The ship disintegrated in a flash of flame.
Biting back a curse as he watched the last of the Boomer combat ships blow apart under Romulan fire, Nathaniel Hayes pulled back hard on the control stick while simultaneously working the thruster pad with his other hand, sending the gunboat into a spinning climb that carried it out of the path of the exploding Boomer ship. The loud clangs of debris smacking into the outer hull of the gunboat echoed loudly through the command deck. Nate winced with each impact even as the Romulan responsible continued through the expanding cloud of fire, unconcerned about collateral damage.
Not for the first time, Hayes was glad for his maternal grandfather's teachings. In his youth, David Sinclair had been a pilot, a "fighter jock" as they had once been called, and had spent countless hours with Nate, teaching him the ins and outs of flight. Unlike many of the more esoteric abilities that the Section had taught him, flying was an easily explainable skill; Nate’s possession of an official pilot's license proved that he had enough recorded flight time to assuage the suspicions of all but the most paranoid investigators. He had, for a very long time, wanted to be a pilot just like his grandfather.
That desire had faded the moment that he discovered the truth about his birth.
A shrill tone suddenly sounded, warning of a weapons lock, and Hayes reacted without thought, sending the Orion ship into a tight barrel roll in an attempt to confuse the Romulan targeting computer. Equipped with omni-directional maneuvering thrusters, the gunboat had never been intended for atmospheric operations and was instead optimized for zero-gee conditions; Nate took full advantage of that very fact. Firing a short burst from the forward port jets, he slewed the gunboat around, seeming to pivot the ship on its horizontal axis although it continued along its current trajectory. A second burst from the forward starboard thrusters halted the spin almost at once, and Nate punched the throttle hard. A surge of power erupted from the engines and the gunboat darted forward, streaking by the pursuing Romulan ship. The abrupt change in facing and momentum broke the targeting lock, and Hayes could only imagine the frustration of the Romulan gunners.
That almost made him smile.
Another burst from appropriate jets and they were once more on the Romulan's aft. Seated at the weapons console, Chief Petty Officer Gray sent a pulse of disruptor fire at their target; stabbing through the depleted shields, the sizzling beam sliced into the bird of prey's outer armor. The damage was minimal at best, but it was enough to keep the Romulan ship's attention focused on the gunboat and away from Endeavour.
And that was all that mattered.
A soft but incessant beeping drew Nate's attention and he risked a quick glance at his display board. Almost at once, he felt his stomach lurch as he noticed the rapidly declining fuel pressure.
"We've got a fuel leak," he declared with a frown. Despite having a modern warp drive and impulse engine, the Orion gunboat relied heavily on some form of liquid propellant to fuel the maneuvering jets, and those thrusters were the only thing currently keeping them alive. Shrapnel from that Boomer ship must have punctured a fuel line, Nate mused grimly. At the rate they were losing pressure, the gunboat would be a sitting duck in less than a minute.
As if sensing their straits, the Romulan ship that they were pursuing twisted away, accelerating into a wide loop that would, once more, bring its main guns to bear. Already, its smaller point-defense weapons were barking, lashing out with small pulses of fire that slammed into the gunboat's already weakened hull plating. Nate cursed as his controls suddenly turned sluggish and an explosion of sparks from an aft panel filled the deck with light.
"Weapons are down!" Gray reported and Hayes shook his head in annoyance, keying the intra-ship comm with a quick flick of his wrist. That damned Murphy was hard at work again...
"Endeavour, Hayes," he snapped as he sent the gunboat into another diving spin to evade the Romulan fire, fighting the uncooperative controls the entire time.
"Endeavour," Lieutenant Devereux responded almost instantly.
"I am bingo fuel," Nate declared, not even thinking about whether the COM officer would recognize the archaic reference, "and my weapon systems are down." A Romulan torpedo flashed toward the gunboat and Hayes banked hard to avoid it; the shrill warning tone warbled and went silent as the warhead streaked on into the endless void before finally detonating harmlessly kilometers away. "Connect me to Ricker," Nate ordered sharply. A half-second later, it occurred to him that he had just issued a directive to a bridge officer two grades his senior.
"Acknowledged," Devereux replied without hesitation, and the comm-line went fuzzy.
"Counter-measures are gone," Gray announced, and Nate frowned hard. Shooting a quick glance at the tactical display, he was unsurprised to find that the Romulan bird of prey was now on their six.
"This is -" came the voice of the officer manning the transporter.
"Lock onto Chief Gray and beam him out," Hayes interrupted, not even waiting for the lieutenant to finish identifying herself. Gray shifted at the tactical board but said nothing, clearly recognizing that he had no reason to remain aboard the ship now that the weapons were out. As Nate sent the gunboat into a wide split-S, he heard the distinctive hum of an active transporter.
At almost the same instant, the pursuing Romulan broke off and dove toward Endeavour, weapons spitting fire; Nate could only assume that they had detected the matter transfer and were taking advantage of Endeavour's brief moment of vulnerability. Now surrounded by the three smaller birds of prey and the slightly larger command ship, the NX-06 rocked under their combined fire and Hayes grimly realized that it was only a matter of time before she was crippled. Like ironclad battleships from ancient times, the ships exchanged shots in brilliant salvos that lit up the perpetual night; wreathed in near-constant explosions, despite her situation, Endeavour continued to hammer the command ship unmercifully. As the Starfleet vessel unleashed a crippling barrage, great chunks of polarized hull plating were blasted free and sent tumbling through the void. A stab of phase cannon fire flashed out from the NX-06, burning through the engine housing of the command ship and exposing the delicate components to the hard vacuum of space; seconds later, twin torpedoes impacted and a blossom of fire erupted forth.
The sensor board suddenly beeped, announcing several new contacts, and Nate's eyes narrowed as he noted the launch of four pod-sized craft from the bird of prey closest to the station and farthest from the battle. He recognized them at once: breaching pods. Already, that bird of prey was altering course and accelerating toward Endeavour. It didn't take a tactical genius to realize that the Starfleet ship simply could not take on another Romulan attacker.
"Lock onto my bio-signature," Nate instructed Ricker as he banked toward the limping command ship. A quick glance at his systems board revealed he had just enough fuel remaining for this. So much for accomplishing my primary mission, he reflected, darkly amused at the frustration his failed mission would cause the Section.
"Locked on," the lieutenant replied. Hayes drew a deep breath, holding it for exactly five heartbeats before exhaling it. With it, he exhaled his anger, his fear, his common sense...
"On my command," he said calmly, "get me out of here."
As Ricker signaled her acknowledgement, Nate kicked in the power. Engines howling in protest, the gunboat lunged forward, gathering momentum and speed with each passing second. The control stick started to vibrate in his hand as the flight control computer, already heavily damaged earlier, began to fail completely. The collision avoidance software was shrieking something at him in Orion, but he paid no attention to it. Looming before him, the damaged command ship suddenly seemed to recognize his intention and streaks of brilliant green reached out toward him as Endeavour intensified its barrage.
"Now!" he shouted into the comm, "Get me out now!"
The world exploded around him, dissolving in a loud hum that thundered through his skull and beat time with his heart. It wasn't cold this time; instead, a raging inferno seemed to well up within and around him, so unbearably hot that it felt as though his eyes were melting. Acid churned in his stomach and through his veins and in his brain. He tried to take a breath but it felt as if he was inhaling fire. Back and forth his vision danced, swimming in and out of focus; overlaid over the gray walls of Endeavour was a brief image of armored humanoid shapes blanketed in fire. The figures seemed to flicker in and out of existence, and Nate realized that he was seeing inside the Romulan command ship, as impossible as that seemed.
A thousand years seemed to pass before he felt cool air on his face again and he inhaled sharply, tasting the familiar air. Nausea swelled within him and he dropped to his knees, quickly bracing himself with his hands before his head could hit the floor. Hands were suddenly gripping his shoulders, holding him steady, and he became aware of voices echoing from an impossibly vast distance.
"-we got him, Captain!" a feminine voice was stating in a shout to be heard over shrieking alarms.
"Hold on, Ensign," another voice - this one male - said calmly, very close to his ear.
"This is Ricker," the female voice declared, "I need a medical team at the transporter immediately!" Pain suddenly raced through his body and Hayes heard himself gasp; every square centimeter of his skin felt raw, as if it were on fire, and he bit the inside of his mouth to keep from screaming. The urge to curl up in a ball and whimper was nearly overpowering and he struggled against the blind fury that simmered within him.
"He's got second-degree burns over most of his body!" the second voice - Chief Gray, Nate realized - was reporting. The Chief's tone was dark and angry. "What the hell happened?"
"I lost pattern recognition when he rammed the Romulan," Ricker replied sharply. "He partially materialized back on the gunboat." The distant and logical portion of Hayes' brain - the part that wasn't writhing in agony - acknowledged the lieutenant's words and recognized how lucky he'd been; cool metal touched his neck and, with a hiss, ice seemed to suddenly race through his veins. The muscles in his limbs began to quiver uncontrollably.
"Will he be okay?" a third voice - also male - asked.
"I don't know, sir," Chief Gray quickly replied. Another wave of dizziness caused Nate to nearly pass out and he had an uncomfortable feeling in his stomach, a sensation he recalled all too well from his last experience with tequila.
"Call me Paul," the third man said. "I owe the two of you as much beer as you can handle."
Darkness loomed up to envelop him and, as he tumbled into unconsciousness, Nate hoped the gunboat's sacrifice had been worth it.
The impact of the Orion gunboat against the bird of prey was the opportunity Rick Eisler was looking for.
At his direction, phase cannon fire from Endeavour's guns flashed out, carving chunks of armor from the wounded command ship and slicing into the superstructure. Blue-green fire erupted from the port nacelle as warp plasma ignited under the scorching heat and, mere seconds later, the nacelle itself exploded. Already crippled, the bird of prey reeled under the assault as the last of Endeavour's Mark V torpedoes slammed into it, detonating with incandescent flashes that ripped into its hull and sent armor plating tumbling through the darkness. Secondary explosions ravaged the ship and, without hesitation, Eisler ordered a second salvo of torpedoes. Three Mark IVs struck the tumbling bird of prey amidships and it vanished in a brilliant fireball.
The trio of Romulan warships closest to Endeavour went evasive almost immediately, maneuvering to regroup outside of the range of the Starfleet vessel's heavier weapons. Staring at the sensor feed installed on his TAC board, Rick frowned at their sudden actions and noted the distant fourth bird of prey shifting its trajectory, clearly intending to join the trio.
“Damage report!” Tucker ordered, his voice perfectly pitched and composed; for all of the danger they were in, he sounded as calm as he ever had. Despite his disapproval of the inappropriate relationship between the captain and the XO, Rick mentally revised his opinion upward of Tucker's command abilities. The captain’s ability to maintain an image of absolute control in the midst of a firefight had a powerfully calming effect on the junior officers; a frightened officer was a useless officer.
“Shields are still down,” Master Chief Petty Officer Mackenzie responded almost instantly. He too was a picture of poise in the face of a storm; although in the COB's case, Eisler assumed it was more the result of shock. “Hull plating at seventy percent but there are breaches on decks C and D; damage control teams are working on them.” Mackenzie paused briefly before continuing, his eyes never leaving his board. “Engineering is reporting a radiation leak; Commander Drahn is trying to lock it down.” Out of the corner of his eye, Rick saw Captain Tucker frown.
The report was good news - no, it was amazing news that Endeavour remained so battle-ready despite the pounding they had taken. Ignoring the mostly negligible help from the Boomers and the gunboat, Endeavour had almost single-handedly taken on seven Romulan birds of prey, destroying three, including a command ship, and damaging the other four without suffering significant casualties herself. Enterprise had very nearly been destroyed facing four of these ships and, despite the technological upgrades that had been installed aboard Endeavour, it defied comprehension that the engagement had been so one-sided.
It was almost as if the Romulans wanted these ships to be destroyed.
“Weapons?” the captain inquired; Rick was already highlighting the closest of the four Romulans as the primary target. It was a common misconception that he controlled all of the weapon systems from his station; in reality, he was more of a manager with override capability. He would select a primary target and the weapon systems officer - currently Chief Petty Officer Luckabaugh - would focus on killing that target from his station in the Armory; it was a policy that had been instituted by Starfleet at the suggestion of Lieutenant Commander Reed several weeks before Elysium. Borne out of Reed's experiences in the Expanse, the new system allowed the senior tactical officer to focus on the larger picture.
“Port cannons one and three are out,” Rick replied. The primary target - Target Delta - was still attempting to get out of Endeavour's range but was on the starboard side; three phase cannon bursts converged upon the ship, punching through the shields to burn a jagged scar across the smaller ship's hull. It twisted into a spiraling dive meant to confuse the targeting computers. “Aft cannons are damaged but Luckabaugh has a team on it,” he continued his report as he input additional commands and suggested revised targeting solutions. “Mark Fives have been exhausted,” Rick finished.
“T'Pol?” Tucker didn't elaborate, but the Vulcan seemed to already know what he was going to ask. She had been doing that a lot, actually.
“The first ships will be reaching the warp threshold in approximately four point seven six minutes.” The Vulcan commander paused briefly during her report but it was enough of a hesitation to be noticed. “I am detecting four additional vessels on approach; estimated time of arrival is seven point two four minutes.” She seemed to anticipate Captain Tucker's next question. “I am unable to identify their warp signatures.”
“Keep your eye on 'em,” the captain said; it sounded more like a request than an order, but she nodded anyway. “Maybe Commodore Archer got us some reinforcements after all.” From the tone of his voice, Tucker didn't sound as if he thought that likely. Returning his eyes to the TAC board, Eisler frowned as the four Romulans reoriented themselves on Endeavour; they were on the very edge of optimal weapon range and seemed to know it. Letting the WSO pick the targets, he cycled through all of his tactical scans, growing more and more troubled as he studied them. None of this made sense.
Strategically, the Vigrid system was ideally situated for a force intending to move against Terran interests. The system itself was situated on a nexus of “warp highways,” naturally occurring routes in which warp travel was substantially faster than normal, something that Rick had never even heard of until the captain's last debriefing. Apparently distinct from wormholes in a way that Eisler realized he couldn't possibly comprehend, the highways had reduced the normal month-long trip required to reach Thor's Cradle from Starbase-1 to just over a standard week. Reducing warp theory to layman's terms, Tucker had likened the warp highways to the slidewalks that littered spaceports: a person walking upon one moved far more quickly than if that person walked beside the moving walkway. Knowing this detail made the importance of the system clear.
For the Romulans, taking Thor's Cradle was not just a sound strategic move: it was an essential one.
And yet, despite that, the Romulan strategy made little sense. By openly attacking the system in this way, they were tipping their hand far too early. Any survivors of the battle - and the chances were high that there would be survivors - would be sure to pass on the revelation that it was indeed the Romulans who were responsible for the hit-and-fade attacks on supply convoys that had been plaguing the Boomers since the war had begun. It wasn't the Orion Syndicate, as many in the ECA insisted, nor was it the Nausicaans, or even - as a few had suggested - renegade humans. If anything, this attack would harden the opposition to the Romulan assaults.
On his tactical display, Rick could see the four birds of prey begin maneuvering in a distinct formation, one he recognized from long hours of studying the battle footage from previous engagements. At both Elysium and Pacifica, the Romulans had used a space variation of the "finger four" formation; four ships, split into two distinct fighting wings with a single primary leader in both wings, would fly cover for one another. The first wing would fly slightly ahead and to one side of the second group. Simple, yet effective: four birds of prey utilizing that tactic had nearly crippled Challenger at Pacifica and had all but destroyed Enterprise at Elysium.
There hadn't been even a hint of such coordination here until now.
Rick silently observed their maneuvers with growing concern. Something simply wasn't adding up. An effective commander would have focused all of their firepower on Endeavour instead of wasting time with destroying the Boomer fleet. Upon arrival in-system, the Romulans had to see that there was only one real warship in the system, and military doctrine was clear no matter the species: take out the hard target first, and then focus on the soft targets. With Endeavour gone, eliminating the Boomers would have been little more difficult than an average gunnery exercise.
"Bring us around, Dan," the captain ordered, "attack pattern delta." Tucker seemed carved from ice as he continued. "Take us right down their throats. Mister Eisler." He shot Rick a look. "Remoras are a go."
Combining elements of the ancient MIRV nuclear missiles and the even more archaic limpet mine, the Remora was a torpedo designed by Tucker himself. Untested and untried in actual combat conditions, it was comprised of multiple warheads, each individually less powerful than the obsolete Mark III but each capable of independent targeting. All ten warheads in a Remora were equipped with specially designed magnetic attractors attuned to Romulan hull composition; the limited range of these attractors, however, required the Remora torpedo to be used at extremely close range.
The pitch of Endeavour's engines spiked as Hsiao banked and sent the starship into a spinning climb. Into the very heart of the Romulan formation the Starfleet ship raced, phase cannons spitting fire and carving searing scars across the hulls of two birds of prey. Three Remoras darted from Endeavour's torpedo tubes, breaking apart into multiple warheads almost at once, each seeking its own target. To the Romulans, it had to be confusing: a single torpedo abruptly became ten, and the space around the pitched lightfight was suddenly crisscrossed with thirty distinct targets instead of the three that had been launched. Point-defense weapons on the birds of prey stuttered out pulses of disruptor fire, destroying several of the Remoras, while the main batteries of the warships unleashed a devastating salvo upon Endeavour in a coordinated burst of fire that punched through into the already weakened hull plating. Alarms shrieked through the Starfleet ship as the sizzling energy burned through the hull and into the superstructure.
"Multiple hull breaches!" Mackenzie shouted from his DC console even as Eisler watched the warheads from the Remoras detonate. One of the Romulan ships was destroyed almost instantly; it disappeared in a violent burst of fire as the explosions of the small warheads ruptured its fuel cell. Two more of the birds of prey shuddered under the withering assault; secondary explosions ripped across their hulls, tearing apart armor with unexpected ferocity and sending both craft into uncontrolled tumbles. The fourth Romulan ship - the one that had deployed the breaching pods against the station - suffered the least damage as only two of the Remora warheads struck it.
"Status!" Tucker demanded from his command chair. It took Rick a moment, but he suddenly realized that the ambient hum of Endeavour's engines had ceased. Keying in a rapid sequence of commands, he ordered a second salvo of the Remoras - it would expend the last of the experimental torpedoes, but if the engine was offline they were running out of options. Already, damage reports were crawling across his screen and Eisler winced at the devastation; fully three-quarters of the phase cannons were inoperative and only two of the torpedo tubes still functioned.
"We've lost impulse!" the COB snapped, his features bleak. The distant hum of twin torpedoes being launched echoed through the bridge; recognizing its danger, the fourth Romulan ship dove for cover behind its wounded brethren.
"How long?" the captain asked as Rick stared at his sensor feed in surprise. All twenty of the Remora warheads homed in onto the hull of one of the damaged birds of prey and exploded with lethal consequences; consumed in fire, the ship began breaking apart almost instantly.
"Unknown," Mackenzie replied, once more in control of himself. Recognizing that the Starfleet ship was still dangerous, the fourth bird of prey pulled back, maneuvering to remain out of Endeavour's weapons range. Its half-crippled companion limped away as well, streams of warp plasma and debris trailing behind it.
"Minimal weapon systems, sir," Rick reported without being asked, “WSO is on it." With a nod, Tucker exchanged a look with T'Pol that seemed to convey some sort of meaning. She raised an eyebrow in a distinctly Vulcan manner before speaking as if he had asked a question.
"Both birds of prey are circling Endeavour," the commander stated calmly.
"What are they waiting for?" Lieutenant Devereux wondered aloud, unable to hide the fear in her voice.
"We are being scanned," T'Pol suddenly announced before anyone could offer a hypothesis to answer the lieutenant's question. Her fingers darting across the SCI board, the commander seemed poised to frown.
"Can you block it?" Tucker asked and she gave him a look that was almost contemptuous; despite the situation, Eisler nearly smiled.
"I am doing so now, Captain," came her cool response. A thought suddenly occurred to Rick, and he glanced down at his board to look over the damage once more.
"Sir," he said softly, his voice carrying despite the alarms, "it is possible that they mean to seize Endeavour." Eisler looked up, meeting Tucker's eyes. "We did just take on seven of them and survive. I'm sure they'd like to know how." The captain nodded, his expression darkening.
"Endeavour can not be taken, Commander," he declared and Rick nodded his understanding of what remained unspoken: the captain would scuttle Endeavour before allowing the ship to be captured. Tucker activated the intraship comm on his command chair with a sharp jab of his thumb. "All hands," he said calmly into it, "this is the captain. Stand by to repel boarders." He gave Rick another look. "Arm the bridge crew," he ordered, before glancing back toward T'Pol, "and keep an eye out for more breachin' pods."
The breaching pod was little more than a heavily modified lifeboat, equipped with maneuvering thrusters, magnetic seals, and automated fusion torches. Launched like a lifeboat, the pod would attach to a target's surface and the torches would burn through the hull, thus giving the soldiers within the pod entry into the target. Against stationary targets, they were ideal transport platforms.
Major Talok hated them.
Inside the pod, there was remarkably little free space available; two acceleration "couches" consumed most of the interior volume and the rudimentary flight controls took up much of the rest, leaving very little leg room for the soldiers being transported. The couches themselves were actually poorly cushioned impact seats, equipped with shock-gel and inertial dampeners. Military theory stated that the gel would prevent any internal hemorrhaging should the dampeners fail, but Talok had his doubts.
Four centurions were secured to their impact seats, dressed in the standard-issue battle uniform, complete with an enclosing helmet to conceal their faces. The armor itself was virtually useless against most energy weapons but protection was hardly the primary reason it was worn; though it was difficult, Talok tried to avoid thinking about the highly acidic compound that was even now coursing through the body glove he wore under the armor. As he maneuvered the pod toward the station, the silence that filled it was deafening. He frowned once before speaking.
"The Tal Shiar," Talok said softly, his tone dark and his expression darker, "has extensive files on every member of the Fleet." He paused to let that bit of information sink in; it was a lie, but an eminently believable one. Everyone in the Empire rightfully feared the Tal Shiar and the hushed horror stories about the sinister organization's reach and power were legion. "They know everything about your parents, your siblings, your mates, and your offspring." The four soldiers shifted uncomfortably under his unblinking gaze and he infused his next words with as much coldness as he could manage. "If I die," he growled, "so do they." He speared them with a dark look. "In terrible, agonizing pain." Talok half-turned away, confident that none of them would act against him now.
He was wrong.
In a blur of motion, one of the centurions drew his sidearm and leveled at Talok before the major could react. The sound of a disruptor pistol being discharged echoed loudly in the cramped breaching pod and Talok braced himself for pain.
It did not come.
Gasping in surprise, the centurion shuddered, his fingers going limp as he stared at the smoking hole in his chest. The disruptor pistol clattered loudly on the deck as it slipped from his hand and, had he not been secured on the acceleration couch, he would have toppled forward; instead, he sagged against the restraints, his breath coming in ragged gasps as the life faded from his eyes. In a dangerously smooth motion, Centurion Jarok holstered his weapon and gave Talok a steady look.
"He was the commander's creature, sir," Jarok said calmly, and Talok noted the other two soldiers nodding in agreement. Neither of them seemed overly concerned at the action.
"And whom do you serve?" Talok asked, masking his tension behind a practiced expression of indifference. His time among the Vulcans had helped him perfect the illusion of calm.
"I serve the Empire, Major," came the confident reply and, once more, the two other centurions nodded. A smile briefly touched Talok's face as the breaching pod abruptly shuddered; the hiss of metal being seared by lasers was a glorious sound.
"Then let us serve the Empire together," he declared as their restraints released, dropping the corpse to the deck with a loud thump. Already, the dead centurion's warsuit had begun to hiss as the concentrated acids contained within it began to break down his body, a final solution to prevent the Humans from learning of their physical appearance. The ability to walk among the Vulcans without attracting notice was an intelligence asset that they could not afford to lose.
“Glory to the Empire,” the three centurions said in unison as they lowered the concealing faceplates on their helmets. Talok did the same, blinking his eyes rapidly to adjust to the twin laser pulses that blinded him for a microsecond; opening his eyes, he noted the activation of the built-in heads-up display that appeared before him a moment later with a sense of wonder. The warsuit was a technological marvel that never ceased to amaze him no matter how many times he wore it. Once the faceplate was lowered and locked into place, a pair of extremely low-powered lasers would activate and beam the appropriate information directly onto the lens of the wearer's eye, giving the illusion of a near-holographic interface set approximately ten to twelve centimeters beyond his face. Information flickered quickly across his line of sight and he took a moment to study it; integrated into the warsuit were a number of features intended to optimize a soldier's combat capability, which ranged from a built-in motion sensor with a range of fifty meters to an internal compass to a bio-monitor that allowed the team leader - in this case, the major himself - to keep track of the health of his team.
Toggling a command on his wrist comp, Talok activated an internal schematic of the station as the hissing of the pod's breaching torches abruptly ceased; semi-transparent, the schematic appeared upon the HUD with probable hostiles beyond the hatchway already highlighted. At the major's gesture, Jarok depressed the button on the side of the hatchway; almost at once, a hollow boom echoed through the pod as the explosive charges on the mating tube detonated. Exploding outward from the pod, they hurled the newly sliced segment of the hull into the station corridor with crushing force. The three centurions sent a trio of grenades through the gaping hole at once. Almost instantly, the three explosives detonated with flashes of light and hollow thumps. Jarok led the way, his heavy disruptor rifle held at the ready, and the two other centurions followed, covering the left and right. Four steps behind them, Talok followed, his own weapon primed.
Smoke filled the corridor beyond, limiting their vision, and Talok was once more glad for the armor. Hard-sealed, it could double as an environment suit in emergency situations and bore a two-hour oxygen supply. In the unlikely event that the humans would resort to biological or chemical warfare, the suit was rated to protect him against those threats as well.
Talok didn't want to think about how the suits had been tested.
They came under fire the moment they entered. Ten humans, all crouched behind hastily erected barricades and armed with little more than obsolete pulse weapons, began to spray fire wildly as Centurion Jarok darted through the breach and into the smoke-filled corridor. With almost casual ease, Jarok knelt and began returning fire, not even seeking cover; unlike the humans, he took the extra half-second to actually aim at his target and the results were instantly obvious. One of the Terrans fell, his face a smoking ruin, followed by a second and a third. Jarok was quickly joined by the two other centurions and together, the trio sent a lethal barrage at the defenders that sliced through the flimsy barricade and into the unprotected flesh beyond. Panic set in among the humans as their number rapidly dwindled, and their already questionable accuracy deteriorated even more quickly. Two of the defenders turned to flee and Talok, from his kneeling position just beyond the breach, dropped them both with well-placed shots. The last of the human defenders threw up his arms, shouting in his barbaric tongue that he was surrendering; incredibly, he discarded his weapon and began to stand, arms held high.
Jarok waited until the fool was on his feet before shooting him in the throat.
"The command deck is that way," Talok announced, gesturing in the direction that the two runners had taken. He was unconcerned about speaking aloud; air tight, the helmets were equipped with comms that would allow the teams to communicate without fear of being overheard.
"These were not soldiers," one of the centurions stated flatly as he nudged one of the dead humans with a boot.
"The soldiers," Jarok pointed out as he began advancing, "are on the Starfleet vessel."
"Then these Humans were ... civilians," the centurion said, raw contempt in his voice as he fell into step with Jarok. "They would leave civilians to defend this installation?" He sounded incredulous.
"The Humans are retreating from this system," Talok replied calmly, studying the tactical display on his HUD. The other three teams were reporting minimal resistance as they progressed toward their targets. "In the face of a superior enemy," the major continued, "retreat is the logical course of action."
Almost at once, he wished that he could take the words back as the three centurions gave him quick sidelong glances. From the moment that he had returned from Vulcan space following the failure with V'Las, Talok had been forced to deal with accusations of having spent far too much time amongst their distant cousins. In many circles within the Infiltrator Corps of the Tal Shiar, he was now mockingly referred to as "the Vulcan," and was often treated little better than a Reman shocktrooper. Espousing logic as he had in the past - even when the situation called for it - only seemed to exacerbate the problem. Frowning, he focused on the mission; redeeming his reputation was a problem to be dealt with at a later date.
They advanced through the corridors at a pace quicker than a walk but not quite a run. Seizure of the station required capture of three key locations: the command center, the central computer, and the power core. The major had decided that seizure of the command center, the highest priority target, would be his team's goal, and he had dispatched two teams to secure the core. Already, the other three teams were beginning to report sporadic engagements over the comm; three soldiers had fallen to sniper fire or improvised explosives. Long minutes passed in near-silence.
On point, Jarok abruptly halted and dropped to a knee; without hesitation, Talok followed suit, swiveling to face behind them to protect their flank. Peeking around the corner of the corridor, the senior centurion grunted before speaking.
“Command center in sight,” he reported coolly and quickly transferred the data he was seeing to Talok's HUD. It was momentarily jarring to suddenly be seeing what another sentient was seeing, but the major barely reacted as he studied the data stream. Over a dozen humans were busy hastily erecting a barricade outside the command center. Several of them were armed with large rifles and at least two were carrying handheld sensor packages. “Recommend grenades, followed by a forward assault,” Jarok continued.
“Agreed,” the major quickly replied, and Jarok's data stream dropped from his HUD. Pulling a grenade from the tactical array on his battle armor, he quickly primed it and turned back toward the command center. With precise aim, the four of them sent their grenades tumbling around the corner and into the barricade; the two men with sensor gear shouted suddenly as the fist-sized explosives struck their targets. A half-second later, the grenades detonated in rapid succession.
Jarok led the way in a brisk walk, his disruptor rifle barking a steady stream of fire. He was flanked on either side by the two junior centurions, both of whom easily kept pace and were no less lethal with their weapons. A half step behind them, Talok was more judicious with his aim, targeting any of the Terrans who seemed more inclined toward accuracy or patience. Pulses of laser fire flashed by them, some narrowly missing, but the rapid rush and the overwhelming rate of fire from Talok's team almost completely overwhelmed the humans and cut them down with casual brutality. As they reached the doorway to the command center, one of the centurions abruptly cried out in pain and toppled, his left arm half-blown apart by a pulse rifle wielded by a hidden human; as if they were of a single mind, three disruptors sought the Terran out and cut him apart.
Into the command center they went, Centurion Jarok still on point; he took a lethal shot to his throat from another concealed human as he stepped through the doorway. Talok speared the human with a rapid burst of fire that sliced into the man's chest and dropped him. All at once, the command center went silent. There were no more targets.
Taking a step forward, the major kicked the pulse rifle away from the human that he had just shot. With eyes concealed behind the battle helmet, he studied the dying Terran, recognizing him from intelligence reports as the station administrator. These humans were not particularly impressive, especially in this state, and Talok could not help but think that the scarlet color of their blood was unnatural.
"Com..." the human wheezed, his breath coming in ragged gasps as he struggled to suck oxygen into his seared lungs. It was almost admirable that a human this damaged could still cling to life, but contempt outweighed any other emotion; there was nothing admirable about dying in a pool of one's own blood and whimpering. "Comma..."
Talok studied him for a moment later before turning away. The human would be dead very soon and he had work to do. The sole surviving centurion had already taken up a defensive position at the doorway, his rifle still primed for combat. The major had taken three steps away when the human's words rang out once more, words that he recognized at once.
Talok spun around, his disruptor coming to a ready position, but it was too late. The whimpering human had not been whimpering after all. Even as the major was leveling the weapon and taking aim, the human spat out a word that was totally foreign. A word that meant death.
Around them, the command center came to life with a flare of sudden light and a disembodied voice echoed off the walls.
"Command Ragnarok acknowledged. Five seconds. Four. Three. Two."
Talok closed his eyes.
Marie Devereux opened her eyes.
Almost at once, she began coughing as her oxygen-starved lungs struggled for air. For a moment, she wondered why she was lying on the deck of the bridge, why her head pounded and her fingers tingled, but a quick glance at the shattered COM board quickly reminded her. She could recall Captain Tucker's urgent shipwide order to brace for impact as the shockwave from the exploding Vigrid Station raced toward Endeavour. She remembered the terror that turned her stomach into a ball of ice as she waited for the inevitable impact, and the sensation of flying as Endeavour was sent tumbling by the raw concussive force of the shockwave. There had been explosions and cries of pain and the sounds of metal tearing.
And then ... nothing.
Pushing herself up from the deck, Marie glanced around, wincing at the damage she could see. Her COM board was a complete loss, shattered beyond repair; live connections still sparked and hissed intermittently. A thick layer of smoke covered the entire bridge, blanketing it in a thick gray haze that limited visibility. Small electrical fires - the source of the smoke - still raged, many unchecked, but the suppression system was already kicking in. A gentle spray of white foam rained down from the ceiling, coating everything it touched and looking incongruously like snow. Alarms flickered erratically, bathing the bridge in a surreal scarlet light, as the klaxons continued to howl.
Shock finally receded and her wits slowly returned. Ignoring the stab of pain that climbed up her side, Marie staggered to the NAV station, fervently praying to whatever gods would listen that Dan would still be alive; until this very moment, she had not realized just how essential he was in her life, how much she looked forward to seeing him every day, or how deep her feelings for him ran. Sprawled out over his board, his face a mask of blood, Hsiao was still and silent; her heart lurched up into her throat but Marie forced herself to reach forward and check his pulse. At her touch, he stirred; the relief that swelled within her in that moment was staggering.
"Marie?" he asked in a slurred voice. He looked at her through unfocused eyes and she gave in to her impulse; wrapping her arms around him, she hugged him tightly.
"Don't die," she whispered as she held onto him. He muttered something incomprehensible in reply but the sound of cursing drew her attention to the captain's chair. A gasp escaped her before she could restrain it.
A durasteel support girder had fractured and collapsed inward; now pinning a semi-conscious Captain Tucker to his command chair, the three plus meter long metal beam shifted ominously with each indrawn breath the captain took. Precariously balanced, the beam appeared to be on the brink of toppling onto him and crushing him with its substantial weight. Tucker had so far been lucky: the command chair bore the brunt of the girder's mass but was even now groaning with the effort.
Lieutenant Commander Eisler, his scalp leaking blood from a jagged cut and his uniform seared with electrical burns, knelt before the chair, one hand steadying the girder as he looked for a way to move it off Tucker. At once, Devereux realized the lieutenant commander's concern: any miscalculation and the beam would collapse on the captain, likely killing him instantly. Letting go of Dan, Marie took two rapid steps to Eisler's side before cautiously reaching out to take over the job of keeping the girder balanced. The tactical officer let her do so without comment.
"Sir," the lieutenant commander growled to Tucker in that intimidating voice of his, "we have to move it before it slips." The captain grimaced as he nodded slightly.
"T'Pol?" he asked.
As if summoned, the Vulcan commander climbed to her feet from behind the SCI board, shaking her head as if to clear it, and her eyes sought out Tucker. Standing with her back to the TAC board, Marie had a clear view of the first officer and felt a jolt of surprise wash through her as the Vulcan's eyes widened in what could only be fear.
“Trip!” the commander all but cried out, emotion leaking into her voice. For someone with a leg injury, she was surprisingly fast, darting to the captain's side in a limping half-run. T'Pol said nothing as she shoved Commander Eisler out of the way, barely acknowledging the tactical officer's surprised grunt as he stumbled backwards. Without hesitation, the Vulcan grabbed the metal girder and lifted it free as if it weighed only a couple dozen kilograms. She dropped it to the deck, a surprising amount of emotion in her eyes as she stared intently at the captain. Marie gaped at the first officer with open shock on her face, more stunned by the feat of strength than at the depth of the commander's feelings for the captain. It was common knowledge that Vulcans were stronger than humans, but Devereux had always assumed the difference wasn't that significant.
Apparently, she had been wrong.
“Ow,” Tucker muttered as the Vulcan touched his shoulder in concern, her features once more composed. "Starfleet really needs to reconsider this stupid design," he grumbled as he tried to stand. His bloodstained right leg buckled, and he collapsed back into the chair. "Status?" he demanded, not even trying to hide the wince as he began to remove his jacket.
"Captain," the Vulcan started to say, but Tucker interrupted.
"Not now, T'Pol," he said grimly as he began to tear strips from the uniform jacket. They exchanged a long look, neither speaking for an extended moment, before T'Pol nodded and limped back to her station. "I need status reports," the captain repeated.
"Sir." Eisler was crouching behind the DCO board; Marie realized that she hadn't even seen him move there. "Master Chief Mackenzie is injured. He has severe burns and appears to have trouble breathing; we need a med team up here ASAP." The TAC officer glanced at the damage control board with a look of incomprehension on his face. "And I don't know how to operate this station," he finished.
"My board is a total loss, sir," Devereux quickly volunteered, eyeing the captain as he began binding his wounded leg.
"Impulse is still inoperative," Dan announced. "Docking thrusters and maneuvering jets functional. Warp drive online." Once more perched at her station, Commander T'Pol spoke, her eyes glued to the sensor feed before her.
"I am detecting only one Romulan ship intact," she reported. "It has suffered considerable structural damage." There was a brief pause before she continued. "Significant damage among the Boomer fleet, but ships are continuing to transit to warp."
"Devereux," Tucker said into the momentary silence, "take the DCO board." She nodded and turned to obey as he continued. "Eisler, I need a weapons report. Hsiao, begin plottin' a course out of system. T'Pol, I want a threat analysis of the last bird of prey." He stabbed the comm button on his chair; it hissed and popped, but functioned. "Medical emergency on the bridge."
As she took the seat before the damage control console, Marie winced at the sight of the COB. Sprawled out beside the DC console, he stirred but did not wake; ugly burns covered one side of his face and he seemed to be straining to breathe. Not for the first time, she found herself struggling to focus all of her attention on her duties.
As the data began crawling across the damage control board, she was suddenly glad for the cross-training that Commander T'Pol had insisted the bridge crew undergo following Pacifica; according to the first officer, it was a requirement for all members of a Vulcan bridge crew to know how to operate every station in the event of casualties. The captain had backed the idea at once and Devereux had to admit that the additional training was logical. Having been aboard Endeavour for just over a week, Lieutenant Commander Eisler hadn’t even started the training program yet.
Engineering updated their latest assessment about repairs and, as she read the data, Marie mused that it would probably be quicker to list the systems that weren't damaged.
"Engineering reports multiple coolant leaks," she informed the captain. "They still haven't locked down that radiation leak and -"
"Four ships dropping out of warp," T'Pol interrupted abruptly, "unknown configuration." The Vulcan's pause was barely noticeable. "Multiple weapon ports, heavy shielding and armor detected," she continued before glancing up. "Warships," she concluded.
"Onscreen," Tucker ordered and the viewscreen snapped to life. Marie could almost hear the frown as Tucker spoke. "Those look like..."
T'Pol finished his thought, her voice grim.