The sound of the com chirp caused him to jump in surprise.
Seated in the cramped ready room of the UES Triton, Commander Aidan Cross looked up from the department reports on his tiny desk, momentarily glad for the brief reprieve. The level of readiness throughout the ship didn't worry him, even with the damage that was still not repaired; all of the department heads were combat veterans, and only the newest of them hadn't been aboard during Black's Bungle. At any other time, Aidan would have even been a little giddy at having being given his own command, but several years of experience aboard Columbia had clearly spoiled him. Everywhere he looked, he found himself comparing the oldest Neptune-class still in service to his previous ship.
Columbia won every time.
“What the hell did I do to deserve this?” he asked the empty air as he reached for the comm panel. His first command was supposed to be Columbia after Captain Hernandez was promoted to commodore or decided to retire, not a first generation Neptune-class that had been in service before Aidan entered college.
"This is Cross," he said into the comm-line. "Status report."
"Incoming message from Fleet Command," the voice of Triton's communications officer echoed from the wall panel, and Aidan straightened slightly in his seat. A communique from Command could only mean one thing - Admiral Archer.
"Patch it through," Cross ordered. For less than a heartbeat, he considered adding the comm officer's rank before realizing that he still didn't know it. It was frustrating: on Columbia, he had known every officer and enlisted man or woman by name and face. Here, he barely recognized the department heads and was still struggling with their names. Barely thirty seconds after Cross spoke, Admiral Archer's face appeared on the computer display.
"Commander," the admiral said in greeting, a grim expression on his face. The older man didn't waste time on pleasantries. "We've located the Romulan ship." Archer glanced to someone off-screen, before continuing. "It's the Saratoga,"
Icy shock pulsed through Cross, and he blinked in stunned surprise as he tried to comprehend what he had just heard. His eyes narrowed.
"Are you sure?" he asked, and Archer nodded.
"We're uploading the data to you now," the admiral replied. "Endeavour will be in weapons range in ten minutes and I've redirected all other ships to your location." Aidan swallowed, finally recognizing why Archer was telling him this. Triton was the closest ship to the Romulan vessel, and a single Neptune-class couldn't successfully tackle a bird of prey alone. The admiral was ordering them into harm's way, knowing that there was a strong possibility that they would not survive.
Aidan couldn't imagine having to make such a difficult choice.
"Understood, sir." Cross drew himself upright. "We'll hold them until Endeavour arrives."
"Good hunting, Commander." The tightness in Archer's face was obvious, and Aidan suddenly remembered the rumors surrounding the man and Captain Hernandez. He found himself hoping that those rumors weren't accurate after all.
"Thank you, sir. Triton out." Aidan was heading toward the door before the screen even blanked out. He stepped through the doorway and onto the bridge, noting the already tense atmosphere present. "Battle stations," he ordered as he moved to the command chair. "Helm, set an intercept course with the UES Saratoga, maximum impulse," Aidan continued. He dropped into the chair and primed the ship's log for ejection. "Tactical, lock onto Saratoga and fire as soon as we're in range."
"Sir?" The ensign manning the tactical board had a horrified expression on her face, and Cross gave her a sharp glance.
"It's not the Saratoga," he revealed grimly. Glancing in the direction of the science officer, Aidan spoke again. "TacOps," he demanded.
Instantly, the main viewscreen snapped to life, revealing a tactical operations display of the immediate area. Covering little more than 25,000 kilometers, the display gave Aidan an overview of the environment in which they would be engaging the Romulan ship. He grit his teeth at the massive sensor distortions already being caused by their proximity to the asteroid belt; many of the ores within the belt would cause havoc with Triton's sensors, and he found himself hoping that the Romulan ship would have the same problems.
"Incoming from Saratoga," the communications officer announced. He was a skinny junior lieutenant who looked much younger than his twenty-five years. "Audio only," the lieutenant added with some surprise. For Cross, that confirmed more than any data Starfleet Command had sent.
"Weapons range in twenty seconds," the ensign at tactical said in response to Aidan's look. Nodding, Cross leaned back in his command chair.
"No response," he told the communications officer. On the tactical display, the image representing the Saratoga was beginning to maneuver toward the asteroid belt, clearly intending on using it as cover. Here we go, Aidan told himself as he gripped the armrests of the command chair. A beep from the tactical board informed him that they were in weapons range. "All weapons: fire," he ordered.
Phase cannon fire sliced out, burning through the hard vacuum, even as a pair of Mark VI photonic torpedoes rumbled from Triton's launch tubes. The Saratoga – or rather, the image of the old Iceland-class – twisted into a spiraling dive as the twin warheads corkscrewed toward it. Bright green bursts of disruptor fire flashed from the pursued ship's guns even as the false holographic image surrounding it flickered and died, revealing a bird of prey. Romulan point-defense systems opened up, ripping apart the two torpedoes before they could get within a hundred kilometers of their intended target.
Diving around one of the seemingly motionless asteroids, the bird of prey accelerated deeper into the asteroid belt, and Aidan frowned darkly. Navigation through the field wouldn't be that hard – the density of the material within the belt was so low that the odds of a collision were less than one in a billion – but the difficulty of detecting and targeting the Romulan ship would only increase the deeper they went.
Even as Triton banked into the asteroid field, the bird of prey was disappearing around one of the larger asteroids, engines burning bright against the darkness of space. Proximity alarms began sounding throughout Triton's bridge as the navigational deflector array began sucking up power to protect the ship from stellar debris tumbling through the belt. Aidan pressed a single button on the command chair controls, silencing the alarms instantly.
Spinning along its horizontal axis, the Romulan bird of prey suddenly raced back into view as it climbed over a twenty kilometer wide asteroid that sensors identified as 434 Hungaria. Disruptor cannons barking, the bird of prey accelerated toward Triton with frightening agility and grace. The searing energy slammed into Triton's polarized hull with explosive results; great chunks of hull plating were simply vaporized under the incredible heat of the directed energy beams, and the venerable Neptune-class shuddered under the fierce onslaught. A second salvo sliced into Triton's lower hull, completely incinerating one of the hull polarization systems.
"Return fire!" Cross shouted. The urge to displace the tactical officer was nearly overwhelming, but he suppressed it even as he issued additional orders. "Full evasive!"
Phase cannon fire briefly sketched out an outline of the nearly invisible force screen that surrounded the Romulan bird of prey, and Aidan swallowed a curse. Attempts to add a shield system to the old Neptunes had consistently met with failure, and were one of the reasons that they fought in groups of two or more. Alone, a Neptune, especially one as old as the Triton, was no match for a bird of prey, despite their similarities in size and mass.
Another salvo of disruptor fire slammed into Triton, this time carving a jagged scar along the entire hull and punching into the superstructure. Polarization systems began to fail shipwide, and hull breach alarms began shrieking their clarion cry. Like a wounded animal, Triton twisted into a spinning dive to avoid fire, even as her phase cannons continued to fire, uselessly pouring energy into the defensive screen that protected the Romulan ship. A hollow thrum sounded through the deckplates as another pair of torpedoes surged from the launch tubes; both were torn apart by the Romulan P-Def system almost instantly.
434 Hungaria loomed in front of Triton, its jagged surface shuddering as disruptor beams that missed the Neptune-class slammed into the asteroid. Chunks of reddish rock were torn free from the asteroid and sent spinning through the void as the bird of prey slid into a pursuit course behind Triton, disruptor cannons still barking fire. Why haven't they used torpedoes? Aidan wondered as the helmsman sent the Neptune-class into a steep, twisting climb to evade the enemy's shots. The inertial dampeners struggled with the abrupt change, and gravity pushed Cross back into the command chair.
Lethal fire continued to rain from the bird of prey, stabbing through the endless night and into the superstructure of Triton. An explosion rocked the Starfleet vessel as a disruptor beam burned into the port nacelle. Warp plasma ignited suddenly, ripping the nacelle apart with a flash of azure fire, and sending burning shrapnel into the already weakened hull. The force of the detonation sent Triton spinning out of control as maneuvering thrusters misfired and the impulse manifold fractured.
Clinging to his command chair, Aidan stared in horror as the Neptune-class ship tumbled toward 434 Hungaria. Alarms were shrieking as the crew struggled to regain control of the crippled ship, but Cross knew the truth.
He knew that they would be too late.
They were going to be too late.
Hands clinging to her console, Hoshi Sato-Reed stared in horror at the images now being displayed on the main viewscreen. The Triton was reeling under concentrated fire from a Romulan bird of prey, and she gasped as the Neptune-class ship shuddered under brutal barrages. Hull plating was sent spinning into the darkness, and Hoshi felt her stomach tighten.
Through the deckplates, she could feel Endeavour's impulse drive straining as Lieutenant Mayweather pushed the envelope, exactly like her brother would have done. Going to warp to cover the vast distance wasn't much of an option; in the best of times, it was dangerous to break the light barrier within the confines of a system, but with an exit point within an asteroid field? That was tantamount to suicide.
Out of the corner of her eye, Hoshi could see Trip leaning forward in his command chair, one hand gripping the armrest tightly as he studied the sensor feed in front of him. There were no immediate indications of worry on his face, although Hoshi had known him long enough to recognize the tightness around his eyes for the concern that it was.
On the viewscreen, Triton suddenly shuddered as Romulan disruptor fire burned into Starfleet vessel's hull, and Hoshi looked away, forcing herself to focus on the communications console in front of her. She didn't want to watch the Neptune-class die.
"The hell with this," Captain Tucker muttered abruptly. "Helm," he said loudly. "Stand by for warp speed."
"Captain-" T'Pol started to say, but Trip continued to speak over her, his tone implacable.
"Communications, sound collision," he ordered. As Hoshi obeyed, he continued, this time directing his comments to his first officer. "I'm not going to sit here and watch them die."
"I wasn't asking you to," the Vulcan retorted calmly as she manipulated her board. "Uploading recommended flight path to navigational control now." Hoshi's board beeped, and she gave the small display a quick glance.
"All stations report ready," she announced.
"At warp six," T'Pol continued, "it will take approximately six point three seconds to reach the target. Automatic warp shutdown is recommended."
"Do it," Tucker decided. On the main viewscreen, Triton's port nacelle suddenly exploded, and Hoshi forced herself to look away. "Engage," Trip said.
With an aggressive rumble, the warp drive of Endeavour engaged, and the NC-06 surged forward at two hundred and sixteen times the speed of light. The six seconds seemed to flash by, and Endeavour dropped from warp less than a thousand kilometers from the out-of-control Triton. Even as the NC-06 began to maneuver toward the two ships, the Romulan bird of prey accelerated away from the newly arrived Starfleet ship, clearly recognizing that the NC-06 outgunned him.
"Track them," Tucker snapped, before glancing in Lieutenant Commander Eisler's direction. "Get a tractor lock on the Triton," he ordered.
"Romulan craft is deploying mines," T'Pol announced from her station. A moment later, Endeavour shuddered slightly as its tractor beam locked onto the Triton. The sudden addition of millions of kilograms of mass caused the NC-06 to lurch to a virtual halt, and Hoshi winced at the resulting high pitched whine that echoed through the ship. The grimace that flickered across T'Pol's face was gone nearly before Sato saw it.
"Triton is stabilizing," the Vulcan said moments later. "Maneuvering thrusters are firing."
"Cut 'em loose," Trip instructed. "Helm, pursuit course for the Romulan ship." He leaned forward slightly. "Weapons are free."
Engines growling, Endeavour accelerated deeper into the asteroid belt. The viewscreen was suddenly alive with pyrotechnics as the point-defense systems on the Starfleet vessel began firing at the two barely noticeable mines, ripping the defensive weapons apart with x-ray laser pulses. A third mine began shifting position as its integrated thrusters began firing, but two of Endeavour's phase cannons opened up, their beams converging upon the explosive and vaporizing it.
"Where the hell is he?" Captain Tucker demanded, his expression tight. He glanced in T'Pol's direction.
"I am detecting multiple sensor contacts," the Vulcan revealed, her fingers dancing across her board. "All are relaying contradictory information." To Hoshi's ears, she sounded slightly surprised.
"Elaborate." Trip's words required an immediate response, and, once more, Hoshi realized how much he had changed. He no longer seemed to be the fun-loving extrovert he'd always pretended to be while aboard Enterprise; now, he wore authority like a coat, and the lines around his eyes revealed the cost that it was demanding. It wasn't that he seemed older – to the contrary, in fact – but the distance in his eyes lent him an air of aged wisdom.
At his words, however, T'Pol merely gave him a sidelong glance, complete with the raised Eyebrow of Annoyance. It was a slightly modified version of the Eyebrow of Doom, and Hoshi had learned that it was the Vulcan's way of expressing that whomever she was talking to at the time was being obtuse. In the early days of Enterprise's launch, it was a toss up as to whether Jonathan Archer or Trip Tucker received this particular Eyebrow more.
"I do not have sufficient data to do so," the Vulcan responded to the captain's demand before bending back over her board's viewer. "It is probable that the Romulan craft has activated its holographic cloaking device, while deploying a number of devices to confuse our scans."
"Countermeasures," Commander Eisler growled from his station.
"Confirmed." T'Pol pressed a button on her board, and the main viewscreen abruptly zoomed toward a specific target. At first, Hoshi thought it was the bird of prey; its albedo, color and general shape were very similar to that of the Romulan warship. A flash from the engine section revealed the presence of maneuvering thrusters, but there was something not quite right about it, something that caused Hoshi to give it a second look.
"What the hell is that?" Trip asked, speaking Sato's thought.
"An inflatable decoy ballute," Eisler answered. He sounded mildly impressed, as if he approved of the Romulan's battle tactics. Tucker gave him an incredulous look, before returning his attention to T'Pol. She was still leaning forward, her eyes glued to her viewer.
"Detecting mass displacement equivalent to a bird of prey," she stated. "Outer hull appears to be a semi-flexible skin of duranium composites with internal structure comprised primarily of oxygen and helium." Her fingers tapped additional keys. "Additional components appear integrated to provide it with a close approximation of the bird of prey's sensor cross section," she finished.
"So, it is a decoy," Trip mused, ignoring the almost triumphant expression on Eisler's face. "Why haven't we seen these before?"
"Because we've always been outnumbered," the tactical officer rumbled. "This is the first time one of them is outgunned and being hunted."
"Fascinating," T'Pol muttered under breath, her comment pitched so low that Hoshi doubted anyone else heard it. "I am detecting debris that would indicate these decoys were deployed via torpedo."
"But what about the Romulan ship?" Trip asked, his fingers gripping the armrests of his chair. He appeared poised to stand, probably to pace, Hoshi presumed.
"As I stated earlier," the Vulcan first officer reminded him, "I am receiving contradictory information." She pressed another button on her board, and the main viewscreen returned to its broad overview. "Stand by."
"Slow to one-quarter," the captain ordered. He glanced toward Eisler. "Target those decoys and fire."
"Recommend we capture one for study," the tactical officer said, and Tucker nodded sharply.
"Contact!" T'Pol declared abruptly. "Bearing: one nine three mark one one four."
"That's behind us!" Trip realized. "Full evasive, maximum impulse!" he snapped. Lieutenant Mayweather was already applying acceleration, even before the captain spoke.
"Incoming!" Eisler's voice carried over the sudden wail of proximity alarms. Disruptor beams hammered into Endeavour's shields, rocking the Starfleet vessel, even as a trio of torpedoes screamed through the void. As the point-defense lasers began tracking the rapidly approaching warheads, Mayweather sent the NC-06 into a sudden, lurching dive. Hoshi felt her stomach suddenly jump into her throat as one of the torpedoes ignored the sudden flashes of pyrotechnics from Endeavour's countermeasure suite, and an overwhelming sense of deja vu washed through her. With effort, she pushed away the dark memories of the last battle she had been a part of as the p-def system ripped the incoming warheads apart.
Her heart was hammering as she focused her complete attention on the comm frequencies in an attempt to think about anything but the fact that she was once more in the middle of a battle. Six Starfleet vessels were en route, four of them Daedalus-classes. To her surprise, she discovered that a poorly armed Boomer ship was even now maneuvering toward the partially disabled Triton to tow it free of the combat zone, despite the many communications from Starfleet Command to stay clear.
Hoshi glanced up from her board, noting the attitude of focused determination that seemed to surround the three senior officers present. There was no concern, no panic at being outmanuevered, or even a hint of worry about the ultimate result of this engagement.
She shook her head in amazement.
He shook his head in disbelief.
As Endeavour shook under a sudden salvo of fire from the bird of prey, Lieutenant Commander Rick Eisler found himself more than a little surprised at the sheer audacity of the Romulan commander. The Starfleet ship clearly outgunned the smaller Romulan warship, and committing to an attack run as the Romulan was doing made little tactical sense. If the enemy commander had not already displayed cunning, Rick would not have been worried.
"Hard to starboard!" the captain demanded as the Romulan ship continued to fire. Sizzling disruptor beams splashed against Endeavour's protective force screen, momentarily bathing the larger ship with a viridian hue that outlined the extent of its shield. Three torpedoes curled through the hard vacuum, shuddering in mid-flight as Endeavour's point-defense guns burned into them. Even as the Starfleet ship banked to the right, her own weapons were replying. Scarlet streams of phase cannon fire stabbed toward the bird of prey, splattering against the shields surroundeding it.
To Rick's continuing surprise, the Romulan ship did not maneuver to maintain its position at Endeavour's aft, choosing to instead turn hard in the opposite direction. Eisler frowned at the unconventional tactic as he issued new instructions to Hayes' weapons teams; in response to these new orders, a quartet of Mark VI photonic torpedoes darted from the launch tubes, orienting themselves almost instantly toward the rapidly maneuvering bird of prey.
"Get us behind him!" Tucker ordered, and Lieutenant Mayweather's hands began dancing across her navigation board. Gravity pushed Rick back into his seat as the dampeners struggled with the sudden change in velocity. He frowned again as he studied the sensor feed at his station. Too late, he realized what the Romulan was doing.
Engines flaring brightly, the bird of prey rolled along its horizontal axis as it raced by one of the inflatable decoys, missing the ballute's surface by mere meters. The sudden merging of the Romulan and decoy sensor signatures confused the primitive tracking computers in the four pursuing torpedoes; three of them were completely fooled, and slammed into the decoy with a fierce explosion. The remaining warhead took two impossibly long seconds to discern between the conflicting signatures; it curved away from the exploding decoy to formulate this decision and, by the time that it decided to continue pursuing the bird of prey, its fuel supply had run out. Following its programming, it self-destructed harmlessly hundreds of kilometers away from either ship.
Displaying maneuverability that Endeavour could not match, the Romulan ship climbed into another attack run, this time approaching from an oblique angle that made targeting it with the primary weapons difficult. Endeavour shook once more as disruptor fire slammed into the shields. Rolling, the bird of prey abruptly dove away from the larger ship, engines flaring with what Rick assumed was the equivalent of afterburners.
"Mister Eisler," Captain Tucker said sharply, his tone tenser than it had been in a very long time. Rick shrugged slightly as he issued new instructions to the weapons teams loading the torpedo tubes.
"He's very good," the tactical officer replied as the Romulan ship continued its rapid evasive maneuvers. Endeavour's phase cannons were still spitting fire at the fast ship, but most of the shots went wide as the bird of prey jinked and rolled.
Under Mayweather's hand, Endeavour pursued the more agile ship doggedly, inexplicably reminding Eisler of a boxer relying on brute strength to defeat a much more nimble opponent. The commander of the Romulan ship seemed to recognize that he was outgunned, and continued to dance just out of optimal weapons range. Shots were exchanged, but with minimal effect.
"Got you!" Lieutenant Mayweather suddenly growled as the bird of prey began another wide turn. The lieutenant's hands flew across the helm console as she sent Endeavour into a steep, stomach-lurching climb. For a moment, Rick didn't comprehend what she had done, but the confusion dissolved as the Romulan ship banked directly into the NC-06's line of fire. Clearly, Mayweather had seen a pattern in the bird of prey's flight path and taken advantage of that.
Instantly, Endeavour's weapons systems unleashed a withering barrage of fire upon the smaller ship. Phase cannon fire punched through the bird of prey's weakening shields, carving jagged scars across the warship's hull. Four torpedoes roared from the launch tubes and screamed across the void; two were instantly destroyed by Romulan point-defense, and a third missed wide and detonated against a small asteroid chunk. The fourth warhead hit the bird of prey with hull-crushing force, but, incredibly, skipped off of the warship and tumbled end over end deeper into the asteroid field. Though the torpedo did not explode, the kinetic energy of its impact shattered hull plating.
Reeling under the brutal onslaught and trailing atmosphere, the bird of prey curved sharply away from the NC-06, momentarily exposing its aft quarter as it raced away. One of the engines was flickering sporadically, but before Endeavour's weapons could take advantage of this brief second of weakness, a mine-sized object was ejected from the Romulan ship and sent tumbling toward the Starfleet ship. Point-defense systems immediately began targeting the object.
And then, the object exploded.
Almost instantly, Rick's sensor feed went blank, and he heard a startled gasp come from another bridge officer. Glancing up quickly, he could see that the monitors on all systems had temporarily failed. Static flickered upon the main viewscreen, and all eyes turned toward the Vulcan first officer.
"Fascinating," she murmured, her fingers rapidly inputting commands to her station. "All external sensors have been affected," T'Pol announced. "Attempting to compensate."
As she worked, Eisler studied his own data with a frown. Prior to system failure, Endeavour’s sensors had detected massive damage on the bird of prey. He issued rapid instructions to the weapons teams, ordering them to concentrate all subsequent fire on the damaged areas. Once the targeting sensors were back online, he would have a better idea of how extensive the damage was to the Romulan ship.
"T'Pol..." The captain's voice betrayed his worry, and the Vulcan commander gave him a quick look that had a hint of annoyance in it.
"I am working as quickly as possible, Captain," she stated. "Complete restart of all sensor algorithms in thirty seconds."
"We might not have thirty seconds," Tucker retorted before glancing toward Rick. "Another new toy?" the captain asked grimly.
"Evidently," Eisler replied. "He's running scared now, sir." At the captain's disbelieving look, Rick continued. "If he had any more torpedoes, Captain, he would have used them while we're blind. This is the equivalent of popping smoke, sir." Tucker was silent for a moment.
"What the hell does that mean?" he asked, and Rick grimaced slightly, once more reminded that the captain didn't have the same training that he did.
"Infantry combat tactics, sir," Eisler stated. "To conceal their retreat, a unit throws smoke grenades."
"Sensors coming online," T'Pol declared. A heartbeat later, Rick's data feed came alive, and he glowered at the complete lack of a target. He quickly checked the number of decoy ballutes, noting that two more of them had been destroyed during the firefight. His board chirped as Lieutenant Hayes informed him that the weapons teams were operational and standing by.
"Where is he?" Captain Tucker asked, leaning forward in his command chair as he did.
"Scanning," the first officer replied. She was silent for at least thirty seconds. "I am detecting a debris field approximately seventeen thousand kilometers from our current position." Another moment passed as she input instructions. "Impulse wake ends at this debris field."
"It can't be that easy," the captain muttered, and Rick nodded in agreement. "Any sign of the holo-cloak?" Tucker asked.
"Sensor distortions are making scans unreliable," the Vulcan said as she manipulated the controls at her station. Suddenly, she paused and straightened from her crouch over the board's viewer. One eyebrow was quirked, and she gave Tucker a look that Rick couldn't possibly comprehend. The captain nodded, almost as if she had asked him something, and turned to Eisler.
"I want Remoras loaded," Tucker ordered quickly, "and programmed to target anything with a Romulan hull. If there's no impulse wake, that means he's on maneuverin' thrusters only." The captain's accent, usually barely noticeable, was particularly thick as he spoke.
"Aye, sir." Rick nodded his approval as he keyed in the new instructions for Lieutenant Hayes; use of the Remoras in this manner would be the equivalent of ancient sea-going ships using depth charges to flush out a hiding submarine.
"Lieutenant Mayweather," the captain continued, "slow to one-quarter and stand by for emergency thrust." His attention shifted to Lieutenant Commander Sato-Reed. "Hoshi, keep Starfleet vessels from pursuin'. It's about to get ugly in here."
"Remoras standing by," Rick announced. Tucker nodded, glancing once in T'Pol's direction. The Vulcan was bent over the scanner on her board once more, completely intent on whatever it was she was doing, and gave no hint that she was aware of the captain's look. Despite that, he nodded before looking at Eisler. With a frown, the captain spoke."Fire."
At Trip's command, Endeavour unleashed hell.
Hollow booms rumbled through the NC-06 as four Remora torpedoes roared from the launch tubes, breaking into multiple warheads almost instantly. The space around the Starfleet ship was alive with explosions as the warheads screamed toward their targets. The five remaining decoy ballutes were torn apart almost instantly as fully half of the explosive payload slammed into the decoys' duranium composite hulls. Most of the remaining warheads circled for long moments, seeking targets and ultimately self-destructing as their fuel supplies dwindled.
Most, but not all.
Two warheads angled sharply away from Endeavour, detonating with fierce flashes as they slammed into what seemed to be an invisible barrier. A third Remora shuddered inexplicably as it maneuvered in the same direction, a clear indication that it had been targeted by a Romulan point-defense system.
"Target," T'Pol abruptly announced. Her hands were flying across the Science board as she directed all of Endeavour's sensors toward the holographically cloaked bird of prey. Through their bond, Trip knew roughly what she was doing, but the science and equations that flickered through her consciousness were so far beyond his comprehension that he didn't even try to understand them. Her efforts, however, had an immediate effect. As the main viewscreen focused on the seemingly empty space, a sudden pulse of light from Endeavour's deflector array bathed the area with golden illumination.
Almost instantly, the Romulan bird of prey's holographic cloak failed.
"Fire!" Trip snapped, even though he realized it was unnecessary. Endeavour's phase cannons were already responding, sending lethal streams of burning energy across the silent void to slam into the Romulan's hull. Geysers of molten metal sprayed out from the bird of prey as the white-hot energy melted polarized hull plating. A second salvo punched into the warship's superstructure and sliced into the engineering section, venting debris and atmosphere into the hard vacuum. The bird of prey shuddered as its engines failed, and it began to slowly spin.
"Cease fire," Tucker ordered quickly as another phase cannon burst carved a jagged scar across the Romulan ship, this time cutting into one of the nacelles. "STAB teams stand by to deploy." A wave of relief washed through Trip as he realized that it was finally over. "Hoshi, hail the Romulan ship. Let's see if-"
"Incoming transmission," Sato interrupted. "Audio only." At Trip's nod, she pressed a button on her board; a chime sounded, indicating that the communications link was now active. The sound of T'Pol's fingers inputting commands into her station seemed remarkably loud, but Tucker pushed the thought away.
"Shaoi dan, Endeavour." The voice that spoke was male and sounded pained. An odd accent flavored his speech as he continued. "This was a ... well fought battle and I salute you as the victor," the Romulan stated before his words dissolved into a paroxysm of coughing.
"Romulan warship," Trip said confidently. "Stand down and prepare to be boarded."
"That I cannot do, Endeavour." Once more, coughing prevented the speaker from continuing. "I regret that I have but one additional duty to perform," the voice stated moments later. "You should get clear of us."
"Captain," T'Pol said suddenly, her voice pitched low so it wouldn’t be picked up by the communication line. "I am detecting an energy surge in the Romulan warp core."
"Hard about," Trip demanded. "Get us out of here." Mayweather was already obeying as Tucker gave the viewscreen another look. He frowned at the incongruity of the Romulan's actions; tactically, it would have made more sense to draw Endeavour closer before activating any sort of auto-destruct. By warning the Starfleet ship away, the Romulan commander was instead ensuring that Endeavour would ultimately face and likely kill more of his species in the future.
It made no sense.
With a ferocious flash of light, the bird of prey violently self-destructed, vanishing in a ball of flame that ripped the hull apart and atomized metal. Endeavour shook as the shockwave of the warp core breach slammed into the retreating Starfleet ship. Alarms began shrieking their warning cries, but Master Chief Mackenzie silenced them without comment.
"Starboard nacelle is damaged and venting plasma," the COB announced. "Damage control parties on it." Trip glowered at that: Endeavour could reach warp speed with only one nacelle, but doing so was dangerous. Ships had been lost to core breaches while trying to maintain superluminal velocities with such an uneven warp field.
"Captain." Hoshi's face was scrunched up in an expression of concern as she spoke up, and she was cupping the earpiece in an attempt to focus on something. "Just before it exploded," she said ominously, "the Romulan ship sent out a comm-pulse."
"Can you track it?" Trip asked, including T'Pol in the question. Before the Vulcan could reply, Hoshi drew in a sharp breath.
"Reports of multiple detonations on Mars," the communications officer announced grimly.
"Set a course for Earth, maximum impulse," Tucker ordered. By his calculations, it would take over seventeen long minutes to reach their destination at impulse; even if both nacelles were fully functional, Endeavour’s current location made warp speeds even riskier. Only a fool or a desperate fool would try to break the light barrier this close to the system's gravity well. Trip shot a quick glance toward T'Pol, noting that she was discreetly watching him, concern lurking in her eyes. She had clearly caught the panicked memory of how he had felt when he had learned that Lizzie was gone, and the horrifying thought that it was happening again pounded through his mind.
He didn't even try to force a smile.
As Endeavour hurtled forward at just under one hundred and fifty thousand kilometers a second, Trip found himself leaning forward in his command chair, steepling his fingers in order to keep himself from tapping the armrests. It was only after a few moments that he realized how much he looked like he was praying. He did not change his posture, though. He was praying, after all.
Hoshi looked in his direction, a question on her face as she gestured to the comm board, and he nodded in response. She activated the bridge speakers, and instantly, Jonathan Archer's voice filled the air.
"-on my authorization," the admiral was saying, his tone bleak. "Planetary defenses are now active. No IFF codes will be recognized as valid. If any ship enters Earth's outer atmosphere, it will be fired upon."
"Contact," T'Pol declared suddenly, drawing Trip's attention. He silently chastised himself for becoming so focused on what the admiral was saying that he had briefly lost track of what was happening on the bridge. "Bearing: zero five two mark three zero four. It is now approaching Earth's upper atmosphere at maximum impulse." Without being asked, she activated the main viewscreen.
The shattered wreck of a Boomer ship dominated the image, and Trip winced with the realization that it had likely been destroyed by the defense grid once the IFF codes were taken offline. Planetary defense systems were already firing at the incoming ordnance, filling the void with lethal streams of excited plasma. Displaying amazing maneuverability, the fission bomb went evasive as it raced toward its destination. Trip felt his breath catch as the outer casing on the weapon fell away abruptly.
With a flare of igniting rocket motors, the twelve warheads launched.
One was torn apart by the planetary defense systems almost instantly, and three more quickly followed suit. Three Daedalus-class cruisers lumbered forward from the orbital drydocks, coordinating their firepower to create a more effective spread of fire; together, they blasted apart another one of the deadly warheads. The Vulcan ambassadorial ship – the Ni'Var – raced into the killing zone, absorbing heavy damage from the indiscriminate fire of the orbital cannons as it fired its own particle beams; one of the warheads was instantly vaporized, and a second was so badly damaged that it was a sitting duck for the orbital cannons. Incredibly, a rickety-looking Boomer cargo ship dove headlong into the midst of the crossfire, taking brutal phase cannon fire shots to its superstructure before colliding with one of the maneuvering warheads. Both vanished in a flash of atomic fire.
That left four.
One of the surviving warheads slammed into an orbital cannon, exploding with a ferocious burst of fire that completely atomized the target and sent a massive shockwave into many of the other weapons. A second warhead streaked toward the largest of the comm-sats currently in orbit, detonating hundreds of meters away from its target. The shockwave from the violent explosion smashed into the satellite and sent it spinning toward the planet below. Somehow evading the concentrated firepower directed against them, the two remaining warheads fell into the atmosphere of humanity's birthplace.Seconds later, Trip could see the detonations as they struck Earth.