Jonathan Archer seethed.
Mere seconds had elapsed since the shuttlepod had disappeared into the obscuring planetary atmosphere, victims of an unexpected attack, and the image of it tumbling out of control, smoke and debris trailing from a gaping hole in its superstructure, was seared in his mind. A wave of grief washed through him but was almost immediately swept aside by a fury the likes of which Jon had never felt before. How dare they! He glared at the image of the four smaller craft approaching from the planet in what could only be an attack vector for two full seconds before his command reflexes finally kicked in.
Light from the local main sequence star played across their silver-gray hulls, glittering brightly in the blackness. Aesthetically, they were undeniably beautiful, all smooth curves and flowing lines. Embossed upon their hulls were stylized representations of a winged creature; scarlet in color, the image brought to mind an alien phoenix, or hawk, or eagle.
A bird of prey.
Less than half the size of the NX-01, they raced through the void with a grace and speed that Enterprise could not match, metal sharks in the endless sea of space. Disruptor cannons hung low along their outer surfaces and the unmistakable ports that could only be missile tubes dotted the hulls, lending them a sinister aspect that marked them immediately as ships of war. Jon recognized them at once.
Little was known of the mysterious race aside from their name and their clear expansionist plans; even the Vulcans claimed to have minimal intelligence regarding them aside from knowledge of an aggressive nature matched only by Klingons. For the last three years, there had been rumors and hints of Romulan activity along this entire corridor of space, from the drone incident of two years past to the steady if sporadic assaults on the shipping lanes. Concerned at this growing threat, Starfleet had accelerated their construction of new NX craft to the point that three others had joined Columbia and Enterprise in operation and the NX-06 - Endeavour - was scheduled to enter service within the year. Just in time it seemed.
"Travis," he ordered, his voice much calmer than he felt. The memory of the Romulan craft roaring up out of the atmosphere and firing upon the shuttlepod would not go away. "Set course one-eight-zero mark zero, full impulse. Malcolm, target lead ship and hit them with everything we have." Archer paused ever so briefly and when he spoke again, his voice was bleak, cold, angry. "I want him out of my sky." He knew that the anger was dangerous, inappropriate, but couldn't find it in himself to care. "Chief Rostov, inform Commander Kelby to have damage control parties standing by." As his crew acknowledged the instructions, he dropped into his command chair, primed the ship's log for emergency ejection. Just in case.
Under Mayweather's expert hand, Enterprise ... danced. Accelerating into a wide turn, she raced to meet the enemy head on, as if alive and eager to avenge her fallen crew. Phase cannon blasts lanced out, searing through the lead Romulan craft's hull plating in angry exclamations; a full spread of torpedoes slammed home, detonating with flashes of atomic fire that ravaged the craft, ripping apart the superstructure to expose the delicate inner hull to yet another burst of phase cannon fire. Unable to withstand the withering assault, the ship shuddered, venting plasma and atmosphere before falling planetside, already captured by New Elysium's gravity, already breaking apart. There would be no survivors.
The cold part of Archer that had driven him so hard in the Expanse, the part that he had thought - and prayed! - was gone forever surged back to the forefront and, for thinking that such a cruel death was fitting for Trip's murderers, for T'Pol's murderers, Jon hated himself a little.
But only a little.
The remaining three Romulan craft broke their formation, diving or climbing away from Enterprise with deadly agility even as they unleashed a brutal retaliative barrage. Disruptor fire and photonic torpedoes flashed toward Enterprise and she was wreathed in sudden flame. Warheads that missed, either jammed by Hoshi's skill or eluded by Travis' touch, streaked on into the night before finally detonating, filling the void with brilliant bursts of incandescence; those that found their target exploded against the invisible force screen that surrounded the flagship of Starfleet, momentarily sketching an outline of the shield. Enterprise twisted into a diving spin, phase cannons still spitting steady streams, before straightening, accelerating away from the planet, away from the gravity silhouette that hampered her maneuverability.
"Damage report!" Archer ordered, his eyes jumping to his tactical officer. Already, the smell of smoke and burnt plastic was in the air. It was a stench Jon had gotten all too accustomed to smelling. He hated that, missed Enterprise being a science ship, missed being an explorer and not a soldier.
"Shields down to 35%, hull plating down to 95%." Reed was frowning, frustrated that the shields had been drained so quickly; it was to be expected, though - experimental systems were rarely as good as advertised, even when installed by a miracle worker. He glanced up, meeting Archer's eyes. "Sir, we can't go toe-to-toe with them, not all three of them at once."
"Put some distance between us," Jon said, dropping his hand onto Mayweather's shoulder. "Full evasive."
"Aye sir," Travis replied, his face set in a grim line. His fingers played across his console, moving to an unseen beat.
Once more, Enterprise maneuvered like a ship half her size, slipping and spinning in completely random patterns that turned her into an elusive target. Nipping at her heels like wolves pursuing prey, the three Romulan craft spat disruptor fire and torpedoes as they pursued. But this prey was armed. And angry.
They dueled in the dark, a violent ballet in a symphony of destruction. Light flashed between them, tongues of red and green that caressed with a burning touch or exploded in flashes of frozen fire. Had it not been so lethal, so destructive, so ... final, it would have been beautiful to behold.
The part of Jonathan Archer that hadn't been tainted by his time in the Expanse, the part that loved Charles Tucker like a brother, railed at the injustice of it, screamed at the unfairness of being forced to abandon the shuttlepod, to abandon Trip. He and T'Pol could be alive, could be injured and in desperate need of medical attention right now, could be waiting for rescue at this very moment. It hurt like hell, having to leave them behind, but he had ninety-one other lives to worry about, ninety-one men and women whose lives were his responsibility. Unexpectedly, a Vulcan saying crept into his head, a memory from the brief time Surak's katra had resided within him: The needs of the many...
It didn't make the pain any more bearable.
The pain was no longer bearable.
Intermittent flashes of near-consciousness warred with the dull fog of an injury-induced coma. She was aware only of pain, a sharp stab of white-hot fire that ebbed and flowed with each labored breath that she took. Awareness washed over her like the gentle waves upon a beach, rolling in for heartbeats but receding into the oblivion of unconsciousness milliseconds before she could wake. She measured her existence by the spikes of pain between each drawn breath. Time held no real meaning to her; an eternity passed between breaths, a timeless span that could have been hours, or days, or just seconds. She drifted, a piece of flotsam upon an endless gray ocean.
What began as a whisper - faint, indecipherable, but oh so familiar - steadily grew in strength and volume. It tickled the edge of her mind, at times incessant and jarring, but more often a soothing balm to the searing fire that washed through her with each breath. The soundless voice coaxed her toward consciousness, pulled her from the grayness. It was a life preserver for a drowning woman and she clung to it, bending her mind, her heart, her katra toward it. Toward her mate. Toward Trip.
It was an effort to open her eyes. She struggled against her body, against the instinct to continue swimming in oblivion, against the urge to give up and let nature take its course. She forced her scattered thoughts into coherence, demanded order from the chaos, required consciousness.
T'Pol of Vulcan woke.
She found herself lying on her side, still strapped into the now broken co-pilot's chair, which had been knocked loose by the crash. Her leg, trapped under the emergency tool kit, throbbed in time with her pulse and she could smell blood - Human and Vulcan - in the air, mixing with the stench of seared metal. T'Pol shifted, reached up to unsecure her restraints and gasped as agony screamed through her torso; tears of pain filled her eyes and she grimaced with the effort it took to avoid crying out. It required all of her willpower, every single gram of her discipline to push the pain down, to lock it away. Long moments passed in which she did nothing more than breathe and tried to ignore the nausea that hammered through her.
A wet cough drew her back to the present and she struggled to her feet with barely a hint of the pain she felt on her face; the steady throb in her leg made it clear that it was broken and T'Pol leaned heavily to one side, keeping as much weight off of the fractured limb as possible. Her eyes sought and found Trip at once; he was unconscious, still secured in the pilot's chair, his face a mask of blood, but he breathed evenly. The despair that had been seeking to overwhelm her eased as she checked his pulse and found it to be strong and normal. He had been the soundless voice that had brought her back and, once again, she was amazed, humbled even, by the strength of their bond, of his regard for her, of his ... love; even unconscious, he had sought her out. T'Pol's fingers itched to caress his face, to draw out the smile that affected her so, but her control, her innate sense of decorum prevented her from acting on the impulse. He stirred, groaned in pain, and she realized that he was feeling her own discomfort; without hesitation, she closed down that part of the bond, cut him off from her. It was like ripping off her arm but he instantly relaxed, no longer suffering from the overwhelming agony that stabbed through her abdomen. Another rasping cough emerged from the rear of the shuttle and she chastised herself for focusing so exclusively on Trip.
At a glance, she could tell that they were in trouble. The gaping wound in the shuttle's hull was significant, perhaps a meter and a half in total diameter; from the scorched area around it, she hypothesized that weapons fire had been responsible. Both the arms locker and medical locker had been knocked free during the crash, and the heavier arms locker had fallen across an unmoving Lieutenant Reyes, the source of the cough. Sergeant Reynolds, the ranking MACO, was already climbing to his feet, his right arm held at an awkward angle; T'Pol could not see Corporal El-Hamadi.
"T'Pol?" Trip's voice was confused, groggy, and she turned her eyes to him. He was rubbing his face and wincing ever so slightly.
"I am here, Commander," she responded quickly, dropping her hand onto his shoulder; the logical part of her insisted it was because Trip would take comfort in her touch, that she was not doing so to reassure herself. It was a good lie; she almost believed it. He shook his head to clear it, then began unstrapping his seat restraints.
"Well," he commented as he glanced back at the mess in the rear. "I've had better landin's." His ability to find humor in any situation astounded her.
"Indeed," she replied, amused despite herself. He glanced at her and his eyes - always keener than she liked - zeroed in on her awkward stance, the reliance on her good leg.
"Is broken." Trip shot up out of the chair, concern on his face, and immediately began steering her toward it. T'Pol gave him a look that was equal parts frustration and gratitude even as she sat. He noticed the wince so she spoke first. "I also suspect that I have a number of broken ribs." She said nothing about the other pain in her abdomen but he frowned, studied her with narrowed eyes; T'Pol could feel him actively seeking her out through the bond and kept her block in place.
"Are you blockin' me out?" His voice was soft, meant for her ears alone.
"Not intentionally," she lied. "One or both of us may be suffering from a minor concussion." Another deliberate side step of the truth. Inwardly, she cringed at deceiving her mate but determined it was for the best. If he knew how badly she suspected her injury actually was, Trip would be distracted and unable to conduct any repairs. She was Vulcan, after all; she would persevere. He frowned at her, his features betraying his suspicion. "Trip," she said softly, hating herself for lying. "If I was badly injured, you would know it."
"I guess," he replied slowly, still not entirely convinced. "Sergeant Reynolds, how are we back there?"
"Not good, sir." Reynolds stood up from where he knelt, his broken arm hanging limply at his side. "Both the ell-tee and Corporal El-Hamadi are pretty messed up, sir; I think Lieutenant Reyes may have a broken back."
"Damn." Trip ran his hand through his hair as he thought; T'Pol could almost feel his synapses firing. "We'll patch them up the best we can and then I'll look at gettin' us flyin' again."
"No," T'Pol said calmly. Tucker gave her an odd look as she continued. "Sergeant Reynolds and I will 'patch them up' while you attend to the shuttlepod. We don't..."
"...want to be here if they come back," Trip finished the thought, nodding; sometimes, it was unnerving how well he knew her, even without the bond. "Sounds like a plan." He gave her another once over, still frowning. "You sure you're okay?" T'Pol rolled her eyes at his over protectiveness; it was a trait that she found simultaneously annoying and compelling.
"I'm fine, Commander. The shuttlepod won't repair itself." He gave her a slight grin, more at her eye roll than her words, and turned away. His eyes were already studying the damage.
The damage wasn't as extensive as he had feared.
There were fires on all decks, the port nacelle was leaking plasma, and the shield generators had all but failed yet there was not a single place in the entire galaxy that Lieutenant Commander David Kelby would rather be. Enterprise was home.
It had taken nearly a year for Kelby to earn back the respect of the Engineering department, a year of strict obedience to an unspoken motto: keep your head down, your mouth shut, and bust your ass. He accepted the crap jobs without complaint, volunteered for Gamma shifts, and did his best to make sure no one important noticed him. If Tucker said to jump, he did so, asking how high only once he was in the air. He owed him that much.
Enterprise was his last chance.
"Burke!" he bellowed from his vantage point overlooking the warp reactor; it was the best spot for him, with an expansive view of the whole of engineering and access to the primary damage control console. The lieutenant in question looked up from her console and Kelby pointed to a small electrical fire; it wasn't yet dangerous but its proximity to the fuel cells made it a priority. He barely noticed Burke giving him a thumbs up and moving toward the fire - he was already again focusing on directing the damage control teams.
He'd been furious when Tucker returned to Enterprise and Kelby's own unexpected transfer to Columbia came through; whether it was intentional or not, the implied slight in his engineering skills had enraged him and the anger affected his job. He should have been happy on Columbia; the engineering staff there had not adopted the 'Commander Tucker is God' mentality that everyone - including the freaking Vulcan! - on Enterprise had. But his temper got him into trouble. Bad, bad trouble.
A shower of sparks and a strangled scream from one of the monitoring stations demanded his attention and he was moving toward it before his brain had fully registered the sounds for what they were. Ensign Beckham, a relative newcomer to the crew, was crumpled in a heap, her uniform still smoking even as the console spewed flames. Kelby didn't hesitate as he sprang forward, ignoring the growing fire that surrounded her. Seizing her by the arms, he dragged her free even as he heard Burke rushing forward with the extinguisher.
"Medic!" he shouted. Beckham was bad off: her face was horribly burned and she wasn't breathing. He was about to start CPR when the medic slid beside him, pushing him away.
"I've got her, sir!" He gave the medic a glance before nodding and standing up; he hid the wince as he realized one of his hands had been burned. It wasn't important. Enterprise needed him.
That didn't stop him from wishing Tucker was here.
It was weird even thinking that; at first, he'd blamed the commander for his situation. If it hadn't been for Tucker returning to Enterprise and taking his job away from him, Kelby wouldn't have been so pissed off, wouldn't have lost his temper on Columbia and physically struck a fellow officer during a stupid argument over something totally inconsequential, wouldn't have had to face the horrifying inquest that resulted in his demotion to lieutenant commander. The weeks after the demotion were the hardest to deal with; no one in Starfleet seemed interested in him, no one wanted to take the risk, to bring him on board anywhere. He was damaged goods. His career was circling the drain and he had seriously considered suicide more than once. Things couldn't get any worse.
And then, Charles Tucker the Third knocked on his door.
"Starfleet's givin' Hess the chief engineer slot on Columbia," Tucker had said without preamble and Kelby recalled the spike of pain he felt. His job. "Bumpin' her up to lieutenant commander and puttin' her on the fast track for full commander."
"She'll do a good job," Kelby recalled mumbling, all the while wondering why Tucker was here. Was he rubbing this in? Did Tucker take some sort of perverse pleasure in seeing his pain?
"Which leaves me without a rankin' second." The shock was absolute; was he saying what it sounded like he was saying? "This is a one time offer, Kelby; come to Enterprise and work for me. We'll start over, wipe the slate clean." He remembered standing there in stunned disbelief as Tucker offered his hand.
"Why?" The question seemed like a good one.
"'Cause I need an XO and, despite our differences, you've got the skills. I need a good number two and you ... you need a second chance. What d'ya say?"
He's said yes, of course, as if there had ever been any doubt. To his surprise, Tucker had been as good as his word; the Enterprise chief engineer treated him exactly as if they had never met, as if they hadn't exchanged blows while Kelby was under the influence of an Orion female, as if Kelby hadn't nearly thrown his career down the tubes because of his anger at Tucker. They weren't friends exactly, but had reached a mutual understanding that allowed them to not only work together but to work well together; it was only a little surprising for Kelby to realize that Tucker was as good as his reputation. David had learned a lot in the past year, had even made a couple of friends.
Enterprise shook hard and the floor seemed to roll under Kelby's feet. He threw his hands out to steady himself, grabbing the nearby rail in the seconds before he fell, even as distinctive-sounding alarms began echoing throughout the ship. His blood ran cold. No crewman or officer serving aboard a Starfleet vessel could fail to recognize the alert for what it was.
Kelby ran his eyes over the master damage control console before triggering the comm; when he spoke, he sounded a lot calmer than he felt. A whole hell of a lot calmer.
"Breach on C-Deck; emergency bulkheads holding. I need all available DC crews there ASAP." He barely heard Rostov's acknowledgment before another shudder ran through Enterprise. Sparks rained down around him as an EPS junction blew overhead. He barely reacted as he noted a different sort of alert signal begin flashing. Why now? "Burke!" he shouted again. "Get everyone in rad suits!" Another EPS junction exploded and he jumped as the burning sparks hit his exposed skin.
This was getting frustrating.
It was more than just frustration that was driving Hoshi Sato insane.
Splitting her attention between jamming incoming missiles and trying to decipher how the Romulans were communicating with each other was bad enough; adding in the extra complication of being within minutes of possible death while only mere meters from Malcolm just made things worse. Captain Archer's constant pacing - despite the fact that Enterprise shook and lurched like a spastic jackrabbit on a caffeine high - was the icing on the cake. She wished he would just sit down and issue orders from the command chair like T'Pol did.
"Hull breach on C-Deck!" Chief Petty Officer Rostov announced from the Engineering station and Hoshi sensed rather than saw Captain Archer shoot the CPO a questioning glance. As the captain pressed for further details, her attention was elsewhere; three more warheads were en route and she had mere seconds to analyze their targeting frequencies, calculate the best way to disable them, and then implement the plan.
She wished T'Pol were here. The Vulcan could do all of that while calculating pi to the thousandth place and flirting with Commander Tucker at the same time.
Hoshi's fingers flew across the Science console, striking keys in rapid succession, and she focused a concentrated microwave pulse at the torpedoes, frying their onboard computers with the burst. She didn't even have to let Travis know that the incoming warheads were now little more than dumb-fire missiles; the Boomer helmsman seemed to instinctively be able to tell which torpedoes were active threats and which ones were so much stellar debris to be dodged or eluded. Enterprise rolled and the warheads streaked by, exploding in the distance. The moment they flashed by, Hoshi renewed her frequency hunt; through trial-and-error, she'd discovered a forty-two second gap between the next wave of missile attacks. It was always forty-two seconds which seemed to indicate an autoloader of some kind; such a thing would never have occurred to her four years ago and now she factored it into her job without even thinking about it. Malcolm, she decided abruptly, would be proud.
Under normal circumstances, this wouldn't even be her job - she was a trained linguist, not a scientist or sensor operator - but O'Connor's injury from an exploding junction box had left the sensors unmanned and, in a space battle, that was suicide. And now, O'Connor's relief was stranded in the nonfunctional turbolift...
"Hull plating down to 70%," Malcolm declared in the same tone he used when ordering that disgusting tea he drank and she felt herself unaccountably cheered over that fact. Despite the fact that they could be facing imminent death, she wondered if he was actually enjoying himself. How she ever fell in love with such a dour and seemingly unemotional man continued to elude her. Love was truly blind. Or stupid, she wasn't quite sure which yet.
"Hoshi, I need that frequency!" Captain Archer urged and she fought the urge to shoot him a glare. Thirty-five. Thirty-six. Thirty-seven.
"Little busy, sir," she almost snapped, her eyes riveted to the board in front of her. If T'Pol were here, Hoshi would already have the damned frequency. If there even was one. For all she knew, these Romulans could be telepathic and coordinating their attacks with sheer brainpower. Thirty-nine. Forty. There's something I'm missing! Forty-two. She set aside the thought, concentrated on the incoming torpedoes.
They came from different angles this time, as the Romulans split apart and assaulted from unique vectors, maximizing the possibility of at least one torpedo getting through. One was fired at the saucer section, a second at the aft of the ship and clearly targeting the already damaged port nacelle, the third aimed amidships. It was perfect placement, forcing Hoshi to deal with each warhead individually. Another focused microwave burst fried the nacelle threat first but only barely in time; it wobbled on by the nacelle, would have still struck it if Travis hadn't applied a burst from the maneuvering jets at just the right moment. The amidships torpedo was the next target and she spent precious seconds struggling to track the fast-moving object; less than fifty meters from the hull, it suddenly careened off into the darkness.
She couldn't find the third torpedo.
Panic nearly set in for the extended heartbeat it took for her to realize that Travis had somehow managed to dodge it when he had fired the jets to avoid the nacelle threat; it was unnatural, his skill at the helm, and she doubted anyone - even Captain Archer who had something of a reputation as a pilot - could have convinced Enterprise to move like Travis did.
"Hoshi!" The captain's voice was strained and this time, she did shoot him a glare. More than anything, she wanted to remind him that she wasn't even officially trained to operate this board, that, if she hadn't expressed an interest in it to Commander T'Pol during a particularly boring midshift a couple of months ago, she would be completely lost.
"I'm not detecting any sort of subspace communication between them," she replied instead. Her tone bordered on insubordination and she knew it but doubted he would say anything. The captain would put it down as combat-related stress. At least she hoped he would.
"Sir, they might be using less advanced technology," Malcolm commented from his board. He didn't even look up and she could hear - no, she could feel the steady hum of discharging phase cannons. The Romulans pulled back, regrouped. They hovered just outside of effective weapons range; knowing from the opening salvos that Enterprise outgunned them, they seemed to prefer hit-and-fade attacks. It had to be frustrating the hell out of Reed; he so preferred a 'stand-up' fight.
"Like what?" Captain Archer asked, still frowning. All at once, Hoshi knew: Malcolm was right!
"Tightbeams!" she interjected excitedly, quickly warming to the subject. "Laser, neutrino, something like that! We can't detect those unless we're in the way of the beam!" She grinned at Malcolm and, even though his eyes remained glued on his board, he returned her smile. Gone was the tenseness between them - at least temporarily. Why didn't I say yes? she asked herself in that moment. It wasn't that she didn't love him, she had figured out her feelings for Malcolm long before they officially began dating. When Phlox told her of the pregnancy, though, she panicked; she knew that Malcolm, who considered himself a proper English gentleman, would feel pressured into proposing and she didn't want to marry him if he didn't actually want it himself. It would only eventually destroy them; she'd seen too many marriages - including her parents, she glumly admitted - break apart because one party was pressured into it. Despite that, the memory of the pain that flashed across face when she hesitated still caused her stomach to contract. Maybe he had been thinking about it all along. That thought caused her no small amount of consternation. We'll clear this up later, she promised herself.
"Then they need line-of-sight," Archer mused aloud. He glanced at Malcolm again. "We'll need a way to fight that."
"Asteroid belt, sir," Travis piped up and both senior officers shot him an approving look. Hoshi grinned; Mayweather couldn't even see it. Captain Archer nodded, once more dropped his hand onto Travis' shoulder. His face was set, grim, and Hoshi knew he was worried about Trip and T'Pol.
"Take us in, Travis."