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Old January 28 2010, 02:42 PM   #15
Gibraltar
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Location: US Pacific Northwest
Embers of the Fire - Chapter 4

Chapter 4

The stars streaked past the large curving view ports in Gibraltar’s briefing room. In her previous incarnations, this compartment had been an officer’s lounge. From the windows, the primary hull curved away below to terminate at the aft edge of the saucer where the impulse engine housing was located. Beyond that lay the warp nacelles on their pylons; their midline transparencies glowed blue from the warp plasma flowing through the coils.

Captain Sandhurst took a moment to enjoy the view before the senior staff arrived. He had allowed himself seven hours of uninterrupted sleep, and felt like a man reborn. The anxiety and doubt that had crowded his mind before arriving onboard remained, but the concrete reality of his circumstances had mitigated them somewhat. Though it was an admission he would make only to himself, it had taken him an hour after his first conversation with Ramirez to work up the courage to seat himself in his own command chair. The moment had been equal parts pride and terror, and Sandhurst found himself hoping that for the sake of his crew, he proved equal to the challenge.

Gibraltar had been underway for twelve hours, on course for the Crolsa system and the Cardassian colony on Lakesh. News of the attack on Sojourner had arrived, and Sandhurst couldn’t tell if he was more disturbed by the attack itself, or by the fact that he didn’t feel worse about it. Before the war, the loss of a starship crew would have been a tragedy. In the face of the war’s losses, Sojourner’s demise was merely… regrettable. He knew that Taun’Ma and her crew deserved better, but the wellspring of sorrow at his center had run dry long before.

Attacks on Federation personnel were occurring with greater frequency throughout occupied Cardassian space, though the insurgents had concentrated their strikes primarily against Starfleet. The rebels had yet to antagonize the Klingons to such a degree, as those who had lived under Klingon occupation before the war knew that their retribution would be both swift and total.

The doors behind him hissed open to admit Lieutenant Lar’ragos. Pava made his way around the table where he claimed a seat. He was a thin man, lithe in movement, and although in peak physical condition, he was not overly muscular. His brown eyes were set beneath bushy black eyebrows, and his short-cropped black hair was tightly curled. Lar’ragos appeared to be in his early thirties, yet if his service record was to be believed, he was well over four-hundred.

Lar'ragos took a moment to gauge his captain’s mood, then offered, “Are we having fun yet, sir?”

Sandhurst shook his head slowly and turned to face his old friend. “No, and I doubt we’re going to have much to celebrate in the coming weeks.” He rubbed the bridge of his nose, then looked pointedly at the El Aurian. “Remind me again how the hell you’re still a lieutenant after two decades?”

Lar'ragos shrugged expansively. “My nature omits ambition.”

Sandhurst snorted derisively. “Bull.”

Lar’ragos cocked his head to one side. “Okay, how about this. I don’t have to be ambitious; we’re not running in the same race.” He settled back into his chair as he steepled his fingers over his lap. “And need I remind you, a few years back you were an engineer with no aspirations other than coasting to retirement on a nice long tour at Utopia Planitia.” The older man grinned and his voice took on an exaggerated, theatric quality. “I assure you that I’ve spent my fare share of time calling the shots, my captain. I’ve led men in battle, I’ve bled and killed for my kings. I swore I’d never be a soldier again…” he gestured to his uniform, “…and yet, here I am.”

Sandhurst walked over to the replicator station to order a cup of Rigellian spice coffee. “Oh, please, not again with the ‘I’ve seen and done too much.’ I endured enough of that at the academy." He reached for the mug as the materialization process concluded. "Yes, yes, I mourn for your long suffering soul."

Lar’ragos merely chuckled as Sandhurst assumed his chair at the head of the table. The captain sipped at the cup of steaming liquid, then bobbed his head favorably before he set his gaze back on the lieutenant. “Now you can explain why you passed up one of the most prestigious posts in the fleet in favor of this assignment.”

“Enterprise?” Lar'ragos looked momentarily thoughtful. “Picard’s a good man, and I was honored to have been offered the job, but he and his people are a bit too high profile for my taste. Also, they’re a tight crew. Most of his senior staff have served together for more than fifteen years. Easing into a social dynamic like that isn’t my idea of fun.” He gave Sandhurst a wry smile. “Anyway, I’d rather be here, on this floating anachronism with my old chum.”

The doors parted and Lieutenant Commander Elisto Plazzi entered. Gibraltar’s chief science officer, Plazzi had retired from Starfleet sixteen years earlier. He had been one of those whose commissions were reactivated during the war, despite his status as tenured professor of planetary geology at UC Berkley. At age sixty-four, he was a heavy-set man with thick white hair and a closely cropped beard of the same hue. Sandhurst recalled that the commander’s previous supervisors had noted that Plazzi was a good-natured officer, well liked by his peers, with a quick wit and no apparent allergies to hard work or away missions. Plazzi already had a large beverage mug in one hand and cradled a data padd in the other. He nodded deferentially to Sandhurst as he plopped down beside Lar’ragos. “Captain, Lieutenant.”

Sandhurst favored the older man with a smile. “Good morning, Commander.”

“Call me Elisto, please, sir. “ He raised a curious eyebrow. “That is, unless you insist on a strict formality?”

“In fact, I don’t.”

Plazzi smiled appreciatively. “That’s good. Makes things simpler.”

The next two senior staff members entered together. Chief Engineer Lieutenant Ashok was a towering blue Bolian. His lack of hair accentuated the bifurcated ridge that bisected his facial features. Standing well over a foot taller than Sandhurst, precious little of Ashok’s well muscled body was given over to body fat. The captain had observed in Ashok’s service record that the officer had served twice before on the older Miranda-class starships, and so was very familiar with the peculiarities of 23rd century Starfleet designs. Ashok had also been noted as something of an introvert, practically a pariah among a species known for their persistent effusiveness. According to his supervisors’ reviews, Ashok would never be one of those engineers elevated to the pantheon of miracle workers. The Bolian was steady, reliable and effective, and on a purely selfish level, Sandhurst was secretly relieved not to have been saddled with someone whose engineering talents rivaled his own.

Lieutenant (junior grade) Olivia Juneau, Chief Operations officer, followed Ashok through the door like a moon orbiting a gas giant. She was of medium height with strawberry blonde hair, and was perhaps a bit more full figured than she would have liked. A light dusting of freckles covered her cheeks and seemed to subtract at least five years from her age. Her service jacket had identified her as a chronic under-achiever, consistently setting unrealistic goals and then failing to fulfill them. She was clearly one of the crew that Lar’ragos had earlier identified as falling under the problem children heading. Juneau’s wartime posting had been to a heavily fortified communications relay station in the Angarsi system, where she had apparently made something of a nuisance of herself. Her last commanding officer had been more than happy to transfer Juneau to the newly re-commissioned Gibraltar.

Ashok squeezed into the seat farthest from the captain, after the most cursory of greetings to the other senior staff. He looked vaguely uncomfortable and clasped his hands atop the table as though he regretted not having brought at padd or similar distraction. Juneau traded polite introductions with the others, then sat down across from Plazzi, next to the seat commonly reserved for the XO.

Sandhurst looked to Ashok and asked conversationally, “So, Lieutenant, how are the refit nacelles holding up?”

The Bolian glanced up, apparently startled to have been addressed prior to the start of the meeting. In a deep basso voice, he replied awkwardly, “They are… doing fine, sir.” After a moment, he added, “The intermix ratio is still a bit rich, but I’ll have it figured out before we reach Lakesh, sir.”

Sandhurst stopped himself on the threshold of offering a helpful suggestion about adjusting the base programming of the primary injectors to attenuate the problem. He reminded himself that there were few things a Starfleet engineer hated more than having another engineer as their commanding officer. Shortly after taking the XO’s post on the Venture, Captain Ebnal had pulled Sandhurst aside and chastised him for meddling in the new chief engineer’s business. Sandhurst had thought he was merely being supportive, but apparently having the exec constantly poking around the engine room was, as Ebnal so delicately phrased it, “Pissing in another man’s pool.”

With a few moments to spare, the ship’s Chief Medical officer, Lieutenant (junior grade) Issara Taiee stepped into the room. She was a short, compact woman, whose brown hair was cut into a low-maintenance bob. A nurse practitioner and emergency medical technician, Taiee was not a fully qualified doctor or surgeon. Her file indicated that she was not without experience, however, and had most recently served in a frontline mobile military hospital unit during the war. Sandhurst had noted that unlike most of Starfleet’s physicians, Taiee had no qualms about liberally utilizing a ship’s Emergency Medical Hologram to assist in her duties. She welcomed anything or anyone which could supplement her already formidable skills and knowledge.

Last to enter was Ramirez, who passed through the doors and seated herself next to the captain mere seconds before the chronometer reached zero-seven-hundred. By way of greeting she nodded to the assembled staff, all of whom she was already familiar with.

Sandhurst took a sip of his coffee, than sat forward to search the faces of his senior staff. “For those of you whom I haven’t officially met yet, I’m Donald Sandhurst. This is, according to the command officer’s guidebook, where I’m supposed to tell you all how proud I am to be serving with you, and how we can all look forward to distinguishing ourselves on this assignment, while endeavoring to meet or exceed the levels of professionalism established by previous generations of Starfleet officers.”

This elicited a few chuckles from around the table.

“Now that that’s out of the way, I do indeed want to tell you I’m happy to be here.” Sandhurst scanned his officer’s faces again, his gaze lingering on each for a brief moment before moving on. “I’m especially glad to have you people on board. Without putting too fine a point on it, I’ll be relying on each of you, as will the entire crew, to ensure that your individual departments are running smoothly.” The captain gestured out the window, referring to Gibraltar as a whole, “I’m not harboring any illusions about our ability to fight our way out of trouble, or to easily outrun it. We’re going to have to work together to predict trouble before it happens, whenever possible. When, on occasion, despite our best efforts the situation goes sideways, we’re going to have to scheme and cheat and claw our way out of it.”

Sandhurst noted a few smiles, a nod or two, and Ashok doing a passable impression of an Easter Island statue.

“I’ve only a few rules and expectations of my senior staff. First, if you’re having personnel or resource issues, you’ll take those up with Commander Ramirez. She’ll make the final decisions in those areas, and I intend to give her wide latitude in making those judgments. Second, if you’ve got a disagreement with a course of action I’ve taken, you’re more than welcome to discuss it with me, in private. We’re fairly swarming with recent academy graduates, and I won’t undermine their confidence by having their senior officers arguing on the bridge. Now, if you’re absolutely certain I’m about to get us all killed, I’ll have to rely on you to use your best judgment on how you’re going to address that with me, and when.”

The introduction complete, Sandhurst allowed himself to relax slightly and settled back into his chair. “I’m not going to try and convince you we’ve pulled a plum assignment, because we haven’t. To be blunt, we’re getting the short end of the stick. But, I’m guessing that none of us signed up for Starfleet expecting a Risan sunrise every day.” He looked to Ramirez, who returned his gaze impassively. “The situation is simple. We’re going to do our best to help stabilize the Cardassian Union, and give them at least a fighting chance of establishing a functioning democracy. If we allow this region to spiral into anarchy, it’s going to destabilize the entire quadrant, and the Federation doesn’t have the resources for yet another round of border skirmishes with the Talarians, or the Tzenkethi, never mind the Romulans.”

Sandhurst paused to take a long sip from his mug as he mulled his next statement. “The commanding officer for this region of allied-controlled space is General K’Vada. Based on his reputation, I don’t have to tell you what the Klingon response will be if we can’t get Lakesh under control, and soon.”

Ramirez apparently refused to acknowledge the rhetorical nature of his statement and spoke up. “The empire will come in here and finish what the Breen started, and we won’t be in any position to offer more than a spirited objection.”

The faces around the table reflected the seriousness of the topic. Good, Sandhurst thought, we’re on the same page. He continued, “I’m not alone in thinking that the attack on Sojourner was somebody’s opening gambit. This wasn’t a handful of desperate thugs planting a makeshift explosive. It was a well planned, precisely executed attack designed to hurt us in a very specific way.” The captain turned to Lar’ragos, “Lieutenant, has Phoenix determined how the initial shuttle collision happened?”

Lar’ragos shook his head, “No, sir. The forensic examination of the shuttle wreckage hasn’t turned up any leads as yet. However, we’re operating under the belief that the collision was part of the attack. Unless Lakesh is encircled by a cloud of thousands of those gravitic mines, the odds that three of them just happened to be in close enough proximity to take advantage of a freak accident at that particular moment are astronomical.” He added, “Phoenix and the civilian ships in orbit have initiated a comprehensive scan for more of those fake meteorites. No more have been located.”

Sandhurst addressed the Bolian engineer, “Mister Ashok, I want damage control teams running simulations in the holosuites on fire-control and repair utilizing the warhead yield on those mines as a baseline.”

Ashok’s reply was a terse, “Aye, sir.”

Looking to the medical officer, Sandhurst asked, “Lieutenant, how are we set up for the treatment of mass casualties?”

Taiee smiled, “Very well, actually, Captain. As I’m sure you already know, the last time Gibraltar was refit, she served as a hospital ship. During this latest overhaul, somebody decided she should retain some of that capability. A sizeable portion of deck four has been dedicated to medical related services. We’ve got forty biobeds, four surgical suites, two medical laboratories, and two independent fully functional emergency medical holograms.”

“Very good, Lieutenant. Thank you.” He turned next to Pava. “Mister Lar’ragos, we’ll undoubtedly be required to bring up any number of sick or injured civilians for treatment. I want a thorough security screening of each and every one of them on the surface, prior to being beamed aboard.” He glanced back to Ashok, “And make sure the transporters’ bio-filters are set to maximum. I want your people looking for any signs of bio-toxins, explosives, anything a clever enemy might want to try and sneak aboard.”

The two lieutenants replied, “Aye, sir,” almost in unison.

Sandhurst then addressed Juneau. “Ops, how long will it take to offload our relief supplies once we arrive?”

The young lieutenant responded without hesitation, clearly having studied up for her first senior staff meeting. “Twenty-seven hours if we rely exclusively on cargo transporters, sir. Twenty-one hours if we combine transporters with shuttle transfer to the surface, Captain.”

Ramirez cleared her throat and spoke up only after Sandhurst had nodded his assent. “Sir, I’d suggest using just the transporters. I’ve read reports from a security team on the surface that found a cache of arclight shoulder-fired missiles. One of those could easily bring down an unshielded shuttle. Three or four in concert could destroy one of our shuttles, shields or no. And we still don’t know what caused Sojourner’s shuttle to collide with the ship.”

“I agree.” Sandhurst looked to Juneau. “Transporters only. We’ll limit shuttle flights to emergency situations, on command approval only.”

He focused on Plazzi and the captain inquired, “Elisto, do we need to make any modifications to our sensors to better detect the orbital mines?”

“No, Captain.” The older man frowned slightly. “From what I’ve gathered from Phoenix’s sensor logs, the mines’ disguise was sufficient to fool routine navigational scans of the planet’s orbital region. Now that we know what we’re looking for and are using more intensive sweeps, I don’t foresee any difficulties.”

“Very well, then.” Sandhurst looked around the table. “Any further questions or comments?” There were none. Again he surveyed the faces at the table. “I know this is going to be a challenging assignment. In a perfect world, we’d have had time to get to know one another, to learn to trust in each other’s abilities. As it is, we’re going to have to muddle through anyway. I have faith that despite whatever Lakesh has in store for us I can rely on each of you to do your duty.”

Sandhurst rose from his seat and caught the others by surprise. Before the senior staff could decide whether to stand as well, the captain called the meeting to a close. “Alright, people. We’ll reach Lakesh in thirteen hours. I want cargo offload operations prepped, sickbay facilities standing ready for casualties, and security teams on hot standby for immediate deployment. Dismissed.”

*****
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