Jim frowned, tapping his fingers on the arm of the captain's chair as he watched the glowing dot representing the Enterprise inch closer to the ribbon of neutral space on the map projected at the tactical station. Romulans. Again. Why did it have to be Romulans?
Of course, that was a stupid question. He knew why, and so did anyone else paying attention to the calendar on either side of the Zone: it had been exactly one year since Nero, the 'particularly troubled' future Romulan with an axe to grind and the technology to back up his rage, had destroyed a Klingon battle fleet, pulled Vulcan into a black hole, killed thousands of Starfleet officers, and nearly obliterated Earth, too, before the green crew of the Enterprise had managed to stop him.
For a while, it had looked as though the destruction would continue on in Nero's wake, despite all the sacrifices that had been made to halt it. The aggressive factions in all three nations had roiled like a trio of kicked anthills, each claiming offense at the time traveler's actions, swearing vengeance against co-conspirators, testing one another's borders, and denying any fault of their own. Finally, though, after twelve Terran months of negotiations, the status quo had been reestablished.
Basically that meant, 'you stay on your side(s) of the line(s), and we'll stay on ours.' And as a pointed 'celebratory' gesture from 'Fleet, Enterprise had been temporarily ordered back to do a ceremonial sweep of the Zone in observance of the official anniversary. Quiet duty, but a welcome change after a slate of hard missions; every base they'd stopped at so far had thrown them a feast.
Until some disaffected party had taken the opportunity to rain on their parade.
No one had expected anything to actually go wrong: that was the point of showing the flag in the first place. Deterrence. But someone must've been unhappy enough with the diplomats' verdict to kick up a violent fuss. Whether it was a single Warbird captain hoping to erase the blot Nero had left on his people's name with glorious victory, a lone Praetor seeking revenge for the covert Federation intrusion at 872 Trianguli several months before, or a secret mission designed to break a distasteful treaty with unofficial authorization from the highest levels of the Romulan Star Empire, he was pretty sure the Vulcans' cousins were at fault-- but the list of suspects wasn't exactly short.
Whoever it was, all they'd have to do to achieve their goal was to draw a Starfleet ship across the Neutral Zone and then claim offense over its wreckage. If that ship should be the Federation's famous flagship? All the better. But enough damage had already been done that it almost didn't matter who was at fault anymore; two outposts on the Federation side of the Zone had been destroyed, and a third outpost was under attack. Rogue element or not, the Romulans as a whole were guaranteed to lose face by those actions-- which, to Jim's mind, meant the perpetrators must either be fanatics or have something else up their glittery uniform sleeves. That worried him almost more than the attacks themselves.
Whatever his instincts were saying, though, Jim Kirk, the hero of the Narada Conflict, had one official duty in the matter: to prevent an interstellar war. Pike's message had been crystal clear on that. Frankly, he'd rather have been back in the chapel, presiding over the crew's first shipboard wedding. Just because he and his people could do six impossible things before breakfast didn't make it right for 'Fleet to start expecting it of them.
Totally aside from the fairness issue, a secret weapon was a lot more effective when it was still just that: a secret. He'd rather people thought them lucky than good; it made it much easier to surprise their enemies.
"My command orders on this subject are clear," Jim explained over the comms as Chekov transmitted the map to screens around the ship. "No provocation will be considered sufficient reason to violate the Neutral Zone, especially today of all days. We may defend ourselves, but if necessary, both we and the outposts are considered expendable. Unofficially, however, I don't intend to let it get to that point. Captain out."
There was a low murmur around the bridge as he finished; frankly, Jim would have been worried if there hadn't been. No one spoke out, though; they'd all lost loved ones to the Romulans, whether through Nero's attacks or in the war that had erupted when their species had first run into one another, but none of them had lost as much as Spock. Several pairs of eyes turned toward the First Officer, but none lingered as Jim's officers bent back to their boards.
They'd defeated the Narada; they'd defeat this threat, too. No other option was possible.
"Outpost Two coming into sensor range, Captain," Spock announced, looking up from his science station as the view on the main screen changed. They were still too far out to see anything, but a quick magnification command zoomed in on the asteroid field where the outpost had been hidden.
"Outpost Two was the first to go silent, right?" Jim asked, looking over his shoulder at Uhura.
She nodded back to him, fingertips pressed to the silver communications wand in her ear. "Yes, Captain. Outpost Three ceased responding an hour later; I'm trying to establish contact with Outpost Four now."
"Sensors read dust and debris at the coordinates for Outpost Two," Spock frowned, tapping at the display screens to bring up further information. "The asteroid has been completely pulverized. Scanning the location for Outpost Three; similar debris evident there. We are detecting energy residue consistent with advanced Romulan weapons technology from the asteroid fragments at that location."
Jim scowled, clenching a fist as the carets highlighting the locations of the two bases shifted to red on the tactical plot projected over the forward view. Advanced probably meant reverse-engineered from the Narada, in this context, especially since the outposts were supposed to be built deep under thousands of meters of solid nickel-iron. "Battle stations, Mr. Sulu; set course for Outpost Four. If they're running the line, that's where they'll hit next. Keep trying to hail Outpost Four, Lieutenant; let me know if anything changes."
"Aye aye, sir," Sulu replied, entering the updated coordinates in his console.
"Aye, sir," Uhura echoed, expression abstracted as she listened. "There seems to be some kind of interference blocking transmissions between us and the outpost--"
"--Suggestive of a cloaking device in use," Jim concluded, narrowing his eyes as he recalled the side trip he and his command crew had made in a small cargo vessel several months before. They'd witnessed a cloaking device in action when their path had crossed that of a Romulan patrol vessel enforcing the border their government called the Outmarches, but the cargo vessel's sensor suite hadn't been advanced enough to detect any residual emissions that might have given away the cloak's location. The only thing they'd been sure of was that it could distort a significant range of the electromagnetic spectrum around its position, which necessarily spanned both visual and audio signals.
It was a pity they hadn't been able to steal the plans for the device themselves; none of Director Mallory's other missions had succeeded in deciphering its secrets either before or since.
"Spock?" he prompted. "Last time we... discussed... the limitations of cloaking technology, you suggested the possibility of tracking it by gravitic disturbances. Are the Enterprise's sensors sufficiently equipped for that?"
"Of course, Captain," Spock said. "After our... discussion... I reprogrammed the ship's scanning routines to optimize such detection in the event that the Enterprise were to encounter a cloaked vessel."
"Of course you did," Jim murmured to himself, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth despite the serious situation. Then he nodded. "Scan the area around Outpost Four as we approach. Uhura? Keep that out of the next quarter-hour position and status update, but add a post-script for Pike; cross-reference 872T. He'll know what that means."
He didn't dare mention it any more clearly over an open subspace transmission, but that would at least give the Admiral the heads-up that the destruction of the Outposts was tangentially linked to the events of their covert mission to 872 Trianguli V. Pike would pass it on to Mallory in the Department of General Services from there, if it should prove necessary.
"Aye, sir," Uhura confirmed. "And-- Captain; the interference is lifting. I'm picking up a mayday call from Commander Hansen."
Jim sat forward in his chair. "Put him on screen, Lieutenant. Spock, anything?"
"Negative," Spock replied as the screen wavered, then cleared to reveal the image of a graying man in a gold uniform, frantically keying switches on an older model control board. "Not yet."
Smoke damage stained the commander's uniform, and an impressive bruise was swelling into Technicolor glory at his right temple. "Outpost Four, this is Commander Hansen," the man said, looking up as Uhura completed the connection. "Do you read me, Enterprise?"
"Commander Hansen, this is Captain Kirk; we read you," Jim replied, firmly. "We're minutes away from your position. What's your status?"
"Outposts Two, Three, and Eight are gone," Hansen reported, distressed. Jim threw a sharp glance at Chekov at the mention of Outpost Eight; they hadn't heard about that one yet, and it threw off their estimates of the vessel's path. Maybe that was where they'd crossed? Chekov frowned and added a red caret for Outpost Eight to the plot on the tactical screen as Hansen continued.
"When the alert came, we set our shields at maximum. But we were hit by a weapon of enormous power; the generators are gone. Completely destroyed." He drew a rough breath, squinting at them as though he was having trouble seeing them. "Do you read me, Enterprise?"
"Confirm what hit you, Hansen," Jim replied, alarmed. "What vessel? Did you recognize it?"
"We only caught a glimpse of it," Hansen replied, shaking his head. "No answer to our challenge. They just fired at us, some form of high-energy pulse like I've never seen before. Fantastic power. And then the whole vessel disappeared off our scopes."
"I'm reading a disturbance on the gravitic sensors," Spock confirmed, throwing Jim a sharp glance. "Definitely a cloaked vessel. Sir; the ship is on a heading toward Outpost Four."
Hansen's eyes widened. "Kirk, if they hit us again with our shield gone...."
"I understand, Commander. We will attempt to intervene. Kirk out. Uhura...." Jim was up out of his chair as soon as the communications link was cut, darting over to the tactical board to get a look at the cloaked ship's position for himself. "Send out a challenge; warn that ship off. Chekov; notify all decks condition red. Sulu, get us closer to Outpost Four. Our shields have been reinforced since we faced the Narada, if we can put ourselves between that weapon and the Outpost...."
Sulu's fingers danced over his console. "On it, Captain."
"Phasers energized; all veapons and shields at full power, sir," Chekov added.
"No response to our challenge, Captain. The disrupting effect of the cloak may be preventing us from reaching them." Uhura frowned at her console, tapping commands into the screen as she continued to sample subspace frequencies with her earpiece.
"If what Hansen said is accurate, they'll have to drop the cloak to fire; they'll hear us then." Jim braced his hands on the back of Sulu's chair, gripping it tightly as they moved closer and closer to the asteroid.
"And if they do not withhold fire?" Spock raised an eyebrow. "The likelihood of reaching the outpost in time to prevent another weapons discharge is...."
"Spare me the odds, Spock," Jim replied unhappily. "Just keep an eye on your scans. The Admiralty will want any detail we can scrape up; it's pretty likely this isn't even the first time one of their ships has crossed into Federation space. If we can at least get the engineers enough data to counteract it, if not build one of our own...." He fisted his hands, trying not to fidget and disturb his helmsman.
"Understood," Spock acknowledged, his tone subdued, and turned back to his screens.
Chekov hissed under his breath, then maximized the magnification on the viewscreen again as a visual distortion appeared between their sensors and the asteroid housing Outpost Four. The starfield blurred, then disappeared entirely, blocked by the all too familiar shape of a Romulan Warbird. It was an older model, but it had clearly seen upgrades since the first time it left space dock; even as they watched, a violet glow swelled at the front of the ship, then lanced out to encompass the base.
There was stillness for a moment-- and then the asteroid exploded, taking Outpost Four and Commander Hansen's people with it.
Jim closed his eyes, biting back a string of curses, then snapped them open again, thinking quickly. "Chekov? What's the most direct route toward the Neutral Zone from here?"
Chekov calculated quickly, then looked over his shoulder at him. "One eleven mark fourteen, sir."
"Sulu? Head that way. Now. If they detected Hansen's transmission, they'll run rather than risk us sending reinforcements to Outpost Five. Uhura, any homing beacons lit up out there?"
The lieutenant shook her head, sadly. "No, sir. I'm not hearing any reports of survivors."
"The ship is turning onto the indicated heading, Captain; the cloak is reactivating," Spock announced, as the Warbird wavered back out of view again, curving away from the site of the devastation it had caused. "No lifesigns showing in the vicinity of the outpost."
"The second that ship's completely out of sight, match trajectories with it exactly, Sulu," Jim said tersely, factoring rough distances by mark one eyeball. "If the cloak blurs our sensors, it's got to blur theirs too, looking out from the inside of that field. We're still out on the fringes of their range, for a ship of that era...."
Sulu conferred on something with Chekov, darting a light hand over the controls, then looked up at him. "Done, sir. Still out of range for weaponry, but they shouldn't be able to pinpoint our location."
"And even if they do pick us up, they'll wonder whether they're reading an echo," Uhura said admiringly, tapping rapidly at her screen. "We have a number of recorded transmissions in Romulan; I can cloud our subspace presence with a hint of the kind of transmission reflection you'd get from an ionic distortion to add to the deception."
"Good idea," Jim nodded to her, pleased as always by the inventiveness of his crew. "Make it so."
She nodded crisply, engrossed in her work, then froze, keying a rapid sequence that wiped the afterimage of debris from the forward viewscreen. "They sent a message just as the cloak went up, Captain; outgoing transmission, aimed across the Neutral Zone. I captured a fragment of it."
The screen showed an older man in a Romulan erei'Riov's uniform, considerably less attractive-looking than the subcommander getup they'd stolen for Uhura the year before but unmistakable all the same. Not the ship's captain, but an important crew member. He was dark-haired, pointy-eared, and regal of posture, a lot more Vulcanoid in appearance than the scarred, tattooed miners who'd made up Nero's crew that most people pictured when they thought of Romulans these days. One of the lieutenants at an engineering substation threw Spock another glance at the image, but turned back to his screens without a word, a dark look on his face; Jim made a mental note to have a word with him later. Lieutenant Stiles was one of the many who'd lost family in the century-old war.
The Romulan spoke quickly, but firmly, into the video pickup. The computer translation lagged a little behind the spoken Rihannsu, but Jim knew Uhura had been heavily involved in reprogramming the Universal Translator software during free time between missions over the last year or so; he trusted her work.
"... We will return home with proof of the Earthmen's weakness," the erei'Riov declaimed, righteousness writ in every line of his features. "The Earth commander will follow. He must. When he attacks, we will destroy him. Our gift to the homeland, another war."
"Yeah, that's not gonna happen," Jim drawled as the captured imagery faded away again. Then he swept a hand over his face, thinking swiftly.
"So we could keep following them, play cat and mouse awhile; maybe they'll lead us into the Zone, maybe they won't. Maybe their commander is as gung-ho as that guy, maybe he isn't; either way, they didn't respond to our hail, and now we know they know we're here. Maybe they'll fire their weapon at us, and maybe we'll find out just how good the adaptations to our shields are. There are a lot of ways this could go down, but not that many that don't lead to war. Suggestions, people?" In a calmer situation he might have called just his command crew to the briefing room, but they didn't have much time to work with; if their mission failed, millions could die in the resulting eruption of hostilities.
Spock looked up from his sensor readings again with a determined expression. "Sensor readings revealed a significant change in their energy levels as they raised and lowered the cloak. We've already seen that they must become visible in order to fire their primary weapon; it seems that the energy requirements also prevent them from utilizing shields while they are concealed."
"So if we hit them while they're still cloaked--" Jim extended that line of thought.
Chekov lit up, fingers dancing over his boards next to Sulu. "Matching wolume of distorted space with readings taken before ze cloak went up, and reverse plot from the veapons fire...." He raised startled eyebrows at Jim. "I can hit zeir weapon! Ze shot will be more likely to destroy than disable, but...." He shrugged.
Jim pursed his lips. Command would prefer prisoners and technology to reverse engineer. And in another life, he might have tried harder to follow those implied objectives and run them to ground; any Romulan commander with the balls to pull off this kind of strike would probably be his kind of guy if they didn't have politics dividing them. He still remembered the lovely Subcommander t'Rllaillieu from the Khellian, and the hard lessons he'd learned practically from birth about friend, foe, and the easy ways those distinctions became distorted when circumstances didn't meet expectations.
But he was Captain of an Enterprise tasked to 'defend the worlds we've got from all comers' as much as to explore strange new worlds and shake hands with their peoples, to use the words of the Admiral who'd sent him out on this five-year mission. Thanks to Nero, Starfleet was no longer solely a humanitarian and peace-keeping armada-- and in this situation, saving more lives meant taking a few right now, while he still had the opportunity and a technological advantage the enemy wasn't aware of.
He'd done it before. He'd do it again-- though he'd still prefer to be back in the chapel, making crewmen Martine and Tomlinson blush before officially blessing their union. The wedding would have to be put back a few days, now; the memorial ceremonies for Commander Hansen and the other victims of the outpost massacres would have to be scheduled first.
"Commander?" Jim prompted his first officer.
"I am in agreement, Captain. Ensign Chekov's calculations are sound. We will reach the Neutral Zone in five point four minutes; if we do not terminate the intrusion before they return within sensor range of their own outposts, a wider conflict will become inevitable. The transmission was undoubtedly leaked as a lure to draw us in, but it would also have notified their own border fleet to stand in readiness."
Rogue or not, if one of their patrols fired in demonstrable defense of their own people....
Jim let go of the helmsman's chair and strode back across the bridge to his seat, throwing himself back into its cushioned embrace. "Right. Mr. Scott?" he threw the switch to key the intercom for Engineering. "We're about to fire on the attacking vessel through a cloak; reroute power a hundred and fifty percent to the forward weapons room, I don't care what systems you have to rob to do it."
"Aye, sir. We'll give it everything she's got," Scotty promised.
"Bones?" He called up Medical next. "With any luck we won't need your services, but we're about to exchange fire with the Romulan vessel that's been hitting the outposts."
"Thanks for the warning," his best friend and CMO drawled back. "Bracing for impact."
Jim smiled as he punched off the intercom again, then took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Sulu, abandon the echo ruse; coordinate with Chekov for best possible timing. Make the first shot count, gentlemen; fire torpedoes as well, in case the frequency of their cloak is tuned to interfere with our directed energy weapons. Better safe than sorry; I'd rather not give them the opportunity to retaliate."
"Aye, sir," they echoed.
"Leaving their sensor shadow-- now," Sulu added. "Moving into range; Chekov?"
"Enemy vessel slowing to reverse course. I estimate four seconds before they decloak," Spock announced tersely.
"And-- firing!" Chekov announced, crouched tensely over his console, eyes only for his tactical plot. Then his shoulders relaxed minutely as Spock fed the sensor data into the display. "It's a hit, sir."
"Confirmed. Recording debris consistent with the breakup of a ship," Spock reported.
"Any chance they could be faking it?" Jim asked, not ready to relax just yet; debris or no, the forward view was still unhelpfully clear. "I don't see anything."
"Negative. Sensors recorded a four hundred and thirty millisecond window between deactivation of the cloak and the implosion of the ship's drive; readings suggest a ninety-nine point six percent chance the Romulan vessel has been completely obliterated."
"Stop and make sure, just the same," Jim insisted. "I need to know if there's anything left of either their cloak or the weapons system, unlikely or not; you know Pike will ask. Uhura, did they get any other transmissions off?"
"Yes, sir," she sighed. "A very brief one, mildly garbled due to the lingering interference of the cloak. I'm running it through an analysis algorithm now."
"Destruction confirmed," Spock announced a moment later, finality in his tone. "No recoverable technology."
"Damn. Well, you win some, you lose some," Jim sighed. Then he tapped his fingertips on his thigh, stewing in his disgruntled mood. "Lieutenant, send an update; inform Command the immediate threat has been eliminated, report to follow with the details. Chekov; lower the alert to condition yellow. It's probable that this was the only attacker, but we'll patrol the rest of the line regardless, make sure that last message wasn't calling in reinforcements."
"I don't think it was," Uhura said slowly. "If I'm deciphering it right, the message said only, 'We march beneath the raptor's wings.'"
Jim shared a wary glance with Spock at that. He'd done enough research to know that that was how Surak had referred to the Vulcans who rebelled against his logical teachings, now widely believed to be the forefathers of the Romulan race. For one of them to be using that phrase now....
I would rather die in agony, Nero had said.
There might only have been one ship, today. But there would be others taking up the flag of hatred, and they cared more for the cause than their own lives.
"Thank you, Lieutenant," Jim said, grimly. "Sulu, set course for Outpost Five."
Fortunately, there were those on this side of the line just as willing, able, and determined to defend Federation citizens: the best of whom were right there on Enterprise.
Sulu laid his hand on the warp lever. "Aye, Captain."