The crash of waves against the rocks wasn't as soothing as he'd hoped.
Hands in his jacket's pockets, Rear Admiral Jonathan Archer stared at the rolling surf without expression. He had hoped that coming to this place would allow him to grieve in privacy, away from the knowing looks and words of condolences that he kept receiving at Starfleet Command. Clearly, his relationship with Erika hadn't been as secret as either of them had thought.
To his surprise, though, he found himself emotionally numb. The tears that he needed to shed would not come; instead, all he felt was a rising anger, a fury that trembled on the edge of being homicidal. Hands clenched tightly in fists, he closed his eyes and focused on the lingering presence of Surak in his mind. Now, more than ever, he needed that control. It was one of the universe's greatest ironies, he thought, that he would seek Vulcan attributes in this most personal loss.
His anger intensified at the too-familiar voice, and he turned slowly to focus his glare on the features of the time agent, Daniels. To his surprise, however, the temporal operative was wearing normal-looking civilian clothes, appearing to be nothing more than another visitor to this secluded Washington beach. Gone was the absurd-looking outfit that he had so often appeared in.
"Go away," Jon snapped, fighting the urge to lash out physically. "I'm done with you." Daniels frowned slightly as he gave the mostly unoccupied beach a quick look.
"My condolences for your loss, Commodore." The agent shifted awkwardly where he stood, but did not make eye contact. Inexplicably, that infuriated Archer even more.
"You could have saved her," he accused Daniels, knowing it was true. How many times had the man pulled Jon's ass out of the fire when he should have died?
"No," Daniels replied, finally meeting Archer's eyes. "I couldn't. History records that Captain Hernandez died at Acheron."
"To hell with your history," Jon snarled. The anger was surging through his veins, and that tentative control learned from Surak suddenly wasn't enough. "You could have done something!"
"I am doing something." Daniels drew himself upright as he glanced at his chronometer. "This is part of my job, Jonathan. I don't have to like it." He started to back away.
Jon was faster.
His fist flashed out, catching the temporal agent squarely on the jaw with a loud crack. Caught unprepared, Daniels staggered backwards, tripping over his own feet as he brought his hands up to defend himself. He collapsed onto the sand with a loud grunt, before looking up at Archer with narrowed eyes.
"I deserved that," the agent conceded softly as Jon loomed over him. "I'm sorry."
"Sorry doesn't bring her back," Archer snapped. For a moment, the fury made it difficult to think, and Jon fought the urge to hit Daniels again. An admiral wasn't supposed to behave this way, he reminded himself darkly. "I've ignored you before, and the timeline wasn't shot to hell." Daniels looked away for a moment as he climbed to his feet; he refused to make eye contact, once more glancing at the chronometer that encircled his left wrist, and Jon felt his stomach lurch. "You knew I'd ignore you those times," he realized.
"Yes." Daniels seemed intent on keeping a full meter of distance between them, and Archer nearly laughed at the absurdity of that. Here was a man who could manipulate and reshape time, yet was afraid of getting punched. "Your profile indicated that you didn’t like being told what to do, and reverse psychology was more effective than honesty." The temporal agent offered an embarrassed shrug. "History has always recorded that you went onto the Xindi weapon. By urging you to send someone else, I made sure that you would go."
"You used me."
"I did," Daniels replied with a nod. "That's my job, Jonathan. I didn't have to like it." It was too much to handle, knowing that he had been successfully manipulated by the temporal agent. Even more galling was the realization that he had been controlled so easily.
"Go to hell," Archer snapped as he turned away.
"Hell?" For the first time in Jon's memory, the temporal agent sounded angry. "You want to see hell?"
In an instant, everything around them changed. The once clear blue skies were now red and scorched. The distant buildings of Port Angeles were gone, shattered beyond repair. Nothing moved. It was infinitely worse than the previous time that the temporal agent had pulled Jon forward in time.
"This is Earth of my time if you lose this war," Daniels continued darkly. "After they spend hundreds of years trying and failing to subjugate humanity, the Romulans finally decided that it was too much trouble to even try." His expression soured. "For a full day, their entire fleet conducts an orbital bombardment that results in this." He gestured expansively. "Humanity is virtually extinct."
"Then give me intelligence, not cryptic warnings," Archer growled. He crossed his arms and glared. "I'm done playing your damned game, Daniels. You want something from me, I expect payment in kind. Quid pro quo."
The temporal agent was silent for a moment before sighing deeply. Around them, the image of a shattered Earth faded back to normal, prompting Jon to wonder if it was just some sort of holographic illusion. Was Daniels playing him again? Archer frowned.
"I don't have time for this," Daniels muttered as he checked the time once more. Louder, he continued, speaking quickly. "I can't give you specifics, Jonathan," he said. "But I can give you some intelligence that might help." Daniels' eyes narrowed as he studied Archer's jacket. "You've been promoted," he declared with some surprise before turning his attention to a PADD-like device.
"After Acheron," Jon stated. The chirps and beeps emerging from Daniels' device were oddly familiar, the agent's smack on the uncooperative PADD even more so.
"Earlier than in the official timeline," Daniels said before glancing up. "But not worth the headache to fix." His smile looked forced, and faded quickly when Jon didn't return it. A moment passed in silence as the temporal agent manipulated his data device rapidly; the sense of urgency that he conveyed simply with his body language was slightly worrying. The PADD that Archer carried in his jacket suddenly vibrated, an indication of incoming data. Jon gave the agent a disbelieving look, not quite ready to believe that the other man had actually provided information after years of dissembling.
"As I said," Daniels stated, returning his data device to a pocket. "There are no specifics there. Only generalities." He frowned as he checked the time once more. "Most of the records we had about this war were lost." He narrowed his eyes slightly. "There is one other thing that most historians agree upon, Admiral," Daniels continued, speaking more rapidly. Archer drew in a breath to steady himself; never before had the temporal agent volunteered so much information. It was an indication of how dire the situation was. "You have a traitor in Starfleet Command."
"Who?" Jon demanded hotly. The idea that a human could have been responsible for Erika's death sent a surge of fury pulsing through his body.
"That's unknown." The temporal agent held up his hands to ward off Archer's next question. "The only real reference to the traitor is from your personal memoirs written about thirty years from now. You evidently concealed the identity for reasons we don't entirely comprehend." Daniels glanced at the chronometer he was wearing and frowned. "This will be our last interaction, Jonathan. There is a natural phenomenon that blocks travel to or even observation of the next seventy years." He smiled slightly. "That's why the last few years were so important."
"The Suliban's benefactor was Romulan, wasn't he?" Archer asked without thinking. It was a theory that had been bothering Jon ever since the war began; everything that the mysterious figure had done seemed designed to weaken Earth. And, if intelligence estimates were correct, the dissolution of the Expanse had only accelerated the Romulan's timetable; prior to that point, there was only a single recorded encounter with a Romulan craft of any sort. Afterwards, they had been crawling all over the quadrant. Daniels gave him a surprised look before nodding; from his expression, the temporal operative had been taken off balance by Jon's accurate guess.
"Yes." He gave his chronometer another glance. "He's no longer a threat." Another sigh escaped the agent. "Before he was ... contained, he provided the Romulans with some technological advances that they didn't have previously." Daniels smiled slightly, nodding at the PADD that Jon was now holding. "That should even the playing field somewhat." A shrill tone emerged from the temporal agent's chronometer, and his expression darkened as he consulted the time. When he spoke again, it was in a rapid rush. "But most importantly, you must stop the Romulans from acquiring-!"
With an abrupt flash, Daniels vanished in mid-sentence, his cryptic warning unfinished. Before Archer could react, his communicator began beeping rapidly. He frowned in recognition of the emergency alert code and reached for the device. A concerned look on his face, Jon flipped the communicator open.
"This is Archer."
"Priority Alpha recall!" The young man on the other end of the comm-line sounded panicked. "Stand by for transport!" Even before the sentence was finished, Jon could feel the distinct tingling of a transporter stream surrounding him. He closed his eyes as the sensation of being in two places at once caused him to reel, and the feeling of being drenched with freezing water caused his hands to tremble. Before he could catch his breath, it began again. He understood instantly, of course. From Port Angeles, Washington, he had been beamed to an orbital station, where he was promptly returned to Earth, this time to Starfleet Command in California.
"Sir!" A petty officer darted forward, pushing a computerized clipboard into Jon's hand before he even had time to step off of the transport pad. "Romulan power signature detected near Neptune!"
"Where's Gardner?" Archer demanded as he pushed by the enlisted yeoman. He was rapidly scanning the data with growing worry; this data was nearly an hour old!
"Briefing the president, sir!" The petty officer fell into step beside him. "You're in command, sir!"
"I want all ships in the fleet to go to tactical alert." Jon glared at the door to the turbolift that was taking too long to respond to his summons. He did a quick mental inventory of the ships that were available and still battle ready. There was really only one ship that leaped to mind. "And get me Endeavour."
Endeavour was beautiful.
As she leaned over the pilot's shoulder to get a better look at the pride of Starfleet, Lieutenant Commander Hoshi Sato-Reed felt her breath catch at the sight before her. Captured within Jupiter Station and swarming with activity, Endeavour was brightly illuminated by the drydock's many lamps. The graceful lines and smooth curves of the NC-06 were things of beauty, and Hoshi smiled at the familiar-looking saucer section. Memories of her time aboard Enterprise trickled across her mind's eye, forcing her to push back a lump in her throat. There were so many good times aboard that ship, so many pleasant memories of days long past that it was easy to overlook the bad times.
"Ma'am," the pilot said abruptly, an uncomfortable look on his face. "We'll be landing soon, so I'll need you to strap in."
"Understood, Ensign," Hoshi replied with a friendly smile. "I just wanted a look at her."
As she reclaimed her seat, she took a moment to study her team. There were four of them, all newly graduated from Starfleet Training and ridiculously eager to prove themselves. If the fleet engineers weren't already stretched thin with repairing the battle damage, Hoshi doubted that her team would have ever been given a job like this. As it was, when Sato saw the opportunity to pay Endeavour a visit, she'd volunteered instantly. It would be, she realized sadly, the first time since Malcolm's funeral that she had seen Trip or T'Pol. Phlox, on the other hand, corresponded with her regularly, and always had interesting stories to tell.
"Jupiter Station," the pilot said into his comm system, "this is ST-321. Code clearance blue. We're starting our approach." A crackle of static was the immediate response, followed by an authoritative female voice.
"Our ALS is currently offline," the stern-sounding woman stated. "You have a hands on approach." Another crackle of static filled the commline for a moment. "Permission to land on platform three two seven."
The 'pod banked slowly as the pilot oriented it toward the looming station, which reminded Hoshi of a massive spider. Gleaming brightly, the massive gas giant that was the solar system's largest planet backlit the repair station, making it seem tiny in comparison. The great storm, still red and furious, raged across the surface of Jupiter with an intensity that had not abated in the hundreds of years since humans first looked upon the face of the planet.
Amusement washed over Hoshi as she saw two of her team cling to their restraints with white-knuckled grips. It didn't seem like that long ago since she had been the person worried about flying. Now, all of this seemed so routine that she had slept during most of the four hour transit. She shook her head in silent amazement.
A gentle bump announced the shuttlepod's smooth landing, and Hoshi was already beginning to undo the restraints when the ensign at the pilot's station gave her the all clear. With a nod, she hefted her tool kit and stepped toward the shuttlepod's hatch. Once more, she had to fight back a smile once more when she realized that, against all odds, she'd become a technician.
Jupiter Station was buzzing with activity as she led her team toward the nearest wall computer. The slidewalks were swarming with repair crews, most carrying parts or tools. Alongside the moving walkway was an even wider flat deck occupied by slow-moving forklifts or ground transports, all bearing important loads too heavy to be carried by hand. Overhead, the transparent roof offered a stunning view of the Jovian gas giant that was occasionally blocked by the fast-moving maglev train carrying personnel and parts to distant points on the mammoth station.
"Wow," Crewman Parham muttered, reminding Hoshi that he had never before been off of Earth, even during training. He stood there and gawked for a long moment, jumping slightly when a harried-looking technician accidentally backed into him.
The wall computer responded to Hoshi's query almost instantly, and she downloaded the station layout to her PADD before gesturing toward a nearby slidewalk. Without question, the four crewmen obeyed her unspoken order and stepped onto the moving walkway; she was inexplicably reminded of her all too brief a time as a teacher.
"Must be their first time on the Station," a grizzled senior chief said softly as he stepped onto the slidewalk behind Hoshi. She gave him an amused nod, before sobering quickly at sight of the duty patch he wore.
"Was Hyperion badly damaged?" she asked, and he responded with a heavy sigh.
"Yes, ma'am." The slidewalk jerked abruptly, causing them to stumble. "We lost most of our command crew to a Romulan drone." He spoke in a no-nonsense manner. "If it hadn't been for Commander Hsiao, I think we'd have all died during Black's Bungle." Hoshi pursed her lips slightly at the expression, but made no further comment. As word had spread throughout Starfleet about the catastrophe at Acheron, the expression had entered the lexicon almost overnight. No one was exactly sure who had started it, and attempts to quell use of "Black's Bungle" to describe the crippling defeat failed miserably. Even the news media had picked it up and began using it in their various reports.
The admiral's subsequent suicide only intensified the scorn that most members of Starfleet now held for the man.
Stepping off the slidewalk, Hoshi started to point in the direction her team needed to go, but sighed and took the lead instead. Like obedient puppies, the four crewmen fell into step behind her, still distracted by the magnificient view of Jupiter. She should have been annoyed at their lack of focus, but couldn't bring herself to do so.
"I don't want them on my damned ship!"
The familiar voice caused her to slow her pace and glance in the direction from which it originated. A smile crossed her face at the image of an irate Trip Tucker arguing with a commander wearing a Jupiter Station duty patch on her uniform. At Tucker's side, Lieutenant Commander Hess was glaring at the station commander; an odd glove was on the engineer's right hand.
"Captain," the frazzled-looking commander replied, temper making her words harsh, "Starfleet regulations require that my people to install these new regulators on your ship."
"They don't work on Endeavour," Hess interjected. "Not with the new warp core."
"That's not my problem," the commander retorted sharply. "I have my orders, and I will follow them. Take it up with Starfleet Command if you don't like it."
"Fine," Trip said, his expression dangerously calm. "You go ahead and install those regulators." He gave the commander a nod of dismissal, before turning to Hess. "Yank 'em as soon as the repair crews are done putting them in. Maybe they'll make good spare parts for the ones that actually work."
"I see some things haven't changed," Hoshi said with a smile, her voice attracting Tucker's attention immediately. He smiled broadly and took three rapid steps toward her, engulfing her in a most undignified hug.
"Hoshi!" he exclaimed loudly before returning her to her feet. "What the hell are you doing on the Station?"
"Nice to see you too, sir," she retorted. "We're here to install the latest upgrades to the UT on Endeavour." With a sweep of her hand, she included the four wide-eyed crewmen. Too late, she remembered Trip's growing reputation as a miracle captain. According to the gossip she'd heard at STC during her last visit there, it was common knowledge that Endeavour was the one assignment that every officer or enlisted crewman wanted. At least, as long as Trip Tucker and his Vulcan first mate were in command.
Hoshi smiled inwardly at that choice of words.
"Well, come on," Tucker said, gesturing at a nearby airlock; he took the toolbox from her in a gentlemanly gesture that seemed instinctive. "I'll even throw in a free tour of my ship!"
"I'll get these kids started," Hess stated the moment they stepped through the airlock. "Good seeing you again, Hoshi," she smiled before heading off in the direction of the computer core, the four crewmen at her heels.
"How's T'Pol?" Hoshi asked once the five were out of earshot, and Trip gave her a sidelong look.
"Frustrated," he smiled as they continued down the corridor. "The repair crews don't want to follow a Vulcan schedule." He grew more serious. "How's Junior?"
"Trying to walk," she replied. The turbolift doors slid open, and they entered as she continued. "You won't believe how big he's getting!" Reaching into her jacket pocket, she started to extract a photo of her son. "I've got a picture..." Suddenly, she hesitated as she remembered how badly he took the loss of his own daughter.
Before he could respond, a klaxon began sounding. Hoshi hadn't heard that sound in a very long time, and it caused her to jump in slight surprise. Trip, however, reacted instantly.
"Command override," he snapped. "Tucker alpha seven echo. D deck." The lift lurched as it changed directions abruptly, and Hoshi gave him a confused look. He should be going to the bridge, not D deck. Engineering was on D deck. On the top of that, however, she suddenly remembered that, despite any outer similarities, Endeavour's configuration was different from Enterprise.
With a hiss, the door opened, and Trip darted out of the turbolift. Hoshi hesitated for the briefest of seconds before following him. To her surprise, he seemed intent on heading toward where engineering used to be. They rounded a corner, and Hoshi blinked in mild astonishment at the pair of armed security troopers standing in front of an otherwise nondescript door. At Tucker's sharp nod, one of them hit the door annunciator; the door slid open, and she followed him in,
Just beyond the door's threshold, she paused in abject amazement at the presence of the various command stations that she recognized from the bridge of Enterprise. Commander T'Pol was rising from the captain's chair as they entered, and quirked an eyebrow at Hoshi's presence, but displayed no other reaction. On the main viewscreen, an image of Admiral Archer stared out at the command staff.
"Sensors have detected a Romulan power signature near Neptune," Archer said without preamble. His words caused Hoshi's breath to catch, and she swallowed. "I've ordered all ships in the system to go to high alert, Trip," the admiral continued grimly, "but I want Endeavour to take the lead."
"Aye, sir." Tucker glanced in T'Pol's direction, nodding slightly at something that she had clearly brought to his attention through that wondrous bond of theirs. "Sir, my senior communications officer is at Starfleet Medical."
"I'm here," Hoshi volunteered without thinking. She hesitated when several sets of eyes glanced in her direction, but she plunged forward anyway. If a Romulan ship was in system, she would do whatever it took to protect her son. "I've got all the security clearances," she started to defend her presence, but the admiral waved it off.
"Considered yourself temporarily assigned to Endeavour, Hoshi," Archer stated with a forced smile. "I'll contact Maddie personally," he continued. Off her nod, he turned his eyes back to Trip. "Good hunting," the admiral wished before the screen blanked out.
"Release all moorings," Trip said without hesitation. "All stations prepare for immediate departure." He pointed out the location of the communications station, and Hoshi gave him a thankful nod. "T'Pol, find us a target."
Seconds later, Endeavour was underway.
Nearly an hour had passed since they disembarked.
From where he stood near the entrance to the command center, Master Chief Petty Officer Colin Mackenzie shifted slightly. It was his usual position during these sorts of meetings, selected not out of any sort of discomfort around the senior officers, but because it gave him a clear view of the entire bridge staff. It also enabled him to be the first one out of the command center once the briefing was complete so he could begin disseminating the information his enlisted crewmembers needed.
As he glanced over the assembled officers, Mac wasn't particularly surprised to see Hess standing next to Lieutenant Commander Eisler. If he didn't know better, the master chief would believe some of the wilder rumors that were circulating around the ship about the two sharing a bed. Off duty, they would inevitably be found together, whether it was in the mess hall or the gym. Hess had even dragged the TAC to a movie night some weeks back to watch a recent Hollywood action adventure. It had been quite amusing to hear Eisler's contemptuous recitation of the many errors made by the ostensible hero of the piece once the movie had ended.
The new flight operations officer stood slightly apart from the other officers, emphasizing the fact that she hadn't fully integrated herself into the command structure yet. Under normal circumstances, Mac would consider Lieutenant Selina Mayweather an attractive woman, but her perpetual scowl and standoffish behavior made it difficult to recognize her as such. From his admittedly brief interactions with the new helmsman, the master chief had learned that she was one of the many Boomers who had joined Starfleet following the disaster at Thor's Cradle. Unlike most of them, however, she had not actually been at the Cradle.
Thoughts of the Cradle immediately brought to mind Allison, and Mac bit back the ever-present anger and despair that accompanied those memories. There were so many things that he wished he had done differently, so many things he wished he had said to her before she died. He had once heard that regret was useless, but found that it was slowly eating him up inside. A part of him was worried that the bottle of Beefeater Gin in his cabin was becoming a crutch for dealing with his problems, but it was a very small part. He had everything under control.
Lieutenant Commander Sato was standing next to T'Pol as the first officer manipulated the controls of the master display. It was an indication of how much the Vulcan trusted the lieutenant commander that T'Pol allowed Sato to stand quite as close as she did. Since he had been assigned to Endeavour, Mac had learned that the Vulcan had a distinct sense of personal space; he had seen her allow only three people to violate that space – the captain, Phlox, and Admiral Archer. It was understandable that Sato was allowed into that select group, of course, given her history with the commander.
"What do we have, T'Pol?" the captain asked as he entered the command center, late for the briefing as usual. As Tucker took his place by the Vulcan's side, there was no indication that they were more than officers and friends, although Mac knew better. Like most officers, Commander Hess had seemed to assume that when she ordered the three crewmen who had helped her install the door linking the captain's cabin to the XO's to be discreet, she would be obeyed without question, as if those instructions were being issued on stone tablets by God himself. Within ten minutes of the work being completed, however, Mac was aware of the installation.
Consulting him was an act of self-defense by the three crewmen; in the event that the captain and first officer were disciplined by Starfleet Command for their discreet relationship, punishment would also likely be meted out to any members of Endeavour's crew who facilitated that very relationship. After making sure that there was no mention of the identities of the three, Mackenzie had repeated Hess' order for them to keep their mouths shut.
Unlike the chief engineer, however, when the COB made a decree, wise crewmen obeyed.
"Starfleet's initial analysis was inaccurate," the Vulcan commander replied as she manipulated the controls on the master display. "I have reviewed their scans and determined that the mass displacement is not sufficient for a Romulan warbird."
"So is it a bird of prey or one of the warp-capable drones?" Tucker's hands went behind his back where he clasped them together in a stance that was eerily similar to T'Pol's posture. Out of the corner of his eye, Mac saw Lieutenant Commander Sato-Reed hide a smile for some reason.
"Warp-capable drones?" Lieutenant Commander Eisler interjected before the Vulcan could reply, causing the captain to give him a nod.
"The Romulans deployed one a couple of years ago," Tucker stated flatly. "They were using an abducted telepath to control it."
"I have not detected any indication that a telepresence unit is being used," T'Pol declared. She gestured briefly to the system overview on the master display. "The target's impulse wake vanishes at this point, approximately seven hundred twenty-three thousand, two hundred forty-one kilometers from Neptune."
"Approximately, huh?" The captain gave his first officer an amused look that she returned without expression.
"Yes." T'Pol input an additional command into the computer; instantly, the location of every Starfleet ship and sensor buoy appeared on the solar system overview. "I am coordinating active sensor sweeps with the ships listed here, but the target has not yet reappeared on any of our scans."
"So," Commander Hess guessed, "it's on a reconnaissance mission?"
"Not necessarily," Eisler replied. "He's running silent, so it could be a stealth attack mission, like a ballistic submarine from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries."
"It's not a submarine," Hess retorted immediately.
"But the analogy is still apt," the tactical officer argued.
"It is illogical to speculate on this craft's mission without additional data," T'Pol pointed out abruptly, apparently tiring of the discussion. She returned her attention to the captain. "With your permission, I would like Lieutenant Commander Sato to assist me in tracking the target."
"Granted." Tucker gave the mentioned officer a slightly amused look. "Bet you've missed this sort of thing."
"Not really, sir," Sato replied with a smile. "I was getting used to having afternoons off." The captain almost laughed before quickly sobering.
"Coordinate your departments with T'Pol," he ordered. "Rick, I want weapons standing by for immediate action." The tactical officer nodded. "Anna, we may need warp speed on very short notice."
"On it," the chief engineer replied.
"I'll need you," Tucker said to Lieutenant Mayweather, "at the helm. If you're half as good as Travis said you were, then we're going to need your touch."
"Aye, sir," Mayweather responded stiffly.
"When we encounter the Grendel, what is the objective, sir?" Eisler asked. "Are we wasting our time trying to disable it, or-"
"What the hell is a Grendel?" Hess interrupted, frowning at the unfamiliar term.
"During the early parts of the Eugenics Wars," Mac offered softly, "European military forces called an unidentified hostile in friendly waters with an unknown intent a Grendel." He spoke only as a reminder that he was present; from the reactions of both Hess and Mayweather, they had forgotten he was there. He suspected that the ability to be almost invisible in staff briefings like this was one of the reasons Lieutenant Hayes had recruited him for Intelligence.
"It's from the poem Beowulf," Eisler elaborated. Commander Hess smiled.
"I didn't know you could read, Rick," she smirked.
"Starfleet Command," Captain Tucker announced, speaking slightly louder than normal in what was clearly an attempt to focus his chief engineer's attention away from harassing Commander Eisler, "has issued a shoot on sight order. Unless they're here to defect, we don't care why they're in the system." He frowned. "If there's nothing else, then brief your departments." Tucker gave them a nod. "Dismissed."
As Mac turned toward the door, the master display abruptly began beeping rapidly, drawing everyone's attention. Mac froze, hand poised above the door release, and glanced back. T'Pol's fingers were flying over the controls, inputting commands with a quickness that was nothing short of astonishing.
"What is it?" the captain asked. The Vulcan raised an eyebrow as she responded.
"I am detecting an impulse wake," she said. The image on the screen flashed as she highlighted the location of the newly located target. According to the sensors, it was nearly an astronomical unit away.
"Battle stations," Tucker declared, turning away from the screen. Mac pressed the release, and the door slid open without a sound.
The door opened with a heavy screech.
His face betraying none of his anxiety, Commander D'deridex i-Mheissan tr'Irrhaimehn stepped into the wide hall. He was wearing his ceremonial uniform, complete with the knee-length scarlet drape over his right shoulder that identified him as a command officer. The drape mostly concealed the sheathed dathe'anofv-sen at his side, but kept his left hand free to draw the Honor Blade if necessary. In his right hand, he gripped the wrapped gift for Ael'Riov Chulak.
He doubted that this particular gift would be well received.
With a frown, he took in the expansive room, noting the hurried attempt to conceal the human construction with traditional Rihannsu banners and accoutrements. Once, this had been a dining facility for the Terran miners stationed at this colony, but had been quickly transformed into a hall that would serve for the Convocation. The quickness of the work showed, however, and left a jarring visual impression to the commanders uncomfortable with Terran aesthetics.
Conversations ceased as D'deridex stepped forward, and he could feel the eyes of the assembled officers. Many, if not most, clearly disapproved of his presence, but he ignored any discomfort that he experienced. With a casualness that he did not entirely feel, he shifted the drape, pushing it back over the Honor Blade at his side to reveal the weapon's distinctive appearance. There was no mistaking the surprise on many faces.
He was still not entirely comfortable bearing Valdore's dathe'anofv-sen in public, no matter his legitimate right. By tradition, an Honor Blade of this pedigree should have passed on to the admiral's firstborn son or daughter, or, failing that, a member of Valdore's House whom the admiral had deemed worthy. When he had contacted ch'Rihan to arrange for the Blade's safe passage back, D'deridex had been stunned to learn that Valdore had already declared D'deridex as his heir. It made sense, in a way: there were no offspring to receive the weapon since Valdore's only son had died in the opening days of the war, killed by the human ship Enterprise, and the members of Valdore's House had a reputation for depravity and failure. Bequeathing the dathe'anofv-sen to D'deridex was tantamount to adopting him, and according to the Rihannsu legal code, made the young commander the head of House Irrhaimehn, despite his birth.
It also served to create additional enemies for D'deridex, a fact that he remained very cognizant of.
The other commanders, contempt etched upon many of their faces, stepped out of his way as he strode toward the center of the room and returned their looks with an impassive glower. Nearly all of them were twice his age or more, with silver and white being the most common color of hair. He recognized each of them by appearance, having committed their identities to memory the night before when he conceived this mad scheme. Inwardly, he sighed at the danger he was courting. S'enrae was right: he was a fool to walk into this nest of dhivaels.
"You dare to show your face here," one of the commanders abruptly snarled. She was old, perhaps three times D'deridex's age. Eyes flashing, the old female put herself squarely in front of him, crossing her arms as she did. "You, who are nothing save for the final decision of a dying fool, should not be here."
"I am here," D'deridex responded coldly, his eyes narrowed, "by right of rank and of station." He curled his lip in contempt as he continued. "If you wish to challenge my presence, I will meet you in the Circle to defend this right." At his words, the female blinked in hesitation, giving him a weighing look as she attempted to determine if he was bluffing.
He was not.
The Circle was an ancient tradition, one rooted in the Great Exodus that carried the Rihannsu through the stars. No one was entirely sure how it began, or if the stories that S'Task himself had participated in the ritual were true, but it had become an integral part of the Rihannsu culture throughout the centuries. In recent decades, it had fallen into disuse, as disputes were more often settled by assassination and poison, but defending one's honor and station within a Circle was still an accepted practice.
With a nervous frown, the old female backed away, evidently recognizing that D'deridex was more than willing to kill her to prove his right to be at the Convocation. By backing down in such a visible way, her own reputation was stained as all present could see that she treasured her life more than her honor. Not even the contemptuous snort she gave him could mitigate that fact. D'deridex doubted that she worried much over such a thing; from the files he had memorized, she was entirely Chulak's creature.
Conversations resumed, albeit in a more hushed manner, and D'deridex fought to conceal his fury. He recognized a test when he saw one, and everything about this brief encounter felt pre-arranged. It had been designed, he presumed, for Chulak to determine whether D'deridex was to be considered an enemy or an officer whose allegiance could be purchased.
As he approached Ael'Riov Chulak, D'deridex felt his pulse accelerating and forced himself to calm down. Everything depended on the next few moments. If he was to accomplish the goals that Valdore had placed before him, his words would need to be chosen carefully. After all, one could accomplish nothing from the grave.
"Jolan'tru, Daise'Erei'Riov" Chulak said in greeting. He was resplendent in his ceremonial garb. The scarlet drape that he wore was bordered with gold trim, and his boots had been buffed to an almost mirror-like shine. His hair was streaked with silver, yet retained much of its original dark color, prompting D'deridex to suspect that it too was an intentional decision, as it conveyed the image of both the vitality of youth tempered by the wisdom of age.
"Jolan'tru, Ael'Riov," D'deridex replied. He offered no salute as was customary when greeting a superior officer, and Chulak's eyes narrowed fractionally at the calculated insult. The smile that the older male offered was positively feral.
"You handled that well," he stated, nodding slightly toward the now isolated female commander. "Few officers your age would have had the wisdom to act in the way you did." The smile began to fade. "I suspect that you have impressed many within the Convocation."
"I was unaware that you already spoke for the fleet," D'deridex interjected. Once more, Chulak's eyes narrowed, and D'deridex could see that the captain was taken slightly off-balance by the words. Only a fool would speak so aggressively in the face of his superiors, and D'deridex had already proven that he was no fool. That could only mean that he was intentionally being foolish, which likely concealed a plan. It was almost amusing to see Chulak's expression shift as he re-evaluated D'deridex and sought to discern the direction that this conversation was heading.
"I don't," Ael'Riov Chulak admitted before smiling again. His eyes were unblinking as he watched D'deridex. "But I will."
"You seem certain." Around them, conversations had slowed, and D'deridex was aware that they had become the center of attention. Those who opposed Chulak in his bid to be named fleet commander were watching for weaknesses, while those who supported him were waiting to see how he would deal with an upstart officer who had no business being here.
"I am." Chulak smirked and spoke louder, this time ensuring that his words reached the ears of others. "On my command, the Hnoiyika has taken the war to the Terrans." Many of the assembled officers nodded approvingly, and Chulak continued. "They will rain down fire and death upon our enemies, breaking their spirits and their will to fight."
"The Terrans may surprise you with their resilience," D'deridex said, prompting the captain to frown. Chulak's disdainful opinion of the humans was well known. "But I wish the Hnoiyika good hunting." It was another calculated statement, bordering on the edge of insult. By wishing the absent ship crew good fortune, but not the mastermind behind the hunt, D'deridex made it plain that he doubted its success. Before Chulak could respond, D'deridex offered the gift that he was carrying. "I believe that this belongs to you," he said calmly.
For a heartbeat, concern and curiosity warred on Chulak's face. D'deridex's hidden hostility toward him had not gone unnoticed, and it was not completely unheard of for an assassination attempt to be made during a battlefield Convocation such as this. That the young commander had observed all of the proprieties had also been noticed, though, and curiosity ultimately won. Chulak accepted the folded cloth and began to slowly unwrap it. Suddenly unbalanced, the wrap fell open, spilling the contents to the floor.
The ring of metal upon metal drew everyone's attention.
It was impossible to not recognize the shattered remnants of three Honor Blades as they struck the ground. All three were plain and mostly devoid of decoration, an indication that the warriors who had wielded them had been of low birth. One of the blades still had dried streaks of blood on its surface.
"These do not belong to me," Chulak said calmly.
"But they were yours," D'deridex responded coldly. To anyone who was listening, it was obvious that he was not talking about the dathe'anofv-sens on the floor. Chulak smiled at the double meaning.
"I underestimated you," he said softly.
"You did," D'deridex acknowledged grimly.
"I won't do that again." Chulak frowned slightly. "You have been given a command?"
"I have been awarded the Vastagor." Shifting slightly, D'deridex waited for a heartbeat before continuing. "It is a worthy ship with a storied history. Entirely acceptable for one of my talents." Ael'Riov Chulak stiffened slightly, evidently hearing something that he did not appear to like.
Which was exactly as D'deridex had intended.
"Such ... talents cannot be allowed to wither," the captain said through clenched teeth. Anger was on his face, although he concealed it well. Inwardly, D'deridex smiled. His words had been chosen carefully; many had been the times that he had heard Valdore threaten to send Chulak to the Xin'di because, according to the now deceased admiral, it was a mission that was "entirely acceptable" for one of Chulak's "talents." It had been an empty threat, of course, as the Xin'di were too valuable an asset to waste on a fool like Chulak, but the admiral had known it would disgruntle the captain. If D'deridex had not miscalculated, he knew that Chulak would pull as many strings as he could to appoint Valdore's heir to a career ending mission to the Xin'di.
"Jolan'tru, Ael'Riov," D'deridex said, as if recognizing that he had been dismissed. No one stood in his path as he retraced his steps to the entrance, although he could feel eyes following him the entire time. As he expected, S'enrae was waiting outside, a pair of loyal Reman shocktroopers at her back. She frowned at his expression but said nothing as she fell into step with him.
"I am done here," he announced to the Remans. Gripping the hilt of the dathe'anofv-sen, he followed as the lead shocktrooper began leading him back toward the shuttle. It has begun, he told himself, hoping that he had not miscalculated.
He could not afford to make any mistakes.