The rumble of the engines concealed T'Pol's sudden flash of distress.
For a moment, it felt as if an icy hand had gripped her heart, paralyzing her in place. Her breath came in ragged gasps and the suppressed pain from her injuries returned with such force that, had she not already been seated, her legs would have buckled. Grasping the edge of the SCI board with a crushing grip, she struggled against the emotion that flooded through her, recognizing it at once.
Logically, she knew that her distress originated from the effects of the previous day; but acknowledging that did not make any her less angry at her slip. The second encounter with Tolaris had badly shaken her resolve and, though he was now dead (and unmourned), she remained unnerved by the incident. There had been no time to meditate, no opportunity to lock the undesired emotions away and, given her damaged neural pathways, it was entirely possible that such an attempt would fail. Phlox had already urged her to seek trauma counseling; as this was the fourth time that someone had violated her mind, the doctor was understandably concerned about her psychological well-being. Soval had backed her refusal to schedule such an appointment, however, despite the doctor's disapproval; her old mentor knew that she didn't need counseling.
She needed her mate.
Time alone with Trip would ease the pain and allow her to heal. She ached to wrap herself around him, to draw his katra around hers like a warm blanket, to let him soothe the hurt away and restore her to normalcy with his mere presence. It was, she realized in retrospect, how she had recovered so quickly from Rajiin's assault; even then, long before she had consciously acknowledged her growing affection for him, she had derived comfort from Trip’s presence. Phlox could not understand that only her mate could help.
It was the Vulcan way.
Sensing her distress but not knowing the reason for it, Trip gave her a soft smile. Immediately a wave of calm flowed over her, washing away the fear and giving her the opportunity to regain her equilibrium. Though she sensed no recrimination from him for the flash of anxiety, T'Pol chastised herself for the momentary loss of control. Right now, with the fate of Endeavour's crew at stake, Trip needed no unnecessary distractions. Once more in command of her faculties, she returned her attention to her duties.
"Time on target?" Trip asked, his voice calm and professional. Visibly, he presented no clues as to how he felt, gave no hint of the emotions that bubbled within him, and she felt a surge of amused pride at his control. This cool and composed officer was a far cry from the explosively emotional man who had first offered her his hand, and had been known to shout at her on the bridge of Enterprise so long ago.
"Two minutes," Lieutenant Commander Eisler replied, his own voice tinged with a hint of eagerness.
"Inform Hayes," her mate ordered, giving her another fleeting glance, primarily to assure himself that she was 'back to normal,' she assumed. In the back of her mind, she could feel his concern.
He was always there - a warm knot of affection and desire and protectiveness - and T'Pol had long since become accustomed to the force of his emotions; occasionally, she was a little surprised at how quickly she had adapted to his chaotic presence in her mind. In the worst of times, Trip could be a difficult man to live with, with his undisciplined emotions buffeting her like gale force winds, but the undercurrent of his strong feelings for her was always there. Even now, as he presented the appearance of total calm in the face of the coming battle, she could sense his muted fear that she would be injured or worse. You're all I think about, Sim had told her many years ago, and Trip had later revealed that the mimetic symbiot had indeed been speaking his own thoughts.
It was difficult for her, as a Vulcan, to admit that she now reciprocated those very thoughts.
"Bad Omen signals ready," Lieutenant Devereux announced.
Her eyes glued to her sensor feed, T'Pol felt a flicker of satisfaction that her suggestion regarding the gunboat appeared to be effective. Even to her own scans, the small Orion craft appeared as little more than a sensor error, a reflection of Endeavour's own mass shadow caused by the enormous gravimetric distortions from the distant nebula. Ensign Hayes' touch at the helm of the gunboat was unprecedented for a Security officer, however; even at full impulse, he was able to maintain his dangerous proximity to the Starfleet vessel without apparent difficulty. Mentally, she flagged the discrepancy for further review at a later date.
"On my mark," Trip said softly, his voice steady, "break and attack." To everyone save her, he was a picture of composure, a rock standing firm before a torrential storm. Affection and amusement arose within her as she easily saw through his facade; fear and anxiety warred within him but he kept it contained, concealed from his crew. It was something that Trip had admitted to her in the privacy of their quarters many times: he hated commanding a warship and missed being just an engineer.
For that matter, she missed him being just an engineer.
"Weapons range in ... twenty seconds," Commander Eisler announced from the TAC board and T'Pol refocused her full attention on her station's sensor feed, pushing all extraneous thoughts away. The Romulans had broken off into two distinct groups of three with the seventh ship lurking several thousand kilometers distant; at first, she assumed that the seventh bird of prey was the one damaged by the proximity mine, but a second sweep revealed that was not so. She frowned.
"Mark!" Trip ordered and Endeavour lunged hard to starboard. At the TAC board, Eisler was reacting, triggering a volley of torpedoes and phase cannon fire that lashed out with deadly accuracy. Even as the tactical officer was firing weapons, T'Pol's fingers danced across her SCI board, washing incoming torpedoes with microwave bursts, neutrino pulses or wideband x-ray lasers to disrupt their internal targeting sensors. The Romulan retaliatory burst of disruptor fire slammed into the energy shielding that surrounded Endeavour, rocking the larger ship.
As the Romulans were adjusting their own courses to match that of Endeavour, the Orion gunboat darted out from beneath the Starfleet vessel, sliding into a flanking position behind one of the unsuspecting Romulan ships. Disruptor fire lanced out from the much smaller craft, and, at its scorching touch, already damaged hull plating was vaporized. Hayes, she realized with approval, had targeted the bird of prey previously damaged by the mine. As two low-yield torpedoes flashed out and exploded violently against the Romulan's hull, another disruptor beam from the gunboat briefly caressed the enemy nacelle, burning through the protective casing; a stream of warp plasma began trailing from the struggling ship.
"Energize," Trip told Lieutenant Devereux, and the COM officer quickly relayed the order to the officer operating the transporter platform. This was one of Commander Eisler's more creative tactical suggestions: Using the transporting device as a delivery system for armed ordnance, a proximity mine would be beamed aboard the targeted bird of prey.
The result was catastrophic.
Materializing where the Romulan bridge was hypothesized to be, the mine detonated immediately. Durasteel rods exploded outward, punching through bulkheads and control consoles and flesh with equal ease. Like a blister, the outer hull swelled and ruptured under the assault, causing the bird of prey to begin a slow, uncontrolled tumble toward the far distant nebula. Flame blossomed from its hull as the rods smashed through the internal superstructure, and even as the ship began to break apart it exploded in a violent burst of fire and debris. The unexpected explosion of one of their number had an immediate effect on the other Romulan birds of prey, and they twisted into dives or climbs that carried them away from the larger, heavier ship.
"Come to one-eight-seven mark five-three," the captain ordered, his eyes locked on the sensor feed that had been installed in front of the command chair. Through the bond, T'Pol could feel his grim satisfaction at the destruction of the first Romulan ship; she also sensed that contentment warring with his self-loathing that he was satisfied.
Such thoughts were neither logical nor productive. But they were human.
At the captain’s direction, Endeavour banked again, dipping into a pursuit position behind the larger group of three birds of prey. Phase cannon fire lanced out and the hollow thrum of the torpedo launchers’ activation echoed through the ship; an explosion of fire wreathed one of the Romulan ships, sketching out a partially invisible force screen that surrounded it.
"Their shields are holding," Lieutenant Commander Eisler stated in a low growl. Trip shot him a disgruntled look before glancing quickly in T'Pol's direction. He said nothing - he didn't need to say anything - but, with a nod, she acknowledged his unvoiced request to find a way to bring down their shields shy of brute force.
As Endeavour pursued the trio of Romulan craft, the other two ships dove toward the convoy of fleeing Boomers. Disruptor cannons barking fire, the two birds of prey fell upon the poorly armed transports like wild and hungry sehlats; one human ship broke apart almost immediately, its poorly maintained hull shattering under the sizzling stream of white-hot energy. A second and third followed in short order as the two birds of prey weaved their way through the convoy, weapons spitting burning death; panic set in among the human ships at once and the orderly flight began to dissolve into a mad dash to get clear of the nebula's mass shadow and away from the Romulans.
"Bad Omen requests permission to break from escort," Lieutenant Devereux stated from her board. As T'Pol split her attention between jamming incoming torpedoes and seeking the frequency of the Romulan shields, she could feel her mate's momentary hesitation. Allowing Ensign Hayes to take the gunboat after the two Romulans was tantamount to sending him and Chief Gray to their deaths; the ship was outgunned and outmatched. Against dedicated warships like the birds of prey, it stood no chance.
And yet, the gunboat's mere presence might save a few more Boomer lives...
"Permission granted," Trip declared after less than a second of consideration. His eyes never wavered from the sensor display in front of him. "T'Pol?"
"There is no discernible shield frequency," she informed him calmly, wondering if the Romulans were using a rotating shield modulation; that would explain her difficulty in isolating the frequency. Frustration rolled off of her mate as Endeavour shook under a sudden assault. The trio of Romulans abruptly broke their formation, splitting off into three different directions.
"Three-three-six mark seven-two," Trip ordered. "Keep us oriented on Beta's tail."
"Targets Alpha and Gamma are accelerating toward the convoy," T'Pol announced. At once, she felt a pulse of anger through the bond as Trip immediately comprehended the Romulan strategy: maximum carnage by minimum engagement. Such a tactic fit their modus operandi in the war up to this point.
Upon her display, T'Pol could see the gunboat race toward one of the Romulans, weapons spewing fire that splattered against the bird of prey's protective force screen with little to no effect. Under Hayes' touch, the Orion ship danced around the slow-moving Boomer transports, slewing around incoming retaliatory fire, and evading torpedoes with surprising grace.
There was no way he was just a Security officer.
"Break off," Trip ordered abruptly. He was glaring at the sensor display before him. "Take us back to the convoy. " Anger surged through the bond as he recognized the Romulan attempt to draw Endeavour away from the convoy. "Inform Mayweather that he has a green light."
Underneath her, the deck seemed to tilt as Endeavour turned.
As the Starfleet vessel banked hard and accelerated back toward the convoy of human ships, its weapons now focused on alternate targets, Major Talok let himself relax. Alarms were still sounding throughout the IRW Belak and the stench of smoke was heavy in the air. Small electrical fires were burning from where overloaded panels had exploded and two crewmen were hard at work trying to extinguish them. Ten more seconds and the shields would have completely collapsed under the force of Starfleet firepower.
With a groan, Commander Xerius climbed back to his feet, all but collapsing into the command chair. Blood trickled down his face and he winced with pain as he touched the leaking scalp wound. Sensing Talok's eyes on him, the commander gave the major a dark look before barking a command.
"Damage report!" he bellowed, unnecessarily loud, and Talok struggled to keep his expression even. He loathed Xerius, and hated serving aboard this ship, but he had no choice.
Valdore had seen to that.
"Shields at eight percent," Talok responded calmly, his attention seemingly focused on the damage control console before him. "Minor structural damage along the aft quarter." He gave Xerius a cold look. "Maneuvering thrusters are out." For a long moment, the commander glared at Talok, seething fury and hatred in his eyes.
To Talok, such expressions from his crewmates had become almost routine and expected. His position as a disgraced Infiltrator in the Tal Shiar was common knowledge among the crew of the Belak, and his appointment as executive officer at the direct command of Admiral Valdore had displaced a popular officer. Commander Xerius had never concealed his disdain for Talok, and the ex-Infilitrator suspected it was he who had revealed the major's links to the Tal Shiar; how Xerius had found out was another matter entirely. In the month since his appointment to the Belak, Talok had survived three separate assassination attempts and, although he had no proof, he knew all three had been orchestrated by the commander.
"Get them back online!" Xerius snarled, swinging his attention to his communications officer. "I want a status report at once!" he demanded, wiping the blood from his face as he spoke. His eyes on the sensor feed, Talok pushed back his disgust at the man’s overreaction.
Already, the Starfleet vessel was hot in pursuit of the Koderex and the Dividices, and Talok had to salute the humans for their ingenuity thus far. The mine that damaged the IRW Makar had been surprise enough, but the sudden attack by what appeared to be an Orion Syndicate gunboat had been completely unexpected. Even now, the gunboat dueled with the Genorex and the Haakona; the damage it was inflicting was negligible, but it was proving to be enough of a harassment that Talok fully expected one of those ships to focus on eliminating it.
Destruction of the Makar had confirmed one thing, however; the human transporting device, which Tal Shiar scientists were even now attempting to reverse-engineer, gave them an incredible tactical advantage, one which they had been able to exploit nearly at once. From his board, Talok had detected the transmission stream from the Starfleet vessel mere seconds before the explosion and had been stunned at how dangerous such a weapon could be. Shields seemed to defeat the matter transporter, but the major kept a cautious eye on the sensors just in case.
The Starfleet vessel - Endeavour by its markings - dove toward the convoy, weapons flashing. Dividices absorbed the brunt of the assault and Talok winced with remembered sympathy. Photonic torpedoes exploded against the Dividices' protective force screen, and the power of those detonations rocked the smaller craft. Wheeling into a spinning climb, Dividices darted into the panicked convoy of human ships, no doubt hoping to gain some sort of cover from the relentless assault, even as the Koderex and the Haakona retaliated against the Starfleet ship. Disruptor beams lanced out, splashing across the nearly invisible defensive shield, and a pair of torpedoes flashed forward.
Incredibly, Endeavour's shields held under their attack.
A dozen of the human ships, all clearly modified, suddenly pounced on the Haakona as she attacked the maneuvering Starfleet vessel. Disruptor beams, plasma bolts and pulsed lasers flashed through the void, outlining a brilliant image of the Haakona’s shields; the Orion gunboat twisted into view, spitting a pair of low-powered torpedoes at the larger ship. Its shields suddenly stressed under the unexpected assault from multiple quarters, Haakona responded with a brutal barrage of firepower that hammered into the human ships, destroying four and crippling a fifth in a matter of seconds.
Too late, the Haakona’s captain remembered Endeavour.
A salvo of high-yield photonic torpedoes raced from the Starfleet vessel, exploding against the Haakona's shields with devastating force that overloaded the field generators almost at once. Streams of phase cannon fire punched through the collapsing shields, stitching angry gashes across the smaller craft's hull. Hull plating melted under the attack and an explosion of molten metal rained out from the ship; a second salvo of torpedoes pounded into the Haakona, detonating against the hull with horrific results. Leaking atmosphere and bodies, the Haakona went into a steep dive, twisting and spinning in a vain effort to evade Endeavour’s assaults. More phase fire lanced out, slicing into the port nacelle with the casual ease of a laser through bread. An explosion of plasma and warp coolant erupted forth.
Talok’s console beeped and he swept his eyes over the incoming data. Glancing back at Xerius, he found the commander pressing a stained cloth to his scalp wound and frowning at the data display of the battle.
"Maneuvering thrusters are online," Talok announced, his lack of honorific a calculated insult that Xerius noted at once.
"Get us back into the fight," the commander ordered his helmsman. On the main sensor display, Endeavour was relentless, pounding Haakona with attack after attack; under the withering assault the smaller craft began to disintegrate, breaking apart into great chunks of burning debris.
"Incoming transmission from the D'ridthau," the communications officer abruptly announced, and Talok frowned. The D'ridthau was Admiral Vrax's command ship and had been lurking at the edge of the battle, ostensibly to better direct the assault; but Talok knew better.
Vrax was afraid.
Ejected from the Senate for his role in the droneship fiasco, Vrax had entered the military in an attempt to redeem himself. Despite the disgrace, he was given the rank of Admiral and offered command of a strike group. Made up of older ships originally slated for decommission, this squadron was clearly meant to be Vrax’s death, but his own influence and wealth had allowed him to arrange for considerable upgrades. Without these upgrades, they would hardly stand a chance against a ship like Endeavour.
For six months, Vrax’s strike group had been terrorizing human shipping lanes throughout this entire sector, destroying dozens of ships in the process and nearly single-handedly bringing interstellar commerce to a standstill; it was patently obvious that Vrax was trying to reclaim the respect he had lost by burying his previous failure in glory. Having somehow escaped blame for his role in the droneship failure, Admiral Valdore had noted Vrax's efforts with some concern.
That was where Talok came in.
As an Infiltrator, the major had the skills necessary to penetrate Vrax's command structure to monitor the admiral and, if necessary, eliminate him. At the time Valdore contacted him, Talok's failure with the Vulcan V'Las was hardly common knowledge, but somehow the admiral had known and had offered him an opportunity for redemption. The plan that Talok devised had been a simple one: establish himself as an efficient military adviser in order to get close to the admiral. His assignment as the executive officer for the Belak had complicated matters slightly, but he had been confident that it was a minor setback at best; the moment he stepped aboard the warship, however, Talok knew that his position had been compromised. Only fear of the Tal Shiar kept most of the crew from assaulting him.
"D'ridthau orders Belak to move against the station," the communications officer said after deciphering the encrypted transmission. Neutrino tightbeams were still the preferred means of communication, but in situations such as these it was necessary to encrypt the actual message.
"Send: acknowledge and comply," Xerius commanded. He suddenly smiled, a cold and terrible expression that held no remorse or pity. "Major Talok," he said, the emphasis on Talok's Tal Shiar rank loud, "prepare an assault team." Icy tendrils of fear crept up the major’s spine as Xerius continued. "I will grant you the glory of taking the station." Giving his superior officer a tight nod, Talok turned back to his duties, recognizing that assassination attempt number four was beginning.
He had hoped to avoid this sort of situation.
Despite the situation, Dan Hsiao found that he was enjoying himself.
He hated himself a little for that, hated that Boomers were being killed while he felt like a giddy twelve-year old joyriding in his parents' car, but he couldn't help it. Sending Endeavour into a twisting spin through the chaotic Boomer convoy, he kept his eyes on the NAV sensor feed, ignoring the explosions that clouded it -- explosions that, if he let himself think about it, were innocent men and women and children being consumed by fire and vacuum. Twice, he nearly clipped Boomer transports as they unexpectedly altered their headings, and once he very nearly rammed into a slow-moving fuel transport, but Endeavour emerged on the other side of the convoy unscathed and Dan was forced to admit something to himself that he would never tell anyone.
This was fun.
"Six-two mark one-eight-nine," Captain Tucker ordered and Dan reacted without thought, his touch steady but light. One of the Romulan ships abruptly loomed into view and, from his TAC board, Commander Eisler unleashed a withering salvo of fire at it. Explosions bracketed the bird of prey and it darted back into the relative safety of the panicked convoy. "Stay on his tail, Dan," Tucker instructed, and Hsiao fought a completely improper grin.
"Target Beta appears to be breaking for the station," Commander T'Pol announced calmly as Dan banked Endeavour around another lumbering transport. Almost immediately, he was forced to send the ship into a stomach-lurching dive as two rickety-looking cargo ships loomed into view. Endeavour's engines howled with protest and the inertial dampeners struggled to compensate as he demanded more maneuverability. Three more insane maneuvers later, they were once more on the Romulan's tail and Hsiao was desperately trying to keep from giggling.
Even as Commander Eisler was triggering a burst of fire at the bird of prey, the Romulan ship was loosing a salvo of torpedoes at the convoy. Fire exploded from one of the larger Boomer ships as the warheads slammed into it and, in the seconds before it flew apart, Dan recognized it as the fuel transport that he had narrowly missed earlier. Huge chunks of burning durasteel were sent spinning into other ships, smashing against the hulls with crushing force. Two Boomer craft were vaporized instantly, and a third was sent tumbling into a cluster of other ships, causing an immediate domino effect. Ships never designed to conduct evasive maneuvers dove and climbed and twisted away from the flying debris. Some made it. Most did not.
Great gouts of flame exploded from many of the crippled vessels as the onboard oxygen ignited and fragile warp nacelles were sent spinning into the void. For a fraction of second, Hsiao thought that he could see bodies tumbling from the ships as they collided with one another. Many - far, far too many - were children.
Suddenly it wasn't fun anymore.
"Shift fire," Tucker said as a second Romulan shift darted out of cover, its disruptor cannons slicing into unprotected transports. Phase cannon fire lashed out from Endeavour, briefly illuminating the Romulan's shields. A trio of photonic torpedoes leapt from the Starfleet vessel and raced through the darkness; two exploded across the Romulan's shield and sent the bird of prey tumbling. The third...
The third torpedo smacked into a Boomer ship.
"Scheisse," Commander Eisler muttered as the transport vanished in a burst of atomic fire, and one did not need to know German to recognize his meaning.
"How long until they reach the threshold?" the captain asked, his tone bleak but measured. Until the Boomer ships reached the outer edge of the nebula's distortions, going to warp remained almost certainly fatal. Six ships had already tried to do so and their exploding nacelles had destroyed them instantly.
"Seventeen point three six minutes," came T'Pol's measured response, and Dan frowned. He'd lost track of how many Boomers had been destroyed so far.
Initially, Captain Tucker had wanted to concentrate fire on a single ship until it was destroyed, but the Romulan hit-and-fade tactic proved to be difficult to combat. The moment that Endeavour appeared to focus on a single bird of prey, that ship would pull away and go evasive, attempting to draw the Starfleet vessel away from the relatively slow-moving convoy; in that moment, the other two ships would conduct brutal strafing runs on the rest of the Boomers. Even the presence of several armed Boomer transports and the Orion gunboat were proving to be of negligible aid; of the twenty-six combat-capable ships that Captain Mayweather had put at Endeavour's disposal, fewer than ten were still functional.
"That's too damned long," Tucker muttered as Hsiao sent Endeavour into another steep nose dive. "Recalculate the safety zone," he instructed and Dan could almost imagine the Vulcan raising her eyebrow in response.
The murmur coming from the COM station had become background noise and Hsiao risked a single glance in that direction. Her headset on, Devereux’s face was tight with frustration as she pleaded with the Boomers.
"Negative," she was saying, her voice soothing despite the expression on her face, "do not break formation. Maintain your present heading and course."
The third bird of prey - target Epsilon - lunged briefly into view, hotly pursued by Captain Mayweather's ship and the Bad Omen. Hayes had adopted the role of shepherd for the Horizon once Captain Tucker gave Mayweather's "combat-capable" ships the green light to engage; they made an unlikely team, the sleek gunboat that was all curves and smooth lines and the J-Class transport that was all sharp corners and right angles.
"Captain," T'Pol suddenly spoke, her voice as full of excitement as any Vulcan's could be, "the seventh bird of prey has sent an encrypted message to target Beta."
"A command ship," Tucker breathed. Hsiao could almost feel the sudden shift in atmosphere on the bridge and he was already adjusting their trajectory. "Can you verify?"
"No." The Vulcan's pause was fractional but telling. "Scans do indicate that it is more heavily shielded and I have no other explanation for its refusal to engage."
"Agreed, sir," Lieutenant Commander Eisler added without being asked.
"Right,” the captain muttered. "Tactical, get a weapons lock on that ship," Tucker abruptly ordered. "Helm, come to one-eight-two mark four-nine, best speed." He paused. "Let's go kill a command ship."
Endeavour's engines growled as Dan altered their course.
The change in direction was so abrupt that, for a moment, Paul Mayweather was convinced that he was reading the sensor display wrong. He blinked in confusion, his fingers poised over the flight console, and stared in absolute shock for an incredibly long heartbeat, unable to believe what he was seeing.
Endeavour was abandoning the fleet.
An explosion of sparks rained down upon him, causing him to jump in startlement and snapping his focus back to the situation at hand. Anger washed over him then, burning away the surprise and filling him with a rage that caused him to tremble. The fury that he had reserved for Archer suddenly found a new focus as Endeavour accelerated away from the convoy. Tucker had sworn that Endeavour would be the last human ship to leave Thor's Cradle, had assured Paul that the Starfleet vessel would be destroyed before it fled, but now...
Now, they were running.
Almost at once, the three Romulan ships took advantage of the Starfleet ship's abrupt retreat. As Endeavour moved away from the Boomer convoy, the three birds of prey swarmed toward the Boomer ships, unleashing a withering barrage of disruptor fire and torpedoes that had an immediate effect. Four ships were destroyed within seconds, a fifth and sixth mere heartbeats later.
"Endeavour is retreating!" Mick Berry shouted from the weapons console, his tone incredulous, and Paul shot him a dark look.
"Stay on target!" Mayweather snapped as he adjusted their course, triggering another burst of the maneuvering jets that sent the Horizon sliding into a flanking position behind the nearest bird of prey. It was a futile attempt and he knew it; the Romulan ships were faster and much more maneuverable than the old J-Class. Even with the modified pulsed plasma cannons that had been installed on Horizon, they would do little more than scratch the paint on the bird of prey's hull in the unlikely event they could puncture the warship's shields.
A bleak yet sadly familiar tone sounded throughout the command deck and Paul reacted without thought. Under his guidance, the Horizon suddenly slewed hard to starboard, the port jets firing in concert; it was such a sudden change in velocity and momentum that the artificial gravity flickered in compensation. A torpedo raced through the area that they had just occupied, missing the port nacelle by mere meters, and a bird of prey flashed by them seconds later, cannons spewing fire. Horizon rocked as disruptor fire stabbed into it, burning through its already weakened hull plating; sparks exploded around them and Paul winced, fervently praying that the old ship would hold together.
"Hull plating down to twelve percent!" Tony Weiss shouted from the engineering console as Berry sent another stab of weapons fire at the Romulan. The plasma bolts splattered across the energy shielding that surrounded the warship, briefly illuminating the protective field but inflicting no real damage. In an almost leisurely manner, the Romulan ship reoriented itself on the Horizon and fired a single torpedo before diving away.
For an impossibly long moment, time seemed to slow to a crawl as Paul stared at the incoming torpedo. Instinctive reflex sent Horizon into a twisting, spiraling dive but Mayweather knew it was already too late, knew that only a miracle could save them.
Salvation wore a Starfleet uniform.
Engines screaming, the Orion gunboat abruptly shot into view, weapons blazing. It was an insane maneuver, one that put the small ship between the incoming warhead and Horizon. A steady stream of disruptor bolts flashed from the gunboat, most missing but a few slicing into the torpedo housing and destroying the warhead in a fiery explosion mere seconds before impact. Wreathed in flame from the dying warhead, the gunboat rocked, and Paul released a breath that he had been holding, silently promising to buy the pilot and gunner of the captured ship as much beer as they wanted. The realization that the gunboat manned by Starfleet personnel was still in the fight gave him pause, and Mayweather quickly glanced at the sensor feed.
Endeavour was attacking.
He blinked once more in surprise as the Starfleet ship engaged another Romulan bird of prey, one that Paul hadn't even been aware of. At almost the same moment that he realized this, the three birds of prey attacking the convoy broke off their assaults, banking hard and accelerating toward the distant Starfleet ship. Engines burning bright, the three warships weaved through the fractured convoy, not even conducting opportunity fire as they raced through the void. Warp coolant leaking from its single nacelle, the gunboat darted forward, sliding easily into a pursuit course behind the Romulans. Mayweather felt the eyes of his command crew on him as he stared at his data feed and, for a long moment, shared their confusion as their guns went silent. Why would the Romulans pull back now?
"This is Endeavour to all ships," a feminine voice crackled across the comm channels, "maintain course and heading. Stand by to receive revised warp threshold parameters."
Everything fell into place then, and Paul felt a hot rush of embarrassment race through him. Travis' letters had been remarkably thorough, painting such an accurate portrait of the command staff of Enterprise that Paul almost felt as though he knew them personally. He had used that inside information to good effect against Archer; in a moment of absolute clarity, he realized that, in his anger, he had focused exclusively on the commodore, pushing aside or simply repressing memories of his brother's impressions of the rest of the crew.
On more than one occasion, Travis had detailed the intrinsic heroism of his crewmates. Until this very moment, Paul had thought that his brother's sense of loyalty toward his superior officers had seemed more like hero worship than reality, and he suspected this idolization had colored his words when describing the rest of the crew as well. Now, judging from Endeavour's action and the perspective of his new insight, Mayweather would guess that the Starfleet vessel had discovered something about the seventh ship that would draw away the other Romulans, clearing the path for the Boomer fleet to escape without any further casualties. If those letters had been any indication, Tucker wouldn't hesitate to sacrifice his ship to save Boomer lives.
And neither would Paul.
"I need more speed," he ordered tersely as he reoriented Horizon on the fleeing Romulans. He imagined that he could almost feel Travis' smile as he did so.
"The reactor is already running at a hundred and five percent!" Weiss reminded him, fear thick in his voice. "Any higher and we risk a core breach!"
"Go to a hundred and ten percent," Mayweather said. He triggered the comm. "This is the Horizon to all combat capable ships. Form on me." He almost smiled. "Looks like Starfleet needs our help," he said with forced levity.
The rumble of Horizon's engines became a high-pitched whine as Paul accelerated toward the ongoing light-fight, pushing the J-Class harder than it was ever meant be pushed. From his sensor feed, he could tell that the seventh bird of prey was slightly larger than the others and, despite taking a heavy pounding from Endeavour's guns, was still in the fight. Orienting themselves on the Starfleet vessel's aft, the three smaller Romulan ships began attack runs, no doubt hoping that the NX-class did not mount aft-facing weapons.
Twin pulses of phase-cannon fire flashed through the night, splashing across one of the Romulan's shields in a brilliant display of pyrotechnics. Hot on the bird of prey's tail, the Orion gunboat spat a single torpedo at the same craft seconds later and sent a steady stream of disruptor bolts into its shields.
"Concentrate fire on that target," Paul commanded, hearing the almost instantaneous chirp of multiple acknowledgments sound across the comm channel. Pulsed lasers, disruptor beams, and plasma bolts leapt out from the seven remaining combat-capable ships, slicing into the Romulan's shields with searing heat. Under fire, the warship banked hard, twisting into a spinning dive that carried it away from Endeavour; a stream of disruptor fire lanced out from its guns, carving a lethal line across the hull of one of the Boomer ships. A second burst of fire punched through the forward viewport and onto the command deck itself. Bodies, seared beyond any hope of recognition, spilled from the shattered craft as it began a slow tumble toward the distant nebula.
"Oh God," someone whispered across the comm channel as the bird of prey straightened from its roll, cannons still spewing fire. A second of the combat ships exploded, and a third, and a fourth. The gunboat clung tightly to the Romulan's aft, no longer firing torpedoes but maintaining a steady stream of disruptor fire that lit up the warship's shields; in the distance, Endeavour continued to exchange fire with the three Romulan ships it had engaged, no longer attempting - or perhaps no longer capable of - evasive maneuvers.
Alarms began to shriek as the bird of prey locked on to Horizon with its targeting computers and, out of the corner of his eye, Mayweather saw Weiss silently cross himself. Don't let my people down, Tucker, Paul thought grimly as he sent the J-Class into a screaming dive, knowing that it was already too late.
The universe disintegrated around him.