For what seemed like the millionth time, Sergeant Scott Reynolds wondered why he ever joined the MACOs.
He flexed the fingers of his right hand, feeling only a minor twinge of pain shoot through the broken arm; the auto-splint that Commander T'Pol had attached was doing its job well, immobilizing the fractured bones while injecting a trace painkiller at necessary intervals. What should have been a lancing fire through his arm was little more than a dull ache, easily ignored if circumstances demanded it; Scott only wished he could say the same for Corporal El-Hamadi or Lieutenant Reyes. Both were sedated, sleeping the sleep of the heavily medicated, and had been moved - albeit carefully - to the pull-down casualty beds that had been recently installed in the shuttlepod. El-Hamadi wasn't in any real serious danger - both legs broken, a broken pelvis and a moderate concussion - but Reyes was not in good shape at all; suffering from multiple spinal fractures, she had extensive internal damage, damage that was well beyond Commander T'Pol's skill to deal with. The Vulcan herself was dealing with broken ribs, a broken leg, and a mild concussion, though one could hardly tell from her outward reaction.
Despite their grim situation, it was a little amusing that Commander Tucker was suffering from nothing more than a mild headache.
Tucker's bad luck on away missions was fast becoming legendary - Sergeant Cole called it the 'Tucker Syndrome' - and had become a running joke among the MACOs and Security personnel alike on Enterprise; it was not uncommon for anyone assigned to such a duty with the chief engineer to officially request hazardous duty pay before heading out. Reynolds himself had made a joke to Stiles about updating their wills once Lieutenant Mackenzie assigned them to this mission. At the time, it had been pretty funny; the entire team had shared a good laugh.
Scott wasn't laughing any more.
Instead, he found himself wondering why he'd ever signed up in the first place. He'd never wanted to be a soldier while growing up, never wanted to learn a dozen ways to kill a man with a spork or a hundred ways to disarm a pissed-off Klingon without getting your head ripped off in the process. The idea of firing a rifle with intent to kill had been repugnant to him and was at complete odds with everything his mom had ever taught him. He'd wanted nothing more than to get his doctorate in History - with a focus on the Eugenics Wars and how they still influenced Terran politics and Human relations with galactic neighbors - before maybe accepting a teaching position. Nothing had prepared him for the blind rage he'd experienced when Florida was hit, when his best friends were incinerated while on vacation in the Keys. A vacation he was supposed to be on.
So he signed up.
A month later, he came out of his mental fog and realized where he was and what he had done. He had no idea how MACO HQ had failed to notice his Masters in Terran History or the fact that he was fluent in both Andorian and Vulcan when they assigned him to the infantry; although he knew it sounded arrogant, him as a ground pounder just seemed like a waste. How he'd gotten himself assigned to Enterprise despite having just graduated Boot had been a complete mystery, one that bothered him until Major Hayes informed him that he'd personally requested him; the major, he learned, had served with Dwight Reynolds and had been personally asked to look out for him. Scott hadn't even known his dad had been in the military.
The clank of boots on metal drew his attention away from El-Hamadi's vitals as Commander Tucker stomped in, his jumpsuit streaked with grease and other filth that could only come from an engine. His face was creased in a frown but he gave Scott a cautious guy nod - little more than a sharp incline of the head - as he made his way to where Commander T'Pol sat; she didn't even wrinkle her nose at his approach, which, to Reynold's mind, was more than a little surprising - everyone knew about the nose of female Vulcans.
"Engine's fine; just needed to clear a fuel misfeed," Tucker announced as he ran his fingers through his hair, leaving strands of it sticking up in odd ways. He shot a grim look at the structural damage. "That damned hole is gonna cause some problems, though."
"In what way?" the Vulcan science officer asked, studying the engineer with a cool expression. She was a picture of unmoving poise.
"It's a meter-six wide, meter-two tall and we don't have the supplies to patch it up properly." Tucker rubbed his right temple, leaving behind a smear of grease; for a moment, it looked like T'Pol was going to reach out and wipe the mess away. "I might be able to salvage enough spare junk for a temporary fix, enough to get us back into space but I don't trust..." He trailed off, frowning at the hole. For long seconds, he said nothing, chewing on his lip in an expression that was clearly one of thought.
"Commander?" T'Pol's voice was soft, totally at odds with her usual no-nonsense manner. When Tucker failed to respond, she tried again. "Trip?" Reynolds blinked in surprise at her use of the commander's nickname.
"Huh? Oh, sorry. I was thinkin'."
"Be careful," T'Pol said with the closest thing to a smile that Scott had ever seen on her face. "You are currently uninjured; we would not wish to change that." Reynolds shook his head in absolute surprise; a Vulcan teasing someone; if he hadn't seen it himself, he would have doubted it possible. Commander Tucker gave her a grin.
"That concussion is sure improvin' your sense of humor, darlin'," he drawled as he nodded toward the damage. "I was thinkin' I could rig up one of those force screens you and Malcolm have been goin' on about, maybe use it to increase the integrity of the patch."
"Then we should get to work." She shifted in her seat, clearly intent on standing and joining him.
"Oh, no you don't," Commander Tucker responded sharply, his head snapping around so he could give the Vulcan a flat stare. "You're stayin' in here, in that chair, until we break orbit." Commander T'Pol's expression became, if possible, even blanker than ever before but Scott could recognize annoyance when he saw it.
"The repairs will go quicker with my aid," she told the engineer but he frowned, crossed his arms. There was a hint of steel in his stance, a resolute quality that made it clear he would not be swayed. Reynolds concentrated on stillness, wondered if they were even still aware of his presence. He doubted it. It wasn't like they gave him any chance to make a discreet exit.
"Not if I'm worried about you," Tucker replied. "And not if your broken ribs puncture a lung or something. I can have the Professor give me a hand while you concentrate on gettin' the comms back up." Scott felt a flash of surprise; he hadn't expected the Commander to be aware of the stupid nickname the MACOs on Enterprise had given him. The Vulcan rolled her eyes - a Human expression that seemed out of place on her normally stoic face - and started to argue the point but Tucker interrupted. "Please, T'Pol. For me." He made a discreet hand gesture, one that Scott knew he wasn't meant to see.
T'Pol said nothing for a long moment, merely studied him with an unblinking gaze that revealed no hint of her thoughts. Finally, she responded, reaching out and touching Tucker's fingers with her own. Reynolds turned away and busied himself with checking Lieutenant Reyes' condition, partly out of respect for the intimate gesture but primarily to conceal his shock. He knew more about Vulcan customs than most Humans; his favorite instructor at the University of Oklahoma had been a visiting Vulcan named T'Run and she had responded to his absolute fascination with her culture by explaining many things. He'd even seen her initiate the finger caress with her mate and had eventually worked up the courage to ask them about it.
Armed with that sort of knowledge, he'd taken the gossip about the two Commanders for what it was: rumor and innuendo. It made a sad sort of sense that everyone would be so interested in the nature of their relationship; T'Pol was ... well, she was an alien and simply because of that became a source of endless speculation. Sure, she and Tucker were nearly always in each other's company and obviously worked well together but that was hardly a basis for romantic involvement. And besides, T'Run's explanation of Vulcan physiology made casual relationships simply unfeasible. He had simply thought theirs was a complicated friendship, the nature of which no one really understood but them. Boy, had he been wrong.
"As you wish, beloved," T'Pol responded softly in her native tongue. The acoustics on the shuttlepod were amazing; despite his attempt to not eavesdrop, the words drifted right to him. "I would not wish to be ... distracting to you." Now that he knew what to listen for, Scott could hear the smile in her voice.
"Too late for that," Tucker grinned back at her, also in Vulcan; it was interesting to hear, Vulcan spoken with a southern twang. He spoke again, louder this time and in English. "Hey Professor, you know how to weld?"
"Not really, sir," Reynolds replied. He wondered if he should reveal his knowledge; it wasn't much of a surprise that neither of them would think he understood Vulcan. He was, after all, just a glorified grunt and T'Pol's native tongue was a difficult one to master. "Never had a reason to learn." The engineer gave him an amused look.
"No time like the present. Grab the gear and we'll get to work." Tucker started toward the rear of the shuttlepod, pausing only long enough to glance back at T'Pol. "Now remember, no distractions." She gave him another unreadable look complete with raised eyebrow and, as he led Scott out of the shuttlepod, Tucker was grinning. The sound of a woman's wet cough followed them from the shuttlepod and Reynolds glumly concluded that Lieutenant Reyes, who he had thought didn't have the strength to cough, must be getting worse.
They were running out of time.
Time had run out.
Radiological alarms were sounding throughout the ship, there were reports of hull breaches on nearly every deck, and Lieutenant Commander Kelby was fighting a losing battle in Engineering. Enterprise was dying.
And it was all Commander Tucker's fault.
From the damage control station on the bridge, Chief Petty Officer Mikhail Rostov had a bird's eye view of the ship's impending demise. In the minutes before they entered the asteroid belt, the Romulans had unleashed an unprecedented assault, blasting away with their disruptor cannons and staggering their torpedo runs so it seemed that there was always an incoming warhead. Lieutenants Mayweather and Sato did the best they could, dodging or jamming the torps, even as Lieutenant Commander Reed tried to keep the Romulans off of them with weapons fire. So far, it had worked.
But it was still Tucker's fault they were all going to die.
Logically, Rostov knew it didn't make any sense to blame someone who wasn't even aboard - let alone someone who may or may not be dead - but the superstitious Russian in him insisted on pointing to the two hundred plus years of family precedence. An immutable law had been passed down through the generations since the first Rostov sailor shipped off to the Russo-Sino War: no one is safe if the engineer is absent.
It sounded like a bunch of nonsense to those who had not grown up with the stories, those that didn't know about the Rostov who survived the destruction of the Krazny Oktyabr because the engineer sacrificed himself, or the Rostov who perished with all hands aboard the Alexsandr Kerensky because the engineer was summoned to Moscow, or the Rostov who narrowly survived when Khan Noonian Singh seized the Botany Bay, again thanks to the efforts of the engineer. Anna had laughed at him when he tried to explain it to her years ago, had told him to stop being such a gloomy Russian pessimist, and he'd dropped it for her sake. Hess still teased him about it in their infrequent correspondence even though he hadn't mentioned it for a very long time.
That didn't stop him from believing it.
"Evasive pattern delta!" Captain Archer snapped and Michael - he preferred that to his birth name - felt the deck shift under him; Enterprise began spinning along its horizontal axis as she dove deeper into the field. The hollow clang of small rocks impacting along the hull rang throughout the ship and something - a torpedo, it looked like - streaked past the saucer section, smashing into a large asteroid with a titanic explosion that shattered the stellar rock. Impossibly, Mayweather aimed Enterprise at that very spot; only a completely insane pilot - or a Boomer, which was to same the same thing - would even try to squeeze a ship the size of Enterprise through such a tiny (in a galactic sense) space. Rostov felt himself tensing for the inevitable crunch of metal against rock, waited for the sudden hiss that would precede explosive decompression.
"Chyort voz'mi," he muttered in his native tongue, wincing as Enterprise slipped between the cracks of the fracturing stellar rock. Collision alarms didn't sound, the hull didn't snap under the pressure, Mayweather didn't even scrape the paint - what little of it remained. They were alive.
He knew that he should be amazed at his complete lack of fear, his lack of concern about the miserable death that was sure to come, but something he had heard once kept drifting into his memory: "Fear accompanies the possibility of death; calm shepherds its certainty." And Michael was certain that he was going to die.
Because the damned Chief Engineer wasn't aboard.
"Got you!" Commander Reed suddenly snarled and stabbed his finger at his console. Rostov felt Enterprise shudder with the distinctive feel of torpedoes being launched. On the viewscreen, he could see the result of the British tactical officer's shot: the torpedoes flashed into the asteroid field, seemingly aimed at nothing, until one of the Romulan ships suddenly appeared from behind a hulking asteroid, clearly maneuvering to flank Enterprise. The first of the torps was a direct hit, smashing into what appeared to be a nacelle with a fierce flash that shredded armor and power plant alike; the second warhead hammered into the asteroid itself, detonating with horrific force. Huge chunks of debris were sent flying into the already wounded craft, punching into the hull and sending the smaller craft tumbling into another of the immense rocks. It was instantly consumed by a brilliant fireball.
Michael drew a deep breath and waited for the other shoe to drop.
The other two Romulan ships retaliated almost at once, diving forward with disruptor cannons barking fire before again slipping behind cover. With jarring force, the attacks slammed into the hull plating of the saucer section, melting through the protective armor and puncturing the superstructure. Even as the hull breach alarms were sounding yet again and Rostov was calmly directing damage control parties to the appropriate locations, he heard a sound on the bridge that was out of place. It was a hum that was rapidly growing louder, an electrical hum that sounded suspiciously like...
Captain Archer moved before Michael had fully comprehended what the sound was, lunging across the bridge in three rapid leaping steps to seize the oblivious Lieutenant Sato and pull her from the Science board; completely focused on her sensor viewfinder, she momentarily resisted, startled at his unexpected action.
A fraction of a second after the captain grabbed her, the panels behind the Science board exploded.
It threw them both across the bridge: Archer hit the rail behind his command chair with bone crushing force, knocking it free from the deck with his impact, even as Sato was sent spinning over the Science board itself. Both crumpled into unmoving heaps and for a single, extended moment, silence reigned over the bridge.
The other shoe had officially dropped.
Lieutenant Mayweather had already started to move from his console when Reed's voice cracked over him like a whip, froze him in place.
"Stop!" Mayweather shot him a stunned look. "Stay at your station, Lieutenant!" The tactical officer's voice was stern, demanding absolute obedience.
"Full evasive; take us deeper into the field!" Reed's eyes touched the unmoving bodies of the two officers for the briefest of seconds and Rostov could almost see the hint of regret lurking there before his officer's mask of absolute control fell into place. "You have your orders, Lieutenant!" With the flick of his wrist, Michael changed the frequency of his board’s comm from Damage Control to Sickbay.
"Medical emergency on the bridge." The comm chirped, indicating Phlox's acknowledgment of the summons and Commander Reed gave Rostov a tight smile, his eyes never wavering from his board even as he triggered another burst of phase cannon fire. It was a perfectly placed shot, missing the Romulan craft by mere meters but burning into a nearby asteroid with impressively subtle results; debris exploded outward and the ship went into a steep dive to avoid the sudden danger of tumbling rocks.
The Romulan didn't see the torpedo before smashed into its aft.
It was a thing of sublime beauty, like making an impossible quadruple bank shot that culminated in sinking the eight ball in the corner pocket. The fire that bloomed around the engine of the Romulan craft was immediately gratifying, a sudden eruption of flame and atmosphere that sent the smaller ship reeling away from Enterprise.
As the wounded craft began limping away - on maneuvering thrusters alone it appeared - the fourth Romulan roared back into view. Dipping up and over an immense asteroid pockmarked with impact craters, it spat fire; sizzling streams of pure energy lanced out, carving a jagged scar across Enterprise's hull. Each blast was precisely aimed, slashing through phase cannon ports or searing into missile tubes; explosions ravaged Enterprise as a torpedo - loaded and armed - prematurely detonated, its warhead ignited by the scorching heat of the disruptor beams. Like a wounded bird, the Starfleet vessel shuddered and spiraled deeper into the field; damaged maneuvering jets functioned erratically or not at all as Lieutenant Mayweather struggled with his console, fought to regain control. Sensing their distress, the Romulan once more abandoned cover long enough to fire another photonic torpedo. The warhead streaked through the asteroid belt toward Enterprise and Rostov knew it wouldn't miss; from Commander Reed's shout into the intraship comms, he knew it too.
"Brace for impact!"
Unerringly accurate, the incoming torpedo smashed into the already damaged port nacelle. It exploded instantly, a violent eruption of searing fire that ignited the already leaking warp plasma and tore the nacelle apart with an even brighter detonation. Huge chunks of polarized metal were sent spinning off into the darkness, some still alight and burning as they tumbled into the stellar rock of the asteroid belt or into Enterprise herself. Mayweather snarled a curse as the already difficult task of regaining control became a nearly impossible one. The bridge was suddenly alight with alarms and explosions and fires as systems failed catastrophically.
A flashed blinded Rostov and something suddenly crashed against him, hammering into his body like the fist of God itself and hurling him backwards. He felt himself hit something hard and the bridge tilted around wildly, as if it were spinning like a merry-go-round or one of those Ferris wheels that Hess liked so much. His vision swam out of focus as he felt the impact of hitting the deck; oblivion surged up around him but he tried to fight it, struggled to cling to consciousness even as he felt himself sliding away. This is all Tucker's fault, a strangely lucid part of his mind whispered as he fell into darkness.
In that hazy moment before he lost all reason, he wondered if he would ever wake.
Someone was trying to wake him up.
It was clearly a female someone because no man, regardless of his orientation, had skin that soft. Or smelled that good. Or had breath that sweet. At first, his muddled brain thought that it was perhaps his mom and that he had overslept again, but that thought was quickly brushed aside when he realized that whoever She was, She was crying and sounded like She was in pain. Kelby thought of himself as something of an old-fashioned type of guy and stirred, pushing himself toward consciousness. A hollow thud echoed through his skull, beating time with his pulse, and his arm hurt - no, it screamed with pain. Something sticky was on his head, something wet and sticky. Smoke was heavy in the air and it smelled of burnt electrical wire, warp coolant and ... flesh?
His eyes snapped open then, and he found himself face to face with Lieutenant Hailey Burke.
Under normal circumstances, waking to discover a pretty woman's face mere centimeters from his own would have made his day, even if it was streaked with engine grime and sweat. Maybe especially if it was streaked with engine grime and sweat. These were far from normal circumstances.
"Hello, Hailey," he croaked. He hoped his voice didn't sound as bad to her as it did to him.
"I thought you were dead!" she exclaimed, her eyes widened with what could only be fear. He frowned at that; he'd never known Lieutenant Burke to act this way in the eight months he'd known her. She was one of the strongest women he knew, could give most - if not all - of the men aboard lessons on toughness. He wondered what could rattle her and tried to focus his hazy brain. Memory remained elusive; he recalled an explosion. Alarms. Bracing for impact. Another explosion and then blackness. Everything fell into place and he tried to push himself up, to get a better look around at what remained of Engineering.
That, as it turned out, was something of a mistake.
Fire shot through his left arm, a white-hot spike of pain so intense he could not help but to gasp in shock. His vision swam again and he clenched his eyes together, tried to block out the molten lava that seemed to race through his veins. He felt her hands on his neck, keeping him from crashing back to the floor. She's got nice hands, a part of his brain told him.
"Your arm is broken," Burke told him unnecessarily. "In two or three places." His arm agreed with her assessment and he gritted his teeth together, tried to ignore the pain as she fit an auto-splint onto the mostly useless limb. Probably a concussion too, he thought angrily to himself. As if he needed a concussion now.
"What’s our status?" he asked, his eyes still tightly shut. He was still the acting-Chief Engineer, regardless of his injuries. His people were relying on him and he would not let them down.
"We lost the nacelle." She drew a deep breath, held it for less than a heartbeat, then exhaled. He was astounded at how calm she became in the space of that single breath. "And there's a delta leak we can't lock down." That was bad; the rad suits were fine as stopgap measures but if that leak wasn't plugged, a lot of people were going to die. He'd seen crewmen who had died of delta radiation poisoning; no one deserved that. Kelby opened his eyes and locked gazes with her; the concern he saw there warmed him just a bit. She smiled shyly and he realized that he was looking at yet another missed opportunity. This planet sucks, he grumbled to himself.
"Help me up," he said quietly. To anyone else in Engineering at that moment, it would have been an order, a command to be obeyed instantly. Without question. To Hailey, it was a request.
Standing up may have also been a mistake. He swayed on unsteady feet, felt his legs buckle and quickly latched onto Burke for support. She shot him a look - one of those indecipherable expressions that only a woman could make or understand for that matter - and pressed a hypospray to his neck; he blinked, finally noticing the medkit she had strapped to her side. The hypo hissed and he immediately felt better. Pain receded to a manageable level and he found his thoughts clearer than they had been for a long time. Before he could say anything to thank her, a new alarm began sounding and Kelby felt his heart drop into his stomach.
The alarm was almost instantly joined by an automated verbal announcement. Recently installed by Tucker himself, the computerized voice sounded exactly like the ship's first officer. In honor of the ground collision avoidance systems in ancient fixed-wing jets (the so-called 'bitching Betty' as it had been called), Tucker had unofficially christened the alert voice his 'bitchin' Polly'; Commander T'Pol had been far from amused but, despite numerous attempts both blatant and covert, had been unable to alter the voice. Her efforts - whether intentional or not - had spawned a good-natured interdepartmental battle, with the Science division trying to crack Tucker's code while the Engineering crew opposed them.
"Warning," the disembodied voice announced. "Containment field has been compromised. Core breach in three hundred and sixty seconds." Almost at once, Kelby realized what must have happened: the destruction of the nacelle had caused a massive power surge, one that had overloaded the circuits in the containment field surrounding the warp core itself. It could be slowed - possibly - but not prevented. Not now.
"Get everybody out, Hailey." She gave his hand a quick squeeze and turned away, already shouting orders. Kelby reached over to the comm panel, triggered it even as the 'bitchin' Polly' continued to count down.
"Engineering to Bridge!" He had to shout to make himself heard over the alarms.
"Bridge." Short and succinct; it occurred to Kelby that if Lieutenant Commander Reed was answering, something had happened to Captain Archer. This day just kept getting better and better.
"Core breach in under five minutes!" Burke's efforts were paying off as the Engineering staff streamed past him through the door, most under their own power but far too many needed help.
"Can you prevent it?" Reed was angry, no doubt thinking that if Commander Tucker were here, he'd be able to stop it. Kelby was having the same thought.
"Negative!" There was a fractional pause as the acting-captain considered his options; when he spoke again, he was grim, implacable.
"I need ten minutes, Kelby. To get clear of the field." That made sense; escape pods would have no hope of surviving intact while in the belt - there were too many random variables to calculate, too much stellar debris to evade. And pods had never been designed with maneuverability in mind. Kelby looked back at the warp drive, his mind feverishly turning over options. Only one leaped out at him as having any chance of success, slim though it may be. With a resigned sigh, he realized what he had to do.
"You'll get them. Kelby out." He released the transmit button, turned to meet Burke's eyes. They were too knowing, too ... wise.
"Planning to stay, sir?" She didn't sound surprised.
"Yes," he replied, jerking his head toward the door. "Get clear, Lieutenant."
"No sir. You'll need a hand rigging the core for ejection." Kelby frowned; she clearly knew him better than he expected but there was no way he was going to have her death on his hands. Not if there was something he could do about it. She had far too much to live for. Forcing his expression into one of grudging acceptance, he nodded and she relaxed, glanced away.
And he punched her in the face.
Lieutenant Burke staggered back, blood streaming from her broken nose, and wobbled on her feet, surprise writ on her face; without hesitation, David hit her again, this time in the solar plexus and she folded over, gasping for air. He shoved her through the doorway and into the hands of a visibly stunned Crewman Rowe.
"Get her out of here," Kelby snapped before hitting the door release, sealing himself inside. No one could enter now. Time to earn my pay, he thought grimly to himself as he turned toward the warp core. An ancient quote came to mind, one that he had heard recently during Movie Night in a film about the early pioneers of space travel. He thought it appropriate: Dear Lord, please don't let me fuck up.
He couldn't help but to smile.
He could not remember the last time he had smiled.
Nor could he recall when last he was this angry. There had been times in the past when the fury surged through his veins, a blistering white-hot wrath that tried to sweep away all rationality, to burn away his innate sense of caution. Each time before, he had sought solace in training, focusing the anger into something constructive, whether it be new hand-to-hand techniques or more work with blades or target practice with phase pistols or disruptors or even archaic slugthrowers. Not this time, though. This time, there was no time to seek inner balance, no time to storm from his station and let the emotions out in a single explosive burst. Too many lives depended on his actions, his commands, his control. So he did the only thing he could with his anger.
He suppressed it.
A small part of him reveled in the fact that so few could see the cold fury simmering within him. It helped him maintain his facade of professionalism when all he wanted to do was to cast aside self-control, to kill the bloody bastards responsible. Every sodding last one of them. But the mask of absolute calm was in place and he had no doubt that the mastery of his raging emotions would have impressed even T'Pol.
Control was all that Malcolm Reed had.
He glanced around the shattered bridge and what he saw infuriated him. No console appeared to have escaped damage and several were still sparking wildly. A few minor fires were still smoldering and some of the internal structure had collapsed inward; one such column of metal had knocked the command chair free from the deck, upending it and leaving it on its side. Captain Archer and Hoshi - Lieutenant Sato, he told himself, she had to be just Lieutenant Sato right now or his control would fracture - were still unmoving were they had fallen; both appeared to be breathing but he could not risk the time to check. CPO Rostov was sprawled out behind the Engineering station, blood pouring from his burnt face; the engineer hadn’t even made a sound when his board blew up in his face. Three other crewmen had been on the bridge; three other crewmen were now still and silent on the deck. The core breach alarm continued to echo loudly throughout the ship.
"Get us clear of the field, Travis," Malcolm ordered. "Best speed." The Boomer pilot gave him an abbreviated nod and Reed turned his attention back to his board to continue directing the damage control teams. It was, after all, the only thing he could do that would help. He had minimal weapons control - only a single phase cannon was operating! - barely any sensors, and even fewer options. Unless Kelby could prevent it, the core would explode in under three minutes and everyone aboard Enterprise would die. Including Hoshi.
Malcolm had to hand it to the Romulans; this had been a brilliantly executed plan of attack even if it had been costly. Escape was already out of the question when they struck; no one would have risked going to warp within a star system which left fighting as the only option. Enterprise had become a flying Thermopylae, outnumbered yet stubbornly holding on to the last. "Come home with your shield or on it," Reed grimly quoted to himself; he had a fairly good idea which it would be.
The turbolift door slid open - damage control had only gotten it functional again minutes earlier - and a battered Doctor Phlox stumbled onto the bridge, followed almost immediately by a female MACO. Smoke rolled out of the turbolift as Phlox quickly moved toward Archer’s side; he said nothing as he went to work and, for that, Reed was thankful. The MACO - Sergeant Cole, Reed realized - attended the Denobulan much in the same manner a nurse would. Cross-training the MACOs for shipboard duties had been an idea proposed by Lieutenant Mackenzie, one that Malcolm had eagerly supported; most of them were attached to the Armory, aiding the loading crews but three of them - Cole, Stiles and Mackenzie herself - had been tasked to Phlox for combat lifesaver courses.
"Sir, I need grappler control," Travis said suddenly, his voice calm, and Malcolm didn’t hesitate, transferring control of the docking grapplers directly to the helm station. As he did, he could see the Romulan sliding behind Enterprise, clearly lining up for another deadly torpedo run. It figured that the only functional cannon didn't face aft...
“Hostile at one-nine-seven mark two-five,” he announced and Travis nodded, waited, his eye on the sensor feed. An immense asteroid loomed before them, larger than any they’d seen before, larger than some European nations, but Mayweather kept his course steady for long moments. Taking no fire, the Romulan grew bolder, accelerated and began lashing out with his disruptor cannons; Enterprise rocked under the assault and, even as the hostile was firing a torpedo, Travis was triggering the grapplers.
They shot out and anchored firmly in another asteroid that, while not as large as the one they bore down upon, was still at least three times their size. The lines grew taut, altering Enterprise's velocity ever so slightly, and Travis cut them loose before they could be torn free even as he fired a burst from the port-side maneuvering thrusters, sending the starship into a slow but controlled roll. Impossibly, it was enough and Enterprise skimmed the cratered surface of the France-sized asteroid with meters to spare. The torpedo was not as agile and impacted upon the giant rock, exploding in a plume of rock and debris. Malcolm exhaled, suddenly aware that he had been holding his breath.
"Commander Reed," Phlox said, looking up from where he knelt by Hoshi; his expression was bleak. "I need to get Captain Archer and Lieutenant Sato to sickbay at once."
"We have a possible core breach in under two minutes, doctor." The Denobulan didn't blink, merely waited. "I'd advise you to get to the bridge lifeboat instead."
"Not without my patients," Phlox insisted, his expression unyielding. He gestured to the Engineering station. "I've yet to examine Mister Rostov." Anger flared, hot and overwhelming, and Malcolm struggled to control it as he glared at his Chief Medical Officer.
"Did you not hear me?" he almost snarled. "The core. Is going. To breach."
"Then it does not matter if I am here or in a lifeboat, does it, Commander?" Despite their dire straits, the Denobulan gave Malcolm a hearty smile and moved to check on Rostov, followed closely by Cole. She gave Reed an apologetic look but said nothing.
"Kelby to the bridge!" The hail drew Reed's attention immediately and he hit the receive button, noting that Travis was again planning an impossible maneuver. He didn't want to watch so he looked back at the feed to monitor the hostile's flight path.
"You've got six and a half minutes, sir!" Alarms were making it difficult to make out Kelby's voice and, with a mild jolt of surprise, Malcolm realized the man was still in Engineering. A quick glance to his console revealed that Engineering had been sealed; no one could enter. Or exit. "Containment is holding but I can't give you more time than that! I'm also rigging the core for ejection!" Reed couldn't keep the surprise, the ... awe out of his voice when he responded; he'd read Trip's proposal for such a procedure and it had sounded ... risky.
"Acknowledged, Commander. And ... thank you." He didn't have to say for what.
"Kelby out." Malcolm looked up as the comm crackled out, met Phlox's eyes and frowned. Nothing needed to be said. Reed looked away, glanced at the sensor feed, a trickle of a plan starting to form. If they ejected the core at the right moment...
"We're coming to the edge of the field, sir," Travis declared, his fingers still flying across his controls; he appeared oblivious to the conversation that had just taken place although Malcolm knew he had heard everything. "Five minutes until we're clear." Reed gave a sharp nod in acknowledgment, belatedly realizing that Mayweather couldn't see him. He checked the feed once more, noted that the Romulan had fallen back, unable - or unwilling - to match the insane twists and climbs of Enterprise. It was time, Malcolm realized. He keyed the intraship comms and spoke words he never wanted to hear, let alone speak.
"All hands, prepare to abandon ship."