29 June 2157. 1830 Hours Earth Standard Time.
The whine of Endeavour's stressed engines only worsened Marie Devereux's headache.
As she entered the mess hall, it felt as though someone had stabbed a burning spike through her eye and was maliciously twisting it around in her brain. The pain wasn't unfamiliar; she'd suffered migraines for most of her life and periodically experienced crippling headaches when she was feeling particularly stressed. This latest episode had started on the left side of her head but, at some time in the last hour, had gradually migrated to the right. It now seemed poised to envelop both sides. Wincing slightly at the too-bright illumination in the mess hall, she walked quickly to the machine near the self-serve area of the facility; counteracting the migraine with an “ice cream headache” had worked several times in the past, and she was silently praying that the unofficial, non-medical treatment would work once more.
She had no desire to visit Phlox and his menagerie for any sort of quick fix.
Glancing around, she noted the absence of the usual dinner crowd. It wasn't that surprising, though; most of the engineering crew had been pulling triple shifts to get Endeavour fully operational again. There were over half dozen people present, however, and she smiled at seeing Dan Hsiao at the far end of the mess hall. As usual, he was shoveling food into his mouth as if he were in a race to finish the meal and get out of the dining facility; it was a quirk of his that always amused Marie.
Her smile faded, however, as she noticed who was sitting with him.
Marie didn't know the research scientist's name or her specialty, but seeing the two of them together only reminded Devereux of how badly she had screwed up with Hsiao. She had been devastated after Drahn's death, and had retreated into grief. Dan had supported her every step of the way, alternately offering a shoulder for her to cry on or just being a silent pillar of strength. She had become so accustomed to his being there that she hadn't realized until too late that by taking him for granted she had pushed him away. Marie wasn't sure when it had happened, but Dan had apparently decided that he couldn't compete with an ex-lover who had died a hero. He was still there for her when she needed his friendship, but had clearly given up on any sort of romantic relationship ... ironically, just as she had seriously begun to consider it.
The sound of the mess hall door sliding open drew her attention, and she noticed the abrupt silence that fell on the dining facility as Captain Tucker limped in. Still leaning heavily on a cane, he moved slowly toward the executive mess, pausing only briefly to confer with Chef Killick. The senior chief petty officer, known for his normally caustic tongue and short temper, was surprisingly non-combative now, and shot the captain a worried look as he turned away. His concern wasn't too surprising, Marie mused; Killick had been with Tucker since Enterprise originally launched, even during the dark days of the Expanse mission.
Marie sank down into the nearest chair and took a spoonful of the vanilla-flavored ice cream. As she worked the cold dessert onto the soft palate at the back of her mouth, Marie again focused her attention on the slow-moving form of the captain. He stopped twice at tables that were on the way to the captain's mess, offering a wan smile or some kind words before pressing on. It was poignant, she thought, that even now, when he was obviously in considerable physical and emotional pain, he would take the time to reassure his crew.
Thinking of Tucker inevitably led her to concern about the missing Commander T'Pol. Devereux wondered how the captain would respond if it turned out that T'Pol was, in fact, deceased, as many feared. An expert in many forms of communication, Marie had watched in quiet fascination as the two senior-most officers tried to find their way as a couple while still serving in Starfleet. Despite shipwide rumors that the two were no longer involved, Marie knew enough about Commander T'Pol's species to recognize that she and the captain had instead merely adopted a more Vulcan propriety regarding their relationship. Observation and additional research into the untranslated text of the Kir'Shara had also convinced Devereux that the two possessed a Vulcan mating bond, and that meant they were together for the long haul.
Just imagining Charles Tucker without T'Pol at his side seemed wrong.
The small bowl of ice cream was nearly empty and, to her annoyance, the migraine was still pounding through her skull. Sighing melodramatically, she realized that a visit to Phlox was probably unavoidable if she wanted to operate normally tomorrow. Experience had taught her that failing to deal with the migraine before going to sleep would lead to her being almost completely useless the next day.
“Hey,” Dan Hsiao said as he plopped into the chair across from her. She nearly jumped at his abrupt and unexpected appearance, and shot him the most evil look she could manage. Glancing at the mostly empty bowl, he frowned. “Migraine again?” he asked.
“Yes,” she snapped in response, regretting her tone almost at once as that red-hot poker finally took up residence in both lobes.
“Seen the doc yet?” Dan's expression was sympathetic, and Marie felt her stomach lurch slightly. She closed her eyes and rubbed her temples.
“Not yet.” Her reply was soft and he gave her another smile. “I'm always afraid that his solution will be some hideous concoction,” she admitted. Once more, Dan grinned.
“What? You don't like the idea of drinking a glass of elvabird spit? I hear it's great for migraines and insomnia.” Her expression must have revealed her disgust at the idea, and he laughed slightly. “Or there's the Rigellian brain worms. I hear they work wonders.” Dan snickered at the look on her face before growing more serious a moment later. “I can't make the poker game tonight,” he said grimly, glancing again at the table he had left behind to join Marie. “Commander Eisler has me working with Sun-Hi and Ricker on the sensor receivers.” He sighed. “We're still trying to figure out how to tie them into the navigation relays for an extra boost.”
“That sounds like a good idea,” Marie commented.
“It is a good idea.” He grinned. “If we can extend the range by even a couple more AU, that'll give us the tactical advantage we need to smash these buggers.” Devereux almost smirked at the curious slang coming from Dan's mouth; the term 'tactical advantages' had to come from Lieutenant Commander Eisler, and 'buggers' was very much a COBism.
Before Hsiao could speak again, the door of the mess hall slid open with a hiss and Admiral Black entered, his expression as dark as always; the man seemed to be in a perpetually bad mood. Dan's face twisted into a fierce glare and he looked away from the admiral, tightening his hands into fists. The admiral didn't pause as he walked toward the captain's mess and seemed oblivious to the many hostile looks directed at him.
“Bastard,” Hsiao muttered under his breath in Korean as he observed the admiral disappearing from the mess hall.
“You need to watch that,” Marie replied in the same language, prompting a sharp look from Dan. He always seemed to forget that she was fluent in his native tongue. She lowered her voice and continued in English. “You may not like him, but he's still a superior officer and calling him names could get you into some serious trouble.”
“Yeah,” Dan grumbled. He stood up. “I've got to go. Supposed to meet Commander Eisler in the command center for an update on our status.” He turned to leave.
“How long do we have?”
“Until intercept?” Hsiao asked. Marie nodded. “No idea yet. Sometime tomorrow at the earliest. They've got a pretty big head start even if we're a lot faster.” Dan's expression was surprisingly grim as he continued. “And the worst part is, they'll know we're coming. No way to hide that.” He gave her another quick smile before heading toward the exit, hesitating for the extra seconds it took for his research scientist companion to catch up. Another spike of pain hammered through Marie's skull, and she sighed.
She was going to have to see Phlox about this damned headache after all.
30 June 2157. 0145 Hours Earth Standard Time.
His head was killing him, but Hannibal Black refused to let it show.
Tucker's call had awakened him from a light doze and, as he stepped out of the VIP guest quarters that he had been assigned, Hannibal wished he had thought to grab some water. He frowned at the security trooper waiting for him outside his quarters and briefly wondered how long the young woman had been standing there.
“Admiral,” she said by way of greeting, and he gave her a noncommittal nod. “Captain Tucker sent me to show you the way to the command center.” At Black's look, she offered a sheepish smile. “When they refitted Endeavour, they moved some stuff around, sir. If you're not here every day, it can get kind of confusing.”
“Thank you for the escort, Petty Officer,” Hannibal said with a tight smile of his own. He wondered briefly if this was Tucker's way of reminding him whose ship this was, but he discarded the notion the moment that it occurred to him; from what he'd seen of Charles Tucker III, Black was fairly confident that the man was aggressively honest.
It was a trait that Hannibal intended to use to his advantage when he crucified the man.
Fury still bubbled within Black's stomach as he reflected on the incident hours earlier. Never before in his twenty-plus years of service within Starfleet had he wanted to physically strike a junior officer, but the urge to do so had nearly been overpowering when Tucker stood in front of him.
“If I give the order for my people to ignore you, Admiral,” the younger man had asked, an eerie intensity burning in his eyes and a complete lack of emotion in his voice, “who do you think they'll listen to?”
Hannibal knew exactly whom they would obey; and the humiliation that had come on the heels of that realization had been even more powerful than the anger. When he had been promoted to admiral and offered the job as COTEF, Black had seen it as the next step in his career. All of Starfleet's research and development fell under his auspices, and it was to him that Command looked for the next big discovery, the long hoped-for weapon that would reverse the fortunes of this war. And yet, all it had taken was a single comment from a combat commander to remind Hannibal what he really was.
It was an old acronym, one that had originated within the American military during the twentieth century, but had only recently entered the Starfleet lexicon after the MACO integration. A term of derision used by front line soldiers to describe those who held less dangerous jobs far from where combat actually took place, it stood for “rear-echelon mother fucker”. For a man like Hannibal, who could trace his family line all the way back to the French-Indian War by the conflicts in which they had served, it was a sobering realization. He wasn't a special forces operator as his great-grandfather had been, or the commander of an infantry battalion like his great-great-great-grandfather, or even a ballistic submarine captain like the Hannibal Black whose name he now bore.
He was an administrator, a pencil pusher who wasn't trusted to serve on the front lines or to command a fleet. That job went to upstarts like Archer, or that damned Australian Burnside Clapp of the Second Fleet, or Admiral Wang of the Fourth. Until that moment in the captain's ready room aboard Endeavour, Hannibal had been perfectly content with that fact; he had been simply glad to be doing his job. The unspoken contempt he had sensed behind Tucker's comments, however, along with Commander Eisler's refusal to obey Black's orders, and even the master chief's decision to side with Eisler, had hammered the point home. The MACOs had a saying that Hannibal had heard: if you're not a MACO, you're not shit.
Apparently, the same held true for Starfleet combat crews.
Tucker had been witness to that moment of clarity, and Hannibal hated him for it even as he felt an unexpected sense of gratitude toward the man. Whether he had intended to or not, Captain Tucker had, with a single comment, forced Black to re-evaluate every career goal he had ever harbored.
Hannibal still intended to see Tucker stripped of his rank and dishonorably discharged from the service, though. Gratitude only went so far.
The lift from G Deck – flag country, as it was commonly called – did not go past F Deck, so they were forced to transfer to a second lift. Upon entering the second, Black was surprised that the female petty officer pressed the destination button for B Deck; according to the information that he had perused, the command center was on D Deck and had been a reconverted cargo bay. Seeing his confused expression, the petty officer spoke.
“One of the Cultural Anthropology labs was turned into the command center during the refit, sir. More room and we don't exactly need a CA lab right now.” Black nodded in understanding and waited patiently for the ride to be over, desperately trying to ignore the pounding headache that raged at the back of his skull. The lift finally slowed and, following the petty officer without a word, Hannibal let himself be led through the corridors. As they rounded a corner, he frowned at the sight of Captain Tucker limping toward them.
“I'll take it from here, Pollock,” the captain said to the young woman, and she gave him a crisp nod before turning away. “Hope I didn't wake you, Admiral,” Tucker remarked as he gestured toward a door.
“You did,” Hannibal responded irritably, and the captain hesitated before triggering the door release. He gave Black a measuring look.
“Correct me if I'm wrong, Admiral,” the younger man said softly, “but you did insist on being present at every one of the briefings.” Once more, Black found himself gritting his teeth but, before he could respond, Tucker continued. “Lieutenant Commander Eisler told me that this was important, so I thought you might like to be here.” They stood for a moment, eyes locked; Finally, Hannibal broke eye contact, annoyance and frustration once more swimming in his gut. There was nothing he hated more than having his own words used against him.
“You thought correctly, Captain.” He nodded to the door. “Shall we?” Tucker triggered the door release and walked through the open hatch.
“Report,” the captain demanded as he limped into the command center. A half step behind him, Hannibal studied the four officers at the master display with a critical eye as they turned toward the captain. Three of them he immediately recognized – the tactical officer, the chief engineer, and the helmsman – but the fourth was a young female lieutenant wearing the blue of Science that Black did not think he had seen before.
“The Orion ship has changed course, Captain,” Lieutenant Commander Eisler said at once, gesturing to the large display before them. “They've also experienced a substantial increase in velocity.”
“A warp highway?” the captain asked as he sank into the one chair present with a wince.
“An unmapped one, yes sir.” Eisler almost glared at the display before continuing. “Based on their current trajectory and speed, we've also isolated the Orions' destination.”
“They appeared originally to be heading for the Oolian system,” the female lieutenant – Ricker, according to her nametag – declared at Tucker's questioning look, bringing up a regional star chart that was far more detailed than any Hannibal had seen for this sector before, “but in the last hour, they seem to have altered course for the Anoat system.”
“Anoat system? Not much there,” Hannibal muttered with another frown, and the lieutenant nodded in agreement as she brought up the system readout on the master display.
“Three rockballs, two gas giants and an asteroid field,” she elaborated. “The Vulcan Science Directorate flagged it as 'Explored and Unsuitable.' Our theory is that the Orions plan to hide in either the asteroid belt or within the upper atmosphere of one of the gas giants.”
“Or they're going to meet someone there,” Hsiao added ominously.
“According to the information we have on this class of ship,” Eisler abruptly declared, “Endeavour is faster and more heavily armed.” He nodded to the science lieutenant and the display shifted to a tactical analysis of the Orion craft. “It's highly probable that their captain is aware of this fact and is attempting to maximize his chances of survival by hiding.”
“How much faster?” Tucker asked, and Eisler glanced at the helmsman.
“Sir,” Lieutenant Hsiao replied quickly, a trace of smug pride in his voice, “we can fly rings around that tub. It can't even top warp four.” At the contempt in the young lieutenant's voice, Black nearly smiled despite his dark mood: he remembered a day when warp four had been just a pipe dream.
“Intelligence puts their offensive capability at slightly above the Enterprise at launch,” the tactical officer elaborated with a sour glance at the junior officer. “Estimates place their weapon payload as low-yield torpedoes and Mark III disruptor cannons.”
“It doesn't even have any shields,” Hsiao added in an almost disgusted voice.
“However,” the tactical officer continued over the helmsman, once more sending the younger officer a look that Hannibal interpreted as annoyed, “it is equipped with a very efficient hull polarization system and has remarkably heavy armor for a ship its size.” Eisler drew a breath and looked Tucker in the eyes. “Sir, I'd like to have the Remoras rigged as Immobilizers.” Black felt a flash of surprise wash through him.
Based on the Remora torpedo delivery system, the Immobilizer – officially the Remora Mark II – replaced the shaped explosive charges in each of the warheads with a micro-electromagnetic pulse generator. The brainchild of Commanders Eisler and Hess, the Immobilizer had been extensively field tested, but so far had been used only with limited success in actual combat operations. Synchronizing the detonation of the EMP generators remained the primary problem; too often, a premature triggering of the pulse would render the other generators inert and would barely affect the intended target.
Tucker's eyes shifted to the chief engineer and even Black could read the unspoken question there. Lieutenant Commander Hess straightened fractionally as she responded.
“I'm pretty sure we've got the detonation problem beaten, sir,” she stated firmly, and the captain raised an eyebrow in a distinctly Vulcan mannerism.
“How sure?” he asked softly. “There are at least two lives at stake here, Anna.”
“Eighty percent,” Hess replied after a moment of consideration and Tucker gave her a long considering look.
“Immobilizers are a go,” he declared to Eisler. The tactical officer nodded brusquely, his face as devoid of emotion as any Vulcan's. “Continue, Mister Eisler.”
“Lieutenant Hsiao has calculated an intercept time of zero five thirty based on the Orions' velocity and the estimated adjustment of the warp conduit.” Once more, the display was changed to the regional star chart, now with the two ships identified. “We should reach the conduit in two hours, at which time our own velocity will increase.”
“Intercept point?” the captain asked, and Eisler grimaced.
“The Anoat system,” he stated flatly. At the tactical officer's glance, Lieutenant Ricker changed the image to the system overview once more. “The Orions should reach the system at zero five twenty-five.”
“That's cutting it pretty damned close,” Tucker remarked grimly, and all four of his officers shared his dark expression.
“Yes sir.” Silence filled the room for a moment before the captain nodded for them to continue.
Again, Lieutenant Commander Eisler looked to the science lieutenant manning the display console, and the viewscreen shifted to a deckplan layout of the Orion ship. Blinking in surprise, Black realized that he had never seen such detailed schematics.
“Do I want to know how you got these plans, Rick?” Captain Tucker asked wryly, vocalizing Hannibal's thoughts.
“These are the two beam-in points,” Eisler announced, ignoring the captain's question as he pointed to two highlighted locations on the deckplans. “Once the Orion ship has been disabled, both STAB teams will deploy.” Hannibal frowned at the unfamiliar acronym but said nothing as he studied the display. “Team Two will concentrate on capturing the bridge while Team One will move to secure Engineering. As soon as One has control of Engineering, Commander Hess and her team will transport over to neutralize any additional ... surprises in the master controls.”
“If the situation on Endeavour requires my attention,” Hess picked up the explanation without pause, “Lieutenant Riggs will replace me aboard the Orion ship. I've already briefed him and he's ready to go.”
“Both SEAL teams will also be on alert status in the event that reinforcements are required,” Eisler pointed out, once more using an unfamiliar acronym, and Black bit back his frustration. “My teams are already prepping for the assault and Chief Gray will replace me on Weps.”
“You're planning to lead the assault?” Black asked in surprise. He knew about Eisler's background in MACO special ops, but the idea of a man of his rank volunteering to put himself in harm's way was surprising. The tactical officer fixed Hannibal with an unblinking look.
“I don't ask my troopers to do anything that I wouldn't do myself, Admiral.” It was a simple statement, one that Black had heard dozens of times by fellow flag officers, but in Eisler's German-accented English, Hannibal sensed a stark honesty that he had never heard before. In the past, the phrase had seemed like meaningless words from senior officers who hadn't served in the field for ten or more years, but coming from the ex-MACO, it was ... humbling.
“Is Gray fully checked out?” Tucker inquired, acting as if it were a foregone conclusion that his 3IC would lead the assault. At Eisler's nod, the captain studied the display again, and Black found himself actually curious as to what the younger man was thinking. Finally, Tucker pushed himself to his feet with the cane. “All right. We have three and a half hours before intercept.” He looked each of his officers in the eye before continuing. “Make sure your departments are ready for combat operations.” Four quick nods were his response. “We have two officers on that ship, and they're relyin' on us to bring them home.”
“And two bodies in the morgue demanding justice,” Eisler said softly, his voice a menacing rumble. Tucker gave him a pointed look.
“Let's worry about bringin' our people home first,” he replied. From his tone, it was clear that he wasn’t making a request. The tactical officer nodded, with no hint that he had taken the unspoken rebuke personally.
“I don't need to emphasize the importance of this operation,” Tucker said after a moment, authority ringing in his voice. “Nor do I need to tell you how to do your jobs.” He looked at each of his officers in turn. “You're the best in the Fleet, and now it's time to prove it.”
“Semper Optima,” Eisler growled, quoting the inscription on Endeavour's dedication plaque. Always the best, Hannibal translated from Latin. It was an audacious motto, one that Black had considered to be mildly arrogant when he had originally read the proposal. But judging by the looks in the eyes of these officers, it was a motto that they tried to live up to. Once again, Hannibal found himself re-evaluating his outlook; clearly, he had been among flag officers for too long. He mentally began planning how to rectify that situation.
“Let's go to work,” Captain Tucker ordered, his tone brisk. Seconds later, the command center was silent.
30 June 2157. 0445 Hours Earth Standard Time.
A beep echoed through the silent cell, immediately interrupting their plans for escape.
The sudden activation of the neural inhibitor came as a surprise and, with a startled grunt, T'Pol collapsed. Her head bounced off the metal deck as her body ceased to obey her, and she closed her eyes tightly against the pain that lanced through her skull. The hiss of the pressurized door as it opened and closed again echoed loudly in the small storage-room-turned-cell. Boots appeared in T’Pol’s line of sight, followed by a familiar face, and she struggled against the limpness of her muscles. Her stomach lurched in fear at the raw lust in the Orion male's eyes.
The Orion smiled darkly as he knelt. As he began to stroke her face with his meaty hands, T'Pol swallowed the anger and terror that threatened to smash through her veneer of calm dispassion. Over the pounding of her heart, she could hear Lieutenant Hayes' grunts of effort intensifying as he recognized what the Orion intended; the lieutenant sought desperately to defeat the inhibitor's effects. With effort, T'Pol closed her eyes and focused on detaching herself from the moment. As the Orion male's hand began caressing her breasts, fury welled up within her, washing away the fear, but she forced it down. Trip must never know of this, she told herself as the Orion once more touched her face.
Foreign emotions trickled into the periphery of her mind and her eyes snapped open as a sudden thought came to her. Vulcans were touch-telepaths and, from her research into the Kir'Shara, she knew the contact points on the face were used primarily as a means of intensifying the telepathic connection for a meld.
But they weren't entirely necessary.
Narrowing her eyes, T’Pol pushed with her mind, feeling the brief sensation of motion without movement as her mind stretched out to touch another's. The Orion's eyes flared in muted surprise at the mental assault, and he started to pull his hand free from her face. Ruthlessly, she pushed again, focusing every atom of her being into seizing control of his neural pathways and demanding his obedience. She could almost feel the shift in balance, see the fear that swam in his eyes, and smell his sudden terror.
His hand did not move.
Harder she pressed and, with a gasp, she felt his resistance begin to crumble. It didn't surprise her too terribly that he yielded as easily as he did; evolution had already hardwired the Orion male for subjugation. His right hand seemingly welded to her face, he reached down with his left and took her wrist. Pain began pounding through T'Pol's head as she strained her untrained telepathic gifts to the breaking point. She had read about theoretical applications of Vulcan telepathy such as this; but in her admittedly limited research into the subject, she had never discovered actual reports of such a meld. Blood began to trickle from her nose as long moments crept by, and she could sense her strength beginning to wane.
Up went the Orion’s left hand, trembling in a vain attempt to resist her telepathic demands, and he placed her right hand on the side of his face. Her eyes narrowed once more as her fingers rested limply near the contact points. The placement of her digits was not entirely correct but, in this moment, was close enough for her needs. Our minds, one and together, she mentally recited, focusing once more on the failing telepathic connection between them. To her surprise – and his as well – he mouthed the ritualistic words at the same time and, like a torrent of water released from a dam, her thoughts thundered into his psyche, demanding control. For less than a nanosecond, he struggled; then his primitive defenses collapsed under her onslaught.
Once more, she focused her will on him, and, this time, he responded without hesitation. Still holding her hand in place on the planes of his face, he reached down with his other hand and pulled a small device from his belt. With a flick of his thumb, he deactivated the neural inhibitors.
Hayes was on him almost instantly.
Gasping for breath, T'Pol didn't move for a long moment as her system struggled to recover from the horrific strain she had put on her fledgling telepathic gifts. She had melded with Trip numerous times since Elizabeth's death, but never before had she felt so totally drained and exhausted afterwards. The pain in her head thudded in time with her heartbeat and she fought to regain control of herself. Bile surged up from her stomach and she rolled over mere seconds before retching upon the floor. Again and again, she vomited and her muscles quivered spasmodically as she purged herself. Finally, long moments after the last of her dry heaves subsided, control returned.
A rhythmic pounding drew her attention to Lieutenant Hayes, and she froze in surprise at the sight of the raw emotion that contorted the young man's face. Fury and hatred rolled off the lieutenant in waves as he repeatedly slammed the Orion's face into the wall of the small cell.
Or rather, what was left of the Orion's face.
“Lieutenant,” T'Pol called out, her voice ragged from retching. Hayes didn't react, and continued to smash the visibly dead Orion into the wall. “Lieutenant!” she repeated loudly, and slowly he looked toward her. Had she been standing, T'Pol would have likely taken a step back from the murderous wrath in Hayes' eyes. “He is dead,” she pointed out calmly.
With a shudder, Hayes dropped the corpse and staggered several steps away before sinking to his knees. Burying his face in his bloody hands, he trembled in what appeared to be a fight for control. Twice, he slammed his fists onto the unyielding deck with brutal force that would have dented lesser alloys. The hollow booms from the impacts echoed through the cell and sent a shiver of fear through T'Pol; the idea of someone as dangerous as Hayes being out of control was not something she had ever had any desire to witness. Finally, he looked back at her, his expression black but his eyes swimming with an emotion that she could not identify.
“I'm sorry,” he said in a hushed voice. Hayes glanced away, once more turning his eyes on the unmoving body. “I didn't mean to lose control...”
T'Pol said nothing as she rose and approached the corpse. Very little was left of the Orion's skull, and she wrinkled her nose at the overpowering stench of blood. Putting aside her distaste, she quickly searched the corpse, placing the disruptor pistol and several unfamiliar pieces of technology in a small pile. After a moment of consideration, she stripped the corpse of its clothes as well.
“You should wear those,” Hayes abruptly stated, his eyes still full of emotion, and T'Pol gave him a quirked eyebrow in response.
“I intended to,” she replied smoothly as she began pulling on the trousers. They were far too large to be entirely comfortable, but she was able to adjust the waist so they would not slip. The Orion jacket reeked of blood and spilled brain matter; T'Pol set aside her instinctive response as she donned it.
“Keep the disruptor,” the lieutenant muttered, still kneeling. He looked up at her. “I don't have a sense of smell, but if I'm affected...”
“I will shoot you,” T'Pol finished calmly as she holstered the disruptor. Hayes exhaled slightly, as if in relief. “At the highest setting,” the Vulcan added, as a memory of Malik's Augments surfaced. According to records, Klingon disruptors had barely slowed those Augments down. She frowned at that implication; it was highly unlikely that Orion weapons were superior to those of the warlike Klingons.
“Go for the eyes,” Hayes stated as he stood, “or the groin. Those are the only chances you'll have at stopping me if it comes down to that.” From his tone, he sounded as if he was speaking from experience. T'Pol wondered if the mysterious Section that he worked for had tested his limits in that area as well. Hayes knelt before the pile of discarded pieces of technology. “I don't recognize any of this stuff, ma'am.”
“Nor do I.” T'Pol raised an eyebrow in annoyance as she picked up the device that had deactivated the inhibitors. In his rage, the lieutenant had smashed it. “This device apparently served as a door release as well,” she stated as she turned back to Hayes.
To her surprise, the lieutenant was using one of the foreign pieces of technology – now smashed – to slice open a scar on the underside of his right forearm. The cut must have been painful, judging from his expression, but he made no sound. Incredibly, he then began to extract a flexible tube of some sort from within the limb.
“Monomolecular wire,” he commented when he saw her expression. “I can use it to cut the hinges off the door.” She inclined an eyebrow at the logic in that decision: Monomolecular wire – or monowire as it was often called – was considered to be among the keenest of weapons, consisting of a single strain of strongly bonded molecules similar to carbon nanotubes. Tests had proven that very few objects could withstand the cutting edge of such a wire, and the material was often used in delicate mining or gem cutting. Many were the rumors of military applications of monowire, but this was the first time that T'Pol had seen such a thing in use.
T’Pol said nothing as she silently observed Hayes extract the wire from the curious-looking tube. To the Vulcan’s eyes, the monowire appeared to be more of a garotte than a tool, and she frowned at the ease with which Hayes manipulated the lethal object; additional questions surfaced about the nature of the lieutenant's “training” from this Section organization, but T'Pol set aside her reservations for the moment. The lieutenant began sawing through the top door hinge carefully, moving slowly enough to prevent risk of damaging the wire. Time crept by as he worked, and T'Pol spent the long minutes studying the undamaged technological tools acquired from the dead Orion. Abruptly, the Orion ship shuddered; T'Pol felt her breath catch.
Endeavour had arrived.
It was an entirely illogical assumption as she had no way to ascertain its accuracy but, somehow, she knew that Trip was nearby. She still couldn't feel him through the bond, and quickly theorized that her early telepathic exertion had left her in a state where she wouldn’t be able to sense him at this distance. Yes, she decided without a shred of evidence, but with more emotion than she'd like to consider, telepathic fatigue is why I cannot feel him.
“That was weapons fire,” Hayes identified as he finished slicing through the lowermost hinge. He shot her a glance. “Endeavour?”
“Unknown,” she replied as she drew the disruptor pistol and stood ready, “but that is a likely assumption.” Hayes shrugged as he searched for a place to put his fingers. Again, the ship rocked; the lights flickered briefly.
“Ready?” the lieutenant asked as he worked his fingers into an open spot and braced his left foot along the wall. At T'Pol's nod, he began to pull. The tendons in his neck were clearly visible as he strained against the door. The groans of protesting metal were matched by his guttural grunts of effort.
The door did not budge.
Hayes abruptly leaned forward, shaking his head in frustration. He gave T'Pol a defeated look.
“The vacuum seal is still intact,” he grumbled. “There's no way we can break it this way.”
“Stand aside,” T'Pol commanded as she approached with the disruptor. Working the barrel of the weapon into the handhold that Hayes had carved with the monowire, she carefully wedged it in place before tampering with the energy cell. Seconds later, the loud hum emitting from the weapon made her plan clear, and Hayes gave the weapon a sinister grin before backing away. As she and the lieutenant crouched in the far corner of the room, hopefully safe from any potential shrapnel, T'Pol found herself curious as to why setting the disruptor to override brought Malcolm Reed to mind.
The disruptor self-destructed with a fierce explosion, ripping great chunks of the metal door free and sending them flying through the air to smash harmlessly against the opposite wall. Her ears ringing, T'Pol glanced up from her huddled position and looked at the door. With a boom, it toppled to the deck.
Hayes was already on his feet and heading toward the door, pausing only long enough to make sure that T'Pol was behind him. To her annoyance, her movements were still stuttered and erratic, an after-effect of the meld that she had been forced to conduct; but she gave him a nod that carried her unspoken command to continue forward. Alarms were sounding throughout the long corridors and a male voice – it sounded like Harrad-Sar's – was issuing urgent orders in Orion via the shipwide comm channel. A surprised shout snapped her attention toward their left and a trio of rapidly approaching Orions. The three males were reaching for their weapons as, without hesitation, Hayes sprang forward.
There was no subtlety in his maneuvers, neither grace nor beauty, as was common in many martial arts. He relied on brute strength and incredible speed as he simply hammered his fist through the abdomen of the first Orion that he reached. Without even pausing he kicked out at the second, the side of his foot slamming into the other male's knee with a sickening crunch. As the second Orion collapsed with a shriek, his leg bending in a direction that nature had never intended, the last of the Orion trio turned and bolted, dropping his drawn sidearm in his mad scramble to get away. Hayes pursued, pouncing on the man with a bonecrushing tackle. Two quick jabs into the downed male's back were accompanied by the sound of smashing bone, and T'Pol tried not to wince at the dark satisfaction the Augmented human seemed to derive from the violence.
“Lieutenant,” T'Pol said sharply, a hint of annoyance leaking into her voice and concealing the flash of disgust she felt at the almost feral enjoyment on his face. “We do have an objective.” Hayes nodded in embarrassment and started to reply, but paused and glanced away. His eyes abruptly swam out of focus and he half-turned, a look of staggered awe slowly appearing on his face. Four meters away, Navaar stepped out of a turbolift.
“Most impressive, Lieutenant,” the Orion female said with a sultry smile. T'Pol darted toward the first Orion, pushing back the panic that tried to surge within her. Sliding to a stop over the corpse, she ripped the disruptor free of its holster.
“Kill her!” Navaar bellowed and Hayes twisted toward T'Pol, insane fury clouding his face as he sprinted toward her. There was no hesitation in the Vulcan's actions as she lifted the disruptor and fired.
An instant later, a body slammed into her.
30 June 2157. 0530 Hours Earth Standard Time.
The impact of something striking the hull of Endeavour boomed through the ship and sent a shiver of alarm through Charles Tucker. Mere seconds had passed since their transition from warp and, not for the first time, the captain found himself unaccountably glad for Starfleet's standard operating procedure that now required shields to be raised before returning to impulse.
“What the hell was that?” he demanded as he leaned forward in his command chair. Behind him, clinging to the railing above the captain's chair, he could hear Admiral Black mutter something under his breath, but he didn't waste time trying to decipher what the older man had said.
“Unidentified explosion on the port side!” SCPO Gray announced from the TAC board. “Shields holding at seventy-two percent!”
“Multiple displacements!” Lieutenant Ricker declared at the same time, her eyes locked on the Science holo-viewer. “Sir, I think they're mines!”
“All back,” Trip ordered immediately. He tried to avoid glaring at the main screen as Endeavour's ambient sounds changed sharply in pitch. “What do we have, Liz?” From her place at T'Pol's station, the young woman straightened, and Tucker tried not to think about the uncomfortable emotions that still welled up within him at the utterance of the lieutenant's name. In the years since the Xindi assault, he had discovered that there were far, far too many human women named Elizabeth for his comfort.
“Captain, Orion ship is making a run for the fifth planet. I'm detecting seventeen ... correction, eighteen objects of indeterminate origin within five and thirty kilometers of our position.” Glancing at the data displays on the sensor feed installed in front of his chair, Trip frowned at the familiarity of the readings. At least this explained why the Orion ship hadn't made an immediate run for the gas giant upon arriving in-system...
“Those are Romulan mines,” he identified abruptly before leaning forward again and inputting commands into the console. “Lieutenant Ricker, try the gamma spectrum, phase variant point zero zero seven five.” Trip paused, hoping that his memory about those readings was correct. Following Enterprise's incident with the Romulan minefield, he had spent several months working with Malcolm Reed and T'Pol to find a way to penetrate the sensor countermeasures that had made the mines virtually impossible to detect. Their various encounters with Suliban cloaking technology from the future had given them an advantage that the Romulans obviously hadn't anticipated and, within weeks, they had managed to discover a way to negate those countermeasures completely. T'Pol had even updated this research with new information after the holoship incident several years later. This data had proven to be invaluable against Romulan deployment of additional holo-technology; the battle of Pacifica had, so far, been the last time when the Romulans had utilized their holographic cloaking devices. Three birds of prey had been destroyed before the Romulans, realizing Starfleet was able to penetrate the holo-cloak, had abandoned the practice.
Trip hated to think what the Romulans could do with an honest-to-God cloaking device.
“Got it, sir,” Ricker said, surprise tingeing her voice. “Tricobalt explosives, magnetic attractors, estimated yield ... two kilotons.”
“They've upgraded,” Tucker mumbled. Again, he could hear Black's noisy exhalation behind him, and nearly frowned at the admiral's position; never before had Trip experienced someone quite literally breathing down his neck. “Chief Gray, have Remoras uploaded with Ricker's sensor readings. Lieutenant Hsiao, stand by for full impulse.” A chirp sounded from the tactical board, an indication that the new data had been uploaded, and Trip found himself tensing with anticipation.
“Standing by to fire, sir,” Senior Chief Petty Officer Gray stated as a second beep sounded, and Trip leaned back in his seat.
“Helm, pursuit course, maximum impulse.” Tucker glanced to Gray. “Weps, stand by to fire on my command.” Trip inhaled slowly, using the breathing techniques that T'Pol had taught him to enhance his sense of calm. Panic was starting to creep into the edges of his consciousness as a single question thundered through his brain: why couldn't he sense T'Pol? They were close enough! Experience had proven that: during their last visit to Sol, he'd been able to feel her while she was at Jupiter Station and he was on Earth. “Comm, sound collision. Execute.”
Endeavour leaped forward, engines growling as the starship abruptly reversed direction. Flickers of movement could be seen as the holographically concealed mines became active; equipped with magnetic attractors and stripped-down maneuvering thrusters, they were unerringly drawn toward the approaching starship that now bore down upon them. Proximity alarms began shrieking, and Tucker heard Black draw in a sharp breath; Trip almost smiled at that.
“Fire!” he ordered.
Three torpedoes roared from Endeavour's missile tubes, breaking apart into multiple warheads almost instantly. Streaking toward their individual targets, each warhead slammed into the partially concealed mines and detonated upon impact, immediately triggering a counter explosion that ripped the mines apart. Wreathed in explosions that didn't actually touch her, Endeavour raced forward.
“Weapons range in thirty seconds,” Gray declared as the last of the mines exploded harmlessly nearly a dozen kilometers away from the hull of the Starfleet vessel.
“Orion craft entering upper atmosphere of fifth planet.” Lieutenant Ricker was bent over the holo-viewer and Trip nearly smiled at her attempt to emulate T'Pol's calm dispassion. Any amusement dissolved before it actually manifested, though; it should be T'Pol standing there, not Lieutenant Ricker. Anger warred with panic inside him, and Trip gripped the armrests of his chair to hide the fact that his hands were shaking.
“Lieutenant Devereux,” Tucker said, struggling to conceal his growing worry. “All frequencies.” She gave him a nod as her board chirped. “Orion craft,” Trip stated loudly, “this is the United Earth Ship Endeavour. Stand down and prepare to be boarded. You have ten seconds to comply.”
“Energy spike!” Ricker declared. “They're firing!”
A pair of torpedoes spiraled up from the gas giant even as the Orion ship dove deeper into the swirling atmosphere. The distinctly shaped incoming warheads were a far cry from Endeavour's photonic torpedoes or even Orion standard warheads.
“Kill all optics!” Trip ordered sharply as he leaned forward in his command chair. “And slow to one-quarter impulse!” He ignored the startled expressions on the faces of his bridge crew, and silently thanked Lieutenant Commander Eisler for instilling in them the fear of God as they reacted instantly. Trip knew that they had to be confused, knew that they were questioning whether he had temporarily lost his mind, but, to their credit, they obeyed without question. The main viewer went dark as the external cameras deactivated.
“Captain?” Black asked, not even bothering to hide his own confusion, and Tucker wondered if the admiral had even bothered to read the mission reports that had been sent to Starfleet Command.
“Harrad-Sar used those torpedoes against Enterprise the second time we ran into him,” Trip revealed as he kept his eyes focused on the sensor feed. “Upon detonation, they screw up optical relays. We never got ahold of one of those torpedoes to reverse-engineer it, so we don't know how they work or why they mess up the optics.” Tucker tried not to think about how it had been T'Pol who had discovered a way around the weapons, or that it had been Malcolm who had realized it was a diversionary tactic to prevent Enterprise from discovering that the Orion ship was planning to board them. He glanced at Ricker.
“Twin detonations, sir,” she announced, and Trip nodded.
“Bring the optics back on-line,” he said, “and resume full impulse. Weps...”
“Weapons range now, Captain,” SCPO Gray declared.
“Fire.” The order rolled off of Tucker's tongue before he was aware of it, and the panic that still swam in his stomach abruptly transformed into a simmering fury. His mate was on that ship, and if he had to rip it apart centimeter by centimeter to retrieve her...
Salvos lanced out from Endeavour's phase cannons, slicing with brilliant flashes into the thick armor plates that encased the Orion interceptor. Incandescent lightning danced across the hull of the craft as it rocked under the onslaught, and the interceptor instantly retaliated; a viridian stream of fire pulsed from the swirling atmosphere, briefly sketching an outline of the invisible force screens that surrounded the Starfleet vessel.
Still spinning along its horizontal axis to avoid the incoming fire, the Orion interceptor abruptly banked away from the strangely hued gas giant and dove toward the ring that surrounded the massive planet. A second pair of torpedoes flashed from the interceptor's launch tubes and Trip found himself smiling: so far, Harrad-Sar was using the very same tactics that he had used against Enterprise.
“Countermeasures!” he demanded, tension and continued pain from his injury making his tone sharp.
Endeavour twisted into a spiraling climb as automated countermeasures were deployed at once from the Starfleet ship. Twin streaks of light raced into the void before detonating with a dazzling display of pyrotechnics that acted as an anti-torpedo measure; blanketing the area with an array of infrared, radar, ladar, and gamma ray bursts, the countermeasure was intended to confuse the targeting sensors of the incoming ordnance. One of the torpedoes was immediately fooled and it shifted targets, exploding harmlessly many kilometers distant. The second warhead, however, continued forward.
Point-defense weapons, newly installed aboard Endeavour and designed to fire completely independent of the main phase cannons, activated almost instantly. Based on the close-in weapon systems (CIWS) of centuries-old naval warships, the P-Def lasers were entirely automated and equipped with tracking software that allowed them to differentiate between hostile and friendly targets. Within the span of a nanosecond, the targeting computers identified the threat posed by the rapidly approaching ordnance, cycled through all available resources, and reoriented the x-ray laser-based P-Defs. A stream of invisible laser pulses spat at the incoming warhead.
In mid-flight, the second torpedo seemed to shudder before exploding.
“Status,” Trip demanded as he observed the second torpedo detonate a safe distance from Endeavour. From his station at the tactical board, Chief Gray glanced up as he directed a second barrage of fire at the fleeing Orion ship. The scarlet phase cannon beams stitched crippling scars across the port nacelle even as a quartet of older Mark IV torpedoes flashed from Endeavour's launch tubes and detonated with hull-crushing force. Streams of warp plasma exploded out from the ravaged nacelle.
“Standing by to deploy Immobilizers,” Gray announced as the Orion ship banked into a dive toward the gas giant, debris trailing from the damaged hull.
“Deploy,” Tucker ordered, once more gripping the armrests of his command chair. A loud thrum echoed through the bridge as a trio of the modified Remoras shot from the torpedo tubes, splitting apart into independently tracking warheads mere seconds from launch. Twisting and spiraling toward the Orion ship, the micro-EMP generators latched onto the outer hull without facing even a single burst of counterfire.
A flash of light abruptly enveloped the interceptor for the briefest of seconds, and Trip fought the urge to smile as the fleeing ship's power systems seemed to fail completely. The starboard nacelle flickered and faded, and the impulse drive of the Orion ship sputtered before dying completely. Suddenly without power, the interceptor continued unabated toward the gas giant, now relying entirely upon its previous velocity and the gravity of the massive planet.
“Massive systemic failures detected,” Lieutenant Ricker declared before glancing up. “Target vessel is immobilized, sir.” Trip rolled his eyes at the pun.
“Ready tractor beam,” he said, leaning back in his command chair. “And give Commander Eisler a green light.” His pulse pounded in his ears and Trip focused on trying to sense his mate through the bond. Why can't I feel her?
“You have a functional tractor beam?” Admiral Black asked in surprise and, despite himself, Trip smiled slightly.
“Yes, sir,” he replied as he tried to ignore the empty spot in his soul where T'Pol was supposed to be. Bring her home, Rick, he silently urged his tactical officer. Bring her home.