Romulan-Occupied Space, 2 April 2157.
Alarms were still echoing through the ship, but Harrad-Sar no longer noticed them.
Wiping blood from his face, he gave Navaar a glance, hoping against hope that she would have some surprise waiting for him that would get them out of this situation. With one look, however, he could tell that she had absolutely no idea what to do next. Anger pulsed within him as he reflected that it was her fault that they were adrift in space with their engines crippled and weapon systems down. It had been her idea to venture this deep in Romulan-controlled space against the Syndicate's explicit instructions otherwise. It had been her idea to approach the Romulan warships with their own weapons deactivated. It had been her idea...
As if sensing his eyes and perhaps his discontent as well, Navaar gave him a sharp glare. At once, he could taste the change in the air as her mood shifted and, without a word, he lowered his eyes in face of the rebuke that now laced the oxygen circulating around them. The anger still burned like acid though; and not for the first time, he let his hate for Navaar flood through him. Once again a mad plan that she had devised was collapsing around them, and he had no doubt that it would be up to him to salvage something positive out of this latest catastrophe.
But then, that was nothing new.
“Status,” he demanded from his sensor operator, his tone unnecessarily cold. The boy gave him a wide-eyed look but responded instantly, a product of the harsh and unyielding discipline that Harrad-Sar demanded.
“Targets are maneuvering to board, sir!” The boy's terror was understandable: Romulans didn't take prisoners.
“As expected,” Navaar stated from her place where she was slouched in the command chair. She appeared to be perfectly confident of survival; however, Harrad-Sar had been a slave to her long enough to see through that illusion and recognize how close to sheer panic she truly was.
“Sir, we need to mount a defense,” the weapons officer begged from his shattered console, but Harrad-Sar gave him a quelling glance. A defense now would lead to all of their deaths, and Harrad-Sar still had dreams of dying in bed of extreme age.
“Stand down all tactical teams,” Harrad-Sar ordered, his features grim. “And continue broadcasting on all channels.” He looked at Navaar once more, the hatred he felt for her filling his eyes. She smirked at him contemptuously and leaned back in the chair.
They didn't have to wait long. Within minutes, the lift door slid open, revealing four figures. Encased in armored environment suits complete with opaque faceplates, they were bipedal and moved with the singular purpose of soldiers, each bearing sinister-looking weapons and unfamiliar equipment. Three of the figures moved differently than the fourth, however, skulking forward in an almost bestial crouch despite their environment suits and disruptor rifles. At their approach, the weapons officer shifted awkwardly before casting yet another desperate glance at Harrad-Sar.
“You are ... Oh'Reon,” the fourth suited figure stated calmly in the Trader's tongue as it glanced around the command deck with an almost casual arrogance. “And you are far from your borders,” the figure continued. “The Syndicate well knows the price for violation of our space.”
Uncoiling from the command chair like a jungle feline, Navaar climbed to her feet in a seductive manner, a smile upon her face.
“Commander,” she cooed softly as she sauntered toward him, “we are not here on business from the Syndicate.” Another smile was offered to the helmeted Romulan, one that promised much more than simply coy looks. “Our business is with you.”
“Unlikely,” the figure hissed as Navaar reached out to stroke the environment suit's chest plate. She winced in pained surprise as the Romulan commander abruptly seized her hand and twisted it into an offensive martial hold. Fear filled the air suddenly as she panicked, her spray of pheromones blotting out coherent thought; the weapons officer scrambled for a weapon in answer to Navaar's unspoken demand for aid but fell almost at once, two searing holes burned through his chest as the bestial Romulans reacted with blinding speed. The fear that soaked the air turned to terror as a third burst of fire tore through the sensor operator in the moment that he tried to tackle one of the Romulans. Less than a second later, a brutal convergence of energy ripped apart the helmsman as he stumbled to his feet.
Barely clinging to his self-control, Harrad-Sar found himself unaccountably glad for his many years of servitude under Navaar. The decades-long exposure to her pheromones gave him a tentative resistance to them now, and he trembled with the effort it took to keep from throwing himself at the figures before him.
“We are quite aware of your ... abilities, female,” the Romulan commander declared as it held Navaar by the throat and lifted her bodily from the deck. She struggled wildly, clawing desperately at the unyielding grip around her neck as she futilely kicked the hardened armor. “And we are equally prepared to combat such tricks.” Cognizant of the three disruptors suddenly trained on him, Harrad-Sar shook as he fought the smells that washed over him, urging him to act. Anger and hate for Navaar gave him strength, and he clung to those emotions with every gram of control he still had.
“Information,” he growled through clenched teeth, drawing the Romulan's attention as quickly as if he had attacked. “We have information. Willing to sell.”
“Elaborate,” the commander ordered. It eased its hold on Navaar, and Harrad-Sar could taste her relief.
“We have trade routes used by the humans,” he revealed quickly.
“Such information we already have,” the Romulan rumbled through the voice modulator in its helmet. It was quiet for a moment before continuing. “We do seek intelligence about the new weapons being deployed by the humans. Torpedoes that utilize multiple independently tracking warheads. Defensive force screening. Matter transmission devices. Can you provide this information?”
“I can acquire it,” Harrad-Sar replied without hesitation, once more in control of himself. This was negotiation, and he excelled at that. “With time and money.”
A long heartbeat passed in absolute silence as the Romulan studied him through the opaque helmet and icy sweat slid down Harrad-Sar's back. Everything depended upon this moment, and an odd thought flickered through his mind.
He hoped the Romulan was in a good mood.
13 June 2157, 1045 Hours Earth Standard Time.
He was in a bad mood.
His face set in a perpetual scowl, Admiral Hannibal Black stepped out of the turbolift and onto the command deck of Endeavour. He paused just beyond the lift doors as he gave the bridge a once-over, noting without surprise that the entire command staff was on duty. It was entirely understandable: an experiment this important absolutely demanded the most experienced staff present.
“Admiral on deck!” someone shouted and there was a momentary flurry of motion as the officers and enlisted personnel scrambled to assume the position of attention. Many officers his rank would have spoken the moment that the declaration of his presence was made, but Black waited an extended heartbeat before finally commenting. It was important, he thought, that the crew be reminded of his rank from time to time.
“Carry on,” he ordered, giving the centuries-old military command for work to resume. With quick steps, he approached the command chair where Tucker was retaking his seat; for a moment, Hannibal seriously contemplated ordering the captain from the chair but, in the end, decided against it. As much as Black may not like the fact, Endeavour was still Tucker's ship and issuing such an order would only diminish the captain's authority before his crew.
“Admiral,” Tucker said in greeting. If the captain's tone was a touch colder than entirely appropriate, Black couldn't tell. To him, Charles Tucker was still an enigma.
He could trace his complaints regarding Tucker to the moment when Admiral Gardner first began floating the younger man's name as a candidate to command Endeavour; in Black's opinion, Tucker shouldn't have even been considered for the job, despite his surprisingly competent record in recent years. As far as Hannibal was concerned, there were other officers already in the command track who had a greater amount of time in service or grade that were far more deserving of the job. And then, there was that whole nonsense between Tucker and Commander T'Pol; if even half of the rumors about them were true, both should have been brought up on charges for fraternization or dereliction of duty after that entire Terra Prime fiasco. As was all too common, though, Hannibal's opinion was soundly ignored and Archer the idiot-savant was deferred to.
“We're on schedule for the test, sir,” the captain commented, offering Black a PADD that the admiral accepted without comment. Quickly scanning over the data present, Hannibal experienced a sudden flash of annoyance when he realized that he barely comprehended the equations on the data device; briefly, he wondered if the engineer-turned-captain in front of him knew that and was making some sort of subtle comment. “I've run the numbers twice,” Tucker continued, nodding to the PADD, and Black scowled again, “and we should be good to go.” The captain addressed his first officer. “T'Pol, run those field variance equations one more time and use Hess' revised fuel estimates.”
“The revised fuel estimates were used in the previous set of equations, Captain,” the Vulcan commander replied coolly.
“You sure?” Tucker sounded disbelieving as he spoke.
“Positive.” Out of the corner of his eye, Black noticed several of the bridge officers smirking at the look of mild reproach that T'Pol gave the captain, almost as if she wanted to chide Tucker for questioning her math. Once more, the admiral’s expression darkened as he took in the atmosphere of Endeavour's bridge. In his opinion, discipline aboard this vessel was far too lax, especially considering the monumental task they had been given.
After the bombing of the Warp Six Complex on Earth and the assassination of several key research scientists, EarthGov and Starfleet Command had decided to transfer their most gifted R&D teams to mobile facilities aboard warp capable ships that could, if necessary, defend themselves. It was pretty clear that the counter-intelligence forces on Earth weren't up to the task of preventing Romulan penetration, so spreading the best and the brightest out among the stars seemed like a logical choice. In a decision that Hannibal continued to find bizarre, however, Admiral Gardner had pulled Endeavour from the front lines of the war and had refit her to serve as a mobile research and development platform. Removing Tucker and T'Pol from active hot spots made sense – even Black acknowledged that the captain was the leading warp specialist that Starfleet had, and T'Pol's expertise was simply too valuable to waste on a ship-of-the-line – but taking Endeavour out of the battle was nothing short of ruinous.
Recently rechristened as the NC-06 following the Starfleet-wide adoption of the “Naval, Combat” or NC hull classification for their warships, Endeavour was the most advanced warship Earth had in its arsenal. The fastest ship in the fleet, she was also the most heavily armed, and was equipped with an entirely state-of-the-art defensive suite, all of which made her ideal for taking the fight to the Romulans. It gave Black heartburn whenever he thought about this magnificent warship being used for research.
It was poor comfort to him that dozens of new systems had already come out of what Starfleet Command called the Icarus Project.
“Engineering reports ready,” the communications officer abruptly announced, and Tucker gave her a nod. He was silent for a long moment as he studied the sensor feed installed in front of the command chair. Hannibal shifted anxiously on his feet as he waited for the next stage in this experiment; this was the only reason he had been aboard Endeavour for the last six days.
“Shipwide broadcast,” Tucker ordered in a soft voice that still carried authority. “Stand by for warp speed.” The captain glanced once at the Vulcan science officer as the lieutenant manning the COM board carried out his instructions. Nodding as if Commander T'Pol had made a comment, Tucker then looked around the bridge, and Black realized that he was judging the level of readiness of his crew. Despite his dislike of the man, the admiral found himself nodding slightly in approval of the action; he stopped the moment he realized what he was doing.
“Mister Hsiao,” Tucker stated as he leaned back almost leisurely, “let's make history.” The helmsman smiled broadly as his captain continued. “Take us to warp one.”
Endeavour's engines growled as the ship surged forward, accelerating beyond the speed of light within seconds, and Black felt his heart rate accelerate. If the projections that had come out of the Project were accurate, the enhancements to Endeavour's warp nacelles could very well change the course of the war.
And right now, Earth needed every advantage she could get.
As one of the most senior officers in Starfleet, Hannibal had access to intelligence that painted a bleak picture of the ongoing hostilities. In the year since the war began, Earth had yet to win a single engagement; and every encounter with the Romulans had resulted in another defeat or “tactical withdrawal.” These defeats weren't minor ones, either. Only three months earlier, the Atlantis strike group had been forced to retreat from a Romulan task force that attacked the Terra Nova colony; three Neptune-classes and one of the newer Daedalus-class ships had been lost in the engagement, and intelligence assets had recently confirmed that the colony itself had been nuked into oblivion. A month before that, the UES Challenger had been scuttled by her commanding officer to prevent capture and all hands were lost; details were still sketchy, but the commanders of the other ships assigned to Challenger strike group had reported that Captain Stiles was answering a civilian distress signal from a ship called Kobayashi Maru when a squadron of Romulan warbirds had ambushed the NC-03. The crippling defeat at Thor's Cradle and the unmitigated disaster that had been Pacifica Prime only served as reminders of how outclassed Starfleet continued to be. And then there were the troubling if still unsubstantiated reports of Romulan activity within the area of space that had once been the Delphic Expanse, reports that hinted at a possible alliance between the Romulans and the Reptillian Xindi...
“Holding steady at warp one,” the helmsman announced, and Tucker shot a look at the master chief manning the damage control board.
“Injector temperatures well below standard,” the MCPO declared in response to the captain's unspoken question. Another moment passed as the senior enlisted man studied his board before commenting, “Energy consumption below norm.”
“Open her up, Dan,” Tucker instructed calmly. "Maximum warp."
A subtle shudder ran through the deck of Endeavour and the ambient hum of her engines trebled in volume as the helmsman obeyed the captain's order. Tucker gave his science officer a look that could have meant anything; she responded with a single raised eyebrow before tapping a rapid command on her console. At once, the viewscreen snapped to life, displaying an engineering cross-section of Endeavour that Black recognized as the master systems display. Data scrolled across the screen, highlighting current ship status and drive output, and Tucker studied it with the narrowed eyes of an expert.
"Warp five point eight," the helmsman announced, his voice filled with the same eagerness that knotted Hannibal's stomach. "Five point nine ... warp six!" A cheer from the enlisted personnel manning the situation room rang out. Black smiled, images of warp six-capable starships defeating Romulan warbirds spinning around in his head.
"T'Pol?" Captain Tucker barely seemed to react, his features as stoic and impassive as those of his science officer. From her station, the Vulcan commander replied to an unspoken question, her eyes locked on a status display before her.
"Structural integrity holding," she stated coolly. "Field variance equations falling within expected parameters."
"Warp six point one," the helmsman reported giddily but, once again, Tucker barely acknowledged him.
"COB?" he asked, and the master chief manning the damage control console responded instantly.
"Engineering reports all systems green, sir."
"Six point one five," the helmsman said into the moment of silence, "and holding steady."
"Tactical alert," Tucker abruptly ordered and Black blinked in surprise before reminding himself that it was part of the test.
"Shields up," the lieutenant commander stated, a distinct German accent on his words, "and weapons charging." The man – his nametag read Eisler – paused momentarily before continuing. "All weapons armed and active. No discernible lag or power failure."
"Good." Tucker compared something on his sensor feed to the systems display on the viewscreen. "COB, I'm seein' a temperature spike on the port nacelle..."
"Confirmed, sir." The master chief input additional commands into his console as he spoke. "Engineering is reporting injector malfunctions." Trepidation welled up within Hannibal as the imaginary warp six fleet vanished from his mind's eye. "Injectors are failing!" the master chief suddenly declared, his voice smashing the happy mood of the bridge crew as alert lights began flashing; on the viewscreen, the image of the port nacelle began pulsing and additional data appeared around it.
"Drop out of warp," Captain Tucker ordered instantly, his eyes glued to the sensor feed installed in front of him. As Endeavour slowed to sublight, the ship shuddered, a clear indication of complete nacelle failure, and Hannibal felt frustration surging through him. He glanced around, noting that his emotion was reflected in the expressions of many of the bridge crew.
"Commander Hess reports systemic failure of plasma injectors," the COB announced moments later, breaking the silence that draped the bridge. "Recommends shutting down the warp core until she can isolate the reason."
"Approved." The captain looked in T'Pol's direction. "Stellar cartography?" Her response was instantaneous: the engineering cross-section of Endeavour disappeared from the viewscreen to be replaced with starcharts.
"The nearest inhabitable system is the freeport of Denebris," she informed him, highlighting the system in question on the display. "It is approximately sixteen point two three Terran light years away."
"Set a course," Tucker decided, "impulse only." He glanced at Commander Eisler. "Stand down from tactical alert." Rising from his chair, he looked around, smiling slightly. "This was not a failure, people." At the disgruntled expression on the helmsman's face, Tucker continued, his smile growing. "We just broke the warp six barrier and held it for-"
"Three point four four minutes," T'Pol supplied at the captain's unspoken prompt.
"Three and a half minutes." Tucker's smile was being returned now as the bridge crew realized the truth in his words; Black found himself nodding, his own expression lighter than normal. "For three and a half minutes, we were the fastest humans alive." Smiles were turning into grins as his words settled in. "Hess will figure out what went wrong, we'll fix it and try again," Tucker declared before turning to Hannibal. "While we're waiting for Hess' report, Admiral, would you like to visit the weapons lab? Doctor Jalali has a couple of new toys she wants to show you."
"That will be fine, Captain." Black paused for a moment before deciding to comment. "Superb work, ladies and gentlemen." He smiled slightly. "Your continuing excellence reflects well on Starfleet and on Earth." Turning toward the turbolift, Hannibal noticed that Tucker had paused briefly at the SCI station to issue additional instructions; in a voice pitched low enough not to carry far, the captain spoke.
"I want someone on sensors at all times," he said softly, "and keep tactical manned as well." T'Pol acknowledged the order with the slightest of nods. "I'll be in the weapons lab," Tucker finished and Black bristled slightly – he had assumed that the younger man's invitation to join him had been an excuse that would allow them to visit Engineering. As they entered the turbolift, the captain spoke once more.
"Commander T'Pol, you have the conn." The door slid shut and Black frowned.
"You're not going to Engineering?" he asked. If nothing else, Hannibal assumed that the captain would want a status report.
"No sir." Tucker smirked slightly. "Right now, the last thing Hess needs is a superior officer breathin' down her neck demandin' status reports every twenty seconds."
Black scowled at the closed door of the turbolift. The rest of the trip was completed in silence.
15 June 2157, 2340 Hours Earth Standard Time.
The silence was broken by the buzz of an incoming message, startling Trip out of something suspiciously like a doze. He jerked awkwardly in his chair, almost tumbling to the deck in his haste to respond. For a moment he was confused as to where he was, but his recovery was almost instant. He looked quickly around the ready room to assure himself that he wasn't dreaming. A flashing light from the communication monitor on the nearby wall bathed the room in sporadic illumination, and he quickly blinked the sleepiness away.
Again the low buzz echoed through the darkened room, and Tucker rubbed the bridge of his nose in annoyance. He had retired to his ready room several hours earlier in order to do the command paperwork that never seemed to end. It consisted primarily of work orders and approval of maintenance schedules, but there were also award commendations and promotions to sign off, none of which interested him in the slightest. Once again, he wondered how Jon had managed do this job without going insane.
“Computer,” he stated to the empty room, “play message.”
A chirp of acknowledgment answered him and, seconds later, T'Pol's voice filled the room.
“Trip,” the recorded message announced in her calm but warm voice, “you need to go to bed.”
He couldn't help but smile as the message ended with a second chirp. Glancing at the chronometer on his desk, he winced at the lateness of the hour; according to his calculations, he'd been up for nearly twenty hours straight, and he had no doubt that she knew better than he did how tired he actually was. It was just a pity that she wouldn't be there when he finally did get to his quarters.
In the wake of the complete breakdown of ship's discipline at Thor's Cradle and Starfleet Command's later refusal to implement their command change proposal, Trip and T'Pol had decided to re-evaluate the public aspect of their relationship. Neither of them was sure exactly whose idea it had been, but she had moved back into her own quarters without announcement or fanfare. Nothing had really changed between them – he still wanted to hold a baby Lorian more than anything in the world and knew that she felt the same – but as far as the rest of the crew were concerned, they appeared to have ended their romantic relationship. It was, they agreed, for the good of the ship; but the extra pillows on his bed were poor substitutes for T'Pol's warm body at night.
And, although he'd never admitted it out loud, Trip sometimes saw the enforced loneliness as penance for setting such a poor example, an example that had led to the emotional trauma that both Lieutenant Devereux and the COB were just now recovering from. More than once, T'Pol had told him that he was being emotional and illogical; the communications officer and Master Chief Mackenzie were adults, after all, and were entirely responsible for the decisions that they had made.
It didn't stop Trip from blaming himself though.
As he stood up from the desk to stretch, he wondered briefly if T'Pol was still in the science labs. Since her presence was so rarely needed on the bridge anymore, she spent nearly all of her duty hours in the labs with his official approval, conducting experiments and research into micro-singularities. Although she didn't agree with his assessment, Trip thought that she had become slightly obsessed with acquiring absolute proof that would verify the existence of the miniature black holes. It was actually rather amusing to hear her talk about her work when they met for meals. For a member of a race that insisted on suppressing emotions, who sometimes even claimed not to experience them, she was remarkably passionate about her ongoing research.
Giving his as yet unfinished paperwork a glance, Trip tried not to envy her too much.
Sighing heavily, he glared at the mess on his desk and spent a few seconds scrolling through the PADD that held Hess' damage assessment. Part of him was ecstatic that they had actually broken the warp six barrier based on his design suggestions and, at nearly any other time, he'd be walking around with a grin so broad that it would make Phlox jealous. Having the warp coils fire in a sequential order fore to aft instead of simultaneously was such a simple solution that he wanted to kick himself for not coming up with it sooner. Instead, he found himself focusing on what went wrong to the exclusion of what went right; idly, he wondered what had happened to the optimistic outlook that he had possessed when Enterprise originally launched.
As Trip had suspected, the injectors had indeed overheated when they topped warp six, and had very nearly melted through the nacelle hull. The engineering team was already looking into fashioning replacement injectors capable of tolerating the extreme temperatures necessary for a sustainable warp six. A flicker of anger washed through him as he specifically recalled mentioning the threat of overheating to the nacelle team, but he pushed the emotion aside. Hess' team was short-handed enough, and he had little doubt that she had already had ... words with the team. Furthermore, they had already done some absolutely amazing work in bringing the port nacelle back online; Hess' initial estimates had called for nearly a week before they would be capable of warp one, but the nacelle team had repaired it in just over twelve hours.
Trip made a mental note to visit the team and personally thank them for their hard work.
“Bridge to Captain Tucker.”
He recognized the voice immediately. Ensign Natasha Rostova, the baby sister of Michael Rostov, was the Red Shift officer of the deck, or OOD, and thus responsible for monitoring all systems in the absence of senior officers. It was a system of command that had been recently instituted by Starfleet Command and eliminated any confusion as to who would have the bridge when the senior officers weren't present.
Rostova was, like her brother, an engineer's dream. She was smart and loved the job nearly as much as Trip did, yet didn't mind getting dirty if necessary. Hess had already taken the young girl under her wing and was grooming her for duties above and beyond the OOD. On the flip side, however, T'Pol often struggled to conceal her dislike of the young ensign for what she termed "inappropriate actions"; although T’Pol insisted that he was delusional, Trip knew that Rostova's schoolgirl crush on him annoyed the living hell out of his mate. Logically, T’Pol knew that Trip was completely uninterested in the ensign; but that didn't stop the flashes of jealousy when she caught the girl staring at him.
If he hadn’t been so damned amused by T'Pol's reaction, Trip would have found the whole thing embarrassing.
"Tucker," Trip said into the comm panel, a sense of foreboding lurking in the pit of his stomach. Standing orders were clear: the OOD was to contact the captain only in emergencies.
"Sir, we have an unidentified contact at bearing one nine seven by three three," the ensign reported, and Tucker frowned. "It's at the extreme range of our sensors and appears to be bearing active sensor countermeasures." Trip's stomach lurched and he headed toward the door even as he spoke.
"Tactical alert." The door slid open and Trip spoke again as he strode through it onto the command deck. "Senior officers to the bridge."
T'Pol was the first of the officers to arrive, and she evicted the enlisted sensor operator seated at her console without a word. By the time Eisler, Devereux and Hsiao arrived, the first officer was already in the process of trying to increase the resolution of the unknown ship's image so they could run it through Endeavour's computers for identification.
When Admiral Black exited the turbolift, it took all of Trip's self-control to keep from frowning in disgust at the man's presence. Since coming aboard to "observe" the warp six trial, the admiral had done nothing but poke his nose into ship's business that didn't concern him, all the while making comments that rarely concealed his dislike of Tucker. Such comments only reminded Trip why he disliked the man in the first place. Had it not been for the emotional control that he gained through his bond with T'Pol, Trip would have probably punched the man by now.
A flicker of emotion washed over Trip and he recognized it as T'Pol's sense of pride at accomplishing a difficult task; it was suppressed nearly instantly, but Tucker smiled slightly, glad that he had something to think about other than an admiral with a background in logistics who couldn't lead his way out of a wet paper bag.
"You have something, T'Pol?" he asked, knowing that she would give him the raised eyebrow of annoyance that he had beaten her to informing the crew. She didn't disappoint him.
"The vessel is a Vissian light cruiser," T'Pol announced, and Trip's eyes widened slightly. Long-suppressed memories resurfaced and he grudgingly admitted to himself that he would prefer to deal with Romulans.
"Vissian?" Black asked in surprise. At T'Pol's nod, he looked at Tucker. "Starfleet is still attempting to negotiate an alliance with them, so this could be a good thing."
"Then you should handle this, Admiral," Trip said as he assumed a parade rest stance, his face tight. Black nodded at once and, from the admiral’s expression, Tucker knew that he was aware of the Cogenitor incident.
Before anything else could be said, Lieutenant Devereux announced, "We're being hailed." Black stepped forward.
"On screen," he ordered. At once the viewscreen came alive, resolving into the image of a Vissian male. "Greetings, Captain," Black said with a smile, "I'm Admiral Hannibal Black of United Earth Starfleet."
"Admiral," the Vissian captain acknowledged, his eyes seeming to zero in on Trip. "Your ship appears to be damaged, but my sensor operator informs me that it is not from combat."
"The results of an experiment gone awry," Black offered, still smiling. "We're conducting repairs but wouldn't turn away assistance if you want to provide it."
"You are the commander of your vessel?" With a visible wince, the admiral gestured to Trip.
"This is Captain Tucker," he said by way of introduction. "He's the commanding officer of Endeavour." A frown creased the Vissian's face.
"Yes," the alien captain rumbled ominously. "We know all about Charles Tucker." The words struck like a physical blow, and Trip felt guilt churn in his stomach. Archer's words from years earlier thundered through his brain: Suicide, Trip. She killed herself.
"We will be at your position shortly to render aid," the Vissian captain stated, ending the transmission without further comment. Black looked at Trip.
"I think it would be a good idea if I run point on this, Captain," the admiral suggested.
Trip couldn't remember the last time he'd heard a better idea.
Denebris Freeport, 29 June 2157. 1157 Hours Earth Standard Time.
The whole thing had been a bad idea.
Standing quietly in the bustling open-air market under the curiously dull sun, Lieutenant Junior Grade Nathaniel Hayes felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. Almost instantly, his muscles tensed as his instincts began screaming that he was in lethal danger. As he scanned the market with narrowed eyes, he silently cursed the restrictions for landing that prevented his team from wearing combat gear.
As if she sensed his sudden concern, Petty Officer 1st Class Margalit Sharett glanced at him, shifting her stance slightly to adjust the under arm holster for a faster draw of her concealed phase pistol. Nate gave her a quick nod of approval as he noticed her discreetly alert the other member of the security force present; Petty Officer 3rd Class Rashid El-Hamdani didn't visibly respond but, to Hayes' trained eye, the Basrah native went into high alert himself. As he glanced around the market, frustration bubbled up within Nate as he identified a dozen different ambush points, none of which could be easily defended against.
For the first time, he wished that he had not decided to make the trip planetside after all.
Since his promotion and Lieutenant Reynolds' reassignment to Commodore Archer's staff, Hayes had been so busy that he barely had time to think. As commander of Endeavour's security force, his duty schedule was already full, but being assigned the job of Gold Shift duty officer only increased the workload. For eight hours every day – specifically 0600 to 1400 hours – he was on the bridge in complete command of the ship. It was fortunate, he supposed, that Endeavour wasn't in active combat operations; there was no way the chief of security could also be an OOD, although he had to admit that he enjoyed the additional duties. The things that he had learned about shipboard operations made him far more than just an infantry guy who could pilot. Sometimes, he wondered if the double duty was meant to keep him too busy to think.
That thought troubled him more than he wanted to admit.
They had been on Denebris for nearly three days now, having been towed here by the Vissian cruiser. As the commander of Endeavour's security force, Nate had been present during most of the negotiations and had observed firsthand Captain Tucker's unease in the presence of the Vissians. It hadn't taken long to find out why. Lieutenant Commander Hess, aside from being a striking woman and a pretty lousy chess player, was a notorious gossip, and she had gone into great detail regarding Tucker's previous interaction with the Vissians. From there, Nate had done some research of his own, tapping into data files that he legally shouldn't have had access to so he could read the official reports about the Cogenitor incident. For the most part, he found himself in complete agreement with the stand that Tucker had taken: Vissian treatment of the Cogenitor was simply appalling and, from his review of previous incident reports, Hayes had to admit that then-Captain Archer had set the example that Tucker had followed.
Even though the Vissians were gone, having departed Denebris almost immediately after towing Endeavour to the freeport, their presence continued to be felt. Every member of the crew – even the research scientists who weren't even in the chain of command – had been subjected to rigorous xenobiology briefings from Commander T'Pol and Doctor Phlox that basically boiled down to sensitivity training regarding nonhuman beliefs and traditions. During that time, the captain had been in such an obviously foul mood that no one even thought to complain about the briefings.
That mood had seemed to lighten since their arrival at this market and, right now, the captain was haggling with a Denebris merchant over the price of something. Nate wasn't entirely sure what it was that Tucker was buying but, based on the look of mild disapproval the first officer wore, Hayes was sure that it involved either food or clothing; from what Nate had seen since arriving on Endeavour, the captain had horrible taste in both.
“What d'ya think, T'Pol?” Captain Tucker asked, his voice briefly drawing Nate's attention away from crowd watching. The captain was holding up some piece of clothing that looked vaguely like a shirt, an almost happy expression on his face. Hayes barely restrained a wince at the clash of contrasting colors on the shirt, all far too bright than necessary; it looked as if someone had eaten a bucket of crayons and then promptly vomited the colors on a shirt.
“It is visually offensive,” the Vulcan stated flatly, her face stoic but distaste lurking in her eyes. Hayes almost smiled at her words even as the captain gave her a disgruntled frown.
“What's that supposed to mean?” Tucker demanded as he looked over the shirt again. “I like it!”
“Of course you do,” the commander replied, her tone wry. “It is common knowledge, Captain, that your sense of aesthetics is ... questionable.”
“So now you're insultin' my taste in clothes?” Nate could hear the smirk in Tucker's voice.
“According to Lieutenant Sato and from my own personal observation,” T'Pol declared, “you do not have 'taste,' Captain.” Snickering, Tucker glanced at Nate and the lieutenant could feel his stomach sink.
“What do you think, Hayes?” the captain asked and Nate didn't even try to conceal his sigh.
“It's ... colorful,” he said in response.
“Do you like it?” Tucker asked, again admiring the atrocious-looking garment, and Nate paused to figure out how to express what he really thought without lying.
“I wouldn't wear it, sir,” Hayes finally said in what he hoped was a diplomatic manner. Not even on a bet, he finished silently. The captain frowned at him though, even as T'Pol adopted a distinctly smug expression. Abruptly, Tucker grinned.
“Finish up arrangin' that food shipment,” he said to the Vulcan, a mischievous glint in his eyes, “while I get a couple more ... things.” As Tucker moved away, intent on a distant stall, Nate gave Sharett a discreet head gesture that conveyed an order to accompany the captain. She acknowledged the instruction with a nod of her own and followed without comment; Nate was glad to see that El-Hamdani didn't hesitate to fall into step with PO1 Sharett.
T'Pol said nothing as she observed the captain's departure and, had she been human, Hayes thought that she would sigh. There was little doubt that Tucker was planning on purchasing something outrageous for her, an item that would most likely offend her Vulcan sensibilities. Regardless of the rumors about the state of their relationship, everyone on Endeavour knew that they were at least still close friends, and Nate had observed the captain long enough to be able to predict his actions. It was a good thing that the two were close, he reflected, because it was unlikely most Vulcans understood the point of a prank gift.
Following close behind the Vulcan, Hayes resisted the urge to ogle her posterior, instead keeping his eyes on the crowd of market attendees. So far, he had been unable to shake the feeling of being watched, and each second that passed only served to increase his sense of paranoia. When T'Pol stopped and began speaking with a Denebris merchant, Nate barely registered her words, so intent was he on the crowd around them. He noticed her sidelong glance at him and knew that once she was finished he would be questioned about his distraction, but that didn't concern him now.
Minutes passed without incident, but Nate found his apprehension spiking nonetheless. As T'Pol turned to address him, a sound he recognized instantly spurred him into action and, without hesitation, he dove toward her, catching her in a full body tackle that carried them both back over the market stall. An explosion of fire and heat washed over his back as the incoming air-to-ground missile detonated behind them, ripping apart one of the smaller stalls. He was rolling to his feet almost instantly, ripping his phase pistol free from its holster in a single smooth motion. T'Pol did the same even as Nate triggered the emergency beacon on his communicator that would signal Endeavour to their danger. Neither spoke as they exchanged a glance but Hayes knew that their thoughts were focused on the same thing.
They were sprinting forward almost instantly, weapons out and ready. It was hardly surprising that the sight of their pistols sent locals scrambling out of the way, but Nate couldn't find it in himself to care about their panic. The sound of weapons fire could be heard as they charged through the marketplace and T'Pol accelerated her run; easily matching her stride, Hayes abruptly realized that they were running at a pace that a normal human should not be able to match.
In the moment that this thought occurred to him, they rounded a corner to discover an ongoing firefight. Several armored figures – bipedal but not immediately familiar to Nate – were facing away from them, firing at an overturned cart with disruptor rifles. At a glance, Hayes took in the situation; both Tucker and Sharett were down, with the petty officer sprawled out over the captain as if she had moved to protect him. Backed into a corner and already injured, PO3 El-Hamdani was returning fire with his phase pistol from behind the cart; he appeared to be squeezing the trigger as quickly as he could without bothering to aim. As Nate leveled his own weapon at the nearest of the targets, he could see disruptor beams slice into the petty officer's face and drop him like a puppet with its strings cut.
Even as Hayes was squeezing the trigger of his pistol, T'Pol sprinted forward again, firing her own weapon. Two of the armored figures fell almost as once, caught unprepared by the sudden attack from behind. By the time the remaining three had turned to face this unexpected assault, the Vulcan commander was among them, discharging her pistol in the face of one of the figures at point blank range while she hit another of them in a body check that Hayes thought would have made a linebacker proud. Shifting his aim, Nate dropped the last of the figures with a well-aimed shot to the face.
Ignoring the figure that she had body checked, T'Pol raced forward, sliding to a kneeling position beside Sharett and the captain. Hayes rushed forward, pausing only long enough to shoot the figure T'Pol had checked as it struggled to stand. He skidded to a halt at her side, flinching as he looked at the dozens of entry wounds on Sharett's back. That she was dead was instantly apparent: the small metal darts from a flechette weapon of some sort had punctured her major organs and pierced the back of her skull.
To Nate's surprise, T'Pol simply rolled the dead woman off Tucker, revealing a spreading bloodstain on the captain's abdomen. She inhaled sharply, a clear indication of concern, before touching the side of his face with one hand. For a moment, Hayes was confused: surely it was more important to get Tucker immediate medical attention than to stroke his face!
“Recover,” she whispered suddenly, and Nate blinked in surprise once more. Before he could comment, though, he noticed a movement in the corner of his eye, and snapped his weapon in that direction. Too late, he saw the incoming grenade.
The world disappeared in a flash of light.