Act One

Act Two

Scene 1
Scene 3


Act Three

Act Four

Act Five

author's note

Genre: Action/Adventure, Drama

Rated: PG-13, bordering on R … harsh language, action, brutality, and adult situations.

Summary: In the Mirror Universe, the war with the Romulans nears a close and sides must be chosen...

Disclaimer: I own nada.

I'd be remiss if I failed to thank the people over at the Brunette Jolene boards for giving me astounding assistance throughout the creative process.

The revised look of the Endeavour was originally developed by Mark Ward for the NX Class Mod Pack for Bridge Commander, although it was credited as the NCC-05 Atlantis. Mr. Ward has graciously given me permission to use this “skin” for the look of Endeavour – if I had discovered this thing before writing Vigrid, the -06 would have looked like this all along.

This is a Mirror Universe fic that begins at around the same point as Endeavour: Medea. It'll be a little difficult to follow without reading that first. Like my previous fics, I'm writing this as prose and using the basic screenplay format (Teaser + 5 acts)

Act two

This had not been part of his plan.

As he stepped out of the bathroom and into his cabin proper, a towel wrapped around his waist, Charles Tucker drew up short at the sight in front of him. A frown crossed his face for a moment, twisting the hideous scar that destroyed his features, and he swallowed the pained emotion that pulsed within his chest. No, he decided, this was most assuredly not part of his original plan.

Curled up like a cat in the Vissian command chair, T'Pol was asleep. That wasn't particularly a surprise; Soong had warned him that she would be sleeping more than was normal for a Vulcan as she recovered from the trellium addiction. What was a surprise, however, was how entirely normal it appeared for her to be dozing in the chair. Somehow, in the two months since she had been delivered to Endeavour, the chair had become her domain, and Charles didn't even question how such a thing had occurred.

The domesticity of the scene sent a shiver up his spine.

Glowering, Tucker continued to dry himself before tossing the damp towel into a corner of the cabin. Doing so would annoy the Vulcan, and that was the only reason that he did it; normally, he was as much of a neat freak as she was.

As he dressed, Charles kept glancing in the direction of the sleeping Vulcan, a thoughtful expression on his face. She was looking much better, he had to admit. The trellium was washed completely from her system, and she had put on several kilos. Even her muscle tone was beginning to return, and she was finally beginning to resemble the woman he had first met (and lusted over) so many years earlier.

That resemblance, however, was only skin deep. Tucker's frown deepened, and he busied himself with his uniform to avoid thinking about the horrible nightmares that still woke them both late at night, or how she remained nearly phobic about her personal space. For some inexplicable reason, she allowed Charles to touch her without tensing, but he was the only one aboard Endeavour given that honor; Tucker wasn't sure if it was because they'd had sex before or something else entirely. Even Soong caused her to act skittish.

Bad example, Charles mused. Soong made everyone skittish. The man was just too damned creepy.

Uniform secured, Tucker turned his attention back to the Vulcan, all the while wondering how to define their relationship. They weren't friends, exactly, and they sure as hell weren't lovers, but T'Pol seemed to afford him a closeness that she never had before. It was as if she actually trusted him, or felt safe around him, but that couldn't be right. She didn't trust anyone.

Taking several steps closer to her, Charles found himself once more wondering what the hell he was doing. Why was her well-being so damned important to him? He glowered as he abruptly recalled her Vulcan mind tricks; could she have done something to him with her melds when they were on Enterprise? Was that why he was so willing (and able) to sleep alongside her when nearly all of his survival instincts were screaming for him to get away?

A PADD had fallen to the floor from the chair while he was in the shower, and Tucker bent down to pick it up. His eyes narrowed slightly at the title, and he gave her another weighing look. It was a copy of the Kir'Shara, a Vulcan text he had copied from the Defiant's database without permission. At first, acquiring a copy of an obscure semi-religious document from an alternate universe had seemed like a waste of valuable space, but as the military campaigns that Sato launched began stacking up, and the casualties began climbing, Tucker had turned to it and others like it for solace. He hadn't wanted to succumb to the kind of mindless brutality that had spawned monsters like Archer or Reed. Surprisingly, it had helped, and allowed him to put many of his actions and decisions into perspective. Yes, he had committed what the alternate universe would consider atrocities, but he had done so for the greater good. Without a strong Empire, the entire quadrant would collapse into chaos and conflict, and Charles didn't want to imagine what would happen then.

He still thought of himself as damned, but then, everyone in this godforsaken universe seemed damned, so he was in good company.

When T'Pol had discovered the document in his cabin over a week ago, Tucker had fully expected her to mock it, or scoff at some of the teachings contained within. Instead, she seemed utterly riveted by the alternate version of Surak's words, and had devoured the religious text like a starving man pounced upon a feast. Charles couldn't begin to imagine what sort of thoughts were running through her head, but it kept her occupied during the difficult recovery, so he paid it no further mind.

Straightening, Tucker deactivated the PADD and tossed it onto the bed. He gave T'Pol another weighing look, before grimacing and reaching for the quilt his long-dead sister had made for him decades earlier. The Vulcan barely reacted as he draped the worn covering over her, and that was probably for the best since Charles couldn't possibly explain what motivated such a gesture. She's your weakness, his finely developed sense of self-preservation screamed in warning.

Like usual, though, he ignored it.

The two MACOs standing outside his cabin snapped to attention when he stepped through the doorway, and Tucker gave them a quick once-over. Sergeants Kemper and Cole stood straight and proud under his examination, both appearing poised to spring into action at a moment's notice. They wore the black uniforms that Eisler insisted his people wear, and were heavily armed.

"Let's go," Tucker growled to Kemper, before turning away. Cole would remain behind to guard the cabin.

And T'Pol.

The trip to engineering took less time than expected, yet Charles found himself growing more impatient by the second. Endeavour didn't feel right, and he had long since learned to trust those instincts, especially with them racing toward the Expanse at the head of an attack taskforce. They would be entering enemy territory for the first time since the Romulans attacked, and would need the ship to be in top shape.

As he entered the domain of his chief engineer, Tucker fought back a grimace at the uncomfortable memories that always accompanied a visit to the warp core. It had been one of these monstrosities that had scarred his face forever, that had led to Forrest allowing that damned Denobulan to grow a clone of Tucker to harvest its neural tissue, and had led to Charles being denied the chance to ever father children. The only place he hated more than this place was sickbay, and that was for entirely different reasons.

Hess wasn't entirely sober when he approached, and Tucker pushed down his anger. Even drunk, she was a better engineer than most, and he understood her hedonistic attitude toward life. Life was short when one was stationed in engineering, and very few ever got out alive.

"We're operating at ninety-five percent, sir," the lieutenant commander reported. "All systems are green."

"Good." Tucker inhaled the too familiar smells of warp coolant, before pinning Hess with a hard look. She quailed slightly, recognizing his mood. "I need you sober and alert," he said softly, voice pitched so only she would hear it. "No booze, no stims, nothin'. Am I clear?"

"Crystal, sir." Hess blinked once, before continuing. "I'm sorry for disappointing you, sir." She couldn't make eye contact.

"You haven't, Anna." Charles forced himself to relax slightly. She was no longer the scared young woman he had picked out of a pressgang intended for the mines of Coridan, he reminded himself. "Get Soong to help you clean up."

"Yes, sir," the Lieutenant Commander Hess replied. Tucker turned away, and nodded for Kemper to fall in.

The turbolift deposited them on C Deck, and Charles found himself growing even more frustrated with the necessity of these inspections. Normally, this was the job of the executive officer, but since his previous XO had experienced a sudden case of death while trying to remove Tucker from the equation, and T'Pol wasn't yet up to the task, Tucker had been making the rounds himself. He was looking forward to when he could turn this task over to the Vulcan.

A beam of light flashed toward them unexpectedly, slicing into Kemper's neck with such power that it very nearly decapitated the MACO. Even as the sergeant was beginning to topple, Charles was diving for cover, ripping his own weapon free in the process. Two more pulsed plasma blasts screamed past him, exploding upon the nearby bulkhead in a shower of sparks. Checking the setting on the phaser he had taken from Defiant over three years earlier, Tucker grit his teeth and darted from his poor cover, spraying the corridor with suppressive fire as he ran. There were two of them, he realized as he ducked behind an unsealed pressure door to avoid their counterfire. Based on their accuracy – or rather, their general lack thereof – he knew that he wasn't dealing with MACOs.

One of the two dashed into the open, a plasma pistol barking as the man gambled on volume of fire instead of accuracy, but Tucker was waiting for him. The phaser braced, he squeezed off a single shot at his target. A horrified expression crossed the man's face in the half-second it took for him to be rendered into subatomic particles.

The sound of something sliding across the deck drew his attention, and Charles felt his breath catch at sight of the explosive. A half second later, it detonated.

=/\= =/\=

The explosion could be felt through the ship's deck plates.

Instinct woke Commander T'Pol, and she sprang to her feet even before she was fully conscious. A blanket had evidently been draped over sleeping body and briefly fouled her footing, causing her to spend an unnecessarily long moment extricating herself from the object. By the time she had done so, Sergeant Cole had entered the cabin.

"There's been an attempt on the captain's life," Cole informed her, and T'Pol felt her breath catch in mild fear. On the heels of that, however, was a rush of murderous anger that someone would dare assault her mate. It very nearly washed away her control, and she took a step toward the door. She would kill them, T'Pol fumed. With her bare hands.

"The major is moving Captain Tucker to sickbay," Sergeant Cole relayed, one hand touching the hands-free communicator in her ear.

"Then that is where we are going," T'Pol said simply. Cole studied her for a moment, before nodding sharply. It was one of the reasons that T'Pol preferred having the sergeant as her primary bodyguard; Cole did not question T'Pol's instructions, and generally obeyed without hesitation. Their dispositions were also surprisingly similar, and given Cole's gender, T'Pol did not feel ... threatened.

"Ma'am." Cole pulled her sidearm free of its holster and offered to T'Pol. "Just in case," she stated, and T'Pol nodded as she accepted the weapon.

A pair of black-shirted MACOs joined them during their short trip to sickbay, and T'Pol found herself clenching the pistol more tightly than entirely necessary. Apart from Tucker, she was uncomfortable around males of any species, and the coldness in the eyes of the two armed men brought to mind some memories she'd much prefer to forget. Sato would pay, T'Pol told herself, even though she had no desire whatsoever to ever be within a light year of the human empress.

They swept into sickbay to discover Tucker sitting upright on a biobed, a foul expression on his face. His frown darkened at T'Pol's appearance, but he made no comment, instead focusing the extent of his ire at the doctor. Soong was studying the data readouts with a wry smirk that didn't touch his eyes.

"Apart from considerable tissue bruising," the doctor pronounced, "You appear to be in good shape, Captain."

"Wonderful," Tucker growled. His attention shifted to the silent Major Eisler. "Well?" he asked.

"Both were recent transfers from the Taymūr," the MACO officer stated. "The crewman who deployed the explosive was killed during capture." As he spoke, Eisler's eyes – and his hostility – never seemed to waver from the master chief petty officer standing on the other side of the captain. T'Pol glanced between the two, noting at once how their respective body languages spoke of hatred and fury. "I am launching a full investigation now," Eisler continued, his words seemingly directed more toward the master chief than Tucker. "And I will find out who was behind this."

"You do that," the captain ordered sourly. "Anything else?"

"Until the situation improves," the major replied, "I'm going to double your guard." His eyes shifted to T'Pol, and she tensed at the lack of emotion she saw there. It was as if he had completed the kolinahr ritual, or perhaps was entirely a biomechanical construct. "Both of your guards."

"Fine." Tucker gestured. "Dismissed." Like a pair of angry sehlats, the major and the master chief kept a wary eye on one another as they filed out of the medical facility. At T'Pol's nod, Sergeant Cole and the other MACOs took up a protective stance just outside sickbay; the sergeant kept her eyes on the doctor, even through the transparent door. "What is it, Soong?" the captain asked, surprising T'Pol slightly. She had not perceived any indication that the doctor wished to say something to Tucker.

"My preliminary examination of Crewman Gonzalez indicates that he was killed by a single plasma burst to the head," the doctor revealed.

"Execution style," Tucker muttered, and Soong nodded.

"There are also trace elements of combat drugs in his system," the doctor continued. "The kind that are fed to MACO Special Projects assault teams."

"Or Internal Security sweeper groups," the captain pointed out. "You can make those sort of drugs, can't you, Doctor?"

"Probably," Soong replied, once more wearing his wry smile. "You need to get some rest, Captain."

T'Pol said nothing as she accompanied Tucker from sickbay, although she could almost sense his thoughts racing. He was making plans, she realized. It was a side of him that she barely recognized, and one that made her seriously regret not seeking him out when she tried to destroy Defiant. He had never concealed his disdain for the Empire while aboard Enterprise, and she wondered how things would have turned out if she had recruited his aid instead of abusing his trust.

"You don't trust Soong," she said once they were alone in their cabin. When, she wondered, had it become their cabin instead of his?

"I don't trust anybody," Tucker retorted with a wince. He was no longer moving as quickly, and now shambled forward as if in great pain. Slowly, he began removing his uniform. "But I definitely don't trust him."

"Then why rely on him?" T'Pol asked with a frown. She disliked not having all of the pieces of the puzzle.

"Because he's predictable," the captain said as he tossed his uniform jacket into a pile of dirty clothes. "Soong will do what is best for Soong." His undershirt came off, and T'Pol bit back a gasp at the fierce-looking bruises that covered his upper body. Tucker's exaggerated movements suddenly made sense. He disappeared into the bathroom, and seconds later, the sound of the shower began.

Not for the first time while in Tucker's presence, T'Pol experienced a moment of confused indecision. She spent a long moment calculating her next move. Once she had determined her course of action, there was no hesitation.

Tucker visibly jumped in surprise when she joined him in the shower. His good eye widened as he took in her nudity, and his body reacted exactly as she expected it to. Part of her was trembling in fear at the idea of being in such proximity to a naked male given her recent abuse, but a greater part wanted to pounce on him. Her body, her mind, her katra demanded his touch. He was her mate, whether he knew it or not, and there was no doubt that he wanted her. She could feel it thundering through the bond, and could see it in his body.

"Turn around," she ordered, her voice husky with their mutual arousal. He obeyed, shivering as she began to slowly wash his bruised back. T'Pol took her time, carefully avoiding the worst of his injuries. Her hands stroked his skin, finding the neural pressure points that would enhance his pleasure of the moment, and she felt him tremble under her touch. With a gentle nudge, she pulled him to face her. Their eyes met, and T'Pol could feel evidence of his arousal brushing against her leg. She took a step closer, her lips eager to taste his.

"No," Tucker growled. He backed away faster than she thought possible, and was out of the shower before she fully realized what he was doing. Human fury washed through the bond, sweeping away the arousal, and T'Pol winced at the force of the emotion. She pursued, pausing only to deactivate the shower, and strode into the living section of his cabin without bothering to cover herself.

"Captain," she began, and Tucker pinned her with a furious look. She could see that his body was still aroused, but his mind was simmering with rage.

"Put some damned clothes on," he snarled. "And don't ever do that again."

"I don't understand," T'Pol said, confused. "You want-"

"Enough!" Tucker roared. Even as he was glaring at her, the door of the cabin slid open, and two of the MACOs – Cole and a male that T'Pol did not know – leaped in, weapons drawn. "Get out," the captain snapped, and the two nodded in obedience. As they disappeared through the door, T'Pol could see both of the soldiers sneak amused glances at her and Tucker's nude forms. There was little doubt what they assumed was happening.

"I can't trust you, T'Pol," her mate said grimly. "I can't trust you not to screw with my head after we..." His voice hardened as he trailed off. "So don't try that again." He turned away, limping toward the bed. Confused and angry at herself, T'Pol returned to the bathroom to dress. She looked at her reflection in the mirror, and wondered who she was.

And when, she wondered, had Tucker's trust become so important to her?

=/\= =/\=

Nothing was more important to Heinrich Eisler than trust.

For members of Special Projects, it was the cornerstone of their lives. The bond that grew between the MACOs who served in the Blackshirts was one forged on the battlefield and tempered with blood. No one who had not served in Special Projects could possibly understand, and it was why Eisler trusted only one man outside of his team.

Arik Soong was not that man.

"You're sure about this?" Heinrich demanded, and Soong smiled that insufferably smug smile of his. It was the same look of amused condescension that the doctor had given when Captain Tucker ordered him to use information gleaned from the Defiant to cure the Krupitzer's Syndrome that had been, until that moment, systematically destroying Eisler's body.

"Absolutely," the doctor replied. He offered Eisler a PADD. "All of my findings are here. You can check them if you like." There was no mistaking Soong's implication, that he thought Eisler wasn't smart enough to comprehend the notes.

"I will," Heinrich said as he took the data device. "The possession of combat stims by anyone other than MACO combat teams is illegal under Imperial law," Eisler growled. "How did two crewmen acquire them?"

"For once, my good Major," Soong smirked. "You've asked me a question that I have no answer for." The doctor leaned back against one of his biobeds and crossed his arms. "Perhaps you can ask Commander T'Pol. I understand she has quite the history of participating in illegal activities."

For a full six seconds, Eisler considered the possibility that the Vulcan was behind this attempt. She had motive, after all, and more than enough anger to fuel thoughts of revenge. One of his contacts on Earth had acquired classified recordings made of the commander during her incarceration, and Heinrich had forced himself to watch each and every one of them. Not out of some sort of perverse pleasure, of course; his pain and pleasure centers had long ago been burned out by an Andorian torturer, the same alien who had destroyed Eisler's ability to smile. No, he had studied those recordings so as to identify the men (if they could be called that) whom the empress had sent to abuse the Vulcan in the event that he ever encountered them in the future.

On the heels of that, however, came the memory of other recordings that Heinrich had watched in his capacity as security chief of Endeavour. By direct order of Tucker himself, the captain's cabin was monitored every second of the day, and Heinrich had spent more than a few hours watching Tucker carefully attend the Vulcan during her slow and horribly painful recovery from the forced addiction. In recent weeks, Eisler had even seen T'Pol studying the sleeping captain with an unusual expression on her face that betrayed her confusion and emotions. She may hate humanity in general – something she happened to share with Eisler – but there was no denying that Tucker was rather obviously an exception to that hate.

No, he decided, Commander T'Pol was definitely not behind an attempt on Tucker's life.

"The commander is not a suspect," Eisler stated flatly, bristling slightly at the almost indifferent shrug that Soong gave him in response. "You, however, are." The smug smile returned slightly, as the doctor gave him a wide-eyed look of innocence. "As a member of the Imperial Medical Corps, you have the knowledge and skill to manufacture combat stims," Heinrich said. "Further, your primary training is as a geneticist," the major continued, "and prior to your assignment to Endeavour, you were acting as chief director of Cold Station Twelve."

"I am well aware of my qualifications, Major," Soong replied. He was still smirking, as if this entire situation was a joke. "And I think you underestimate me. If I had manufactured combat drugs for persons aboard this ship, they certainly wouldn't as primitive as that." He gestured to the PADD that Eisler held, contempt in his voice. "So unless you intend to throw me into your quaint little agony booth," the doctor said, "I need to return to the project that Captain Tucker assigned me."

With another mocking smile, Soong turned and walked to his laboratory equipment where he began bringing up files on his systerm. Heinrich's eyes narrowed fractionally at the calculated insult, but he said nothing once he verified that the doctor was, in fact, working on the captain's special assignment. Data acquired from their last engagement with a Xindi craft was proving to be invaluable for the project, and Eisler hoped that Soong would have a prototype ready soon.

Heinrich couldn't wait to test it.

"Inform the captain," Soong said abruptly, still hunched over his lab equipment, "that I need more of the sample if this is going to work." Eisler nodded, and exited the sickbay.

In the Armoury, his investigative team was already assembled and hard at work unraveling this latest attempt. Eisler had handpicked each of them, and knew everything there was to know about them. He knew their sexual preferences, whom was sleeping with whom, their favorite foods, and the history that led to each and every one of them to become Special Projects. There were no secrets in the Team.

"Report," he ordered as he approached, and the entire team snapped to attention.

"Security cams are now back online, sir," Sergeant Reynolds began, a fierce scowl on his scarred face. He had once been a juicejunkie prior to enlistment, and it was during that time that he had gained the hideous scars that ruined his features. "We did a hard reboot of all systems, and pulled the back-ups," the sergeant continued grimly. "The entire system was compromised."

"I've never seen a virus like this," Corporal Hensen elaborated. The computer and sensor operator, he had been a webdancer in DataWatch prior to enlistment in the MACOs; tasked with the job of defending the Empire's computer systems from slicers and hackers, Hensen had made a mistake and read a file he should not have. Given the option of execution or MACO Special Projects, he chose the later, and no one was more surprised that he survived the lethal training regimen than he himself. "If I didn't know that it was impossible, I'd say that this was some sort of AI with virus-like qualities."

"Which explains how our internal sensors lost track of the captain," Reynolds continued. "We've found six other major discrepancies in our records." He glowered at the briefing table. "Sir, I have no idea how this virus was uploaded," the sergeant said apologetically. In any other department in the Fleet, that would have likely led to Reynolds being punished, but not in the Team.

"And the two dead crewmen?" If it was possible, Eisler would have been frowning.

"No ties to anyone aboard Endeavour," Reynolds replied. "I've got Hensen doing a full background sweep." Heinrich glanced at the corporal.

"Four days, maybe five," the young man said apologetically. "I can halve that if you want me to go in broadsword." Eisler gave him an uncomprehending look, and Hensen explained. "I mean without trying to cover my tracks. I'm trying to keep from alerting anyone that I'm looking into these guys. If they were IntSec, their records will be monitored all the time."

"Low profile," Eisler ordered, before glowering at his assembled team. "When I accepted this job," he growled, "it was with the promise that I would keep the captain safe." Crossing his arms, he continued. "Evidently, our previous example was insufficient." He was referring, of course, to the 'accident' that Endeavour's last executive officer had suffered after attempting to gain her own long overdue command by killing Tucker; Heinrich had pressed the 'OPN' button on the airlock controls himself, and he would never forget Commander Hernandez's look of horrified disbelief as she was sucked into the vacuum. "This will be the last attempt on the captain's life," he declared. "Pass the word to the other teams: if anyone so much as looks at the captain with a frown, that person is to be questioned."

"What about the COB?" Reynolds asked. The enmity between Heinrich and Mackenzie was well known; every member of the MACO teams shared their commander's distrust of the master chief. All too often, they were the ones who suffered when the master chief did something stupid. "Do you think he's behind this?"

"Don't you?" The sergeant had no reply to Eisler's question. "He is to be monitored at all times. Any questionable activity is to be reported to me immediately."

"Ghost or visible?" Sergeant Reynolds inquired.

"Let him know that we are watching him," Heinrich replied. He grit his teeth at some of the shackles that Tucker had put into place; all interrogations had to be approved by the captain, and just cause was required for each of them. It made Eisler's job more difficult, but did make Tucker more popular among the junior enlisted personnel.

"Major," the CSO said abruptly. Heinrich glanced in his direction, and Hensen continued, eyes still on his systerm. "Three crewmen just popped up on the data sweep. They have some tentative links to our dead guys. All three are inkmonkeys, but there are holes in their records."

"Bring them in," Eisler ordered, and Reynolds nodded. "Belay that," the major said almost at once as a thought occurred to him. If he could smile, Heinrich would have grinned maliciously.

He had a plan.

=/\= =/\=

This was most certainly not part of his original plan.

Strapped into the crash seat aboard one of the assault re-entry craft, Master Chief Petty Officer Colin Mackenzie tried to focus on the coming operation instead of his hatred for orbital insertions. His pulse, he realized angrily, was already racing, and he was gripping the stock of his pulse rifle so tightly that his hands ached. The sound of his breathing seemed inordinately loud, although he knew it was just an illusion.

With a sharp jolt, the ARC dropped from Endeavour's launch bay and screamed toward the planet below. It was little more than a rockball with a barely breathable atmosphere, more like Mars than Earth, and was home to a small Xindi colony of less than ten thousand. Mackenzie had been mildly surprised at Tucker's sudden order to deviate from their heading to assault this colony, but the part of the master chief that still tried to look at the captain's actions rationally recognized the wisdom of neutralizing potential reinforcements for the enemy. They were going into Xindi territory, after all, and it would also give Tucker an opportunity to evaluate the commanders of the seven other ships in the strike group.

For nearly two days, they had maneuvered and engaged the Xindi perimeter ships protecting the colony, destroying all of them before beginning an orbital bombardment that lasted another day and a half. Even now, the orbiting Starfleet ships were systematically pounding the planet's surface with their weapon systems.

"Two minutes!" the pilot of the re-entry vehicle shouted, and Mackenzie shifted his grip on the rifle slightly. Normally, he wouldn't even be part of a ground assault, but the MACOs had claimed to need someone with an engineering background on this operation, and Eisler had implied his doubts that Colin had the stones to volunteer. Not for the first time, Mackenzie had acted before thinking, and accepted the challenge.

On either side of him were two Admin crewmen, and their presence on the ARC when Mackenzie climbed aboard had nearly caused him to groan. Both were IntSec operatives who technically answered to him, but they were inkmonkeys and data pushers, not field ops. The only time they were supposed to set foot on enemy ground was long after it had been pacified by MACOs and orbital bombardment. If Colin hadn't already realized that this was a trap before he climbed aboard, their presence made it pretty clear.

With a jarring shudder, the ARC began twisting and sliding to avoid ground-based anti-aircraft fire. Energy beams and missiles crisscrossed the night sky, as the Xindi tried to hold their own against the rain of men and fire that fell from the heavens. Through the nearby viewport, Mackenzie could see the withering barrage of phase cannon fire and low-yield torpedoes that Endeavour unleashed upon the planet's surface to herald the MACO arrival. Explosions wreathed the colony's main buildings, ripping them apart with great plumes of flame and debris, and bathing the entire complex with a crimson hue.

It was beautiful.

They hit the ground hard, and the MACOs were pouring from the re-entry craft even before it came to a complete stop. Mackenzie was right behind them, his rifle at the ready, and darted forward in a low, crouching run, followed closely by the two Admin crewmen. Plasma bolts shrieked by his head like angry hornet, splattering against the reddish rocks that littered the landing zone. Xindi defenders – Primates mostly – could be seen in prepared defensive positions, and their weapons chattered nonstop as they raked fire across the LZ. Against pirates or marauders, they would have had no trouble.

Against the MACOs, they didn't have a chance.

Even as they exited the landing craft, Eisler's Blackshirts were returning fire with their more powerful weapons. Lethal streams of pulsed plasma ripped into the prepared positions, punching through the rock as if it was little more than a thin layer of cardboard. Every third MACO was carrying an automatic grenade launcher, and they sent dozens of high-explosive, anti-personnel ordnance against the enemy. Shrapnel from the grenades or torn free from the rock savaged the Xindi defenders, and sent them reeling, even as the ARCs turned their rotary pulse cannons against them.

A sudden explosion of concussive force slammed into Mackenzie's back and sent him tumbling through the air. He hit the ground with a thud, and slid at least a full meter. Stars danced before his eyes, and his ears were ringing. His helmet clattered to the rocky turf as he shook his head to clear, kicking up a small geyser of reddish dirt as it did, but Colin didn't bother trying to recover it. He glanced around, trying to find his absent rifle, and horror washed over him at how exposed he was.

Xindi war cries snapped him back to the present, and Mackenzie sprang to his feet seconds before the first of the Primates reached him. To his surprise, they were carrying bladed weapons of some sort, and he narrowly dodged a wild swing that would have decapitated him. Colin's fist slammed into the Xindi's stomach, stunning the alien, and he shoved the staggered creature to the ground. A second Xindi lunged forward, but Mackenzie was waiting, and caught the alien with a powerful roundhouse that sent it reeling. A leg sweep dropped a third, and kicked the fallen Xindi in the throat before ripping its weapon free.

The whine of an ARC rotary cannon sent Mackenzie into a diving jump mere seconds before the assault vehicle roared by overhead, guns ripping into the Xindi with gruesome results. Rock and flesh alike exploded under the onslaught, showering the area with a crimson mist. As the ARC climbed into the air, Colin scrambled back to his feet. Three MACOs approached, not even bothering to take cover. It was as if they were on a leisurely stroll, and not in a combat zone.

"You should be more careful," Major Eisler said coldly as he approached. His eyes drifted to Mackenzie's left, and Colin glanced in that direction himself.

Nothing remained of the large slab of basaltic rock that Mackenzie had initially sought cover behind, and smoke was still rising from the new crater that had replaced it. Of the two IntSec data pushers, there was no sign, and he knew, without a shred of doubt, that they were dead. It had been pure happenstance that Colin had survived; his initial position at the very edge of the rock formation had likely saved his life when the explosive destroyed the rock.

And not for a second did he think that Xindi fire had been responsible.

"I'll keep that in mind," he replied, his own voice frosty. Eisler grunted, though whether it was amusement or disappointment, Mackenzie couldn't tell.

"We've located the medical facility," one of the major's two guards suddenly announced. He was wearing a headset, Mackenzie realized, and had bulky comm gear on his back. Eisler nodded, his eyes never leaving Colin's.

"Secure the samples," he ordered, and Mackenzie frowned. What samples? "And fall back to the extraction points."

Less than five minutes later, they were racing back toward orbit, and Colin was still confused. Tucker was planning something, he realized, something that Eisler was a part of. Mackenzie glanced out the viewport and studied the burning Xindi colony with a frown. Another orbital barrage was beginning, this time with the clear intent of wiping the already shattered colony from the face of the planet. There would be no hint that any humans ever stepped foot on this planet.

For the first time, Colin Mackenzie was very, very worried.

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