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Beta'd by Distracted, to whom all due thanks!
How am I going to tell her?
Jonathan Archer sat on the deck of his ship and watched the last flickers and flashes fade from the mangled and almost unrecognizable metal structure that seconds before had been a Romulan warbird about to blow Enterprise out of existence.
Somewhere in the midst of the wreckage were the shards of a shuttlepod packed with the C-4 explosive that had blown the warship to smithereens. There wouldn't be much left of it. As for the pilot, he'd be reduced to traces of DNA. If that much.
"The flagship's broken off the fight with Columbia, sir." Travis's voice was barely a croak. Whether this was emotion or exhaustion or due at least partly to the smoke that drifted through the bridge, there was no knowing. Quite possibly it was a combination of all three. His flying skills during the past two days had rewritten the books on what was or wasn't possible with an NX class starship; if by any chance any of them made it back alive he was one of those who'd earned the highest commendation Starfleet could award. If there was still a Starfleet in existence by then, of course. Maybe all of them would just be names in a list of those who'd fallen in a lost cause, the gallant losers in a battle they'd never had a hope in hell of winning.
Archer looked across at Tactical and the bent head of the officer manning it. For a moment the stinging haze of burning circuitry allowed him to see someone different there, but the next second Ensign McKenna looked up, his gaze blank with the horror that he couldn't allow himself to feel yet. "The whole Romulan Fleet's disengaging, sir. I think – I think they're retreating."
They're retreating. The words sank into his brain like rocks dropped into the Mariana Trench, and sank with hardly a ripple.
He couldn't feel anything, because there was too much to feel. He was battered, blinded, broken. He wanted nothing more than to cease to exist. Living had become a burden he could no longer carry.
How am I going to tell her?
He went first to Engineering. Trip was knee-deep in organizing repair teams, prior to tackling the biggest repair job himself. The ship was dead in the water. After the beating they'd taken, it was a miracle that they still had life support, but the emergency back-up would hold for a while. In the meantime, if they still wanted to be considered part of the Coalition fleet they had to get themselves back into a viable state, pronto. The retreat could, after all, be a ruse. The Romulans could have withdrawn just to regroup and resupply, planning to re-materialize and recommence hostilities just as the battered Coalition forces dropped their guard. It would be an act of the supremest folly to relax for a moment; far better to use what might only be the briefest of breathing spaces to patch up the damage and get ready to fight again.
Trip acknowledged his presence with barely a nod in between issuing a steady stream of commands. Whether there was anything else in that blue glance he couldn't tell. Tucker was almost as battered as the ship, soot-streaked and scorched and bloody; God alone knew what was keeping him on his feet after the past forty-eight hours. If he knew, he was handling it the only way he could right now. If he didn't, telling him would only add one more burden he might not be able to bear on top of everything else.
Archer stumbled out again.
He went to the Control Center. T'Pol was there still. The data banks that had served them so well in the hunt for the Xindi had been pressed into service against the Romulans. The screens told the stories in unflinching detail. She'd kept him updated on the big picture right from the start of the battle, enabled him to work with tactical officer and helmsman to keep the ship where it was most needed, to do the most damage at the least cost, because outnumbered as they were it was no time for death-or-glory charges. Enterprise had been fitted with the most up-to-date armaments Starfleet could provide, but the ship had been up against enemy vessels that could outmaneuver and outgun her in a straight fight, so her fighting had been a desperate, opportunist thing of fire, turn and flee, losing herself among the other battles and hunting for targets she could take by surprise. It hadn't been heroic, but the situation needed live fighters rather than dead heroes. The Vulcan's ability to make swift, precise, logical assessments of a situation that changed every second had been an invaluable asset, releasing the officer manning Tactical to concentrate utterly on dealing out destruction with whatever weapons were appropriate to the situation she revealed. Without it, he seriously doubted whether the ship would have survived the first hour of combat. Now even she was showing the strain of those two interminable days. Her face was ashen with weariness, and as she turned from the screen that had shown her the fate that had overtaken the warbird that should have killed them all, she looked at him with an expression he was too exhausted to decipher.
Almost every ship the Coalition could muster had been assembled here at Cheron, blocking the advance of the Romulan battle fleet in full order. For the best part of two days they'd hammered the hell out of one another. The Starfleet ships had fought like tigers, desperate with the knowledge that they'd have to commit virtually all their strength if they wanted to beat this tide of enemies. If they fell, Earth would fall. Humanity would become just another notch on the Romulans' tally-stick of subjugated species. A like fate awaited the Vulcans, the Andorians and the Tellarites. They, too, had everything to lose, and they fought with identical desperation.
It had been bloody, as battles always are: strike and counterstrike, with no attention to spare for the uncounted dogfights raging around them, no opportunity to acknowledge the deaths of friends and comrades or the costly victories that tore one hole at a time in the ranks that advanced, pressing ever inwards with merciless determination. They lost count of time, because experiencing time was a luxury. They lost the ability to feel weariness, because weariness slowed the mind and a slow mind was a flaw in the defenses that must hold. They lost the ability to eat, because adrenaline diverted all the functions away from the digestive system and their bodies were unable to feel hunger. Thirst intervened occasionally, slaked with water brought round by non-combatants. All else was submerged in a struggle for survival as primeval as anything fought out in Neanderthal cave-dwellings. Defeat was unthinkable, therefore they did not think of it.
But now, in what might be just a pause between the first battle and the next – and however many it took, they would go on fighting – it was no longer possible to stave off the realities of combat. During the last of uncounted exchanges during the battle, Enterprise had taken damage that had finally reduced her to a wallowing, defenseless hulk. They'd lost warp drive and then weapons, and the warbird that had pursued and raked them had come about around a wreck that had momentarily blocked its aim, arming up for the final blast that would take them out of the sky.
He leaned against the wall of the turbo-lift. He couldn't remember how he'd got into it. He wanted to cry, to scream, to howl, but he didn't remember how to. He couldn't even remember how to feel.
He was the captain, God damn it. He should be doing … something. Giving orders, something, anything, but he couldn't imagine what. He fell to his knees and retched, but nothing came up except a little greenish acid.
The Armory. He didn't know how he'd got there, but wished he hadn't come. The place was an utter mess. Even its reinforced walls hadn't saved it from the devastation wreaked on the ship. The weapons racks were empty, the floor slippery with blood. A few bodies had been shoved to one side, just so much wreckage to be dealt with at a later time. A couple of crewmen whose names he couldn't remember were trying to repair circuits that must have overheated and burned out. One of them had an arm so badly broken it might have to come off. Some others were trying to repair a photonic torpedo that must, at some time in the battle, have been put by as defective, while yet others were struggling to construct spatial torpedoes out of old spare parts. That could mean only one thing: the weaponry was down to one faulty modern torpedo, if they could get it working in time, and a few clapped-together outdated Triton-class missiles. Hell, if they'd had rocks on board ship these guys would be lining up to throw them, if that's all they had left. They hadn't noticed his presence and he didn't speak, just stared blankly at the chaos and thought that Malcolm would break his heart to see it, except that he'd be more interested in the fact that his team was still working, still fighting, still trying to be a credit to him. Not that he'd say much. Just that stiff British nod of approval that conveyed so much more than it said. Jolly good show.
He couldn't get into sickbay to get an idea of the losses. The casualties were overflowing into the corridor, piled on mattresses that had been hurriedly lugged out of crews' quarters. The air was foul with the stench of blood and burned flesh. Groans and screams came from those who were still awaiting treatment, a number that was being added to by the moment as more wounded were carried in from those areas that had been battered by the warbird's strikes, and shots from others before it. Ensign Cutler from Exobiology was doing the triage in the corridor. She was filthy with blood, but her hands were steady and capable. One of the newcomers from Astrophysics whose name he couldn't remember was helping her.
On the mattress nearest his feet one of the MACOs was dying. His stomach was ripped open clean across. He was still conscious, but he made no sound, just waited quietly. Hayes would have been proud of him.
We're not a military ship. We're explorers. He rolled against the wall, laughing aloud. Get out there and make friends, Jonathan. They're all just dying to meet us. Or maybe it'll be just us who are dying to meet them.
But she wouldn't be in sickbay anyway. Not now. Not under these conditions. Scenes like these would be the last thing she'd need right now.
Maybe she already knew.
Maybe she didn't.
How was he going to tell her?
Where else would she be?
His unsteady feet took him down the echoing corridor. Some of the wall panels were buckled, but by and large this part of the ship had survived pretty well.
This was the room. He looked at the chime. I, Captain Jonathan Archer, by the power invested in me...
He'd never seen Malcolm's usually shuttered face so utterly open and unguarded as it had been on the day when the ship's communications officer finally became Mrs. Hoshi Sato-Reed. His grey eyes had been so luminous with love that half of the female guests had dissolved into tears. The only sadness of the occasion was that the happy couple hadn't been able to remain as members of Enterprise's crew; Starfleet regulations forbade it. After a farewell party that launched them on their honeymoon they'd taken up jobs working for HQ and according to the friends with whom they still kept contact (or at least Hoshi did, her husband being far less inclined to chatty conversations) they had been blissfully happy.
War had changed everything. An experienced tactical officer was an asset the ship needed as she'd never needed one before; Malcolm had materialized like a genie even before the lamp had been rubbed, taking up residence in a guest suite and slipping back into his place as head of Tactical as though he'd never been away, with not a single voice raised in complaint. On previous forays he'd come alone. They hadn't bargained on his bringing his wife along on this one, but she was apparently part of the package. Hoshi had turned stubborn and Malcolm had said she had to be humored. The reason for this was pretty evident by this time. Trip had laughed. "Gee, you two sure didn't waste your last home leave!"
A warship wasn't the place for a pregnant woman.
She wouldn't leave. And she was still a damned good linguist. They might yet need one, even if her belly didn't let her sit nearly as close to her console as she used to. They couldn't afford to be choosy, to spare the weak and vulnerable.
Someone rang the chime. It might have been him, but he wasn't sure.
He tried to work out from the sound of her voice whether she knew. He couldn't.
He hit the door's 'open' button instead.
She was sitting on the bunk. For a moment he wondered why she wasn't in uniform, but then he remembered that she was no longer a member of his crew. And the standard uniform would never have accommodated that bulge in her previously slender form.
Malcolm had loved every centimeter of her swelling stomach. For a man who'd been as close as a clam for all those years, impending fatherhood had dragged him out of his shell big time. Late one evening, as they'd raced to the battle, he and Trip had joined the captain in the ready room, and over a couple of glasses of something alcoholic the words had spilled out of him. Jon and Trip had listened, dumbfounded and disbelieving, laughing and envious. The happiness, the plans, the dreams. Once we've won the war. Man, was Malcolm going to be the world's most doting Dad.
Once we've won the war. It wasn't conceit; Reed was a realist before anything else. He could sum up as well as any man breathing what the odds were. It was as though he'd simply blanked out the possibility that they could be defeated. Or perhaps he couldn't function any more if he let himself remember it. Whatever it was, they weren't going to argue. They were already inked in as godfathers to the most cherished baby ever to be brought into the world. Once we've won the war.
She was looking at him. How often during his off-duty hours had Malcolm lain on the bunk with his head on her lap, reverently kissing that bulge, watching the mysterious movements ripple across her abdomen? At one point during that memorable evening he'd talked of seeing something that was definitely a tiny foot, astonishingly clearly outlined for just a moment. In that instant he'd seemed to his friends to be perilously close to tears.
Her eyes saw through her ex-captain now as though he were made of glass. Odd, he'd never thought since those long-ago days back in Brazil how beautiful her eyes were.
There hadn't been time for farewells. Even the shuttle had been taken without permission. There hadn't been time for that either. The cry that the launch bay door had opened had been just one more in a hail of noises as the bridge exploded into a smoke-filled hell of rupturing panels and shorting electrical circuits. He'd hardly understood what was going on until the tiny craft sped towards the looming warbird, timing its run with deadly precision for the moment the shields dropped to allow it to fire.
"Tell Hoshi –"
The fireball had drowned everything. It had virtually blacked out the screen as the external camera sensors hurriedly dimmed to compensate for the glare.
"No," she said softly.
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