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Old February 7 2010, 12:39 PM   #27
Gibraltar
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Location: US Pacific Northwest
Embers of the Fire - Chapter 8

Chapter 8

What little remained of the Nausicaan raider drifted lazily past the Klingon battlecruiser Kang. The vessel had been shredded by Kang’s forward disruptors during the final seconds of a last-ditch suicide run at the imperial warship. General K’Vada marveled at the audacity of their Cardassian foes, to attack a Vor’cha-class cruiser with only a handful of corsairs, fighters, and shuttles in support of a modified Talarian cargo vessel outfitted with capital weapons.

The insurgents here in the Esob system were not lacking in courage, K’Vada would grant them that. They had not picked their battles wisely, however. In a single engagement, the Klingon forces had destroyed a contingent of vessels that might have harried Federation and Klingon aid convoys for weeks had they not been so carelessly committed.

Cardassian rebel assaults on allied military and relief forces had been on the rise since the end of the war, but thus far they had been scattered and of inconsistent intensity. Thankfully, no single figurehead had risen up to accept the mantle of leadership and coordinate the efforts of all those Cardassians who hungered for freedom from the occupation that, in K’Vada’s opinion, they so richly deserved.

The general would be hard pressed to admit it, but he was glad that the resistance was being so quickly overwhelmed. When he looked into the eyes of his comrades, he no longer saw the call of the hunt, the warrior’s spirit. The war had exhausted them; it had actually managed to sate the previously unquenchable Klingon desire for battle and conquest.

These men and women wanted to return home to their families, to share their stories of courage and honor with their loved ones and carve their names into their Houses’ ancestral histories.

He stood from the command chair as he nodded to Captain Yejokk. “The ship is yours. Proceed to Quedis Prime and carry out retaliatory bombardment. We’ll see if these insolent back-births can be taught to heel before we’re forced to expunge them entirely.”

K’Vada strode off the bridge to walk the dimly lit and echoing corridors of the Kang. He was treading in dangerous waters, and he relished the sensation. The High Council had not given the general permission to conduct reprisals on such a large scale, but neither had they forbade it. Doubtless, the Federation would howl indignantly and insist that the many could not be made to pay for the crimes of but a few. So be it. Mercy was not the Klingon way; victors subjugated the vanquished. The conquered could not be allowed the indulgence of armed rebellion, lest others see their impudence as a sign of Klingon weakness. The Cardassians had proved too dangerous to be allowed to exist as anything other than a servitor race to the Empire and its allies.

At last, K’Vada reached his destination, the ship’s strategic intelligence center. In this spacious compartment, dozens of warriors and assorted technicians hunched over computer terminals as they compiled and analyzed all manner of data collected by subspace transceivers, remote spy drones, and intelligence agents in the field. All potentially relevant information collected from throughout the sectors of space that K’Vada’s Eighth Allied Task Force was responsible for was routed to this room.

Commander Vurdis held the duty watch officer’s post at this hour and maintained a vigil over all SIC operations from a large console atop a raised dais in the center of the room. She stood as K’Vada ascended the steps to the platform, then executed a formal Klingon salute which brought a bemused grunt from the general. “Status?”

“Nominal, sir. Units in all sectors have reported in on schedule.”

“Anything of note?”

Vurdis handed a data padd to her superior. “Yes, General. We’ve had some interesting subspace traffic from the Crolsa system. Decrypted intercepts indicate the Starfleet task force there is apparently experiencing difficulties with the Cardassian colony world of Lakesh. From what we’ve been able to gather, they’ve lost one starship in the past day, and suffered serious casualties on another. It looks as if they’re also facing stiff resistance from insurgent forces on the surface.”

K’Vada scowled as he scrolled through the report. “Why is this the first I’ve heard of it?”

Vurdis replied, “It appears as though Starfleet has been careful to keep this information restricted to their chain-of-command, sir.”

The general snarled, “You mean they’ve kept this from us intentionally?”

“It would appear so, General. Either they are genuinely embarrassed about their inability to control the rebellion on Lakesh, or they fear what Klingon retaliation would mean for the population of the planet.”

K’Vada growled with disgust, “Fools! Resistance must be met with overwhelming might, not words.” He leaned forward and pounded his fist on the comms switch. “Bridge, new orders. Inform the Yaku and Vaj’la to continue with the present mission. Set course for the Crolsa system immediately, best speed. Tell the Grolkam they will escort us.” He abruptly severed the channel and then looked to Vurdis. “It was a mistake to entrust Cardassian worlds to Starfleet supervision. Better that we had conquered the Union ourselves four years ago. The Dominion would never have gained a foothold in the Alpha Quadrant.”

The general jabbed at the control interface to call up an image of Lakesh on one of the room’s master view screens. “Whoever is responsible for these attacks must not be allowed to capitalize on their success.”

He turned and stormed back down the steps as he headed for the exit. “If we must save Starfleet from their own incompetence, then that is how it shall be!”

*****

Vice Admiral Salk’s stern countenance filled the viewer on Sandhurst’s desktop terminal. The Vulcan flag officer was stationed on Starbase 375, the closest major Federation outpost other than Deep Space Nine. The captain had just spent the last half hour updating Salk on the perilous Federation situation on and around Lakesh.

At Sandhurst’s insistence, the seven Federation supply ships and four other non-aligned relief vessels in orbit had withdrawn to positions at the LaGrange points between Lakesh and the planet’s two moons. The personnel wounded by the bio-warfare attack on Phoenix had been transferred to some of the recently emptied civilian cargo ships and had been placed in medical stasis chambers. The industrial replicators on the surface had been reprogrammed to produce the components necessary for the stasis tanks, before Gibraltar and Phoenix’s retreating security teams destroyed the invaluable devices to prevent them from falling into insurgent hands.

Salk was, to put it mildly, unimpressed with Sandhurst’s strategy. “I am curious as to the logic behind a complete retreat from the surface of the planet, Captain.” The Admiral’s vocal inflections were irritatingly precise, and Sandhurst wondered if they were intended to produce the level of frustration he was currently experiencing. The Vulcan’s unwavering gaze continued to bore into the captain from lightyears away.

Sandhurst made sure to keep his tone calm and even as he formed his rebuttal. “With respect, Admiral, the security situation of our forces in orbit had been compromised. Even without the bio-weapon used on Phoenix, we’d have been hard pressed to maintain an effective peacekeeping presence on the ground. I can’t say for certain that the enemy has us outnumbered, sir, but I am sure they are fielding advanced weapons and sensor countermeasures that we haven’t encountered before, not even at the height of the war. Given the losses suffered in the past twenty-four hours and our enemy’s apparent ability to strike us at will, I felt the only sensible recourse was to pull back, study the situation, and reconstitute our assets.”

Reconstitute our assets? Sandhurst felt as if he were making a cadet’s presentation in an academy strategic command course.

The admiral appeared unmoved by Sandhurst’s argument. “You would have me believe your only option was to evacuate the entirety of the Federation presence on Lakesh, leaving control of the planet in the hands of what is assuredly a tiny, militant minority? I presume you realize that such action will only encourage similar uprisings among other like-minded groups?” Without waiting for a reply, Salk admonished, “I would caution you that historically speaking, a single such event can be the proverbial spark that ignites an inferno.”

The captain held an exasperated sigh in check. “I understand your concerns, sir. In fact, I share them. We’ve been on the defensive since Gibraltar arrived in orbit. Right now, we’re in an untenable tactical position. We’re fighting the enemy on their terms and time table. As acting on-scene commander, I believe our best hope of success under these circumstances is to gather intelligence on our enemy while making ourselves as difficult a target as possible.”

“So noted. I have documented my objections for the record, Captain," Salk returned dryly. "I will not attempt to micro-manage this mission from here. However, in the eventuality that your conduct on this assignment results in further review by Starfleet Command, I have logged my formal opinion of the decisions you have made to date.”

Abruptly changing tacks, the admiral held up an isolinear optical chip, which he then inserted into his terminal. “We have analyzed the information gathered by your sensors during the attacks on your ships, and Starfleet Intelligence has made some interesting discoveries. It appears Phoenix has fallen victim to what we’d hoped to be a peculiar technological dead end.”

Still on the defensive, Sandhurst remained silent, waiting for his superior to elaborate.

The captain’s monitor now displayed a split screen, with Salk on one half and technical schematics overlaid with text on the other. “More than a decade ago, a little known terrorist organization on the planet Rutia IV created a device utilizing a spatial fold as an alternative to standard matter/energy transport…” The admiral went on to explain how the device had been used, and how Starfleet Command had ordered all data regarding that particular line of research classified.

Well, the captain mused, that explains why Elisto couldn’t find anything similar in the Federation database. I’d almost begun to doubt his competence.

Salk finished his brief, then raised an eyebrow in an expression tantamount to a look of complete incredulity on a human. “Captain, can you explain how a device that seems to have no other purpose than to create a defensive barrier against just such a dimensional shift has simply appeared aboard your ship?”

Sandhurst answered without hesitation. “I cannot, Admiral. Lieutenant Ashok assures me that he inspected every meter of maintenance conduit in the ship prior to leaving drydock. He personally oversaw the final phase of Gibraltar’s refit. If he tells me it wasn’t there when she left Starbase 234, it wasn’t there.” Sandhurst clasped his hands together and rested them in his lap to prevent a bout of nervous fidgeting. He didn’t like where this was going.

“In which case you have a saboteur on board. I trust you are taking appropriate measures to identify the culprit?”

“Yes, sir. My chief of security is conducting interviews as we speak. However, I’m not so sure the intent was sabotage. Had the person or persons in question planted a bomb on that same flow regulator instead of the mystery device, it would have seriously compromised our structural integrity field. As I see it, whoever did this appears to have saved my crew from a debilitating bio-warfare attack.”

Admiral Salk paused to digest the captain’s comment before he delivered his acerbic reply. “Your conclusion is based on defective reasoning, Captain. The presence of the device aboard your ship indicates a fundamental collapse in your onboard security and safety protocols. To trust in the intentions of parties whose objectives are unknown is illogical in the extreme.”

Sandhurst rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Be that as it may, sir, that’s my decision.” He raised his eyes to the screen again and forged ahead. “I could use any assistance you could provide by way of more ships or resources.”

Salk consulted a padd. “I have routed the starship Soval to your coordinates, but it will not reach you for another five days. I regret that no other Starfleet assets can currently be diverted from ongoing assignments."

Terrific, the captain thought bitterly. Nothing from command but criticism and empty promises. I guess we go this alone.

*****

Banti Awokou’s ready room aboard Phoenix was a comfortably outfitted office, meticulously decorated with cultural artifacts from dozens of worlds which, despite their divergent origins, somehow managed to compliment one another. Taguan death masks hung alongside Hutu tribal idols. A replica of a pre-Surak Vulcan sand sculpture sat next to detailed model of humanity’s first lunar base. The captain’s forceful personality was stamped into every book, tapestry, picture, and bauble in the compartment, and their presence only served as a reminder to Liana Ramirez that she was trespassing here.

As she sat at the desk reviewing progress reports on Phoenix’s ongoing decontamination operation, she mused that this was not precisely how she’d envisioned her first command experience. The crew was still in shock from the severity of the attack, and the grotesque nature of the injuries inflicted on the victims. The pathogen had effectively decapitated the vessel’s command structure and had infected the entire senior staff with the exception of one person, the chief operations officer, Lieutenant Faltyne.

The crew’s distress at their collective loss was only magnified by the perceived indignity of being placed under the command of Gibraltar’s XO. Ramirez was tempted to wonder if Sandhurst really needed her here, or if this was pay back for her attitude upon his taking command of Gibraltar. Considering the meeting she was about to have, the irony was thick enough to choke on.

The door chimed, and Ramirez sat a little straighter in her chair. “Enter.”

Faltyne, the Andorian lieutenant responsible for the abortive mini-mutiny among Phoenix’s shuttle flight to Lakesh, walked in and came to attention, flanked by two security officers. “Reporting as ordered, sir.”

His statement was clearly meant as sarcasm, but Ramirez let it slide. She could not help but feel a certain kinship for the man. In many ways, Faltyne’s career had mirrored her own. Beginning his service in the Security/Tactical branch, he’d demonstrated a gift for leadership early on. Each of his service evaluations had contained greater praise than the one before, and in preparation for an eventual rise to the command division, he’d transferred to the Operations branch. He had been pegged by higher-ups a rising star, one of the up-and-coming young officers destined to one day captain his own ship. His fit of temper and blatant insubordination following the attack on Phoenix had called all those assumptions into question, however. Now, his future as a Starfleet officer was hanging by a fragile thread.

Ramirez motioned to the chair facing the desk, and Faltyne sat. She dismissed the two guards, who took up station just outside the doors as they hissed closed. “Lieutenant, I want you to hear me out before saying anything. Captain Sandhurst has authorized me to drop all charges of insubordination and conduct unbecoming that you’re currently facing, providing you agree to his terms.”

Faltyne looked intrigued, but maintained a defiant posture.

“I need someone to function as my first officer, and your name is at the top of the list. The crew knows and trusts you. However, before I make my decision, I want assurances from you that you’re done running off and trying to play by your own rules. I won’t have someone’s thirst for revenge jeopardizing the safety of the crew.”

Faltyne’s blue skin darkened with a blush as his antennae waved in short, frenetic bursts.

Ramirez had attended the academy with an Andorian cadet who had become a close friend, and knew from experience with their non-verbals that the lieutenant was wrestling internally with extreme agitation. “Permission to speak candidly?”

Ramirez nodded wordlessly.

“I should be sitting in that chair, not you.”

“You probably would be," she responded icily, "if you hadn’t violated Captain Sandhurst’s orders yesterday. Honestly, after your little performance, you should be in the brig instead of restricted to quarters. However, with so many of your crew out of commission, the captain felt we’d be better served with you doing your duty.” She leaned forward and rested her elbows on the table, hands intertwined. "You owe him, Lieutenant.”

Faltyne looked unconvinced. “You’re saying that if I tow the line and do my job, he’s going to forget about the whole thing?”

Ramirez nodded slowly to emphasize the point. “That’s what I’m saying. The man could end your career with a single incident report, but he’s not going to do that unless you force his hand.” She fixed the steeliest gaze on him that she could muster, but Faltyne met her eyes unflinchingly.

“The deal is this: You become my XO. You follow my orders, and we follow his orders. It’s a nice, cozy little chain-of-command.” She rested back in the chair to observe the lieutenant as his antennae now cut slow, thoughtful arcs through the air. “Does that work for you, Mister Faltyne?”

Faltyne’s expression was a mix of resignation and relief. In truth, despite his bluster he was grateful to have been given a second chance. His actions on the day in question seemed so alien now, so completely unlike him. He’d let his anger and his warrior ethos guide his hand, and his quest for vengeance had temporarily overridden his common sense and his dedication to duty. The Andorian was also thankful that Sandhurst wasn’t any more enthusiastic than he to publicize the incident.

“I agree, sir.”

Ramirez reached out and toggled the intercom to address the waiting security officers outside. “Gentlemen, thank you. You’re dismissed.”

She stood to extend a hand. “I’m looking forward to working with you, XO.”

Faltyne rose as well, and took her hand in a firm grip. It was less a mere handshake, he thought, and more the confirmation of a sacred clan pact. Having witnessed what he believed to be the end of his career, he found himself pulled back from the precipice, spared the indignity of a court martial and a return to Andoria in disgrace. “As am I, sir.”

*****

<cont'd>
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