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Old February 4 2010, 12:50 PM   #22
Gibraltar
Rear Admiral
 
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Location: US Pacific Northwest
Embers of the Fire - Chapter 6

Chapter 6

Captain Sandhurst tried not to fixate on the pulsing crimson red alert lights that flared in perfect time throughout the bridge. His people were on the surface, under attack, and he was virtually helpless to assist them. Ops had been unable to cut through the sensor jamming at the settlement, and Plazzi had proved equally incapable of pinpointing the source of the interference.

So this is command, he thought soberly. Sandhurst sat in a compartment full of people and felt as lonely as if he was on a solitary trek across the Vulcan Forge. Now he began to understand why officers like William Riker were loath to give up the first officer’s position. Better to be in the thick of the action than to sit and wait in impotent silence.

“Chief Towsend to Captain Sandhurst.”

The transporter chief’s voice seemed to boom from the overhead speakers on the tension filled bridge.

“Go ahead, Chief.”

“No go on the transporter lock, sir. Do you want me to put them down outside the zone of interference?"

“Negative, Chief. Send them to the shuttle bay.”

“Aye, sir.”

An alarm began to sound at both the Science and Operations consoles simultaneously. Plazzi acknowledged it first. “Sir, we’re detecting an anomalous energy signature. It…” he paused, his screen flickering as he struggled to divine meaning from raw data, “…it appears to be some kind of subspace disturbance, localized to several sections of Gibraltar’s hull, Captain.”

Sandhurst sat forward. “Our hull? Explain.”

Plazzi scratched at his beard. “I’d love to, sir. However, all the sensors are telling me is there’s been some kind of highly localized subspace disruption. It was restricted to within one-one-hundredth of a millimeter of our hull plating.”

At Operations, Juneau announced, “Sir, I’m getting a distress call from the Phoenix.” She frowned. “It looks like their automated disaster beacon, Captain.” The junior lieutenant took some measure of comfort from not having yelled her observations like a panicked cadet this time.

Sandhurst stood. “Put Phoenix on screen.” The image on the main viewer shifted and centered on the starship, a tiny silver point holding position above Lakesh’s day side. “Magnify.” Another shift in the display revealed the Nebula-class ship under her own power with running lights cycling normally. “Any information on the nature of the emergency, Mister Juneau?”

She accessed the encrypted subtext of the signal. “Aye, sir.” Juneau quickly scanned the content, “It appears internal sensors detected a viral contaminant that was identified in several areas of the ship simultaneously. The crew in the effected areas collapsed, and the ship’s computer automatically initiated ship wide quarantine protocols.”

Sandhurst gripped the back of Juneau’s seat headrest with such force that his knuckles began to whiten. He forced himself to relax his hands as he called to Plazzi, “Elisto, can you confirm that?”

From the Science station, Plazzi reported, “Confirmed, sir. Scans of the ship show negative internal movement by the crew, although I’m getting normal life sign readings. Emergency forcefields and bulkheads are in place. I’m also reading… a residual energy discharge.” Sandhurst turned to look at Plazzi, the older scientist’s eyes betraying a flicker of momentary terror. “It looks to be the same kind of subspace anomaly we just encountered.”

The bridge fell totally silent for a full five seconds. Sandhurst then realized all eyes were on him. He managed to ask in a reasonably conversational tone, “Any sign of pathogens aboard?”

Another ten seconds of silence followed as Plazzi conducted internal scans. “Negative, sir.”

Sandhurst turned and favored the rest of the bridge crew with a faint smile. “We’re apparently fine, people. Let’s mind our duties and make sure we stay that way.”

The captain looked to Ops. “Lieutenant, what’s the status of Phoenix’s shuttles?”

“The three assault shuttles are entering the atmosphere, on course for the Glanisuur camp, sir. They don’t appear to have been effected.”

He nodded. “Hail them. Let their people know what’s happened. I’ll leave it up to them whether or not they want to continue their mission or divert to Gibraltar.” Sandhurst resumed his seat in the center chair. “Move us to within transporter range of Phoenix. I want medical and engineering teams standing by in environmental suits for rescue operations.”

Plazzi stepped over to the captain’s chair to whisper as discretely as possible, “Sir, I’d strongly recommend calling those shuttles back and having them hold position in orbit. If the crews were exposed before leaving Phoenix they could spread the viral agent to the planet’s population. We’ve no idea how virulent this pathogen is, Captain.”

Sandhurst winced almost imperceptibly, and silently admonished himself for not having thought through the problem sufficiently. “You’re right, Elisto.” He leaned forward in his chair as he called out to the Operations station. “Lieutenant, belay my last. Have Phoenix’s shuttles break off and form up with us. They are to observe quarantine protocols until further notice.”

*****

Lieutenant Jonin Faltyne piloted the shuttle Xodor through the buffeting winds of Lakesh’s upper atmosphere. He was fixated on reaching the target zone as quickly as possible, retribution foremost on his mind. The attack on the encampment had been bad enough, but now Gibraltar was telling him there had been a nearly simultaneous strike against Phoenix. The Andorian’s antennae twitched with impatience as he vectored towards the Glanisuur camp. He had projected his course to carefully avoid the region in which sensors and weapons systems had been mysteriously neutralized. He hoped to set his cargo of heavily armed security officers down at the edge of the interference, take off again and then loiter on station, utilizing the shuttle’s optical systems to direct long-range phaser fire in support of the security team.

Ensign Robards in the co-pilot’s seat emitted a grunt of surprise as a text message flashed across his monitor. “Gibraltar’s ordering us back to orbit, sir. They’re afraid we might contaminate the surface if we were exposed to whatever bio-weapon those bastards used on Phoenix.”

Faltyne hissed, “Not a chance. The snake-heads owe us blood vengeance. Don’t acknowledge the message.”

“Uh… too late. I already did, sir.”

“In that case, I’ll note in my report that you had nothing to do with this whatsoever. Hang on and enjoy the ride, Ensign.”

*****

Juneau looked back at the captain, clearly perturbed. “The lead shuttle acknowledges receipt of the message, but is refusing to comply, sir.”

Sandhurst stifled a sigh. He had been afraid of this. Given the circumstances, he’d expected some resistance from Awokou’s crew. Outright insubordination, however, was more than he would tolerate. “Put me on with them, Lieutenant.”

“Aye. Channel open, sir.”

“This is Captain Sandhurst to Phoenix shuttle squadron. You are hereby ordered to return to orbit and take up station alongside Gibraltar. If you land on the planet, you might infect countless people with whatever was introduced to the crew of Phoenix. As much as I know you want to help your crew mates on the surface, I also know you’d never willingly endanger the lives of all those innocents.”

A moment passed. Then two. “Still no response, sir.”

Sandhurst turned to the Tactical station. “Have our security team board a shuttle and standby. I’ll relay orders shortly.” To Ops he said, “Have the transporter room begin sending emergency teams over to Phoenix as soon as they’re ready, and have Sickbay standing by for casualties. We’ll need anyone from the crew who has any kind of medical training there to assist.”

“Mister Lightner, move us into position over the Glanisuur site. Tactical, get a firing solution on those shuttles and lock targets.”

The ensign at the Tactical station blinked, clearly startled. To his credit, he complied with the alarming order without question.

Sandhurst sat back in his chair and felt a vague sense of disassociation, as if watching his actions from outside his own body. He observed himself toggle the comms. “Phoenix shuttle squadron, you will stand down or I will open fire on you. I don’t want to do this, but I won’t risk contamination of the planet’s populace.” Dear God, please don’t make me do this, he thought desperately.

*****

Aboard the Xodor, Faltyne watched in disgust as the other two shuttles in their flight peeled off and began gaining altitude, rising to meet Gibraltar in orbit. Sandhurst was bluffing; Faltyne could hear it in his voice. If the crew of Phoenix had been incapacitated in a matter of moments, it was obvious neither he nor the others aboard the shuttle had been infected. He refused to leave good men and women to die on the order of a man who was not half the captain Banti Awokou was.

“Ah’m thinkin’ he’s serious, L-T.” The feminine voice behind him belonged to Senior Chief Filkins, the assault squad leader.

“I don’t, Chief. Our people are in trouble down there, and Sandhurst has a poor grasp of the situation.” Clouds whipped past the shuttle as the craft descended into the troposphere and the gauge on his flight controls counted down the kilometers to their destination.

“Maybe so, suh, but ah’m not willin’ to bet our lives on that.”

Faltyne immediately recognized the sudden pressure against his neck as a phaser emitter. His antennae began to tic spasmodically. “We can do this in one of two flavahs, suh,” Filkins drawled. “You can bring us back up… or ah will. Personally, ah’d like to spare you the headache.”

*****

Juneau looked up from her console as a relieved smile spread across her face. “The last shuttle has broken off and is returning to orbit, Captain.”

Sandhurst simply gave a curt nod, and it took every ounce of self control he possessed to reign in the deep sigh of relief that threatened to escape him. The most immediate crisis having passed, it dawned on him that much needed to be done in the next few minutes to mitigate the damage suffered by Starfleet forces. He also realized with a hardening resolve that with Captain Awokou dead or disabled, he was now in charge.

“Ops, access Phoenix’s command codes. Route their helm control to Ensign Babbit at the auxiliary station. Mister Babbit, plot a course for Phoenix to the planet’s LaGrange point with its largest moon and execute. Helm, match the ship’s course and speed.”

Sandhurst settled into the captain’s chair. He felt for the first time since he’d assumed command that he might actually belong there.

“Sandhurst to transporter room one.”

“Transporter room one, go ahead, sir.”

“Are our rescue teams ready?”

“Yes, sir. On the pad and standing by in full EVA.”

“Energize.”

“Acknowledged, Captain. Team One is away. Team Two preparing for departure.”

“Thank you, Chief. Bridge, out.”

Juneau turned from her station to address the captain. “Sir, the security team has assembled in the shuttle bay. Master Chief Tark informs me that their pilot has been tapped for emergency medical duty in Sickbay.”

Sandhurst unconsciously rubbed at his chin, a memory tickling him with the spark of an idea. “Ensign Lightner.”

Lightner stiffened in his seat, glancing back. “Sir?”

“You were on the academy’s flight team, weren’t you?”

“Yes, sir. During my plebe year. The team was disbanded when the war started, Captain.”

“You’re a qualified shuttle pilot, correct?”

Lightner nodded, unable to suppress a slow grin from taking shape. “Yes, sir.”

“I have a job for you, Ensign.”

*****

<cont'd>
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