The bridge was a quiet hub of activity as those on duty silently attended to their tasks, preparing for their arrival at the station.  Captain Archer turned in his chair and took that moment to study those on the bridge that he considered friends.  With the exception of Commander Tucker, they had been together since the launch of Enterprise.  We’ve been to hell and back, he mused.  Now, here they were again, heading into a situation they knew little about, that knot in his stomach tightened.  He was brought out of his reverie by Ensign Mayweather. 

“Sir, we’re approaching Salem-One,” he said as he looked up from his console, and stared at the station that now appeared on the forward screen.

Archer didn’t reply, but nodded to Hoshi, who brought the station up on the forward monitor, at his unspoken order.

Archer’s jaw clenched as the devastated station emerged; Salem-One was in ruins.  Its structure was reduced to nothing; thick, black smoke billowed into the sky, incongruous against the blue backdrop.  Archer’s face darkened, he didn’t think there would be anybody left alive.

He heard a muffled gasp coming from the communications area and turned to see Hoshi stiffen her back to stem her distress.  He shifted his attention away from Hoshi to T’Pol.  She sat stoically, her hands a constant movement over her console.  He caught her look when she briefly raised her head and thought he could detect worry on her face.  Malcolm sat stiffly in his chair, constantly checking his reading.  But it was Travis that the captain was concerned about.  He sat ram rod straight, his shoulders stiff, his chest heaving.  Archer could only think what was going on in the young man’s head. 

Though they may be veterans of destruction, it still didn’t come easy.  He drew his attention away from Travis and back to the devastated station.  “Scan for life signs,” he ordered T’Pol.

Before T’Pol could check her sensors, Malcolm called.  ‘Captain, I'm getting an anomalous reading coming from the station.”

Captain Archer turned to Malcolm.  “Go to tactical alert,” he ordered calmly. 

The lights on the bridge dimmed as Malcolm brought the ship on alert. 

“On screen,” he order Hoshi who pressed a button, and within seconds the station was replaced by a familiar looking vessel, emerging from behind one of the mangled structures.  Archer turned.  “T’Pol!”

The science officer leaned over her console.  She looked up to the captain and confirmed his suspicions.  “The configuration is consistent with ships we have encountered before, Captain.”  She shifted her gaze to the viewscreen, “In the Romulan minefield.”

Turning back to the viewscreen, Archer ordered.  “Alert Columbia.”

Before Hoshi could carry out his order, her console beeped.  “We’re receiving a hail, Sir.”  She looked at the captain concerned, “Audio only.”

Archer nodded once.  “On speaker.”  The bridge fell quiet as they waited for the transmission to begin. 

“You are in Romulan space,” the voice boomed around the bridge.  Archer panned the room in concern.  He was about to reply when the voice continued.  “The human race has spread like a plague; this will no longer be tolerated.”  A sliver of ice ran up the captain’s spine.  “We declare that all humans will be eradicated, to stop this plague once and for all.”

The captain faced Hoshi.  “Open a channel.”  He waited for confirmation, then began.  “This is Captain Archer of the Starship Enterprise.  We were unaware we were in Romulan space.” Silence met his hail.  He waited a few more seconds, and when no response was forthcoming he eyed the ensign.  “Hoshi?”

Ensign Sato checked her systems.  “Channels are open, Sir,” she advised, turning her attention back to the captain.

Archer tried once more.  “Can I at least see who I am talking to?”  When silence continued, he once again turned to Hoshi.

“They’ve cut the transmission, Captain,” Hoshi said, then placed her hand on her ear when console beeped again.  “Captain Hernandez is hailing.”

Archer nodded.  “Put her through.” 

She looked troubled.  “What do you think, Captain?”

Archer smiled to ease her tension.  “We should be able to handle this together,” he said.

Erika returned his smile.  “What’s the worst that could happen?”

Hopefully not much, he ardently wished.  Archer’s attention was taken away from Erika when Malcolm’s urgent voice broke through his thoughts.

“Captain, two more ships are appearing next to the first.”  Malcolm looked up in alarm, “and two more are appearing from aft.”

Archer looked at his armory officer in despair, his mind frantically worked for a winnable solution.  His pulse pounded in his ears.  They were outnumbered; the odds were not in their favor.  “Jonathan, should we retreat?”  Erika’s voice broke through the noise in his head.  Archer looked from his armory officer to Captain Hernandez, whose eyes reflected his own dread.  He tried to hide the fear he felt from reflecting in his voice when he answered.  “We might not be able to.”

Erika’s eyes sparkled.  “Heart of Fire!”

Archer’s heart lifted.  “No...” he said, “Hearts of Fire!”

Captain Hernandez’s smile broadened.  “You got it!”  She straightened her shoulders.  “Let’s get to work.”

Archer’s smile faded as Erika disappeared from view.

*****

“Sir!  They’re arming weapons,” Lieutenant Reed called from his station.

Archer didn’t waste any time.  “Evasive maneuvers, Travis,” he ordered then spun to Lieutenant Reed.  “Phase cannons, target their lead ship.  Take out weapons.”  Archer had to brace himself against the arm of his chair when the ship rocked violently under the impact of enemy fire.  Computers arced, bursting into flames; lights overhead shattered, raining down glass on those beneath; acrid smoke from the burning consoles filled the air around the bridge. 

He glanced over to his armory officer and saw Reed’s hands busily working his controls, plotting a firing solution.  Archer spun to the viewscreen to witness Malcolm’s handiwork hit its mark; he could see out of the corner of his eye that Malcolm wasn’t checking his actions, but was concentrating, calculating his next move.

Before the lieutenant could fire off another round, the ship was rocked by another explosion.  “Hull plating is down to forty percent,” T’Pol advised in her calm, stoic voice.

The captain didn’t have time to reply when Hoshi reported.  “I’m getting reports of heavy damage on C and D decks.” 

Malcolm’s voice broke through the din. “They’re closing in from astern.”

Archer spun around.  “Keep firing at the lead ship, fire all weapons.”  It was the only solution available to them; he knew they were hopelessly outnumbered. 

Malcolm plotted another firing solution that arced through space and sliced the aft nacelle of one of the Romulan vessels.  Archer didn’t have time to contemplate the small success when the force from another explosion from the enemy impacted the Enterprise, sending Archer falling back into his chair.  He righted himself just in time to see Columbia following their lead and aiming their assault at the lead attacking vessel. 

He watched as Columbia moved in closer to the lead ship and fired at the same time Malcolm released his weapons.  Two bright orange beams cut through space, impacting the lead vessel at the same time.  Archer stared, transfixed, as the enemy vessel tore apart under the dual force of their combined might.  Bright red and orange flames blossomed outward into space.  Watching the spectacle, Archer felt a tight smile force its way to his lips.  Working together, we may just survive this, he thought.  But he didn’t like their chances, two against four, they weren’t good odds.

Over the din of another explosion, Captain Archer caught an urgent plea sounding through his comm.  “Engineering to Captain Archer,’ echoed Lieutenant Hess’s urgent voice.  Archer reached down.  “Archer, go ahead.”

“Captain, can you send Commander Tucker down to engineering,” she requested, urgently.  Archer looked at Trip in confusion then back down at his comm.  He was about to ask why when the lieutenant continued.  “Commander Smith has been killed, Sir, we could really use his help.”  Another crewman lost, he thought bitterly at the news.  But he didn’t have time to contemplate this, along with what had transpired down in engineering.  There’d be time for that later, he thought as another explosion rocked Enterprise, that’s if there is a later, he added to himself.

He looked over to Trip and was satisfied to see that he didn’t need to say anything; Trip was already out of his chair and racing to the turbo lift.  “Keep me informed, Trip,” Archer ordered as Trip sped past.  Before the doors closed, Trip nodded in response then gave his friend a knowing look.  Archer kept his eyes fixed on his friend’s and pressed his comm.  “Acknowledged, he’s on his way.”  He smiled tightly at Trip as the doors closed. 

*****

Trip raced through the door of engineering and into chaos.  The first thing that hit his senses was the smell of scorched wiring.  He quickly scanned the room to mentally take note of where everybody was, and was relieved to see that they went about their tasks as professionally and calmly as they could under the circumstances.  It was never easy losing your commanding officer.  His eyes settled on Lieutenant Hess who was frantically pushing buttons at the warp console.  He made his way over as quickly as he could and threw himself up the steps to take control. 

Hess nodded her head curtly.  “Commander,” was all she could manage.

Trip got straight down to business. “Okay, where are we at?”

“The port nacelle took damage which is causing a feedback through the antimatter conduits and heating up the warp manifold.”  Hess relayed her information in a calm, measured voice, though the commander could clearly hear her stress. 

The whole time she spoke, Trip was busy checking readings, his mind working frantically trying to find solutions to bleed out the build up of all that energy.  He lost his footing when another explosion violently rocked the ship.  He reached one hand out to grab the railing and the other to grab Lieutenant Hess who was falling backward and heading for a painful fall.  Without saying a word, they both gathered themselves and went back to their job of saving Enterprise.  He paged the captain.   “Engineering to the bridge.”  He waited for the captain’s response.

“Go ahead.”  The captain’s voice sounded over the comm.

Trip could tell that his friend was tense and regretted having to add to his woes.  “We’re taking heavy damage, Captain.  The warp manifold is overheating.”

Archer’s response was immediate.  “Do what you can, Trip.”

Trip cut the connection and scanned his console again.  “Okay, we’re going to have to divert power from the port intake manifold.”  They would lose warp speed but he had no choice.  It was either that or the Enterprise would erupt in a ball of flames.  He turned to Hess.  “Get down to the plasma injector, be prepared to take it off line on my mark,” he ordered.

Hess didn’t waste time answering, she threw herself down the rungs that lead to the deck plating, and ran to where the commander needed her to be.  Her progress was made difficult by the shuddering the ship was enduring, under the constant barrage of enemy fire.

Trip took a quick look around engineering.  Though no longer their chief engineer, he was still proud of his former team, there were no uneconomical actions, just an urgent need to work together to put out fires and support their boss in saving their ship.  “Okay, everybody clear away from the bulkheads,” he yelled above the cacophony of noise created by weapons fire and exploding circuitry.

He took one last look at Hess, who nodded her readiness, then looked back at the readings on his console.  It was now or never.  He took a deep calming breath then punched a few switches.  He leaned around the warp engine.  “Now, Hess!” he yelled.

Lieutenant Hess made swift movements and within seconds small explosions cascaded along the port bulkheads.  Trip could feel heat on his back from a fire that erupted from the lights overhead.  He reached out and lowered the lever, slowing Enterprise to a near stop.

Trip scanned the room.  “Now to get things back on line,” he said to no one in particular.

*****

As she raised herself off the deckplating, Captain Hernandez felt a sharp pain run up her arm, from her wrist, and stab at the base of her neck.  She raised her good arm to try to clear the blood from her eyes that was blocking her view.  She spun around when she felt heat radiate on her back, her heart jumped into her throat.  An inferno was raging in the situation room at the back of the bridge, and was slowly growing.  Although the crew were doing their best to douse the flames, she knew it wouldn’t be long before the fire extended big enough to engulf the rest of the bridge. 

She turned to her second in command.  “Report!”  She followed her request with a dry cough as the acrid smoke from the fire reached her lungs.

Commander Tanya Murphy fixed her with a frantic stare.  “Power’s failing... Life support is failing.”  She looked back down at her readings when another blast rocked the ship.  “Hull plating is down to ten percent.”  Her voice relayed the futility of their situation.

Before the captain could answer, a frantic voice screamed over the comm.  “Engineering to the bridge.” 

Captain Hernandez reached for her comm.  “Hernandez!” she barked, she knew she didn’t have much time for niceties.

“Captain, the warp drive is going critical.  I estimate that we only have approximately eight minutes before a core breach occurs, and...” his voice trailed off, Hernandez knew why.  There was nothing that would stop a core breach that would destroy her ship.

She tried to hold herself upright when another explosion rocked Columbia, causing more fires to erupt.  Her mind searched frantically for solutions; there was only one.  She panned her eyes around the bridge finally stopping at Tanya.  “Give the order.  Everyone to the escape pods.” 

Erika could see the question in her eyes; it didn’t take long for realization to hit the commander.  “What about you, Captain?” 

Erika gave her second in command a grim smile.  “I’m not finished yet!”  She cast her gaze around the bridge again, giving each of her crew the full measure of her strength and encouragement.  As her eyes came to rest on Commander Murphy she felt something deep inside her soul solidify.  “Give the order.”  She knew what she had to do...

*****

Sweat was stinging his eyes when Captain Archer sensed, rather than felt, the ship slow.  The battle had been long and hard fought and he knew his ship was experiencing severe damage, his own eyes told him that.  “Bridge to engineering,” he called over the comm.

A few seconds passed before his hail was answered.  “Tucker!”

Archer spared a moment to glance at his comm.  “Trip, what’s happening?” he asked returning his attention back to the attacking vessels.

“I had to shut down the reactor,” he advised.  Archer could tell that Trip was trying to keep a measure of calm in his voice.

“How long before you get it back on line?”

Trip’s answer was short and straight to the point.  “I’m working on it.”

Suddenly the ship was rocked, this time not by an explosion.  “Captain, that was a piece of debris impacting the ship.”  Malcolm’s eyes widened as he stared at the captain.  “Our weapons are offline.”

Archer looked disbelievingly at his armory officer and was about to respond when T’Pol cut him short.  “Captain, sensors are showing that Columbia is sustaining heavy damage.  There is a fire on the bridge...”  She looked up from her sensors.  “Their warp coil is going critical.”

Archer pinned his second in command with a stunned expression, he thought he detected alarm in her voice.  He felt a band tighten around his chest when he realized that his impression was correct.  He spun to Hoshi.  “Hail Captain Hernandez.”  He had to force the words up from the floor of his stomach. 

Without hesitation, Hoshi keyed her console.  “Enterprise to Columbia!”

Within seconds Captain Hernandez appeared on screen.  Archer’s heart missed a beat.

Blood oozed from a deep cut above her left eye, stark, in contrast, against her pale skin. He couldn’t be sure, but he thought he could see blood escaping from her left ear, and she looked to be favouring her left arm, but despite her appearance, she looked determined.  “I’ve ordered all crew to the escape pods,” she said, an edge of fear crept into her voice, but a steely resolve set into her eyes.  “Make sure you get them all, Jonathan.”

Archer kept his eyes fixed with hers, and saw something that stirred his body.  “What about you?”  He tried to keep his panic out of his voice.

Erika straightened her shoulders.  “I’m not done yet.”

Archer’s heartbeat quickened.  “What do you mean?”  He searched her eyes intensely for the answer.  Suddenly he felt as if someone punched him in the stomach, as the impact of her intention made its way from his brain; bringing him to the inevitable conclusion.  “No!” he rasped as he ran toward the viewscreen, as if by doing so he could somehow stop her.  “Get out of there, Erika, there’s nothing more you can do,” he pleaded with her.

Erika shook her head, and fixed him with her stubborn gaze.  “That’s not true, and you know it.”  She softened her stance, a single tear escaped down her cheek.  “Goodbye Jonathan.  We will always have Solaria.” 

As she cut the connection with Enterprise, Jonathan heard her gentle voice drifting across space; her beautiful image was replaced by that of Columbia flying toward the Romulan vessels.  The two flanking ships began veering away.

“NO...”  Jonathan Archer felt a hand reach into his heart and rend it from top to bottom, as he helplessly stood by and watched Erika guide the Columbia into the enemy.  His soul shattered as plumes of reds, oranges and yellows billowed from the explosion devouring the ships.  His mind closed in on itself as she disappeared from his life forever... “Erika!”

*****

Click here to read The Epilogue

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