It was going to be a bumpy ride.
His face creased in a tight scowl, Soval fought the urge to fidget as he slowly paced around the vehicle that would carry him to his final destination. In its current configuration, it appeared as nothing more than a large cylinder three meters in length and diameter. The exterior hull appeared at first glance to be seamless, though a closer inspection proved this to be false.
As he finished his third circuit around the vehicle, Soval fought the urge to sigh. When he first approached these particular humans about smuggling him onto Vulcan, he had done so knowing well their reputation for accepting missions that normal, sane individuals would automatically refuse. Even their fellow humans gave the crew of the ECS Torchwood a wide berth, as if concerned that the propensity for risk-taking by the ship’s captain was an infectious disease. Vulcan Intelligence had utilized this crew in the past for particularly dangerous operations requiring plausible deniability – discreetly, of course – in much the same way that Starfleet’s Special Operations Branch used them.
But this … this was so far beyond what Soval had expected that he did not know how to react, especially since he had anticipated them simply using a transporter to put him in place.
“Do you like it?” the Torchwood’s captain asked. Gregor Molyneux was slightly taller than Soval, with dark hair and a mischievous glint in his eyes. He carried himself with an easy grace, denoting a high degree of confidence in his natural skills, but there remained a furtive, almost paranoid air about him, as if he were always watching the shadows for assassins to appear. Despite his flamboyant reputation within intelligence circles, he was dressed rather conservatively, though the thick longcoat he favored seemed decades out of style.
“It is … not what I expected,” Soval answered honestly. He clasped his hands together at the small of his back and frowned. “I am concerned.”
“No need to be,” Molyneux replied. He stepped closer to the vehicle and rested his gloved right hand atop it. “We’ve used this trick a dozen times now,” he added with a tight smile. “Works every time.”
“You have never attempted it on Vulcan,” Soval pointed out. “This technique may have allowed you to obtain a Tellarite freighter,” he said, noting the sudden tightening of the captain’s shoulders at Soval’s seemingly casual reference to a mission he should not know about, “but it may prove unsuccessful against Vulcan sensor nets. They are quite superior to those you have previously encountered in your … exploits.” Molyneux suddenly smirked.
“Three things,” he said as he held up his left fist with the thumb extended. “One, we have used it against Vulcan sensors before.” Soval’s eyebrow shot up at this revelation and the human before him grinned broadly. “Two,” Molyneux continued, unwrapping his pointing finger from the fist, “you came to me for help.”
“And I paid a rather significant sum of money for your assistance,” Soval intoned. The captain nodded.
“For which me and my crew thank you heartily,” Molyneux said. He added a third finger to the previous two. “And three,” he said, “we’re already past the point of no return. We hit Vulcan atmo in ten minutes.”
Soval glanced away, grimacing tightly at the realization that his options were exhausted. Following his conversation with his old associate, Tavaris, on Coridan, he had realized that he could not proceed without first determining if T’Pau was a Rihannsu plant. To that end, he decided the logical course of action was to confront her at a time when she was alone and unguarded. If she was actively cooperating with their lost cousins, Soval would kill her.
If he had to. If he could.
“Then my discomfort with this … vehicle is not relevant,” he declared as he turned back toward the craft in question. Molyneux’s amusement dwindled and was quickly replaced by an expression of professionalism. He input a command into the device he wore on his wrist and instantly, a concealed hatch atop the cylinder began opening. Another moment later, a crewman pushed a wheeled ladder into place and Soval grimly began climbing it.
“You’ll have full control once released,” Captain Molyneux said as he followed Soval up the ladder. “The flight computer will alert you when to eject from the housing.”
“These controls are in Vulcan,” Soval stated as he lowered himself into the cramped cockpit. The displays before him were rudimentary at best, but had all of the necessities for flight: altimeter, air speed, radar.
“My crew chief thought you’d appreciate it,” the captain said. He was silent as he watched Soval strap in before finally giving into his visible curiosity. “I would love to know,” he said with narrowed eyes, “why a Vulcan ambassador has to sneak onto his homeworld.” Soval gave him a flat look and raised an eyebrow.
“And I would be equally interested to learn how the son of the Earth president became a common smuggler,” he replied calmly. Molyneux gave him a grin.
“There’s nothing common about me, Ambassador,” he retorted before shaking his head. “Long story,” he said. “Another time perhaps.”
“Another time,” Soval agreed. He glanced up and met Molyneux’s eyes. “Peace and long life, Captain,” he said calmly.
“Dif-tor heh smusma,” the human replied in perfect, unaccented Vulcan. He disappeared from sight as he clambered down the ladder, and Soval secured the canopy. A rumble vibrated through the vehicle as it was lowered into place, and Soval focused on his breathing as he grasped the flight stick.
The ten minutes to Vulcan atmosphere crawled by with agonizing slowness and gave him far too much time to think. A thousand different things could go wrong before he was cut loose and he considered each one of them. The Torchwood could be identified as the freelance covert intelligence craft it was, even if it had been the David Webb when they departed Coridan or the Jack Bristow when Vulcan intelligence last utilized their special talents. If they deviated too far from the designated flight path, planetary starship controllers might notice and scramble interceptors. T’Pau might have been warned. Molyneux might be selling him out.
“One minute to drop,” a feminine voice announced through the intraship comm. system. A high-pitched whine presaged a muted rumble that could only be the cargo bay doors opening. Instantly, Soval could feel wind begin shaking the craft. With his left hand, the ambassador flipped a switch that activated his own communications systems; it was capable of only passive reception and could not transmit, but would allow him to eavesdrop as necessary.
“Thirty seconds,” the human female announced a moment later. She reminded Soval of Lieutenant Commander Sato for some inexplicable reason and he decided it must have been due to her speech patterns. “Fifteen seconds. Fourteen. Thirteen. Twelve.”
Soval tuned the countdown out as exhaled deeply, purging all traces of emotion from his body. He would need total control in the coming seconds and any slip could be fatal. For a moment, he found himself idly wishing that he believed in some sort of supernatural entity or god as so many of the humans did.
He could certainly use the help.
“Two. One. Drop.”
Wind howled around the cylinder as the clamps holding it in place released, and Soval’s breath caught as he felt the sudden negative g-force send his stomach into his feet. A digital heads-up display snapped into existence in front of him instantly, and he ground his teeth in mild worry at how quickly he was falling. Already, the massive canyon he would use to conceal his ejection of the external housing was looming large in the viewscreen, and he silently congratulated Captain Molyneux on a perfect placement. To sensors, it would appear as if nothing untoward had occurred beyond perhaps a large chunk of ice falling from the Torchwood as it entered Vulcan atmosphere; such things often happened with older human ships, which was the reason why their assigned flight paths so often took them over the uninhabited regions of the planet.
A soft chime echoed through the cockpit and Soval gratefully depressed a flashing green button. Instantly, the craft shuddered as the stealth housing exploded away from the core vehicle, tumbling away and filling any sensors directed in this region with dozens of distracting signatures that would appear as if the slab of ice was breaking apart during re-entry. It would – hopefully – provide just enough cover to prevent detection of the relatively tiny ultralight craft vanishing into the canyon. Wings slid into place, deploying with an ease that denoted careful maintenance, and Soval pulled back on the flight stick. The craft responded quickly, banking softly toward a gap in the canyon wall, and the ambassador glanced at the airspeed indicator as he raced through the air. A second turn beckoned and he maneuvered through it just as easily, marveling at the grace of the unwieldy-looking vehicle.
It was … exhilarating.
Air resistance gradually slowed the ultralight, but he successfully maintained his low profile as he neared his destination. By the time he had landed, the sun had vanished from the sky, and Soval knew that he was running out of time. He estimated that an hour remained before T’Pau reached the Syrannite shrine she visited on this, the eve of Surak’s death for her annual ablutions. As First Minister, she would be accompanied by the ritual pair of bodyguards who would stand watch while she sought guidance for the coming year from the Father of Logic. It was an old tradition only recently reinstituted by her government, but one that had been quite well received by the general populace.
The wings of the ultralight retracted without a sound once he had landed, and Soval quickly gathered his gear. As instructed by Molyneux, he depressed a second button on the flight panel before abandoning it. Fully expecting it to explode or dissolve in a puddle of plastics, he was actually startled when it flickered and vanished in the swirling motes common to transporter beams. His surprise faded, though, and was replaced by a flash of annoyance he was unable to completely suppress. If they had access to a transporter, why did they bother with such low tech means as this?
Humans, Soval scoffed mentally as he began picking his way through the rocky debris leading to the Syrannite shrine.
It was slow going, with stone detritus from eroded canyon walls blocking his path, and Soval felt the muscles in his body begin to burn at the strain he put them through. He was certainly in better shape than he had been months earlier – a life constantly on the run had seen to that – but improved physical fitness could never mitigate the fact that he was already entering the twilight of his life. These sorts of antics were best left to the young, to children like T’Pol or T’Pau herself who had more than a handful of decades remaining.
The tertiary entrance to the shrine was exactly where it was supposed to be, concealed from casual view by a large overhang of rock. He technically was not supposed to be aware of this passageway as it had been a closely guarded secret amongst the Syrannite leadership, but T’Les had passed on her knowledge of it to him in a carefully worded missive dated several days prior to her death. Not for the first time, he felt a wave of grief threaten him and harshly suppressed it. She had been such a lovely person, beautiful in mind and in katra, and he often found his thoughts turning to her. They had never been particularly close, despite Soval’s friendship with her late husband, but he had always been impressed with her and occasionally lamented that he had never sought to deepen his relationship with her after their respective mates had passed.
As expected, the tunnel was difficult to navigate due to the limited space and the decided lack of illumination. With each second that passed, Soval could sense his opportunity to reach T’Pau undetected slipping away, but he forced himself to maintain his sedate pace. Haste could lead to errors, and there was no room for mistakes, not with the entire future of the quadrant potentially at stake.
Voices drifted through the cavern, and he froze in place, quickly hugging what limited cover he had. There were two, he determined, and both were male. From the timbre of their words, Soval estimated that both were significantly younger than he, perhaps even younger than T’Pau, but of sufficient maturity to merit concern. His muscles protesting, he crept closer and peered around a particularly obtrusive stalagmite to see into the central chamber.
The two males were wearing the distinctive uniforms of Vulcan security officers, causing Soval to immediately assume they were part of T’Pau’s protective detail, but the unfamiliar language and the fact that they were planting micro-charges at key points within the meditation circle identified them as either Rihannsu or allies of those who marched beneath the raptor’s wings. Soval’s fingers itched as he carefully drew his disruptor and took aim. He hesitated at the last minute and slowly lowered the weapon; shooting these traitors, no matter how tempting, would eliminate any chance of interacting with T’Pau.
So he waited.
The two traitors completed their tasks long minutes later, conversed softly, and quickly took their leave. Soval watched them depart with a frown and quickly calculated how much time remained before the first minister arrived. At the same time, he re-examined the evidence before him: if the Rihannsu were planning to assassinate her and pin the blame on someone else (likely the Andorians or the humans, Soval theorized), then it was logical to presume she was not an agent or operative of theirs. And that meant he had to save her life.
Without allowing himself to reconsider, he sprang forward, thumbing the disruptor’s beam coherence into its most intense setting. Locating the first of the charges – it looked to be of Andorian manufacture, he noted – Soval braced himself behind another outcropping of stone, took careful aim, and squeezed the trigger of his weapon. A streak of emerald energy lanced out, striking the explosive and causing it to instantly vaporize without detonating.
And Soval exhaled in relief.
He disabled all but one of the charges in that fashion – it would be needed as evidence – and then retraced his steps to his earlier concealing position to wait. The urge to smile was intense, but he suppressed it, silently promising himself to dedicate more time to meditation once this latest crisis had abated. The clatter of boots upon rock caused him to tense, and he gripped the disruptor tightly.
Preceded by the two traitors, T’Pau stepped into the central chamber. Her nose twitched and she cast about the hollowed out room for the source of the smell even as the two ‘guards’ glanced directly at the smoking holes that had stored their charges. Soval could see the surprise flash across their faces and they instinctively went for their holstered weapons.
Soval struck first.
He fired only twice, but did so from a position of concealment and with total surprise. Without even the opportunity to howl in pain, the two traitors vanished as the disruptor beam excited the atoms within their bodies and shattered the electromagnetic field that held them together. Both men blinked out of existence.
To her credit, T’Pau displayed no visible sign of concern as Soval stepped into view, though he knew she had to be close to panic. Her eyes narrowed in recognition, then widened when he holstered his weapon.
“Greetings, First Minister,” he said calmly. “We have much to talk about.” In response, T’Pau carefully adjusted her hands in a gesture obviously intended to placate him and raised an eyebrow.
Soval hoped this had not been a mistake.
This had been a terrible, terrible mistake.
Shuffling awkwardly in place, Hoshi Sato-Reed grimaced as the tether connecting her to Petty Officer First Class Kelly kept her anchored in place against his chest. She was more nervous than she wanted to admit about the coming deployment and their current inability to do anything but wait was slowly driving her mad. The ex-MACOs seemed unaffected by it – most were sprawled out on the surface of the large cargo transporter with their eyes closed – but then, their old organization had a phrase for this sort of inaction: hurry up and wait.
The reason for their delay had more to do with timing than anything else. Following contact from an injured Nate Kemper who had evidently been recruited to monitor Admiral Gardner’s compound from a hotel room, Lieutenant Reynolds had postponed their planned assault for a minimum of thirty minutes while a thunderstorm rolled in over the San Francisco area. Hoshi found herself torn between wholeheartedly agreeing with the delay (a storm would help conceal them from initial detection by the Mark Twelves, which would give her extra time to hack into the system) and dreading the very notion of materializing in the middle of cumulonimbus clouds.
“Relax,” Kelly murmured softly. “We’ll be fine.” Hoshi shivered, more out of nerves than anything else. If this had been anyone but Derek, she might have actually considered their positions almost intimate, despite the layers of armor, clothing, and equipment between them.
“Says the person actually trained for this sort of thing,” she retorted, shifting in place once more. It was impossible to actually get comfortable with Kelly effectively strapped to her back, and she wished they had the opportunity to detach the harness connecting her to him for just a few minutes. She needed to go to the bathroom. “I’m a linguist,” Hoshi continued, “not a MACO.” Kelly’s chuckle rumbled through her.
“After this,” he said with a grin she could actually hear, “I think you’ll become an honorary member.”
“Wonderful.” Hoshi didn’t bother trying to keep the sarcasm out of her voice, but it only made Derek laugh again.
“Gear up, people!” Reynolds snapped. “Two minutes to deployment.” He frowned as the team began climbing to their feet. “And somebody wake up Woods.”
The next one hundred and twenty seconds flashed by and Hoshi found herself on the verge of hyperventilating as the team took up their positions on the transporter. With their helmets on and the faceplates down, it was impossible to tell who was who except by their body language. In the very center of the pad, Admiral Archer stood straight, no visible evidence of worry, but Hoshi could see how he kept opening and closing his hands in an unconscious gesture. Like her and Gannet, he was wearing a combat softsuit that closely resembled the undergarment of the EV suit they had worn on several occasions in the past. At his side, Lieutenant Reynolds was discreetly checking out every member of the team, as if evaluating their states of mind and calculating odds of survival. A feminine figure equipped with a field medical kit shifted fractionally closer to the lieutenant and, for the span of a single heartbeat, their fingers touched in a way that conveyed deep affection, concern and an overriding need for reassurance from both of them.
Hoshi looked away.
A loud chime echoed through the transporter bay and the hard-faced petty officer manning the controls – she had been on the station when they arrived and never once questioned what they were doing or why – looked directly at Lieutenant Reynolds. He gave her a thumbs up and she nodded.
“Good hunting, sir,” she said before manipulating the control board.
The world tilted out of view as her molecules were disassembled and sent racing toward Earth. Cold so intense it threatened to freeze her blood slammed into her, as if she had dove nude into Arctic waters. Her breath caught at the uncomfortable sensation of being stretched, like she was in two places at the same time. Lightning crawled across her field of vision, transposed over her last view of Halifax station.
And suddenly, she was falling, hurtling toward the ground through a thick layer of clouds that blocked out all vision. Hoshi knew she was screaming, tried to stop herself, but the raw terror thundering through her veins made it impossible to shut up. Across the comm. line, she could make out other voices – Money laughing like she was actually enjoying this insanity, Brooks murmuring a prayer, and Archer’s heavy breathing. Only Derek’s reassuring grip on her arms kept Hoshi from complete panic.
They broke through the clouds an eternity later, and to Hoshi’s surprise, a quartet of bodies shot by her at incredible speed. Unlike her and Kelly’s almost spread-eagled stance, these four were oriented toward the ground face-first in an obvious attempt to gain additional acceleration. Through the fear still gripping her, she suddenly recalled that this was part of the plan: Lieutenant Reynolds and Alpha team – Money, Hamboyan and Woods – would touch down first outside the walled estate and create a perimeter for the rest of the unit.
“You’re doing fine, Hoshi!” Kelly whispered across the comm. line
“I hate you!” she shrieked in response. “I hate you all!”
The compound came into sight several long heartbeats later and Hoshi could feel Kelly begin tensing his body in preparation for the coming landing. Deploying the chutes too soon would make it easy to detect by the Mark Twelves, so they were holding off until the very last moment. From the body language of the entire ex-MACO team, Hoshi knew that the landing was going to be painful.
And it was. Kelly deployed the chute barely two hundred meters from the landing zone and the resulting rapid deceleration was worse than any car accident Hoshi had been involved in, including when her older sister completely totaled the family sedan on her sixteenth birthday. Even before she’d recovered from the chute’s release, they were hitting the ground with more force than she’d expected. Sharp, agonizing pain stabbed up through her legs and spine, but Kelly was already tucking them into a roll that distributed the shock of impact through the rest of her body.
“Move!” Kelly snapped. He released the harness that connected them with quick, practiced motions before pulling his rifle off of the battle rig attached to his armor. Hoshi pushed herself to her feet, her head still swimming and a dull ache yet pounding through her body. She gave the immediate area a quick glance, grimacing at the torrential sheets of rain plunging from the darkened sky, before darting toward the cover of a well-tended shrub. Pulling out her specialized gear, she powered the small computer up and input several rapid commands.
“Six, Charlie Actual.” Amanda Cole’s voice echoed across the comm. but Hoshi focused on the data crawling across the digital screen in front of her. The sensor frequencies of the Mark Twelves beckoned to her and her fingers danced across the tiny keyboard.
“Charlie Three is down.” Hoshi’s breath caught – Three was Petty Officer Azar. “Broken leg. Doping him and moving on.”
“Copy.” Reynolds’ frustration was clear in his voice. “Alpha, Bravo, stand by to move up.”
“Got it!” Hoshi declared. She jammed her finger on the <ENTER> button and, instantly, the graphics on her computer’s screen changed from red to green. “Sensors neutralized,” she said into the comm.
“Copy,” Lieutenant Reynolds said. “Alpha, Bravo, execute. Charlie, stand by.”
Cloaked by the driving rain, seven dark, armored figures darted forward, vanishing from view as they clambered over the wall and dropped onto the compound grounds. Flanked by four bodies – the admiral, Gannet, Sergeant Cole, and PO3 Brown – Hoshi reattached her comm. gear to the utility harness on her softsuit before drawing her sidearm. Her breath was coming in ragged gasps and she nearly jumped when Admiral Archer dropped a reassuring hand on her shoulder.
“Charlie team, move up,” Reynolds’ voice ordered.
The flight from their landing zone to the wall was a nightmare of adrenaline and fear for Hoshi. Rain obscured her vision so badly that even the light enhancement technology built into the helmet barely helped, and the jagged lightning strikes that lit up the night sky only made things worse. Beside her, Archer stumbled, clearly having as much trouble as she was with their frantic dash in the dark in the unfamiliar combat gear. The other three seemed not to notice, or if they did, they ignored it.
Several steps ahead of the rest of the team, Petty Officer Brown reached the wall first and instantly flattened his back against it. Slinging his rifle, he interlaced his fingers a bare second before Cole reached him. Without hesitation, the medic leaped, her right foot landing in his grip. He heaved her up, adding speed and momentum to her jump. She topped the wall and then vanished over it. Even before she was completely out of sight, Brooks was replicating the move as Archer slammed into the wall to create the hand stirrup himself.
“Hoshi!” he hissed, and she shook her head before darting forward. The admiral grunted with exertion as he sent her flying, and, a moment later, Hoshi hit the muddy dirt on the other side of the wall. She was abruptly grateful for the helmet as it concealed the flush of excitement spreading across her face. Brooks and Cole were crouched in a covering position, their rifles at the ready, and Hoshi fell into place without having to be told, her sidearm trembling only slightly.
Archer was next over the wall and he staggered slightly on the landing, but quickly recovered and took his position just beside Cole. Long seconds later, Brown dropped over the side with no indication of how he’d gotten to the top. The moment he took his flanking position beside Hoshi, Sergeant Cole was speaking.
“Charlie in position.”
“Alpha, flanking screen,” Reynolds instructed. “Bravo, move in.”
In response, the dark figures of Alpha and Bravo detached themselves from the shadows like wraiths, moving quickly toward the immense mansion that was Admiral Gardner’s home. Thunder cracked the sky, and a brilliant spear of lightning momentarily illuminated the entire compound’s grounds. Hoshi blinked in minor surprise at the unmoving bodies laid out on the lawn – she hadn’t heard a thing!
“Alpha in position,” Kelly whispered across the communications line.
“Copy,” Reynolds replied. “Charlie, move up. Alpha, Bravo … execute.”
As Hoshi threw herself forward into a sprint to keep up with Sergeant Cole and PO3 Brown, the sound of weapons fire suddenly filled the air. Explosions from stun grenades rattled the ground, though with the booming thunder rolling out of the night sky, it was hardly noticeable. Shouts and screams quickly joined the clamor, and a spotlight located atop the mansion lit up. Before anyone else could react, Admiral Archer brought his phase pistol up and snapped off a shot. The light vanished with an explosion of sparks and a muted shout of surprise.
“Good shot, sir,” Brown murmured. He took aim with his rifle and began taking pot shots at the figures running around on the roof.
“Move in!” Lieutenant Reynolds shouted across the comm. line. “Alpha team, secure the upper level, Bravo team with me!”
“Get ready,” Cole whispered, directing her comments to the admiral and Hoshi. Seconds later, the lieutenant’s voice sounded once more.
“Charlie team! Move up!”
Hoshi rushed forward instantly, a bare two steps behind Cole. They reached the main doorway of the manor seconds later, with PO3 Brown leading the way. At Amanda’s sharp hand gesture, Brown rushed through the double doors already blasted open by breaching grenades. Discarding his helmet as he followed (but not his earpiece), Admiral Archer drew in a series of rapid breaths before pursuing the petty officer. Hoshi did the same, tossing the uncomfortable head gear to one side, and noted Gannet followed suit. Unsurprisingly, Cole did not.
The door opened up into a massive foyer already filled with unconscious bodies, none of which appeared to be wearing any protective gear. A life-sized portrait of an older woman in her late fifties to mid-sixties instantly drew one’s attention upon entering, and Hoshi recognized it as a painting of Admiral Gardner’s late wife, now dead for nearly two years. The portrait seemed intentionally placed here, and Hoshi wondered if the admiral wanted a daily visual reminder to keep him from ever forgetting his partner of over thirty years.
“Sir, get down!” Cole’s voice snapped Hoshi out her momentary distraction, and she wheeled around in place to orient her pistol in the direction Amanda was already firing. Reflex kicked in at the sight of the Oran'taku female surrounded by the unmoving forms of Lieutenant Reynolds’ team, and Hoshi began pulling the trigger. Pockets of pulsed plasma exploded around her as a group of Admiral Gardner’s bodyguards rounded a corner and opened fire, but all Hoshi could see was Rajiin standing there, one hand held up toward them and a semi-translucent distortion protecting her from the lethal fire being directed toward her. Something … pressed against Hoshi’s mind and she could almost feel the sudden shift in atmospheric pressure.
And the world exploded.
The warp plasma conduit was rigged to explode.
That was the first thing Master Chief Petty Officer Colin Mackenzie noted as he drew closer to it. Removing his helmet, he inched closer to the exposed conduit, lowering his rifle as he did. After a few moments of examination, he revised his suspicion and frowned: from what he could tell, it was made to look like it was going to explode, but he didn’t see any hint of actual sabotage that could potentially lead to a real malfunction.
An icy tendril of fear crawled up his spine.
Behind him, Petty Officer Riley was moving around in the narrow access corridor, carefully checking on the unconscious forms of Ensign Stiles and PO3 Hoffman. He had already bound the equally insensate Vulcan they had stunned earlier with a pair of mag-cuffs – both hands and feet, just to be safe – and was obviously keeping their prisoner in his field of vision as he provided what little first aid he could to his fallen comrades.
Mac was only peripherally aware of Riley as he continued to study the warp plasma conduit, a deep frown on his face. He crept closer to it, lowering his rifle to the deck to free up his hands, and dropped to all fours so he could get a glimpse underneath the quartet of coolant lines that ran parallel to the actual conduit. Once again, there was no sign that they had been tampered with. Mac grunted.
“Something wrong, sir?” Riley asked as he entered the monitoring room and drew alongside Mackenzie.
“Don’t call me sir,” Mac said reflexively. “I work for a living.” He pressed his nose up to the coolant lines and peered into the tiny gap that existed between them, halfway expecting to smell the barely perceptible stench of micro-explosives or adhesive. “There’s nothing wrong with the bloody conduit,” he added a moment later. Nodding in the direction of a wall-mounted cabinet containing tools, he continued. “Grab me a wrench.”
Riley turned to obey without question, lowering his rifle as he did. The cabinet door slid open without a sound, and the petty officer extracted one of the larger, bulkier tools that Mac barely used these days.
Without a sound, a female Vulcan – the same one Mac thought he had seen use the damned transporter only seconds earlier – darted through the open hatch that led to the maintenance crawlspace that served the coolant system and into the monitoring room itself. Riley reacted fluidly, dropping the wrench to the deck and swinging his rifle around, but she pounced on him before he could fire. Batting his weapon aside with one hand, she struck with the other, punching him squarely in chest. The ceramic plates of his armor crumpled under the force of the blow and he flew backwards into one of the secondary monitoring stations, smashing into it and tearing it from the wall with an explosion of sparks. He collapsed to the deck, unconscious or worse, and the Vulcan half-turned toward Mac.
In the moment that she attacked Riley, Mackenzie’s fight or flight instincts kicked in and he dove toward the weapon closest to him and the one he felt most comfortable with: the wrench. It was a heavy compound leverage spanner easily fifteen kilograms in weight, but with the adrenaline washing away his common sense, Mac barely noticed.
He attacked without hesitation, bouncing up from the deck and swinging the heavy wrench with every gram of his strength. It smashed into the Vulcan’s face with a meaty thunk and the unmistakable sound of crushing bone. She reeled back, her face contorted in a rictus of pain as she shrieked, and Mac stumbled forward, suddenly off-balance by the spanner’s mass. He fought to get the wrench up and into position for another attack, but this time, she was too fast for him. Despite her visible agony, her hand lashed out and caught his wrist in a crushing grip. She squeezed – hard – and this time, he was the one screaming as he felt bones fracture and splinter under her implacable hold. The wrench slipped from nerveless fingers and clattered to the deck, an impossible distance away. Fury and pain stamped on her features, the Vulcan balled up her other fist and punched him in the face. His nose seemed to explode – blood was suddenly everywhere – and Mac staggered back, anchored in place by her grip on his arm.
“You will die for that,” she snarled through lips that barely seemed to work. Her eyes were narrowed slits of barely contained rage.
The world tilted around him and he suddenly found himself airborne before he realized she had hurled him. He struck the bulkhead wall with bone-crushing force. Another scream was ripped from his lungs as he felt ribs break, and he fell to the deck with a jarring thud. His vision swam out of focus.
“An engineer,” the Vulcan said. She was standing over him, emerald blood pouring from the wide gash on her face. He could see exposed bone and knew she had to be in agonizing pain. Before Mac could act, she kicked him in the stomach. The thoracic plate of his armor buckled under the force of the blow a millisecond before he was sent airborne once more. Stars danced before his eyes as the Vulcan grabbed the ceramic cuirass and lifted him bodily from the deck. He tried to blink them away but only succeeded in making himself even dizzier. “I will have need of your knowledge of this vessel,” she declared and Mac reacted the only way he could.
He spat in her face.
The Vulcan smiled then, a malicious expression that only highlighted the cruelty dancing in her eyes. With the jagged scar yet gushing blood marring the entire left side of her face, it turned her positively demonic.
“Cooperation is not necessary,” she said as her free hand came up to his face. Something flared within her eyes…
And suddenly, Mac was falling through a formless abyss. A blizzard of ice burned through his mind, and pain unlike anything he’d ever imagined caused him to scream. He was suffocating but could breathe. His veins were coursing with acid that bubbled and burned and solidified. Living fire froze the neurons in his brain and he could almost sense a malevolent presence at the very edge of consciousness. The pain … the pain was beyond belief.
Images and half-remembered memories flashed across his mind’s eye – the smell of his father’s cologne, the sound of Ali’s laughter, his first kiss, the sharp and bitter taste of regret and despair as he watched an empty coffin being lowered into the ground, Lieutenant Hayes’ cautious eyes as he spoke of a special division of Starfleet Intelligence that was interested in Mac’s services – but were gone before he fully registered them. It took him an eternity of a second to realize the Vulcan was flipping through his memories as if watching an old movie, and he desperately tried to rally his force of will to stop her, to prevent her from finding what she was after, but she ripped through his meager defenses as if they weren’t even there. For the span of a heartbeat, he could see her as she liked to envision herself – a warrior, with the wings of a raptor stretching out from her back and glorious victories ahead of her. Long talons dotted the tips of her fingers and were dripping with blood – green and red – and ichor. Her eyes glinted, not with madness but rather a terrible, focused intelligence that bored through subterfuge like a mining laser.
Without warning, it ended. She dropped him to the deck, stepping back as he collapsed like a puppet with its strings cut. Mac’s head slammed into the unyielding metal floor even as bile burned its way up his throat. He vomited noisily while agony pulsed within his head, like burning nails and freezing spikes. His muscles trembled as he tried to move but they would not obey.
The Vulcan ignored him as she strode directly to the master systems monitoring station and began inputting rapid commands with the ease of long practice. A distinct vibration rumbled through the deckplates and Mac instantly recognized that she had cut the flow of plasma to the nearby shielded accelerator. He grimaced as he struggled with a body suddenly unwilling to cooperate, and the Vulcan gave him a sidelong glance before smiling darkly.
“Do not worry, human,” she said flatly. “I will kill you before I kill your ship.” Returning her attention to the monitoring station, she typed in another command and Mac’s blood ran cold when his brain finally registered what she was doing.
She was using his access code.
The hum of a magnetic containment field disengaging caused the Vulcan to shoot a quick look in the direction of the plasma accelerator. Apparently satisfied, she turned away from the control station and took several rapid steps to an unnoticed bag concealed in a corner. She knelt and rifled through it before extracting a small block of what could only be explosives sheathed in what appeared to be a hardened container. There was no hesitation in her motions as she straightened and made for the now opened maintenance hatch of the deactivated plasma accelerator.
Understanding came at once. With the explosive planted inside the accelerator, she would re-initiate the warp plasma flow before detonating the charge. An explosion in the middle of the actual plasma stream wouldn’t just be catastrophic, it would rip the entire ship apart before anyone had the chance to evacuate.
Terror gave Mac strength he didn’t know he had, and he lurched to his feet, his right arm hanging limp and useless. So focused on her mission to plant the charge, the Vulcan didn’t notice as she leaned into the now dormant accelerator. She was in an awkward position – half-in, half-out – and barely had time to cry out in surprise when Mackenzie rammed into her, knocking her fully into the accelerator chamber. He backpedaled away as she tried to scramble back to her feet, and slammed his good hand onto the emergency override on the wall beside him. The magnetic containment field snapped back into place instantly, trapping her inside.
“Let’s see how you like that, bitch,” Mac slurred as he watched her eyes narrow with fury at her current condition. He found himself hoping that Commander Eisler let him sit in on the interrogation. Or better yet, he decided, they could set the first officer loose on her. T’Pol would be merciless, pitiless, and completely without remorse as she tore apart this traitor to her species.
To his surprise, the Vulcan saboteur blinked away her anger before peeling back a sleeve to reveal the wrist device that she’d used to seemingly trigger the transporter. She gave Mac a vicious smile, one that was most certainly not the expression of a defeated woman, and began manipulating the controls on it. Mackenzie started to frown when he suddenly realized what she had with her inside the accelerator chamber.
He half ran, half stumbled back to the master systems monitoring station and keyed in an immediate command. The agony in his head continued to pound away, intensifying with each second that passed, and his fingers suddenly felt fat, clumsy, uncoordinated. There would only be one chance to get this right.
“Suck on this,” he growled as he stabbed the final button, releasing the safeties and overriding command protocol.
Instantly, superheated warp plasma surged back into the accelerator. Every piece of her body ignited, vanishing in a fiery burst of incandescent light that burned like a miniature supernova for all of a half-second. She didn’t even have time to scream.
Mac started to laugh, though he didn’t know why, and the throbbing in his head grew worse. The sound of screaming – the unconscious Vulcan that Riley had secured earlier – suddenly echoed through the corridor, and Mac could hear the pounding of feet drawing closer. A moment later, Commander Eisler and his team entered, their weapons instantly orienting on the humming accelerator.
“You’re too late,” Mac declared. Even to him, his voice sounded odd. “I fried her.” All three of the Eislers standing before him glanced in his direction, pushing up the visors on their helmets in a wonderfully synchronized movement. Mac could see their lips moving, knew they were speaking, but couldn’t hear them over the roaring in his ears or the liquid fire scorching away consciousness.
So he closed his eyes and let the pain carry him away.
The pain was unbearable.
His every cell screamed in distress as the nerve endings that conducted feeling through his body seemed to explode. The air around him was ablaze – or so it felt – and his ears popped from sudden, intense pressure, as if he was flying and suffered a significant altitude change. Something … alien brushed up against his thoughts, squeezing them with an implacable grip. His brain felt like it was in a vice.
“Is this the best you can do?” Rajiin’s voice demanded, a picosecond after he heard her phrase the question in his mind. It echoed and cut into his thoughts, stimulating nerve clusters that sent excruciating shards of sensation through his extremities like tiny slivers of mental glass that sliced through his veins. He convulsed as his muscles – all of them – twitched and revolted against the pain.
Jonathan Archer wanted to die.
He was vaguely aware of his companions on the ground in the same state as he was, trying to scream but unable to force breath out of their lungs. Even Gardner’s guards who had joined the firefight to defend against the sudden breach were on the ground, their bodies writhing silently. Jon should have recognized that it indicated a lack of control on Rajiin’s part, but the crimson fire that swept through his mind robbed him of his faculties.
The soft click of her shoes upon the hardwood floor heralded her approach, and Archer clung to the sound as he tried to claw himself back to coherence. He could just make out the form of Thomas Gardner behind the Oran’taku female, trailing behind her like a well-trained dog with awe and devotion stamped upon his face. Fury and hate gave Jon a moment of strength as Rajiin loomed over him.
“I expected more from you, Jonathan,” she said, the uncanny psychic echo reverberating through his skull. She shook her head and knelt, one of her hands reaching out to caress his face. The invisible pressure already bearing down upon him trebled, instantly reminding him of the one time he’d gone on a space-walk in a malfunctioning EV suit. Decompression sickness, a part of his brain observed distantly a heartbeat before … something erupted from Rajiin.
It wasn’t something he could really see, but slammed into him with the force of a runaway ground car nonetheless, like thunder without sound. His muscles clenched tightly and he convulsed. He could feel blood leaking from his eyes, his ears, his nose, his mouth. An invisible hand seemed to grasp his internal organs and squeeze.
“You have caused me a great deal of discomfort, Jonathan,” Rajiin said, “and I am going to repay you in kind.” Another explosion of unseen force flared out from her, and through the roaring in his ears, Archer could hear the sound of glass shattering. An invisible spike bored its way through his skull, white-hot and unrelenting.
The familiar sensation of a mind not his own suddenly whispered across his consciousness like a dry, warm wind. Jon fumbled toward it, recognizing the wisp of Surak’s presence that had been with him since he bore the long-dead Vulcan’s katra all those years ago. It was an oasis in a desert, a hint of sanctuary before the psychic onslaught that was systematically burning across his neurons.
“Pain is a sensation like any other,” the ghost murmured, though they really weren’t words and Jon didn’t really hear them. “Like hunger or fatigue, it can, with the proper application of discipline, be ignored for a time.” Through the crippling agony coursing through his mind and body, Archer could feel the fragment of a Vulcan soul point the way. “Use this gift well, Jonathan Archer.”
And just like that, the pain was gone.
Jon opened his eyes to meet Rajiin’s, and she backpedalled sharply to put some distance between them, a startled expression flashing across her face. Fear and uncertainty warred within her eyes, though Archer knew she really didn’t have anything to fear from in. He couldn’t feel the pain but was still aware of it. Muscles still spasmed, and he doubted he could stand if his life depended on it.
Which, a part of him silently acknowledged, it pretty much did.
“Remarkable,” Rajiin declared. She knelt to get a better look at him, as if he were a lab specimen, and Jon found his gaze instantly drawn to the metallic studs implanted in her temple. There were four of them – two for either side – and they sparkled in a way that could not be mere reflection from lights in the house. This close, he could see that they weren’t metal at all, but rather some sort of crystalline compound, and a lattice of … something pulsed underneath her skin from the studs. “You have amazing willpower for a human,” the Oran’taku announced as she stroked his face, “but I can sense … something else within you, something … different.” She smiled. “I shall enjoy taking you apart to find out what it is.”
“Why?” Jon rasped. His throat was on fire. “Why are you doing this? We tried to help you.”
“Help me?” she repeated, fury glinting in her eyes. “You abandoned me to die!” She glared at him, and Archer could feel her rage pulse into him like a physical thing. His body twitched – it should have been horribly painful – but he felt nothing. His every sense was dulled, muted, as if his veins were filled with morphine, though his mind remained sharp. “They saved me!” Rajiin continued to rant, gesticulating wildly as she spoke. Subtle energy distortions surrounded her hands as she gestured, and the lights in the room flickered wildly. “They saved me and gave me even greater power than I had before!” Her eyes narrowed and she leaned closer to him. “And now,” she whispered maniacally, the stench of her breath foul and alien, “I can revenge myself upon you.”
Archer stared at her, dismay and horror churning in his stomach as he saw no sign of the woman who had been pulled from Enterprise by the Xindi, no hint that she was still the same person who had expressed remorse over being used as a spy by her old masters. Memory of T’Pol’s description about the Fullara instantly sprang to mind and Jon wondered if the Xindi had done something similar to Rajiin to rewrite her mind and personality. He did not know this woman – though truthfully, he hadn’t known her well then, either – and from the hatred boiling in her eyes, Archer doubted there was anything he could say that would convince her to back down, especially when she held all of the cards.
As he struggled to find the words that would convince her of his innocence, that he hadn’t betrayed her as she clearly believed, he caught sight of movement out of the corner of his eye. It was Hoshi, already rousing from Rajiin’s mental onslaught, and Jon felt hope stir once more. Draw her fire, he told himself, so Hoshi can act.
“Yes, I left you,” he said with a feigned snarl. Rajiin’s eyes widened. “You were too weak to be of any use to me or my mission.”
Rajiin shrieked. A fist of pure force slammed into Archer’s belly harder than he’d ever been struck before and sent him skidding across the floor before he bounced off the wall. He felt something give under the impact and vomited blood. His muscles, still uncooperative, trembled as he tried to force himself to his feet, but Rajiin was already there.
“I will kill you!” she snarled, gesturing with one hand. The studs embedded in her temple flared a half second before Jon felt invisible hands grip his limbs and lift him up before her. He tried to move, tried to break free, but could barely force his fingers into a fist.
“They lied to you,” Archer said, grimacing at the feel of his arms being slowly torn from their sockets. “Earth isn’t a threat to the Xindi!”
“The Xindi?” Rajiin replied. She smiled coldly. “I no longer serve the Xindi.” Her eyes narrowed fractionally and she studied him for a moment. “You are stalling,” she abruptly realized. Jon felt his heart skip a beat and he clung to his self-control. He could not look at Hoshi, not now. “Why?”
“You didn’t think I came here with just this team, did you?” Archer asked. He forced a grin on his face. “A nice air strike should do the trick, don’t you think?” Rajiin frowned and white-hot flame pushed against Jon’s thoughts. He could feel her trying to determine the truth but the sense of otherness, the hint of Vulcan self-control shielded him for the briefest of seconds. Her assault faltered and she glanced away, momentary confusion on her face. Archer tried to comprehend why – the wisp of Surak wasn’t that strong – but she turned her flashing eyes upon him once more.
“No matter,” Rajiin remarked as she raised her other hand. Another distortion pulsed off of her, throwing him into the wall with bruising force. He tried to move, to get up but his muscles suddenly seemed to have turned to water. “I can kill you long before that,” she said as those unseen hands wrapped around his body and lifted him upright once more. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of movement and gave Rajiin a bloody smile.
“There’s just one thing you’ve forgotten,” he rasped. “I didn’t come alone.” Her eyes widened in comprehension and she half-turned away.
And in that moment, Hoshi Sato-Reed pulled the trigger on her phase pistol.
Rajiin didn’t make a sound as she looked down at the smoking hole in her chest. Her eyes widened in shock or pain – Jon couldn’t tell which one – and her mouth worked, as if she was trying to say something but couldn’t find the breath. The invisible grip that had pinned him place abruptly vanished, and Archer fell to the floor, face first. He glanced up at the sound of a second phase pistol shot – it was Hoshi again – and blinked as Rajiin slowly toppled, her eyes already glazing over as her body shut down.
From where she was sprawled out, Hoshi gave a relieved gasp and let her trembling arms fall. Sweat dripped from her face and Jon suddenly realized that her muscles were still twitching. Somehow, she had fought through the telepathic assault, had found the willpower to make her body obey. She tried to give him a smile but even that seemed to take too much effort.
“She’s gone,” a voice whispered, and Archer dragged his attention away from the barely conscious form of his old communications officer. Thomas Gardner stood over the body of the Oran’taku female, his eyes wide and horror on his face. “I can’t hear her,” he murmured with growing excitement. He pinned Jon with a look. “She’s gone,” he repeated.
“Tom…” Archer started before grimacing suddenly as a wave of intense agony coursed through his body. Surak’s pain suppression trick was fading … along with consciousness.
“She’s gone!” Gardner exulted. He took two rapid steps to where Hoshi laid and pulled the phase pistol from her grip. “I’m free!” the admiral said. His eyes met Jon’s and Archer’s breath caught at the emotion swimming in them. “I’m sorry, Jon,” Gardner said as he slowly raised the pistol. “I’m so sorry…”
And before Archer could react, Thomas Gardner, the Chief of Naval Operations for Starfleet and an unwilling traitor, shot himself in the head.