"I'm not either, Sir. Wait, there's another one. . .no, now that's gone too."
"What are we dealing with, Commander?"
"I don't know, Sir. The computer can't identify it."
"I don't know. There's nothing there now."
Winter felt the tension in the bridge edge up a notch.
"Stay sharp, everyone. Any chance for a fire control lock, Mr. Koshansky?"
"Negative, Sir. There's nothing there to lock onto."
"Koshansky, prepare a probe. If one of those anomalies pops up again, let's see if we can get more information. And get the photons overloaded."
"Landing party to Alfred."
"Go ahead, Mister Makarov."
"We've located two survivors, both badly wounded. Our medic is stabilizing them and we'll transport them back to the ship momentarily."
"I want your landing party back up here with the casualties."
"We still have another section to search, Sir."
"How long will that take?"
"Two minutes at most, Sir."
"Long-range scan still clear, Jiang?"
"Makarov, send those casualties here and finish the search. Two minutes, Lieutenant. No longer."
"Understood," came the reply.
Bridge, RIS Imperial Truth
Clavius opened his eyes. It was time.
"Deactivate our cloak. Divert power to complete arming cycle, lock onto enemy vessel, and launch torpedo."
The calmness in his voice belied the fiery zeal inflaming his soul.
Bridge, USS Alfred the Great
"Probe ready to launch, Sir," said Koshansky. "I also recommend we get some speed up. We're a sitting duck here."
"Not a bad plan-coughŠHelm. . .COUGH" Winter hacked wetly and loudly, his chest spasming.
Startled and concerned, Jiang turned from the sensor console to face his captain. "Are you all right, Sir?"
"Yes, dammit, just a cough. Helm. . ."
"Holy smoke!" exclaimed Koshansky.
On the viewscreen, a ship shimmered into view. It hung there for a split-second, then released a large, red, glowing ball of death.
Jiang turned back to his sensors. "Unknown vessel firing on us, range 40,000 kilometers! Weapon impact in four seconds. Ship disappearing! Wait, there's another one, ahead and slightly to port, range 30,000. It's firing too!"
"Flank speed!" ordered Winter, although everyone could see it was too late to dodge the torpedoes. "Reinforce forward shield! Lock on the closest target and fire all weapons!"
The first torpedo struck, brushing aside the reinforcement and smashing the forward shield. Alfred's old-fashioned armor systems absorbed additional energy, but it wasn't enough. Plasma ripped through the ship, shorting out systems, blowing out bulkheads, incinerating flesh and bone. Simultaneously, Alfred's own weapons reached into space, phasers and photon torpedoes smashing into the Romulan's hull. The enemy staggered for a moment, then her impulse engines exploded, shattering the ship, a blood-red fragment of a painted bird-of-prey tumbling out of view. The second plasma torpedo struck the Alfred a second later. The ship rocked violently, groaning like a wounded animal. Amazingly the bridge came through the inferno undamaged, but the rest of the ship was a wreck.
"All phasers and three torpedo tubes off-line. Explosive decompression in multiple sections on decks three, four, five, six, and eight ... inner hull ruptures everywhere. All transporters off-line. Auxiliary control and emergency bridge don't respond, shuttle bay smashed, impulse engines off-line, battery decks burned out. Casualties heavy."
"Down 53%. We can maneuver but we can't reach disengagement speed without repairs."
"What did they hit us with?"
"High-energy plasma seeking weapon. Incredibly powerful."
"Obviously! Enemy status?"
"We hit the target at 30,000 with all four photon torpedoes, plus phasers. Just burning fragments left."
"Overkill, but excellent shooting, Koshansky. Overload our remaining photon again. Helm, bring us around, course 57, mark nine. Keep the forward shield away from them as best you can. Jiang, I need a way to track invisible ships. Communications, batch up everything you have and get it out to Starbase Ten and all ships in the area."
"Not possible, Captain," the communications officer said. "Long-range and short-range comms are down. Individual communicators should still work, but we cannot get a report out."
"Download everything to a log buoy," Winter said. He tapped the intercom button. "Engineering, prioritize engine repairs, then long-range comms, then transporters, then weapons."
"Already working on the engines and comms, but transporters?" Kaktu sounded confused through the intercom.
"We still have a landing party and casualties down there, Kaktu. I won't abandon them. Not yet anyway." Unspoken but understood was the fact that they would need transporters to evacuate the Alfred if the worst happened.
"Target showing up on motion sensors now," said Jiang. "Moving very slowly. We can't get a fire-control lock as long as they are invisible, but I can read their approximate position now. Captain, I don't think they have tactical warp drive. We're looking at old-style impulse engines. Maybe they have warp they're not using, or a new kind of warp drive. Interesting mixture of technology. Incredible weapons, invisibility, but no speed."
"The analysts can worry about that later. Watch out for any more of those Œanomalies!' No more surprises, Commander! We can outrun their ships, but those torpedoes are too fast for us in our current condition."
Winter coughed again, then paused. What to do? He was furious with himself for the ship's predicament. Perhaps, if he had had a distraction shuttle ready to go, they could have avoided the torpedoes. Of course, the Kzintis and Klingons were on the other side of the Federation, and pirates in this area seldom used drones. There had been no reason to have a weasel ready, but he was the captain: it was his job to be prepared. It was his fault his ship was crippled, his crew dying.
His gut wanted to fight, but his head told him to retrieve the landing party and leave. If the Romulans fought with the same brutality they did a century before, no prisoners would be taken. But was it even possible to retrieve them? Alfred was defanged. There could be more ships hidden out there. One more hit from one of those plasma nightmares would be fatal. He was unwilling to cross into the Neutral Zone. There was just one way to get out.
"Get those engines repaired!"
Bridge, RIS Imperial Truth
"Damage estimate for the Warrior's Blood?" Clavius already knew the answer. The Federation ship's firepower and shooting accuracy had been most impressive, and there was little left of their squadron-mate.
"Just drifting debris, Commander."
"We shall avenge our brethren. What of the rest of the squadron?"
"Still in position."
"Report on damage sustained by enemy."
"Both torpedoes struck their forward shield. We estimate massive damage to their hull, weapons, and energy generation systems. We've hurt them badly, Commander."
Clavius was only partially satisfied with this vague report. "Yes, we have hurt them, but not badly enough. Even in this damaged condition, they are still much faster than us, just as the Gorns are." He watched the sensor plot of the enemy cruiser. Would they disengage? Or would they fight? Fortunately his plan made it difficult for them to do either and his captains knew what to do.
Transporter Room Two, USS Alfred the Great
Damage Control Team Three worked desperately to get the transporter back on-line. The pattern buffer was intact. They had already repaired the connection to the main junction power circuitry, but the operator's panel itself was also shorted out. This wasn't a difficult repair, but it was enough to keep the transporter off-line.
Castro removed a burned-out circuit board and tossed it behind him; no time for niceties or normal procedure. Mirungi handed him a replacement, which the older man plugged into place. Normally they would run a diagnostic before powering up the systems, but there was no time to spare.
Tonek and the transporter chief fired up the systems. Everything worked.
Castro didn't have time to be pleased. "DCT Three to Damage Control Central. Transporter Two operational. Awaiting orders."
"DCT Three, proceed to chapel and shore up bulkhead. Medical has a bunch of wounded there and doesn't want them spaced. After that, proceed to phaser mount six."
"Affirmative." The chapel was just down the corridor. "Move!"
Bridge, USS Alfred the Great
"I'm reading two intermittent anomalies bearing between 50,000 and 70,000 kilometers to the galactic south of the base. One of these units is about the size of a destroyer or small cruiser, the other appears frigate-sized. There are two anomalies between 40,000 and 60,000 kilometers to the galactic north of the base, both frigate-sized. These are in addition to the cruiser-sized contact near the base, and the one we blew up."
"So there are five enemy ships left."
"Yes, Sir. At least that we can detect."
"They have us up against the Neutral Zone boundary," said Koshansky in a discouraged tone. "We cannot get out of here without going through their ambush."
"Mr. Koshansky, are you ready to give up?" Winter said firmly.
No, Sir!" The officer's back stiffened. The slip had been momentary.
Winter looked at his bridge crew. "We're not giving up, ladies and gentlemen." He tapped the ship-wide intercom button. "This is the Captain. We've sustained significant damage, but our ship still has a good fight left in him." This felt like a lie, but he moved forward. "You know the situation. If we violate the Neutral Zone in the interests of our immediate survival, we could spark a larger war in which millions of Federation citizens would die. Remember, our duty as Star Fleet personnel can require us to sacrifice our lives in defense of the greater good, but that isn't our fate just yet. Continue damage-control efforts, and let's fight our ship." He closed the circuit.
"Five ships, none of which we've seen before," Winter mused out loud. The Academy trained captains to deal with unknown technology, even using some pretty outrageous and just plain silly "enemies" that one had to figure out. The point was to figure out what one had never seen.
"On the contrary," Jiang said, "the ships didn't look much different than the hulls they used a century ago. What's new is that invisibility screen and that seeking plasma weapon."
"Very well, Jiang. Do you think a frigate could fire a torpedo as powerful as the ones that hit us before?"
"The power cost for that thing must be terrific. I wouldn't think a frigate could fire one. Maybe a weaker version?"
"I agree. We don't have enough weapons left to take out the remaining cruiser, so we will take the northern route. Helm, do your best to keep our strong shields angled towards any enemy ships that become visible. I want to pass within transporter range of the asteroid and pick the landing party up, if at all possible."
"Captain, they might have other surprises for us. We might not see them until too late."
"I know, Jiang. That's another reason to stay within transporter range of the asteroid as long as we can. If I'm wrong about this, I want some place to evacuate to. Communications, put all of our logs and reports in the log buoy, and drop it overboard the next time there's a weapons flash to hide it. Every sensor reading, every scrap of tactical information we've collected. Make sure that the second log buoy is fully updated every five seconds. While you're waiting, rig a personal communicator to get what you can sent to the base and let Makarov know we're coming."
"Engine power up to 50%, Sir."
"Bring us around, Helm. Best possible speed."