Captain’s starlog, February 27th, 2158. We are less than three hours away from the planet where the Xindi Council met. At Commander Eisler’s suggestion, we’re making a stealth approach. All personnel are at alert condition yellow. With any luck, though, this won’t turn into a repeat of the last time we were here.
It was … horrible.
The planet hung silently against the dark void, jagged scars and immense impact craters visible even from this distance. Violent, angry storms raged across the surface of the world, some measuring hundreds of kilometers in diameter. Where before, when Enterprise came here so many lifetimes ago, some minimal life signs had been detected even though the Council chambers were concealed, now there was nothing alive, not even bacteria.
Above the ugly brown and gray planet, things appeared even worse. Broken husks of long dead starships were everywhere, many already captured in slowly decaying orbits that would carry them to the surface of the shattered world, but even more of them floated at the very periphery of the planet’s gravity well. Two immense space platforms of a disturbingly alien design were still mostly intact and anchored at what would likely be the L1 or L2 Lagrangian points, but the gaping holes in their hulls and exposed superstructure were clear indications that they were no longer operational.
Selina Mayweather thought she was going to be sick.
She had not moved from the Helm station for the last six hours, principally due to the level of expertise needed to creep into the Xindi system undetected, but also because she had little else to do aboard Endeavour. Despite having been aboard the ship for nearly five months, she still felt like an outsider and hadn’t made a real effort to make any friends with her crewmates. They were simply co-workers, senior officers to obey or junior officers and enlisted personnel to command. This way, she reflected, there wasn’t a chance of her getting attached to anyone and she wouldn’t be ripped apart when they died…
In that moment, it took every gram of her willpower to avoid thinking about Rashid.
“What do you have, T’Pol?” the captain asked from his command chair. He sounded grim, angry and tired, all at the same time, and though he was only a few years older than Lina, she couldn’t help but to think that he reminded her far too much of her late father.
“No life signs detected,” the Vulcan first officer replied. Apart from the commander’s voice, the chirp of her sensor console, and the subtle hum of the ship’s engines, the bridge was deathly silent. Lina glanced quickly to her left – Lieutenant Commander Sato was staring at the viewscreen with a conflicted expression on her face, which, if Travis’ letters had been accurate, probably wasn’t a surprise. The Xindi had tortured Sato, after all. “Preliminary scans indicate that this destruction is months old,” T’Pol continued.
“Dammit.” The shift of cloth warned Lina that Captain Tucker had pushed himself to his feet. “What’s the planetary status?” he asked.
“I do not advise a landing party, Captain,” T’Pol replied immediately. “Radiation levels are too high for environment suits to be effective.”
“We could try one of the more intact starships,” Commander Eisler suggested, his gruff, accented voice low and hard. Automatically, Lina glanced toward his station, noting without surprise that he hardly seemed bothered by the sheer scope of the damage before them. “At worst,” the tactical officer added, “we might be able to obtain additional intelligence on the combatants.” The captain grunted.
“T’Pol?” he asked.
“There are four viable vessels,” she declared. On the main viewer, a quartet of broken starships was suddenly outlined by digital brackets. “All have suffered extensive structural damage,” the Vulcan said in her no-nonsense manner. Lina tapped out a quick command on her console.
“There’s a lot of debris around those ships,” she pointed out, “and it looks like only one of them has a functional docking port.” Too late, she realized that her comment sounded defensive, as if she doubted her ability to maneuver Endeavour through the debris field, but just as quickly, Lina silently acknowledged that she was merely making a point. Even with the deflection array and hull polarization system both operating at one hundred percent, there was a strong possibility of at least some minor hull damage.
“Confirmed,” T’Pol declared less than a heartbeat later. “I recommend we use the transporter to deploy the landing party.”
“Agreed,” Eisler said instantly. “STAB Team first to conduct a security sweep, then an engineering team to assess what we can recover.”
“Do it,” Captain Tucker ordered. “T’Pol, I want-“
“Sensors to be manned at all times,” the Vulcan finished wryly. “Yes, Captain.”
“Reports on the hour,” Eisler finished, his tone as dry as T’Pol’s. “No unnecessary risks. Yes, sir.” The captain chuckled.
“At least allow me the illusion of being in command here,” Tucker said, his comment breaking the tense mood.
Lina spent another hour and a half at her station, watching in relative silence as the landing party began their search. She was only vaguely surprised that Commander Eisler did not lead the mission – he had a tendency to take a more hands-on approach on these sorts of missions than Lina would even consider – but ever since his promotion to full commander prior to their departure for the Expanse, he’d started easing himself out of field operations. She spent only a few moments briefing Lieutenant Zhao when the navigation officer arrived to relieve her and then made a beeline for the mess deck; by accident, Lina had missed lunch and her stomach was rumbling.
To her silent relief, the dining facility was relatively empty for a change, likely due to Commander Eisler putting the numerous security troopers to work, which allowed her to find a discreet, empty table near one of the corners so she could focus on her food and the work still ahead of her. Lina ate robotically, barely noticing the taste of whatever it was she’d grabbed, all the while scanning through the department memos and status reports on her PADD. Warrant Officer Gray’s latest complaint revolved around the two assault re-entry crafts and their level of maintenance; as the ‘sky boss’ – a nonsensical title, Lina thought, if there ever was one – he oversaw every facet of ARC and shuttlepod activity, whether it was operational or repairs, and he was, to Mayweather’s continued frustration, the biggest thorn in her side.
She had nearly finished her latest response to Gray – no, he could not schedule ARC One for a level ten diagnostic without first getting Commander Hess’ clearance since it would be her personnel doing the work, and yes, she would speak with the first officer about Commander Eisler’s tendency to arbitrarily reassign the sky boss’ personnel – when she realized that the dining facility was beginning to fill up. Most of the crew entering appeared to be security and Selina couldn’t help but to notice how Ensign Stiles, as sullen as normal, automatically isolated himself from the very people he was supposed to be commanding. Once he had his food, he marched to a corner table and took a seat, glaring at the starfield beyond like it was responsible for his status as persona non grata aboard the ship. No one bothered to approach him and more than a few gave him subtle looks of contempt. Lina had heard the rumors about how Eisler publicly chewed the ensign out but even before then, she’d noticed his steadfast refusal to act like part of a team. Stiles was, in every sense of the word, alone.
And abruptly, Selina realized she was no different.
It was not as if no one aboard had made overtures toward her. Commander Hess had reached out when she first joined Endeavour’s crew, but thanks to her stupid brother’s letters, Lina had immediately thought that Hess was trying to get into her pants and had gone out of her way to avoid the chief engineer unless duty demanded it. Later, when Lieutenant Commander Sato briefly joined the crew, she’d also tried to be friendly, several times beginning conversations with anecdotes about Travis, but Selina had always come up with an excuse why she couldn’t talk. In both cases, the women in question were intelligent enough to recognize that their overtures weren’t appreciated and had backed off, which resulted in the junior officers following suit. For all intents and purposes, Selina didn’t have a single friend aboard Endeavour. She was utterly and completely alone.
Suddenly uncomfortable with the direction her thoughts were taking her, she quickly bussed her tray and exited the dining facility. Her cabin held no interest to her – the pictures that she’d put up of her father, Travis and her late husband now seemed to exist only as reminders of a future she would never see. Thor’s Cradle was nearly a year and a half in the past, but the memory of Rashid’s last words to her – It’ll be fine, Lina. Paul needs one of us to look after him and your mother needs you on the Horizon while she recovers – continued to haunt her. Never again would her stupid husband whistle that ridiculous off-key tune while he was working. Never again would she wake in the middle of the night to find that he’d stolen the covers again. Never again would she feel his hands on her skin or his lips against hers.
This was what you wanted, she told herself as she wandered the corridors of Endeavour. Stay aloof, she’d originally decided, and keep your distance. Don’t let yourself get attached to anyone. You don’t need anyone else. Friends are a luxury, not a necessity. At the time, they seemed to be wise words but were cold comfort when she was sitting in the dark, staring at the bulkhead or watching one of Travis’ last vid-letters for the hundredth time.
“Aren’t you off-duty?” Lieutenant Commander Ricker asked when Lina entered the command center an eternity later. The junior science officer appeared mostly engrossed in what looked to be sensor readings, but had discarded her duty jacket. A two-dimensional representation of the Xindi system was displayed on the main viewer with hundreds of small mass signatures already identified. Currently, one of the larger silhouettes was enclosed by a flashing reticle, above which was a graphical representation for a deployed STAB team.
“Aren’t you?” Lina retorted as she joined Ricker at the main console. “I was bored and wanted to do something productive,” Mayweather added. “What are you doing?”
“Tagging all of the sensor data,” Ricker said. She tapped a rapid command into the system and a smaller reticle flashed. “I’m hoping to find something useful,” she added a moment later. At Lina’s glance, Ricker frowned. “The Roughnecks are coming up empty,” she said. “None of the ship’s they’ve boarded are helping – all we’ve been able to figure out so far is that the Xindi themselves are responsible for this mess.”
“Ah.” Lina was silent for a long moment while she watched Ricker work. “This looks … boring.”
“You have no idea,” Ricker muttered. She manipulated her controls to move the sensor reticle to another unmarked signature. “T’Pol normally handles this sort of thing,” she said, “but she’s busy with data analysis…” Abruptly, the science officer frowned and gave Lina a sidelong look. “Is everything okay?” she asked hesitantly. “You’re usually not very …”
“Friendly?” Lina finished with a sour look on her face. She glanced away, wondering how much to tell the other woman. “My brother, Travis, died at Elysium,” she finally said, flinching fractionally at the sharp intake of breath she heard from Ricker, “and I lost my husband at the Cradle.”
“I’m sorry,” Ricker said softly. She forced a smile. “I lost someone there too,” she admitted sadly. “We weren’t married – hell, he wasn’t even an officer and I think he would run screaming if I even floated the idea – but …” Her board chirped and Ricker tapped a quick command. “I think everyone aboard has lost someone somewhere since this stupid war began,” she said bitterly.
“Work helps,” Lina said tightly. The immense pressure that had been riding her shoulders seemed to have lifted slightly, though she might have just imagined it. She gestured toward the screen. “Show me what to do,” she said, “and I’ll give you a hand.” Ricker smiled.
“That,” she said brightly, “I can do.”
His head pounding, Jonathan Archer leaned back in his chair and fought the urge to scream as he disconnected the connection to the Vulcan consulate. I hate this damned job, he snarled mentally as he pushed himself out of his chair and stretched. Muscles too long frozen in the same position protested and he groaned, once more lamenting his current position in life. Ever since the president appointed him to Commander-in-Chief, Starfleet, he could count on one hand the number of times he’d had a full night’s sleep.
“I apologize, Admiral,” Ambassador V’Lar had informed him only moments before, her tone sincere, “but the Fullara technique does not seem effective on your security personnel.” Jon had somehow managed to keep from cursing although he knew his disappointment and frustration had been stamped on his face. He had absolutely no idea what to do. The security personnel previously assigned to Thomas Gardner were in perfect health apart from their continued inability to perceive Rajiin, digitally or physically, but Jon knew that they remained a security risk. What if the Oran’taku had done something else to them, something the Vulcans couldn’t detect? How could he dare risk anyone else’s life on the chance that the fifteen men and three women were now unknowing sleeper agents? On the heels of that thought came another: what right did he have to imprison them when they hadn’t done anything wrong? For all he knew, the only thing she’d done to them was make it so they couldn’t see her. How could he possibly ruin their careers on what might amount to a paranoid fear?
Quite easily, he realized with great disgust. The needs of the many once more outweighed the needs of the few and he scribbled a quick signature on new orders that would reassign all of these personnel to the consulate on Vulcan where they could be discreetly monitored for any hints of brainwashing.
The latest status reports of the fleet crawled down one of the five wall monitors in his office, and Jon paused before it, a frown on his face. Four months had elapsed since the Romulan attack on Earth, one hundred and twenty-five days since the last sign of the aliens that had viciously attacked humanity, and Archer couldn’t shake the feeling that this was simply the calm before the storm. There were others in Command who disagreed, none more vociferously than his Vice Chief of Naval Operations, Wang Yan, although Jon was thoroughly convinced that Wang was saying so simply because he disagreed on virtually every single policy that Archer supported.
His study of the fleet status yielded little positive. The shipyards were on track to deploy another trio of Daedalus-classes – the Acheron, the Thermopylae, and the Moscow – which would bring the total fleet strength to barely twenty of the heavier, faster ships, not including Endeavour or Discovery, both of which remained the pinnacle of efficiency, or the still capable but sadly archaic Icelands. Work continued on the two new Endeavour-classes, Gagarin and Shenzhou, and if they were very, very lucky, one or perhaps both of them would complete their warp trials by the middle of March. Two more of that class – Buran and Komarov – were on the drafting table, with some of the brightest minds in Starfleet trying to find a faster way to construct the ships.
And then, there was the Defiant.
Only a handful of personnel even knew about the plans for the new class of ships and each one had been handpicked by Jon himself for capability, discretion and out-of-the-box thinking. Daniel Jeffries, the son of the late admiral who had headed first the warp five and then later the warp six program before his death, was heading up the research into the initial design, and not a day didn’t pass that Jon did not seriously consider pulling both Trip and T’Pol off Endeavour to head up the construction of the starship. On one hand, he knew that they were doing a necessary job on the NC-06 – Endeavour wasn’t even two years old but was already considered by most fleet officers to be the duty station of choice – but on the other, Archer couldn’t think of anyone in the entire quadrant better qualified to handle the Defiant Project.
Jon blew out a deep breath and wondered if he could bring himself to actually remove Trip from command of Endeavour. Somehow, he doubted it.
The chirp of his door annunciator dragged him out of his reflection, and Archer straightened his stance. A glance at a nearby chronometer confirmed that it was time for his daily briefing with the senior admirals regarding fleet readiness and Jon knew he was going to need all the strength he could muster to avoid losing his temper.
“Enter,” he called out. Wang entered first, followed by Admiral Burnside Clapp, and a half dozen other officers whom Jon barely acknowledged beyond a quick nod of greeting. His mood soured even further when Park Min-ho, the new Defense Minister recently appointed to the position by President Molyneux in the wake of the Romulan attack on Earth, followed the admirals in. As usual, the minster was wearing an impeccable suit that probably cost more than a shuttlepod and an expression so dark that it bordered on hateful.
“Let’s get started,” Jon said without preamble. He gestured toward the large conference table, inwardly fighting the desire to just throw in the towel. Every day that passed reminded him once more that he was a pilot by training, not an administrator or, God forbid, a politician.
For the next two hours, he played referee to the various A-type personalities that made up the admiralty as they bickered and argued over the strategic overview of the war. Wang and Burnside Clapp were at one another’s throats once more, with Commodore Domeij, the new Special Warfare Commander, alternately siding first with one, then with the other. The reconstitution of the fleet was the principal point of contention, with pretty much everyone but Burnside Clapp opposing Jon’s decision to break the ships down into smaller, lighter, faster strike groups.
“My decision is final,” Archer was finally forced to declare sharply. “Our sole advantage is speed and mobility,” he pointed out darkly, “and I will not give that up in favor of obsolete tactics that are proven to fail.” When Wang’s eyes narrowed, Jon pinned him with a glare. “Need I remind you of Acheron?” he asked.
Evidently, he did.
“That was a failure of planning,” Wang quickly argued, “not of fleet composition.” He drew in a breath to add more but Minister Park abruptly spoke up for the first time.
“I believe,” the defense minister said softly, his voice carrying, “that Admiral Archer’s decision in this matter is the correct one.” As one, the flag officers gave the sole civilian present their full attention, though Jon could see differing reactions to the man’s words. Wang seethed but bit back his frustration, while Domeij looked at the minister like he was something to be scraped off of his boots. Recently promoted Commodore Assad actually seemed surprised that the defense minister was speaking and the expression of distrust on Burnside Clapp’s face was so obvious that Archer doubted anyone wasn’t aware of the admiral’s thoughts.
“Thank you, Minister,” Jon said flatly before lifting another PADD off the table. “In light of our continued inability to get effective intelligence on the Romulans,” he continued, “I’ve dispatched the Hyperion on a scouting run to Zeta Reticuli.”
“For God’s sake, Archer,” Wang snapped, his eyes flashing, “you can’t keep doing this!” The other admirals glanced away, most visibly uncomfortable with Wang’s outburst but more than a few, including Burnside Clapp to Jon’s surprise, seeming to agree with the V-CNO. “First you send Endeavour into the Expanse without consulting any of us and now this?”
“That will be enough, Admiral,” Jon barked. He locked eyes with the vice chief of naval operations.
Wang looked away first.
“Hyperion’s commander has explicit orders to maintain as low a profile as possible,” Archer said. “We need to know what the Romulans are up to and we need to know now.”
“Agreed,” Burnside Clapp interjected, “but I have to question your decision to use Hyperion.” He shook his head. “Discovery is in-system for refit and Aubrey would have been a better choice for this.” Jon shook his head.
“No, he wouldn’t,” he said. Wang bristled – Jack Aubrey had served under him for years and the two were friends of a sort – but Jon ignored him. “Hyperion is a Daedalus,” he stated calmly, hating himself just a little bit for the words about to come out of his mouth. “If the recon fails,” Archer pointed out harshly, “we lose a Daedalus. Could we afford to lose one of the only remaining NX’s?”
“Maybe you should have thought of that before you sent Endeavour off on a wild goose chase,” Wang muttered.
“I see your point,” Burnside Clapp said, “but Hsiao is just a lieutenant commander. Is he really up for this?”
“He is,” the bearded man in the far corner of the office said. Command Master Chief Stefan Apostolaki was the senior-most enlisted man in Starfleet, and had served terms with both the MACOs and UESPA before retiring three months before Elysium. The late Admiral Gardner had requested Apostolaki to return to oversee the MACO-Starfleet integration, and Jon had later asked him to remain on active service until the war was over. As far as Archer knew, there wasn’t a single person in Starfleet who didn’t respect Apostolaki. “I spoke to his senior chiefs before Hyperion launched,” Apostolaki added, “and they were unanimous in their respect for Commander Hsiao.”
“Thank you, Master Chief,” Jon said, barely able to hide his smile. It was amazing how just a few words from Apostolaki had killed any opposition to Hsiao’s assignment. Even Wang’s expression had changed to one of acceptance. “Moving on,” Archer continued a heartbeat later. “We still need to address who will captain Gagarin and Shenzhou when they deploy.” The comment started a firestorm of debate as the officers all began jockeying to name their personal favorites for the position. Even Minister Park offered a few suggestions, his familiarity with the senior command echelon of Starfleet yet another hint that he was more hands-on than his predecessor.
T’Pol’s name was conspicuously absent.
Jon knew the reasons – as far as most of the officers present were concerned, she was not an option simply because she hadn't been in Starfleet long enough, not to mention the fact that she was a Vulcan. There had nearly been a revolt in the officer corps when Admiral Forrest gave her a commission as a full commander following the Expanse mission, and Archer couldn’t imagine how they’d react if he suggested they promote her to captain. Hell, most of them looked at him cross-eyed because they felt his advancement was too rapid.
Suddenly reminded of the conversation he’d had with Trip shortly before Acheron, Jon decided to keep his opinion about T’Pol’s qualities to himself. He knew that, if he asked it of his former first officer, she would very likely accept out of a sense of duty rather than a sincere desire for her own command, but at the same time, he knew that such a request would drive an irreparable breach between him and Trip. Their friendship had barely survived the cogenitor incident or Archer’s distance in the Expanse, and he knew that it couldn’t take many more hits.
By the time the admirals departed, there was a shortlist of names for consideration for the two ships and Jon waited until he was alone in his office to slump back in his chair. The PADD with the officers – captains and commanders, all with a dozen reasons to recommend them and twice that to reject them – he tossed aside without bothering to give it a second look. He rose from his chair once more and strode from the office, pausing only long enough to secure it behind him. Right now, he had to move, had to get some exercise and get his blood pumping or his head would explode. Looking over a list of officers to determine which of them would have the job Jon wanted was the last thing in the world he had a desire to do.
There would be time for it later.
His face set in an angry scowl, Thy’lek Hravishran th’Zoarhi leaned forward in his command chair and studied the tactical readout on the main viewscreen. In terms of simple numbers, it was an even match – he had sixteen ships under his command, including the Kolari, and there were an equal number defending the objective – but that was where the similarities ended. His battlegroup was heavier, tougher, faster and with bigger guns, not to mention his captains were all more experienced. Only a fool would willingly stand against them in obsolete cruisers that should have left the service decades ago.
A fool … or a loyalist.
“Go to condition black,” Shran ordered tersely, and his bridge crew scrambled to obey. None of them seemed particularly concerned that they were on the verge of spilling Andorian blood, but that was not much of a surprise. Theirs was an especially belligerent species, not known for their deep culture or peaceful nature. The only thing hot about Andoria, it was said, was the tempers of its inhabitants. Once, Shran had been the foremost among them, as likely to respond to a friendly greeting with naked violence as he was to simply nod, but time and bitter experience had tempered him, forced him to evolve and turned him into a creature that actually considered the effects of his actions.
And oh, how he hated it.
“Has there been any response to our demands?” he asked. His newly appointed first officer glowered sullenly.
“None, Commander,” Keval said flatly. “They are maneuvering into defensive positions – I think they mean to fight us.”
He had desperately hoped to avoid this – the taking of this outpost was a necessary element in his overall plan, but he had not factored in the stupidity of his foes. They were outgunned and outclassed in every way, and Shran had expected them to act rationally. Retreat in the face of a superior foe was the only option.
Would you have retreated? Jhamel’s question drifted across his consciousness from light years away – she had been displeased at his intention to leave her in a safe place while he waged his war, but the revulsion she felt toward violence led to her agreement – and Shran grimaced. Of course he wouldn’t have quit the field – only a coward fled battle. So then, he told himself wryly, I must win this engagement through diplomacy.
“Channel open,” Shran demanded. Keval gave him another sidelong look – he had been doing that rather frequently of late, ever since he first set eyes upon Jhamel, and it was beginning to get annoying – but grudgingly obeyed. “To loyalist forces,” Shran said into the comm-line, “I order you to stand down.”
“We take no instructions from a traitor,” came an instant, fiery response. Shran smiled and gestured for Keval to identify the source of the transmission.
“And no traitor issues these orders,” Shran replied. “I represent a duly established Assembly, elected in abstentia.” On the main viewscreen, one of the old cruisers was suddenly enclosed by a bright blue digital bracket. “As the Sword of this Assembly, Commander Telthos,” Shran continued, identifying the speaker with a smile on his lips, “it is within my rights to demand your immediate and unconditional surrender. You know this.”
“I’ll be dead before I surrender to the likes of you,” Commander Telthos retorted. His image abruptly appeared on the main viewscreen. Once a large thaan, Telthos’ muscle was now running to fat and his jowls shook as he continued his rant. “This … Assembly of yours is no such thing,” he spat. “You and yours are traitors and will die as traitors!”
“Energy spike!” Keval exclaimed suddenly and Shran felt the last vestiges of hope for a non-violent resolution wither and die as Telthos’ opening barrage splattered harmlessly against the Kolari’s shields. This is why your Way is not for me, he lamented to Jhamel. Already, he could feel her begin to grieve for those about to die.
He did not have the luxury of her compassion.
“Send to all ships,” he announced after double-checking that he was broadcasting on an open channel, “any ship that powers down its weapon systems is to be left intact.” He speared Telthos with a black look. “All others, destroy them.”
Twenty light years away, Jhamel began to weep.
It was over nearly before it began. The lead defense crafts attacked in a traditional spearhead wedge, with Telthos’ antiquated cruiser at the very tip of the formation, while the smaller ships assaulted the flanks of Shran’s battlegroup. A familiar tactic, the spearhead was far too conservative and had the immediate result of giving Shran’s two heavier ships – his own Kolari and the Dantari – clear shots at the slower moving trail ships. The space over the planetary body was suddenly alive with torpedoes as Shran’s battlegroup immediately counterattacked. Ignoring the spearhead entirely, he drove his force straight into the heart of the loyalist formation. Particle cannons thrummed heavily, punching completely through the ineffective defenses of the slower ships and ripping them apart. Two died instantly, vanishing in violent explosions that ripped them apart. A third light cruiser shuddered under the concentrated barrage before suddenly breaking away from the engagement entirely, its engines flickering and sputtering sporadically.
Reeling from the battlegroup’s assault, the defending ships broke formation and scattered, any hint of discipline gone in the face of their utter destruction. Shran ignored most of the fleeing craft – they weren’t a threat to the rebellion and most of them were little more than followers – and concentrated his force’s firepower against Telthos’ cruiser. It was quite probably unnecessarily cruel – It is! Jhamel mindwept – but as the head of those who had opposed the Sword of the Assembly, Telthos had to be dealt with in the most permanent way possible.
The cruiser rocked and trembled as pinpoint fire from the particle cannons burned away the armor plating and torpedoes corkscrewed through the silent void to detonate against the hull. Explosions ravaged the ship, tearing open great gaping holes that spilled out precious oxygen and fragile bodies. Another swarm of the lethal ordinance blew the port winglet completely off, instantly setting of a chain reaction of secondary explosions throughout the entire ship.
Bare seconds later, the cruiser was little more than an expanding cloud of debris.
“Hard about,” Shran snapped through a clenched jaw. Jhamel was sobbing at the senseless waste of life and her grief was threatening to overwhelm his self control. “Damage report!”
“All systems functioning,” the engineering officer announced. Shran gave her a dark look – he needed more information than that! – and she visibly quailed before his fury. “Deflector screens holding at fifty percent,” she stated quickly. “Weapons still at ninety percent efficiency.” Shran shifted his attention to Keval.
“Fleet status!” he growled.
“No losses,” came the instant response. “Four hostiles have powered down their weapons and are retreating from the engagement zone.”
“And the others?” Shran asked. When Keval shook his head, Shran could feel Jhamel cry out once more. He pushed it down, swallowed the bile churning in his stomach, and ignored the self-loathing that was only partially his. “My orders stand,” he hissed. “Engage and destroy.”
Another thirty minutes passed before the last of the hostiles were finally neutralized, and the process cost Shran a good ship and a better crew which left him in an even fouler mood than before. He knew that he should be celebrating – one cruiser lost in an engagement with twelve hostiles that ended with seven destroyed and five captured was a victory by any definition – but he felt violently sick. How many of his fellow Guardsmen had just died at his orders? How many would have willingly joined the cause but were never given the opportunity because their commanders were snowblinded fools?
“A good day,” Keval said an eternity later, once they had stood down from condition black. He was all smiles and giddy excitement.
“Was it?” Shran asked softly. “Five hundred and fifty of our brothers and sisters died here today,” he pointed out darkly. “This was no victory … it was a tragedy.”
“We are waging a war, Commander,” Keval replied, his tone wry. “In war, soldiers die. You knew blood would need to be shed here.” Shran stood, balling his hands into tight fists.
“Today,” he said coldly, “we have inflicted more casualties upon the Andorian people than the Vulcans accomplished in two centuries.” Keval recoiled at the remark and a hush fell upon the bridge. “We do what must be done to overthrow the corrupt Council but we will not … we must not take joy in this.” He took a step away before nodding toward the wreckage filling the viewscreen. “Those that oppose us will fight harder now,” he said. “The blood we shed today is but just a taste of what is to come.”
Without another word, he strode away from the command deck. Someday, he knew that he would be able to look back on this battle as the necessary evil it was. Those that were lost would be set to rest and, if he was fortunate, Shran knew that he would finally be able to accept that their deaths were part of the Great Tapestry. And on that day, he would be able to accept that he had not slain these soldiers but that their fates were woven by Uzaveh the Infinite before the stars were born.
Someday, perhaps, but not today.
They had arrived at the former Skagaran colony twenty-five standard hours earlier. Originally, there had been no plans to re-visit this planet, but upon finding the Xindi council world an abandoned ruin, Commander Eisler had recommended they establish a forward operating base for their continued explorations of the Expanse. His reasoning had been quite logical: not only would the construction of such a base allow them to offload a considerable number of the security personnel he had taken from the three Daedalus-classes assigned to the Endeavour strike group, this location was ideally suited for their needs. In addition to providing a spot for the crew to enjoy recreation on a planetary surface, the forward operating base also served a more necessary function – the security personnel left behind were tasked with gaining additional supplies, whether through barter with the human and Skagaran descendants on the planet or through direct agricultural activities.
T’Pol had been initially surprised at the commander’s suggestion, especially as it indicated a level of strategic planning she had not been prepared for. When she had grudgingly agreed to Eisler’s original request to bring the additional security personnel aboard Endeavour, she had done so believing that he simply desired to augment the capabilities of the Roughnecks, but now, it was becoming clear that he had been planning on the establishment of this forward operating base from the beginning.
The exact location of the FOB – as the commander referred to it – was isolated and in an especially difficult to reach location on the planet without the use of shuttles. By the end of the first day, the security personnel, augmented by a sizable portion of the engineering staff and any other crewmembers not on duty, had erected a series of concrete barriers that enclosed the entire location and would provide more than effective defense against the small arms possessed by the locals planetside. Commander Eisler was not satisfied, however, and T’Pol observed with no small amount of interest as he directed the construction of additional defensive structures at key locations, utilizing Endeavour’s spare resources to build watchtowers at each of the four corners of the walled compound. Only then did he allow tents to be placed.
Most of the security personnel had remained on-site overnight, as did a surprising number of the other Endeavour crewmembers. By planetary dawn, when T’Pol accompanied Trip to visit the FOB, the NC-06 was operating on barely a skeleton crew. It was most illogical – in her experience, T’Pol had found humans were generally uninterested in extensive physical labor while ‘off-duty’ but every officer or crewman who requested leave to visit the planet did so knowing that Commander Eisler would put them to work at the forward operating base.
“Somebody’s been busy,” Trip remarked as their shuttlepod banked through the planetary cloud cover and the FOB came into sight. A fifth watchtower had been added during the night. Squatting at the base of this tower was a low building that had been assembled from pre-fab materials that had been in Endeavour storage since before launch but had never actually been used. Both of the assault re-entry vehicles were parked within the confines of the FOB and it appeared that at least one guard was assigned to each of the vessels to prevent unauthorized access.
“Indeed,” T’Pol remarked before returning her attention to the PADD in her hands. For the last hour, she had been reviewing Commander Eisler’s list of goals for the operating base and was, thus far, unable to discern any flaws in his strategic outline. Busy did not begin to describe his efforts.
Warrant Officer Gray landed the shuttlepod on a wide, empty spot next to the ARCs, and T’Pol barely restrained a sigh at how quickly Trip reached for the hatch. Like so many of his fellow humans, he too had been eager to spend time on the planet and, in his words, ‘get his hands dirty,’ but T’Pol had impressed upon him the importance of maintaining proper decorum for an officer of his position.
Or at least, she thought she had done so.
The air outside the shuttlepod was sharp and cooler than T’Pol was entirely comfortable with, but the rising sun was already beginning to burn away the early morning fog. Commanders Eisler and Hess were, as usual, arguing over some trivial point when T’Pol emerged from the shuttlepod, but there was a strange intensity between the two that had not been present before.
“Captain, Commander,” Eisler greeted as he approached. He gave Hess a quick sidelong look – she returned it instantly without being prompted – but oddly, did not meet the engineer’s eyes. T’Pol quirked an eyebrow. “The FOB will be fully operational by tomorrow, sir,” Eisler continued, his hands automatically vanishing behind his back.
“Looks operational now,” Trip remarked as he glanced around, pausing to give Hoshi a quick nod. Lieutenant Commander Sato was laboring alongside Doctors Phlox and Reyes in what appeared to be a wide strip of dirt T’Pol suspected to be meant for a garden. All three were laughing about something and T’Pol’s eyebrow climbed a centimeter higher. She fought the urge to shake her head.
“Der Kommandant isn’t satisfied yet,” Hess said wryly, her words causing Trip to smirk and the tactical officer to frown. “I think I’ve talked him out of mining the valley,” she added with a grin that did not quite touch her eyes.
“With your permission, Captain,” Eisler said, “I’m going to leave Senior Chief Petty Officer Luckabaugh behind to assist Ensign Stiles in bringing the FOB online.”
“That’ll leave us without a chief of the boat,” Trip pointed out. “Think Mitchell is up to the job?”
“Luckabaugh insists that he is,” Eisler replied.
“All right,” Trip said. “Request approved.” He gave T’Pol a glance – she returned it without thinking and raised an eyebrow slightly – before gesturing toward the nearby concrete wall. “Is all of this necessary?” he asked. “As I recall, the locals weren’t exactly big threats.”
“Nor were they especially friendly,” Eisler retorted. He fell into step beside the captain as Trip began walking through the FOB. T’Pol and Commander Hess followed, with the engineer’s forced good cheer fading rapidly. Her troubled eyes, T’Pol realized, were locked on Eisler’s hands that were currently clasped together in the small of his back. “This location is suitably remote that any locals will need to be actively seeking us out as opposed to accidentally stumbling upon us.” He nodded toward the barriers. “The defenses are a precaution, sir, nothing more.”
“Is leaving one of the ARCs a precaution too?” Trip asked. He smirked at the sight of several junior officers – Lieutenants Kornegay, Rostova and Zhao – arguing rather loudly with a number of the Roughnecks over the placement of their tents. The security personnel were all male, T’Pol realized, which likely made this discussion some form of ridiculous human courting ritual.
“A sensible one, sir,” the tactical officer answered. He went on to explain how the assault re-entry vehicle would serve as both a defensive asset and a transport craft, but T’Pol paid only partial attention to his words. Instead, she studied his body language, hoping to discern what was worrying Commander Hess. Nearly instantly, T’Pol realized that Eisler’s normally fluid gait was awkward, almost clumsy at times. His hands shook on occasion, though he generally kept them hidden from sight by standing at what the former MACOs called ‘parade rest.’ Even more damning was the subtle hints of discomfort that periodically flashed across his face – he concealed them all quite well, but if one knew what to look for, they were quite obvious.
Which certainly explained Commander Hess’ poorly concealed concern.
They spent thirty minutes inspecting the base, during which time T’Pol remained mostly silent as she mulled over the mounting evidence regarding Commander Eisler’s status. Trip noticed her distraction, but did not call attention to it and instead focused on what he privately called his ‘captain’s face.’ Now that she was giving it more consideration, T’Pol realized that Commander Eisler had been systematically pulling back from active field exercises for weeks. He no longer led Roughnecks on landing parties and instead delegated these tasks to his senior non-commissioned officers. She also could not recall the last time she had seen the commander in the gymnasium. Her eyes narrowed suddenly – recently, he had also logged a considerable amount of time in Sickbay, but she had thought nothing of it, presuming he was simply coordinating new training regimens with Doctor Phlox.
She excused herself at the earliest opportunity and returned to Endeavour aboard the next shuttlepod supply run. Once aboard, she followed standard procedure by advising Lieutenant Kimura, the current duty officer, of her presence before returning to her cabin where she began conducting additional research. Phlox’s records were distressingly easy to break into – she made a note to speak to the doctor about the importance of file security; at times, he was far too trusting for his own good – and T’Pol spent another two hours studying the data in front of her.
When she was done, she checked in once more – Lieutenant Commander Riggs had replaced Kimura as watch officer, but there were still no emergencies requiring her attention – before opting to meditate. At the back of her mind, she could sense Trip’s emotions and allowed their warmth to wash over her thoughts. He was still planetside and had organized some form of sporting event – she thought it was the same one he and Admiral Archer had played with Zobral’s clan so many lifetimes ago, but she did not tap too deeply of their mindlink to assuage her vague curiosity.
Meditation provided her with no answers and T’Pol emerged from her whitespace still unsettled. She could not help but to empathize with Commander Eisler’s desire for discretion – had she not done the same once she learned of the Pa’nar? She would have greatly preferred that Captain Archer never learn of the condition – but their current circumstances dictated confrontation. If even a quarter of what she had read concerning the symptoms of this Krupitzer’s Syndrome were accurate, the commander could quickly transition from asset to hindrance. Grimly, T’Pol rose to her feet: she needed more data.
Phlox was back aboard Endeavour barely twenty minutes later in response to her hail, dirtier than before but with a brighter smile than T’Pol recalled seeing on him for a very long time. His good mood faltered and vanished when she cornered him and began to ask about the Krupitzer’s. Initially, he was defensive, erroneously believing that she was accusing him of being negligent, but once he realized she was uninterested in affixing blame, he opened up rather vociferously.
“I have exhausted every avenue available,” he finally admitted. “Since this disease is genetic,” he added, “I have even enlisted the aid of Doctor Soong.” At T’Pol’s upraised eyebrow, he rushed on. “Discreetly, of course, but I felt that, since he is the foremost expert in regards to human genetics, he would be the logical choice of consultants.”
“And your prognosis?” T’Pol asked. Phlox sighed.
“Terminal,” he said. “With Doctor Soong’s assistance, I have developed a treatment for patients in the early stages of this disease, but Commander Eisler … the defects on chromosome four are simply too extensive.” T’Pol nodded, a purely human gesture she barely realized that she had adopted; in normal humans, the trinucleotide repeat in the HTT gene appeared between ten and twenty-eight times, but for Commander Eisler, this repeat was in excess of one hundred and fifty, and despite the advances in medical technology, the manipulation of DNA remained a difficult proposition at best.
After concluding her conversation with Phlox, T’Pol retreated to her office (which was little more than an unused research lab on C- Deck) where she considered her options. Trip would need to be informed of this discovery and she knew it would distress him considerably. Although he often pretended otherwise, she knew that her mate liked the commander immensely and considered him more a friend than a junior officer. In the end, though, she realized that she would need to speak to the commander first.
Eisler responded to her summons fairly quickly and from the stance he assumed when he entered, she suspected he had been warned by Doctor Phlox that she was aware of his situation.
“It has come to my notice,” T’Pol began calmly, “that you are suffering from a terminal neurological condition.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Commander Eisler replied. His jaw was clenched tightly and he was staring straight ahead without making eye contact. “I apologize for failing to inform my chain of command about my change in status, ma’am,” he added tightly. “Doctor Phlox repeatedly advised me to inform you but I urged him to keep this silent. He is blameless in this matter.”
“I am well aware of Doctor Phlox’s discretion in terms of medical conditions, Commander,” T’Pol said wryly. At his disbelieving expression, she made a split-second decision to share a tiny bit of her history with this man. They were, after all, far more similar than he suspected. “Five years ago,” she stated calmly, “I contracted a terminal neurological disorder and Doctor Phlox did not reveal this condition to my commanding officer until it became necessary.”
“You do not look sick,” Eisler remarked hesitantly. His posture relaxed fractionally.
“I was cured by a Vulcan expert in the condition,” T’Pol said. She gave the commander another look. “By Starfleet regulation,” she said, “I am required to advise the captain of your condition.” Eisler’s jaw tightened even further.
“As long as Doctor Phlox agrees that you are capable of continuing your job,” T’Pol continued, “I see no reason why you cannot remain tactical officer.” The commander blinked in mild surprise. “This is predicated on the doctor’s continued approval,” she said and he nodded.
“Yes, ma’am,” Eisler replied, drawing in a relieved breath. “Thank you, ma’am.” His eyes glittered with emotion though his face remained oddly impassive. “You won’t regret this.” T’Pol raised an eyebrow.
“Regret,” she said simply, “is an emotion.”