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He watched her die, and in that terrible instant, he relived the moment of their separation, felt the weight of the years since, and regretted everything.
Prynn's body landed in a heap beside the captain's chair, the foul smell of singed flesh already rising from her. Elias Vaughn looked down at her as he leaped from the chair, and saw the midsection of her uniform burned away. Past the seared edges of the fabric that remained, her skin was charred black. Blood seeped from her mangled body and pooled in her wounds like crimson floodwaters across a ruined landscape.
Vaughn pulled his gaze away and, with an emotional effort, moved past the remains of his daughter, toward the console she had a moment ago been operating. He suppressed the ache growing within him and focused on reaching the conn, on keeping Defiant intact and headed away from its attackers. Prynn was dead, but the rest of the crew were not.
With each step, Vaughn felt the labored vibrations of the impulse drive translating through the deck plates. Dark gray eddies of smoke swirled about the bridge, carrying with them the electric scent of overheated circuitry. Flashes of scarlet, the visual call to battle stations, shined here and there through the haze. He reached the conn and bent to assay the readouts, waving away the smoke with an open hand. The low moan of the straining engines deepened as Vaughn eyed the display, and he was not surprised to find the ship no longer holding course. He reached down to work the controls, but flames surged up from beneath the console. Vaughn threw an arm up in front of his face as he staggered back a step, the intense heat blistering his arm even through his uniform sleeve. The air pressure decreased a moment, the hungry fire gathering fuel for itself. The flames sounded like a banner whipping in the wind, loud enough for Vaughn to hear over the inconsistent thrum of the overburdened drive and the many alarms screaming for the crew's attention.
A voice called out above the din -- "Weapons power to the shields?" -- only to be followed by another shouting that Defiant's weapons were offline. Lieutenant Bowers at tactical, Lieutenant Nog at engineering, Vaughn thought, startled for a moment to realize that he was not alone. Even as his instincts to save the crew had driven him to action, their presence had vanished from his mind; for long seconds, his entire universe had been smoke and flame, vibration and sound, and the image of his daughter's mutilated corpse.
Ensign ch'Thane worked the sciences station, Vaughn thought, forcing himself wholly back into the moment. And somewhere behind him, Lieutenant Dax and Dr. Bashir filled out the roster of bridge personnel. If any of them were saying anything, he could not hear them.
Vaughn looked past his upraised arm and squinted at the fire engulfing the conn. Streaks of brilliant indigo snaked up through the otherwise orange-yellow flames. Chromium, Vaughn thought, even as he began to move again, the recollection or misrecollection of which elements burned which colors incongruously percolating up from memory. He moved around the console and dropped to his knees. From this vantage, he could see the jagged margin of a hole in the decking beneath the conn, the flames erupting from it in great sheets. The explosion that had claimed Prynn had obviously occurred just below.
Defiant rocked suddenly and violently, inertial dampers failing for a second. Another Jarada disruptor bolt, Vaughn guessed as he felt the ship pitch forward. Too close to his goal to give it up, and knowing time was running out for the crew, he grabbed for the console support as he was thrown off balance. Somehow, his fingers found their mark and took hold. Pain flared through his right hand, his flesh binding itself to the hot metal in a horrible embrace. But he held on, pulling himself back to his knees and closer to the underside of the console.
A disembodied voice yelled something Vaughn could not make out, the fire bellowing in his ears like the roar of some mammoth molten beast. He listened for other words, but heard only the flames. A murky cloud seemed to pass through his mind, like the smoke churning through the bridge. He realized he was on the verge of losing consciousness.
With a bellow of his own, Vaughn thrust his free hand up under the conn and felt for the fire-suppression canister. His uniform sleeve caught fire, and beneath it, so too did his skin. His fingertips brushed the canister, amazingly still cool to the touch. Vaughn quickly pulled the cylinder free with one hand, then pulled his other hand from the console support, the pain of his skin tearing away an afterthought in the wake of his determination. He aimed and activated the canister, and a fog of chemical retardant spouted out in a billowy white cone, extinguishing his flaming sleeve. Parts of his arm felt the cold of the chemicals, but where his flesh had been scorched, it burned as though still afire.
Vaughn tilted the canister away from himself and attacked the flames where they emerged from the hole in the decking. The fire retreated briefly, then resumed, and Vaughn feared it might win his battle with it. He pushed himself forward beneath the conn and thrust the canister directly over the hole. The sound of the flames drowned beneath the onslaught of the pressurized chemicals, and finally, so did the fire.
Vaughn continued spraying, emptying the canister into the hole. With the fire extinguished, the force of the explosion that had caused it became clear -- as though Prynn's maimed body were not proof enough. The roughly circular hole beneath the conn stretched nearly a meter in diameter, Vaughn saw. The deck plating twisted upward and outward, the metal blackened and bent as though it had offered the blast only minimal resistance.
"Aft shields failing," somebody shouted, the identity of the voice swallowed up by the discordant and increasingly loud pulse of the impulse engines, the speaker hidden by the veil of smoke. Probably Bowers, Vaughn thought as he rose to his feet. He dropped the canister to one side, but did not hear it strike the deck above the cacophony permeating the bridge. Warning signals punctuated the clamor, and though he could not make out their words, Vaughn heard other officers barking out information.
Vaughn bent over the conn, now between it and the forward viewer. He wanted to find the helm controls and bring Defiant back on course. If they were far enough away from Torona IV, then he could engage the warp drive -- provided it was still intact -- and possibly outrun the Jarada before they had time to mount a larger attack force.
The console was dark. The glassy surface of the display reflected the diffused overhead lighting, but no controls and no readouts shined within. A jolt shook Vaughn as though he had been stunned with a phaser. If they couldn't regain control of the ship, they had no chance of escaping the Jarada.
Vaughn looked up at the rest of the bridge, trying to see the crew through the haze. The ship shuddered again beneath another assault, but it must have been a glancing blow, effectively dissipated by the ablative armor, because nothing exploded and Vaughn was able to keep his feet. He waved at the smoke swimming around him, the gray miasma thinning now that the fire was out and the ventilation system could catch up.
He strained to see through the cloudy atmosphere. As the smoke swirled, he caught a glimpse of one of the crew in profile at the rear of the bridge. Distinctive dark markings spilled from a temple down the side of a fair face and neck, making the Trill unmistakable. "Dax," he called, "reroute flight control."
He watched her operate an aft console, and then she yelled, "I've got it."
Vaughn started toward the lieutenant, but stopped when he saw movement at the center of the bridge. On the floor beside the command chair, Bashir leaned over Prynn's unmoving body. The doctor held a tricorder in one hand and an instrument Vaughn did not recognize in the other.
Vaughn looked at the inert face of his daughter. Her porcelain features, normally tense and expressive despite their delicacy, were now slack, even peaceful, contradicting the awful mass of injuries her body had sustained. For a moment, he saw Prynn's mother, her own mien passive -- at peace somehow, despite her obvious understanding of what was soon to come -- in that instant he last saw her. He felt the familiar rage and anguish building within him, the enormous guilt not far behind, and he wondered how this could have happened again.
You have a mission, he told himself, and allowed the simple statement -- his old mantra -- to carry him away from his private darkness. He raced past Nog and Bowers, both intent on their consoles.
When he arrived beside Dax, her fingers were sprinting back and forth across the display -- "Resequencing the reactors," she said, raising her voice amid the tumult -- and after a few seconds, the vibrations of the impulse drive steadied. Several alarms quieted too, lessening the commotion considerably; now only a couple of staccato tones persisted in their warnings. Vaughn could have ordered them silenced, but they were a source of information, and in any dangerous situation, he sought information. "Taking evasive action," Dax continued. Better than the sound of the stabilized engines and fewer alarms was no sound at all: the absence of Jarada weaponry landing on Defiant as the lieutenant maneuvered the ship.
"How far from the planet?" Vaughn wanted to know. Dax told him. They were still too close to go to warp safely.
"Two more Jarada heavies emerging from the far side of the second moon," Bowers called from his station. Those were in addition to the pair of battleships Vaughn knew were already pursuing Defiant.
"If we can stay at full impulse," Dax reported, checking her readouts, "they won't be able to catch us. We only have to worry about the ones already firing on us."
If only we could stand our ground and defend ourselves, Vaughn thought. This... --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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