Sandhurst ducked through the small hatch and eased himself into the maintenance crawlway. Despite never having been this far into the bowels of his new command, he felt immediately familiar with his surroundings. He had spent countless hours in similarly cramped Jefferies tubes on a variety of starships during his career. At times Sandhurst still felt like a visitor on the bridge. But here, surrounded by the vibrations from the pulsing heartbeat of the main reactor, this was home.
The captain reached junction room D-3 and found Ashok inhabiting most of the volume of this tiny compartment. As he squeezed in beside the Bolian, Sandhurst grinned despite himself. “They couldn’t find you a smaller ship?”
“Negative, sir,” Ashok rumbled. “I suffer from acute claustrophobia.”
A second passed, then two. Ashok gave no indication that he’d been joking. Sandhurst opened his mouth to say something meaningful, but nothing came to mind. The lieutenant gestured down the adjoining crawlway. “It’s down there, sir. I sent my scans of the device topside to Commander Plazzi. He confirmed my suspicion.”
Sandhurst levered himself into the narrow passageway and crawled on hands and knees to get into position. He rolled onto his back to gaze up at a decidedly non-Starfleet mechanism affixed to the plasma flow regulator for the structural integrity grid. It was a featureless black ovoid about five inches long and three inches wide. Sandhurst fumbled for his tricorder and scanned the device for a full three minutes before he called back to Ashok. “So, you believe this thing is siphoning power from the EPS regulator?” He felt he already knew the answer, but wanted to hear if from his chief engineer.
Ashok’s deep voice echoed down the crawlway, “No, Captain. Plazzi and I think it is phasing a portion of the plasma energy into the subspace range, around one-hundred seventy milli-cochranes.”
“To what end?”
“We’re not entirely sure. One of the effects it’s having is a fourteen percent reduction in overall structural integrity field strength.”
Sandhurst pondered that. “It’s an awfully ineffective form of sabotage, Lieutenant. Why didn’t we detect the drop in field strength?” By ‘we’ of course, he meant Ashok and his staff, and the lieutenant knew it.
The Bolian replied, “The apparatus has tapped into the ODN feeds for this plasma conduit and the flow regulator. It appears to be sending false power readings that have been fooling our monitoring and diagnostic systems. “
The captain nodded appreciatively. “Clever.” He craned his neck to look down the crawlway to where Ashok squatted uncomfortably in the junction. “Opinion, Mister Ashok. Why is this here?”
“Commander Plazzi and I believe that the device is causing a minute subspace harmonic effect in our structural integrity field that is being transmitted to the hull plating. That effect is what appears to have spared us the fate suffered by Phoenix
and her crew.”
Sandhurst sighed. “I don’t suppose Bolians believe in guardian angels?”
“We do not,” was the terse reply.
“Yeah. Me neither.”
Glinn Trevar monitored the slaughter at the Glanisuur encampment from atop a nearby hill through a pair of sturdy Cardassian combat oculars. He was flanked by five men, all seasoned veterans of the Dominion War. Trevar himself had fought the Federation many times over the decades, beginning his career as an enlisted foot soldier in the border skirmishes that foreshadowed the first Cardassian/Federation war.
Vuram, his lieutenant, noted with disdain, “Had we been allowed to participate, Glinn, none of them would have escaped.”
Trevar knew that the logic behind the plan had been explained to Vuram numerous times; the man was simply irritable at having to sit out this engagement. Trevar gave the grizzled non-com his most saccharine smile. “If I’d let you take part, old man, I’d have to suffer through the screaming and begging from one of your impromptu ‘field interrogations.’ We haven’t time for such luxuries.”
This brought muted laughter from the others as a grinning Vuram clapped Trevar on the back.
The ‘volunteers’ that Trevar had sent against the Starfleet and civilian personnel at Glanisuur had acquitted themselves as well as could be expected. Experienced soldiers were in short supply, and it had been decided that the most recent converts to the insurgency would be blooded in this attack. What these young men and women lacked in experience, they made up for in enthusiasm.
Starfleet had fought harder than anticipated, however, especially given their severe tactical disadvantage. Trevar had also been appalled to see Cardassian citizens fighting and dying alongside Starfleet in a vain attempt to thwart the attackers. He had ordered that the Cardassians in the encampment be spared, except if they tried to resist or otherwise aid the off-worlders. The glinn wouldn’t have believed so many of his own kind could have bought into the Federation’s lies, and so quickly.
The sound of someone moving through the underbrush caused Trevar’s comrades to turn in unison, weapons raised. It was the runner, who moved to the glinn’s side as he fought to catch his breath before relaying his message. “Sir, three assault teams beamed down from Phoenix
just before we attacked the ship. They attempted to penetrate our perimeter on foot, but our combat teams successfully repulsed them. The survivors have fled back out of the field area and appear to be reassembling. Glinnsed Oko’s team is ranging a mortar attack on their coordinates as we speak.”
The man’s labored breathing slowed, and he continued, “We’ve detected a shuttle from the other Starfleet ship. We think it may have crashed just outside the zone. Glinn Weluss is dispatching a scouting team to locate any survivors from the shuttle.”
“Understood. Tell the other team leaders that we have nearly finished here. We will withdraw to assembly point three in ten minutes. There we will join with the other returning teams, and then make our way back to the bunker. Is that clear?”
The runner nodded as he gulped air in preparation for his return trip. “Yes, Glinn.” He turned and scrambled back down the hill.
Trevar peered through the oculars again to watch a burly young Cardassian insurgent pulling a screaming human female in civilian clothes across the ground by her hair. Tactically speaking, he knew it would be wise to pull his team out immediately, but Trevar felt it important for these raw recruits to experience the full extent of their blood lust. He was pleased to see that the dehumanizing nature of their indoctrination was paying off handsomely.
Ramirez spared a quick glance at the rifle’s translucent magazine. Five rounds left. Another bullet whip-cracked past her head and glanced off the rocks next to her, sending up a spray of particles that stung her face and neck. The surrounding walls of the gully were now pocked with dozens of such small craters, the result of the poorly aimed fire directed at her from the attacking insurgents.
She had fallen into a comfortable rhythm. She allowed her combat training to take over while she observed idly from a disconnected part of her mind. In what she fully expected to be the last minutes of her life, she combed through her memories to savor the successes of her career even as she mourned the lost opportunities to reconcile with her estranged family.
Upon graduating the academy, Ramirez’s career had become her most prized possession. She felt she had risen through the ranks through sheer determination, by making sacrifices and taking chances that other more cautious officers would or could not. That was all the more reason that dying here and now, cut down by ill-trained Cardassian conscripts on some remote colony offended her sense of justice. Ramirez was destined for greater things. Her own command, a chance at a real relationship unencumbered by her substantial personal baggage… maybe even happiness, for heaven’s sake!
she raged silently. Ramirez vowed that if this was where she was going to meet her end, she would take a great many of the enemy with her.
She held her fire and waited for a clear shot. She had lost track of the number of Cardassians who had fallen in the crosshairs of the rifle’s scope. How many bullets had she started with? Twenty-five? Thirty? Not every shot had been a kill, but there had been precious few misses.
The battle had ebbed and surged. There had been brief periods of silence, which she’d intentionally broken by calling out in the Cardassian tongue. She’d harangued the young militants, mocking them and insinuating she’d been a Bajoran resistance member, doubtless responsible for the deaths of some of their relatives. That had worked out well for her, with two young men provoked into a screaming charge towards the mouth of the gully.
They hadn't made it even halfway to her hiding spot.
Movement in the scope caught her attention. Three insurgents crept slowly and deliberately though the underbrush trying to get themselves into an advantageous firing position. The thick scrub around Ramirez made it difficult for the enemy to get a bead on her exact whereabouts.
The fighters had finally begun firing single rounds in her direction, rather than spraying bullets blindly as they had in the beginning. Ramirez guessed they had expended nearly all their ammunition in the orgy of violence that had consumed the Glanisuur camp.
Just as she was about the pull the trigger, something dropped into the bushes beside the three Cardassians with a metallic clink. An explosion sent a fount of dirt and shrubbery skyward, along with remains of the rebels. As the echoes of the detonation reverberated off the surrounding rocks, she could discern a flurry of muffled gunfire, then silence.
A quiet keening broke the stillness, a sound torn from the very soul of someone whose demise was near. It was silenced by a barely perceptible pop. A gruff voice from somewhere nearby called out, “Omicron!”
Ramirez’s body began to tremble involuntarily as she realized that, in defiance of Klingon tradition, today was not
going to be a good day to die. She sat back hard, her knees having held her in a crouch for far too long. Suddenly, the rifle seemed to weigh a metric ton. She cleared her throat, and with careful precision, gave the proper countersign. “Beta-four-seven!”
The bushes to her front rustled, and then parted to reveal the beaming, pugnacious face of a Tellarite. “Someone called for a taxi?”
Working in an environment suit was something every Starfleet officer trained for, yet simulations had done nothing to prepare medical technician Kasmu Yoichi for the frustration that five long, chaffing hours in the sealed garment had produced. Despite the much vaunted comfort controls built into the suit, Yoichi was sweating like a pig. The improperly fitted helmet rubbed against his neck and forehead, and delivering medical care in the supposedly tactile-friendly gloves made him feel as clumsy as a raging Targ in an Andorian ice cathedral.
He moved from one bio-bed to another as he checked readings, dispensed injections, and generally tried to stay on top of the casualties that now threatened to overflow Gibraltar’s
substantial Sickbay complex.
The most disconcerting thing was the utter stillness. Kasmu had served aboard a Federation hospital ship during the war, and was not new to treating wounded on a mass scale. He was used to the sights and sounds of a disaster scenario: the moaning, crying, pleading, and the occasional patient trying to argue his or her way out of Sickbay.
The casualties transferred over from the starship Phoenix
were as silent and motionless as corpses. Their autonomic systems continued to function. Heartbeat, respiration, digestion all uninterrupted by the viral contagion visited upon them. But all neural paths to their voluntary muscle groups had been destroyed by the pathogen. They were unable to move their heads or limbs, their eyes could not focus, they could not speak.
A Vulcan engineer practiced in the mental arts had determined that the effected personnel were still conscious and aware of their situation. She had been forced to cease her efforts after the second mind-meld almost overwhelmed her with the fear and panic of the victim she had telepathically contacted.
Fully two thirds of Phoenix’s
crew had been neutralized by the contagion. Four-hundred seventy-three people had been struck down in seconds, and were now totally reliant on constant medical care for their lives. Gibraltar’s
teams were helping the survivors to decontaminate the larger ship deck by deck, but the process was projected to take days.
Kasmu looked at the chronometer on his suit’s forearm display. Another hour until he rotated to a non-quarantine ward. He tried not to look too closely at the faces of his stricken comrades, as he could not bear to dwell on what they must be experiencing.
Sandhurst walked into the crowded surgical suite, one of the few compartments in Sickbay not operating under strict quarantine procedures. Taiee lay atop the exam table, the clamshell surgical support frame raised over her. The EMH worked tirelessly to heal the grievously wounded officer as nurses and medical technicians attended to the other away team members.
Ramirez stood, arms crossed, her eyes fixed on Taiee. She appeared oblivious to the med-tech who swept a dermal regenerator over the cuts and shrapnel punctures on her face and neck. Sandhurst suppressed a smile as he noticed Lar’ragos, unable to sit idle, as the El Aurian assisted the busy medical personnel by readying hyposprays for injection. As bad as things are, Sandhurst thought, there are still come constants in the universe. The captain approached the exec, “Report, Commander.”
Ramirez blinked and seemed to notice Sandhurst for the first time. She gathered herself together, stood straight and answered crisply. “Sir. The camp was attacked shortly after our arrival. The enemy used some manner of disruption field to knock out our weapons and communications. We managed to take a few weapons from the attackers, and along with some other survivors of the ambush, we exited the area. Lieutenant Lar’ragos identified a defensible position, and we held out until the rescue party located us.”
Sandhurst nodded. “I spoke with Master Chief Tark. You all did very well under difficult circumstances.” He glanced at the doctor, but the hologram was utterly absorbed in his task. Sandhurst turned back back to the away team. “Unfortunately, the Master Chief’s team only recovered twelve other survivors of the attack on Glanisuur. The Cardassians were brutally thorough.”
Ramirez’s jaw muscles rippled with repressed anger, and for want of anything better to do she abruptly waved off the med-tech who’d been assisting her.
The captain continued, “I wish I could give you the break you deserve, but the situation on Lakesh is getting worse. There have been over a dozen separate attacks on relief missions in the past six hours. Owing to the insurgents’ new bio-weapon, I’m ordering the withdrawal of all Federation personnel from the surface until we can put together a plan for a workable defense.”
He looked to the exec and security chief as he somberly intoned, “Pava, I need you back on the bridge as soon as you’re cleaned up. This is going to get worse before it gets better.” Sandhurst focused on Ramirez, “Commander, you’ll be getting your first command billet. I only wish the circumstances were better. Report to Phoenix
as acting CO.”