Jonathan Archer sat unnaturally still.  Eyes staring into the void; mind in chaos.  He had no sense of time...  His world spun...

... “I’m not done yet...”   The noise of explosions – deafening in his ears...  

It’s all my fault...

... “What do you mean...”  The ground beneath his feet shifted... 

I told her we could deal with this...

... “There’s nothing more you can do...”  The heat burned at his back... 

God, I even smiled...

... “That’s not true...”  Alarms blared in the distance... 

I should have given the order...

... “Goodbye Jonathan...” Her face - calm and determined...

The air left his lungs...

I Killed her...

Somewhere in the distance, above the clamor of waterfalls cascading in his ears, he thought he heard his name being called.  Suddenly, painful pressure on his arms wrenched him from his nightmare.  He opened his eyes, and for that flashing moment between nightmare and reality he thought he saw Erika...

Archer closed his eyes again and shook his head.  She’s dead, remember.  He forced his eyes open and tried to focus on the person who stood in front of him.  T’Pol... 

Through the noise that was still rushing in his head, he could see her lips moving, could just hear her words, but they sounded distant, garbled. What...  What is she saying? 

Finally the noise receded and T’Pol’s voice gained access. “Captain Archer, your ship needs your full attention.” My ship needs me...  Come on, Captain, T’Pol says your ship needs you... 

Still struggling to raise himself from the drowning waters, he replied on automatic.  “Yes, of course.”  The captain heard another voice reach his ears.  “Tucker to the bridge.  Warp drive is partially restored.”  Trip...

Archer watched in detached interest as T’Pol moved away from him. “Go to warp, Ensign,” he heard her order, then felt the familiar tug under his feet as the Enterprise made her escape...

* * * * * * * * * *

“They have gone to warp, Admiral,” Jo’rek advised unemotionally. 

Admiral Valdore did not reply immediately.  Instead, he stared into the empty space that the earth ship once occupied and considered his future. 

After the failure of the drone ships, Valdore had, by Romulan standards, practically begged Senator Vrax for another chance.  Eventually the senator had relented and lobbied on his behalf to be reinstated into the committee that worked to disrupt the alliances, and to bring about the fall of the humans.  But Valdore knew he was on borrowed time.  Another failure could see him permanently expelled, as a soldier for the Empire, and exiled to Remus. 

Still staring into the void, Valdore thought of the captain of the earth vessel that just slipped through his grasp.  One day human, I shall destroy you.

“Admiral, your orders,” Jo’rek interrupted his thoughts.

Valdore tore his eyes away from the empty space and glared at the Sub-commander.  “Contact Captain Dekaris.  Advise him to set a pursuit course for the Earth vessel.  Then cloak the ship.”  Valdore glared back into the void.  I shall hunt you down, Captain Archer...

* * * * * * * * * *

The captain scrubbed his face to shake off his inertia.  His mind still struggled to find reason and reality again. 

“Damn!”  Malcolm swore.

The lieutenant’s curse stirred the captain further, and with a determined effort, Archer brought himself fully back to the present.  Feeling more in control, but numb inside, he turned to his armory officer.  “Malcolm?”

Lieutenant Reed’s worried eyes met the captain’s.  “The ships have cloaked!”

Archer felt the muscles in his stomach tighten.  “How are we on weapons?” he asked.

Malcolm shook his head.  “All we have are two torpedoes,” he said, “phase cannons are off line.  I’ve got people working on it.”

Archer stared hard at the lieutenant, his mind worked frantically to find solutions.  He turned to his science officer.  “T’Pol, is there any way of detecting their EM signature?”

T’Pol checked her sensors.  “Their ships do appear to emit an EM field,” she advised looking up at the captain.  “However, I do not believe this will be of any benefit as we would only have a few seconds warning before they de-cloaked,” she added analytically.

The captain faced forward again, closed his eyes, and concentrated his thoughts.  He needed to find a way out of this situation.  He stirred when Lieutenant Reed offered a solution.

“Sir, I might be able to adjust the quantum beacon to detect them,” he said keeping his eyes level with the captain.  “It proved effective against Suliban stealth technology.  I've made several improvements to it since then.”

There was a hint of excitement in Malcolm’s tone and suddenly the captain saw a ray of hope.  He walked quickly over to his armory officer.  “How long will you need?”

“Approximately thirty minutes to attach it to the grappling arm,” he replied.

“Do it,” Archer ordered.  He turned his attention to the blurring stars.  You should be here, Erika, he thought as he stared at the empty space where Columbia should have been.  Anger started replacing his grief; he needed to get off the bridge.  “I'll be down in engineering.”

* * * * * * * * * *

As the captain left the bridge, Malcolm watched his back.  He saw that glint of anger cross the captain’s face, and wondered how long it would be before the man broke.

* * * * * * * * * *

Trip tried to block out the noise, and the smell of smouldering fires, as he studied the readings in front of him.  “Damn!” he swore and looked up to Lieutenant Hess who was standing in front of a computer console on the upper catwalk.  “Jenna, check those readings again,” he called keeping his eyes fixed on his second in charge as she quickly ran a diagnostic.

After a few moments, which seemed like a lifetime to Trip, the lieutenant leaned over the railing.  “Nothing, Commander, the analysis wasn’t able to pinpoint the cause behind the reaction,” she called down.

“Okay.  Get down to the plasma relay console again and run another diagnostic,” he ordered looking back at his PADD.  He ran a hand through his gritty hair in frustration.  “Damn!” he muttered again. 

Since they had managed to get the warp drive back online the temperature had been slowly rising in the warp manifold, triggering a build up of energy that was threatening to take the warp drive offline again.  The constant rise in temperature had Trip concerned.  If he couldn’t hunt down the cause, then there was the real possibility that the warp drive could explode – thus killing all on board.  His team had been trying to find where the problem lay, but so far had had no luck.  He turned from his console and caught movement from the corner of his eye.  “Hey, Capt’n,” he greeted as he kept walking.

The captain followed the engineer.  “Trip,” he responded then scrutinized the mess that was engineering.  “What’s the damage?” he asked.

“The port nacelle took a direct hit with the first explosion,” Trip said, his back to the captain, as walked the length of the warp engine.  “The resulting damage is causing feedback through the antimatter conduits and heating up the warp manifold.”  Trip stopped to look at the captain.  “However,” he said, voice rising in frustration along with his arms, “there’s a blockage somewhere which is preventing the build up of excess energy from escaping, but we can’t find it.”  Trip lowered his hands, exhaled a frustrated breath, and turned to retrace his steps. 

The captain put a hand out, halting Trip’s progress.  “The Romulan ships have cloaked,” he advised brusquely, “Malcolm’s modifying the quantum beacon as we speak.”  Archer looked around engineering before resting his eyes back on Trip.  “What’s our top speed?”

Trip shrugged.  “I can give ya warp three, but we’ll only be able to maintain it for short periods.” 

“How long,” Archer asked tersely as he watched a young ensign rushing past. 

The tone in the captain’s voice finally caught Trip’s attention. He eyed his friend carefully.  Archer’s wound up posture, the hardness that had set on his face; Trip had seen that look before, he had hoped he’d never see that look again.  Once was enough...  “You Okay?” he asked gently.

Archer ignored the question and shot the commander with a hard stare.  “How long, Trip?” 
 
Trip felt a flash of anger.  God, I wish you would just drop the hard man routine and open up for a change.  But he knew that wasn’t going to happen, not today.  “We’ll have to drop out of warp in about ten minutes,” he answered, trying to keep the anger he felt out of his voice.

Archer gave a curt nod.  “We’ll be ready by then,” he said and turned to leave.

Trip followed.  He was still feeling the remnants of anger at his friend’s attitude, but decided to let it go for the moment.  “What about Columbia?” he asked. 

When Archer stopped and stiffened his shoulders, Trip felt something hard settle in the pit of his stomach.  When Archer turned, Trip knew.  Oh god, Jon... Erika! 

He swallowed hard against the lump that flew to his throat when Captain Jonathan Archer, a man he had known for over ten years, and could handle almost anything, dropped his head. Trip stared in disbelief as the captain raised his head again, and those pain filled eyes seared their way into his memory. 

“Destroyed,” Archer whispered.

Trip felt the air leave his lungs, regret already settling in over his anger toward his friend.  Sonofabitch!  He reached out a hand to place on his friend’s shoulder, but Archer moved away.  “Capt’n,” he called after him.

Trip watched his friend’s back as the captain left.  “Damn!” he swore, “Damn, damn, damn, damn, damn.”  His angry voice resounded around engineering

* * * * * * * * * *

Archer leaned his back against the wall of the turbo lift.  His weary body and mind was in desperate need of the support.  His last words to his friend echoed in his head.  “Destroyed,” he growled.  “Destroyed, along with...” His breath caught in his throat. 

Archer raised his hands and ran them through his short cropped hair, pulling at the roots.  “C’mon, Captain, get a grip,” he told himself and returned his arms to his side.  He inhaled deeply as the lift came to a halt.  There are people relying on you.  Archer straightened his shoulders as the lift door opened, marched out onto the bridge, and got down to business.  “Malcolm?”

Lieutenant Reed looked up.  “We’re ready, Sir”

Archer gave a curt nod and moved to the helm.  “Travis, prepare to drop out of warp,” he ordered, then reached out to the comm.  “Archer to engineering.  Trip, you ready?”

“Ready as we’ll ever be,” came Trip’s immediate response.

With deliberate movement, Captain Archer turned his head to his armory officer.  “Malcolm.”  He looked forward again, “deploy the beacon.”

The sound of the beacon, lowering from the belly of the Enterprise, resonated softly on the bridge.  The captain nodded to Hoshi who pressed a button on her console at his silent order, to initiate the viewscreen.  Slowly, two ships emerged, in the shape of a large bird, stalking the Enterprise from aft.  Archer took a calming breath.  “Now, Travis,” he ordered.

Without a word, Travis Mayweather’s hands flew over his controls, and Archer felt the familiar pull as the Enterprise dropped gracefully out of warp.  He paced behind his helmsmen.  “Fire!” he ordered, keeping his attention on the viewscreen. 

Malcolm focussed on his controls.  The bridge crew, watched as the torpedo arced across the expanse between the two ships, finding its target.  A plume of yellow, white, and gold confirmed that the armory officer had found his mark.

Archer let out a strangled breath, but his relief was short lived.

“Captain, that was the last of our weapons,” Malcolm advised.

Shit!  He reached for the comm.  “Bridge to engineering.  Trip, are we ready to go back to warp?” He was dismayed by Trip’s agitated response.

“Not yet.”

If he could have, Archer would have slammed his fist into something solid.  But as it was, taking in the tension and stress on the crew’s faces, he knew he had to keep control, and return to the captain he once was when in the expanse.

Archer bristled with impatience as he waited for the go ahead from engineering. He was ready to throw that punch when Trip’s urgent voice stilled him.

“Engineering to bridge.  Ready to go, Sir.”

The captain let some of his anger and tension bleed from his body.  “You heard the man, Travis.  Go to warp three,” he ordered.

* * * * * * * * * *

Admiral Valdore was once again taken by surprise.  There was no warning when the earth ship dropped out of warp and fired, destroying the Tr’van.  “How did they detect us,” he growled.

Sub-commander Jo’rek checked his readings.  “As far as I can tell, Admiral, they deployed some sort of beacon.  Obviously its use was to penetrate our cloaking abilities.”

Valdore’s dark eyes glared at Jo’rek.  “Obviously!” he snarled, and turned to stare back at the empty space.  “Have you been able to determine their direction?”

Jo’rek nodded.  “Yes, Admiral.”

The admiral’s dark, menacing eyes remained on his unseen prey.  “Then set a course.” 

* * * * * * * * * *

The stars merged together as Enterprise continued to make her escape.  Captain Archer stood in the middle of the bridge.  “Anything, Malcolm?” he asked quietly, keeping his attention forward.

“They are pursuing, Captain, but at their current speed, we should be able to stay ahead of them,” Malcolm responded. 

Archer nodded his head.  With the immediate danger passing, he closed his eyes and thought of Erika.  He drifted...

“Do you remember the Solaria Nebula...”  Her voice echoed from the past...

“Sure do,” he whispered in the present. 

There was something he needed to remember...

“I think to ask the Admiral for anything right now, would be inviting him to knock us down to stewards...” 
 
He laughed quietly. 

Something that niggled at the edge of his mind...
 
“I think the Solaria Nebula is worth another visit...”

“It has been a while,” he murmured. 

Think, Archer, think...  He searched his memory.  Something...   He closed his eyes tighter.  There was something about the nebula...

"It’s a pity we couldn’t get more readings..."

“A pity...”  His eyes flew open and his heart thumped hard against his chest. 

The connection... 

“Those damn magnetic fields, they block almost anything,” he gasped.

Archer spun to his second in command.  “T'Pol, do your scanners show any nearby nebulae?”  He waited anxiously as T’Pol turned in her seat and checked the scanner. 

T’Pol turned back.  “Kerada Nebula is three lights years away,” she advised. 

Archer searched her eyes.  He could have sworn he heard a mixture of relief and excitement in her tone.  Leaving that thought behind, Archer turned to his helmsman.  “Travis, lay in a course,” he ordered as Erika’s voice echoed one last time. 

We will always have Solaria...

* * * * * * * * * *

Commander Tucker kept a close eye on the readings in front of him.  He wasn’t happy putting the engines under this amount of strain by quickly dropping out then back into warp.  He felt a slight shudder under his feet.  “Damn!” he swore and raced to the edge of the control platform.  He leaned around the reactor.  “Rostov, check the readings on the antimatter stream,” he ordered then raced back to the consol.  “Sonofabitch!” he swore again.  The temperature was rising to alarming levels.  He reached for the comm.  “Engineering to bridge,” he called.

“Go ahead,” Archer’s tense voice replied.

“Capt’n, we need to drop out of warp,” he advised urgently. 

“We need to stay at warp, Trip,” Archer said tensely.
Trip could have used every oath under the universe at the news.  This was not what he wanted to hear.  “Capt’n...”

The captain interrupted before Trip could get any further.  “We’ve set a course for a nebula where we can hide for the moment.”

Trip took a calming breath.  “How long before we reach it?” he asked tightly, keeping an eye on the rising temperature. 

There was a moment of oppressive silence before the captain answered.  “Three minutes, Trip.”

Trip heaved a nervous breath.  “Capt’n, the warp core temperature is approaching critical.  We have to drop out of warp, and soon.”  He tried to keep the alarm he was feeling out of his voice, but he didn’t think he was too successful.

“We haven’t got a choice, Trip,” Archer’s own worried voice echoed back to him.  “Keep a comm channel open.  I’ll let you know as soon as we enter the nebula.”

Trip scanned engineering anxiously.  “Aye, Sir!” 

Trip wiped sweat from his brow; his ragged breathing filled his ears, as he kept a watchful eye on the temperature that was slowing reaching the red zone.  “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon,” he whispered.

On the bridge, Captain Archer turned to Lieutenant Reed.  “What’s the status on the Romulan ships,” he asked stiffly.

Malcolm checked his sensors.  “They’re still trailing us, Captain.  However, they’ve increased their speed and are now approximately five thousand kilometres to aft,” he advised then looked at the captain, “and closing, Sir.”

Archer took a tight breath and turned to T’Pol.  “How long till we reach the nebula?”

“Approximately one minute and fifty five seconds.”  T’Pol advised efficiently, keeping her eyes fixed on her readings.  But there was an edge to her voice that Archer could well relate to. 

The captain stared out the forward viewscreen to the space beyond, and took another tight breath.  In the background, he could hear Trip giving orders to his crew and the alarms blaring.  “Hang in there,” he urged his ship as he felt her shudder under his feet. 

Slowly, the nebula emerged on the forward viewscreen.  Archer walked to the helmsman. “Get us deeper, Travis,” he ordered as the Enterprise crossed over from the star filled space and into the murky surrounds of the Kerada Nebula.

Trip’s urgent voice sounded.  “Capt’n?”

“Thirty seconds, Trip.”

“We don’t have thirty seconds,” Trip all but yelled over the comm.

Archer’s fists tightened.  “T’Pol?” he ground out through gritted teeth.

T’Pol looked up.  “We are sufficiently deep within the nebula to go undetected,” she advised coolly, though Archer saw her relief.

The captain squeezed Mayweather’s shoulder.  “Drop out of warp,” he ordered, then bent to the comm.  “Okay, Trip, we’re dropping out of warp now.”  Archer heard the relief in Trip’s voice as the commander started issuing orders. 

Muffled explosions sounded over the comm as the ship ground to a halt.  The captain hoped that it didn’t spell disaster, and that everyone was unhurt in engineering.  He leaned to the comm again.  “Trip, report?” he ordered.  A moment of tense silence itched at his skin as he waited for the chief engineer to respond.

“We’re okay, Capt’n,” Trip tensely answered, “but it’s a mess down here.”

Even though Trip couldn’t see him, Archer gave a brief nod and allowed himself a moment to breathe.  “What about warp drive?”

“Down,” Trip responded.

Archer felt his shoulders tighten more.  “How long till you can get it back on line?” he asked. 

“Won’t be anytime soon,” Trip replied grimly.

The captain tried to keep his disappointment from sounding as he replied.  “Understood!”  He turned to Malcolm.  “Any sign of them?”

Lieutenant Reed checked his readings.  “I’m not getting anything, Captain,” he said raising his head.  “There’s too much interference.”

Archer nodded curtly.  He knew that this would be the case.  “Get down to the armory, see what you can do to get weapons back online,” he ordered.

Malcolm rose from his chair.  “Aye, Captain,” he acknowledged as he quickly made his way to the turbo lift.

Archer stared out to the nebula.  Now to get us out of this...

 

Click here for Chapter Two 

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