the sensor feed installed in front of the command chair and frowned in surprise at the apparent lack of cohesion among the Romulan forces. It was as if they were suddenly competing against one another instead of working together. Two birds of prey on Endeavour's aft were proving to be more trouble to one another than they were for the Starfleet ship. Something had clearly happened in the long minutes it had taken for Trip to get from the bridge to auxiliary command.
With a flash, Hyperion leaped to warp speed, followed immediately by UES Champion, a Neptune-class ship that was blackened and charred by enemy fire. In the seconds after Hyperion vanished, the Romulan drones that had been harassing the Daedalus-class abruptly turned their fire upon Horizon. An explosion of fire erupted from the already ravaged Neptune-class ship as disruptor fire sliced into the engineering section, sending burning debris tumbling wildly away.
"Dammit," Trip muttered. He turned his attention to tactical, noticing that Eisler had finally stepped forward and discreetly replaced Lieutenant Kornegay. "Get those ships off of Horizon!" Tucker snapped.
On the screen, Horizon shuddered once more under the enemy fire. A shower of flame and debris sprayed out as the port nacelle was blasted free and sent spinning into the endless darkness. Trip's breath caught as the crippled ship banked sharply, phase cannons still spitting energy at the attacking Romulan drones as if in defiance of her dire situation. One of the drones exploded under the assault, but there was no doubt that it was only a matter of time before Horizon was permanently crippled.
Under Eisler's direction, Endeavour's cannons shifted fire from protection to offense. Three of the drones broke apart instantly, followed by a fourth and fifth. Photonic torpedoes exploded against the shields of the single bird of prey maneuvering to attack Horizon, briefly illuminating the nearly invisible force screen that surrounded it and forcing it into a twisting evasive maneuver. A second salvo of phase cannon fire lashed out, burning into two more of the drones with lethal and explosive results.
"Horizon's warp core has lost containment," T'Pol suddenly announced from her station, and Trip ground his teeth in frustration as the heavily damaged Neptune-class continued to limp toward the exit vector at full impulse. There was no way for the ship to escape now. Tucker's gaze momentarily alighted on the back of Archer's head and a wild idea occurred to him. Even as his eyes widened, Trip could feel his mate's incredulous glance that he would even consider such a plan.
"Hail them and tell them to stand by to eject their core," Trip said quickly before shooting Eisler a look. "Bring the grapplers and tractor emitters online."
"Aye, sir," the tactical officer replied without question.
"On it," Commodore Archer interrupted, clearly recognizing what Trip had in mind. The commodore's fingers flew across the helm and sent Endeavour into a gentle climb as he matched Horizon's velocity.
"Forty seconds to core breach," T'Pol relayed off her board. Through the bond that connected them, Trip could feel her mental shake of the head as she calculated the odds of this succeeding. They were distressingly low, given Horizon's heavy damage.
"Horizon standing by," Lieutenant Ricker said from the comm station that she had taken over.
"Romulans pulling back," Eisler announced at the same time, and Trip nodded in recognition of that fact. A core breach was always destructive, and remaining within the blast radius was not logical.
"Thirty seconds," T'Pol said.
"Grapple range in ... five seconds," Archer declared. On the main viewscreen, Horizon loomed, and Tucker found himself tensing with expectation.
"Firing," the tactical officer said sharply a heartbeat later. Horizon shuddered as Endeavour's grappler lines slammed onto her primary hull; less than a second later, the tractor emitters activated, securing their grip on the crippled smaller ship. There was an instant change in Endeavour's ambient sounds as the added mass slowed her significantly.
"Twenty seconds." T'Pol's announcement was grim.
"Hard contact acquired," Eisler said.
"Set one eight zero mark zero," Trip ordered calmly, ignoring the surprised look that T'Pol gave him. "Maximum impulse. Horizon, stand by."
With a loud whine, Endeavour banked sharply, dragging the Neptune-class with it. A cluster of Romulan drones almost instantly began to accelerate toward them, and Tucker smiled grimly.
"Ten seconds," T'Pol stated.
"Stand by for warp speed," Trip said, noting Archer's immediate adjustment of their heading to avoid a collision at warp velocities. Orders to that effect had not even been necessary. "Horizon, eject on my mark."
Disruptor beams began flashing toward them, splattering against the already depleted shields. Alarms began shrieking in response.
"Five seconds." T'Pol's words betrayed none of the tension that she was experiencing.
"Mark!" Tucker said loudly. A shudder ran through Endeavour as Horizon cut loose it's failing reactor. It tumbled end over end through the void, a fragile-looking instrument of destruction. "Warp speed now!" Trip demanded as the energy levels on the warp core spiked abruptly. Endeavour's engine growled as she surged forward, accelerating to superluminal speeds almost instantly and carrying her from the combat zone.
A second later, Horizon's core exploded with a violent flash of light.