Alarms shrieked their warnings as the team steadily advanced toward their target and smoke filled the misshapen corridors, but Malcolm put that out of his mind and focused on their objective. He was not on point – that duty fell to Hawkins, who frankly had better response times than anyone else Malcolm had ever met – which allowed him the opportunity to keep an eye on the captain. It was strange, seeing Archer in the combat armor, and from the awkward way he moved, it was bothering the captain just as much.
Around them, the Weapon rocked and shivered, a sure indication that they had come under attack by someone. Malcolm didn't know who it was – as far as he knew, Degra's ship, the Xindi craft that they'd come on, was the only warp-capable vessel within twenty or thirty light years, but things had gotten weird after they boarded, like they had hit one of the anomalies so prevalent in the Expanse, so he wouldn't bet his life on them being alone – but neither did he care, not as they drew closer to the power core and the monsters within. His blood was hot … no. That wasn't true. His blood was boiling. The rage he'd thought to be under control was now thundering through his belly, demanding violent retribution for the death of one friend and the torture of another. He would avenge Joss and pay these bastards back for what they did to Hoshi, if it was the very last thing he did.
Even now, as they raced toward their objective, Malcolm could still feel the knot of terrified failure that had caused his heart to clench when the Weapon evaded destruction earlier, despite the numbers arrayed against the Reptilians. It had loosened only slightly when the captain hatched this mad scheme to pursue it in Degra's much faster ship, but now, as the target loomed, he could feel that bundle of nerves and fear tightening up once more. They would only have a limited window of opportunity at this, one bloody chance in a million before the Reptilians realized they were aboard and locked everything down …
Hawkins flashed a rapid hand signal back as he drew alongside a sharp corner – hostiles sighted – and Malcolm acted on instinct, stepping closer to the captain and pushing Archer against the wall to better protect him. At the same time, the rest of the MACO team took up their defensive positions, weapons primed and ready. Even as Archer was tensing, likely to react angrily at being thrust into the wall, Reed was issuing quick, silent commands himself. Azar and Woods to flank, Hawkins and Money to deploy grenades, then everyone to assault with maximum firepower. The MACOs obeyed instantly, sliding into position or pulling flash-bangs free. Archer gave him a questioning look and, in response, Malcolm held up three fingers. He folded one down – two – and then another – one – before forming a fist.
The MACOs moved.
With a sharp bang, the stun grenades that Hawkins and Money sent spinning into the corridor detonated, and a bare heartbeat later, Azar and Woods charged forward, side-by-side, their rifles barking out rapid, staccato bursts. The two grenadiers fell in behind them without hesitation, their own weapons sweeping for any stragglers, and it was only then that Malcolm eased his grip on the captain.
"Stay alert," he hissed to Archer as he fast-walked after the MACOs. The captain was only steps away – too close, especially if a grenade was brought into play, but so far, the Xindi hadn't seemed to use explosives – and Malcolm led him around the corner. A half dozen Reptilian Xindi were already sprawled out on the floor, smoke curling up from the charred blast points upon their chests, but Reed barely glanced at the corpses.
"They've sealed off the core," Woods growled from where he was crouching next to a closed hatch. He'd already pried the wall panel free and was frowning at the bizarre wires or diodes or whatever the bloody hell they were within. "It'll take me too long to hotwire this, sir."
"Then blow it," Archer ordered tightly. The Weapon shuddered once again, but the ambient sounds had changed around them. It was building power. Time had officially run out.
"Breaching charges, aye," Azar said. He pulled a pair of the portable explosives out of his pack and quickly affixed them to the hatch, then knelt and applied another two near the base of door. "Get to cover," he instructed as he quickly primed the devices.
"Once we're through," Malcolm ordered as he and the others put some distance between themselves and the hatch, "shoot anything that moves." It was mostly meant for the captain – the MACOs were already planning on doing just that – and he reached over to Archer's weapon, flicking the selector switch from stun to kill. The captain met his eyes. Finally, Archer nodded. This was not the time for mercy or compassion.
"Stand by," Azar murmured as he retreated from the door. "Three, two, one." He stabbed his thumb down on the detonator and almost instantly, the explosives went. The shockwave was immense – it actually staggered Money, but then, she was a tiny slip of a woman anyway– and tore apart the hatch, sending a blizzard of lethal shrapnel spinning into the central power control.
"Go! Go! Go!" Malcolm shouted, though it was unnecessary as Hawkins and Woods were already through, their pulse rifles chattering. Money was right behind them – Reed saw her jerk back a step as return fire slashed across the air and splattered against her armor – and then Azar. Malcolm followed suit, opting more for accuracy than volume of fire as he took the extra half-second to confirm his sight picture before firing. His target crumpled without a sound.
"Find the primary controls!" Archer roared. He was crouching just inside the hatch, wisely having found some hard cover, but Malcolm was pleased to see that the captain wasn't hesitating. Instead, he was blasting away wildly, not really hitting much but definitely causing enough of a commotion to add to the chaos. Reed dropped a second Xindi, and a third, and then a fourth – dammit. How many of these things were there? – and it was only then, as he was scanning for another hostile, that he caught sight of the viewscreen and the planet displayed.
It was Earth.
Asia was just coming into view … and it was untouched. There was no immense scar cut across through Japan and into China. He blinked. How … ?
And in that moment, as his brain pieced together the what – or more accurately, the when – the Weapon fired.
The massive energy beam stabbed Earthward, right into the Pacific Ocean where it began its slow, inexorable crawl toward land. Someone was screaming – it was him, he realized – and the smell of ozone and seared flesh filled the air as Xindi reinforcements spilled into the primary core from other entranceways, their weapons shrieking. There were too many of them…
Azar was the first to die – a dozen disruptor beams converged upon him, tearing through his armor and cooking him alive. He tried to scream, but the air around him was superheated and his lungs were already boiling so it came out as little more than a hiss, and as he fell back, Money caught an unlucky shot to the face. She collapsed without a sound, an armed grenade slipping out her fingers and rolling away. It detonated with a fierce boom, tearing free one of the control consoles and showering another squad of reinforcements with shattered fragments of metal and plastic.
"Got it!" Woods shouted. He was kneeling alongside a console, crouching down as low as he could manage while he worked on the system's insides. Hawkins was a few steps away, providing as much covering fire as he could manage, but Malcolm could see how red-hot his rifle's barrel was – at this rate, it would fail very soon. "Shields down, fuckers!" Woods roared, half in glee, half in terror.
Instantly, more alarms began howling and the Xindi counter-attack visibly faltered. The Weapon shuddered and rolled – on the viewscreen, Malcolm could see dozens of Starfleet ships all converging upon them, phase cannons and obsolete spatial torpedoes screaming across the void. One of the large Vulcan ambassadorial ships lumbered into view, its own weapons flashing.
And then … Columbia, trailing warp plasma and debris.
The NX-02 struck at maximum impulse, the impact throwing them all to the ground as the entire Weapon shuddered. Explosions boomed, filling the air with a deafening cacophony. With a thunderous groan, the entire power core split open – Malcolm had just enough time to see Hawkins and Woods vanish over the side before he too was sliding straight to his doom. This would be a good death, a tiny part of him whispered.
But Jonathan Archer didn't let him fall.
Diving forward with grace that Malcolm didn't realize the man possessed, the captain seized his arm with one hand while grabbing one of the now inert power conduits with the other. It slowed Reed's slide just enough for him to find his own handhold.
"Sir!" It was Woods, two decks down. Hawkins was there as well, but from the way he was leaning against the trembling bulkhead, he probably had a broken leg. The two MACOs were standing in front of something that looked like … was that an escape pod?
Malcolm was just about to point it out to the captain when he caught sight of something utterly bizarre materialize just behind Archer. A humanoid silhouette that almost looked like a shadow come to life, it shimmered and glittered as it advanced, somehow managing to maintain its footing in the rapidly disintegrating Weapon. Reed had just enough time to shout out a warning before the figure reached the captain and seized him. With an inarticulate cry of rage, the silhouette hurled Archer back into the bulkhead.
"I will destroy you!" the figure exclaimed, somehow managing to cover the distance between where he stood and where the captain was sliding down the wall within the span of a single second. Again, it seized Archer, this time by the neck, and pulled him up. "You have interfered with the plans of the Romulan Empire for the last time!"
Malcolm shot him in the back.
It was a difficult shot, firing a rifle with one arm at a fairly distant target aboard an extraordinarily unstable platform, but he knew that if he didn't squeeze the trigger, whoever or whatever this damned thing was would kill the captain. The excited plasma burst didn't do nearly as much damage as it should have – it seemed as if most of the energy was bled away or absorbed by the glowing blue field flickering around the silhouette – but what got through was just enough to cause pain as the figure cried out, dropping Archer in surprise. Even as the silhouette was half turning to face Reed, the distortion field surrounding the figure began to falter and fail, revealing the man's features in bits and spurts.
He was a Vulcan.
Or at least partially, though Malcolm had never seen a Vulcan with those kinds of cranial ridges before … except on that dead Sphere-Builder that had caused Soval's nostrils to flare and his eyes to narrow. At the time, he'd not given much thought to the ambassador's reaction, but clearly, it meant more than he'd thought. The realization flashed through his mind at the same instant that the unknown entity once again crossed the distance with impossible speed. He flickered in and out of existence, travelling two or maybe three meters without actually covering the distance, snatched Malcolm's rifle out of his hands with a casual, almost contemptuous gesture, and sent the weapon spinning away with a flick of his wrist.
"I will kill you for that, Malcolm Reed," the not-Vulcan hissed, rage stamped upon his face. He kicked Malcolm – ribs fractured under the impact – and sent him sliding across the wildly tilting platform. Pain caused Reed's vision to momentarily white-out, but he ground his teeth together and clung to consciousness. The captain … he still needed to …
The whine of a phase pistol discharge set to kill echoed in his ears and Malcolm blinked away the spots still dancing in his vision in time to see the not-Vulcan looming over him suddenly twitch. The alien looked down at the smoke curling up from his upper abdomen – it was a heart shot for a Vulcan, Reed recognized with some distant approval, though he half doubted that had been Archer's intent – and then dropped to his knees. He coughed once before toppling forward.
And a heartbeat later, he vanished entirely.
"On your feet, Mister Reed," the captain said through clenched teeth as he drew closer, his phase pistol gripped tightly in one hand. Archer's legs wobbled slightly – so he was just as unsteady; for some stupid reason, that made Malcolm feel a little better – but he helped Reed up. The shuddering was getting worse and it was getting absurdly hot.
"Time to go, sir?" Malcolm asked through the haze of shock and pain. He was vaguely aware of someone – he thought it was Woods – gripping his arm. Something pinched his neck and torrent of ice roared through his body, momentarily wiping away the pain. Reed blinked in relief. Dear God, these MACOs had good drugs.
"Time to go indeed." Archer scrambled down the makeshift ladder that Woods gestured toward – it was more of a ramp, really, and from the way this thing was shaking, Malcolm doubted it would stay put for very long. With Woods' half-carrying him, he limped down to where Hawkins waited. "Let's get the hell out of here," the captain said as he helped the MACO into the escape pod.
Around them, the Weapon continued to break apart.