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Old February 10 2010, 12:35 PM   #31
Gibraltar
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Embers of the Fire - Chapter 9

Chapter 9

A pall of smoke hovered above what little remained of the Glanisuur refugee encampment. The structures erected by Starfleet had been set ablaze, as had the much sought after survival tents. The attackers had expended little effort distinguishing between those buildings supplied by the Federation relief groups, and those simpler structures cobbled together by Cardassian survivors. People here rooted through the debris, scraping through ash, twisted metal and melted polymers in search of food or water or usable refuse.

Tel Hizeal, a Cardassian physician, stooped to check yet another fallen relief worker’s neck for a pulse. Nothing. Tel marveled at his own species’ seemingly endless talent for dispensing death and destruction.

The Cardassian survivors of the insurgent attack on the camp wandered through the smoldering wreckage in a daze. Ruins and anguish. These had become the constants in their lives since the end of the war. Every time these hardy refugees had begun to dig themselves out from under the rubble of the past, even greater evils were visited upon them. Tel wondered idly if this was the universe’s revenge for the Cardassian occupation of Bajor. Perhaps there was some great karmic pool of energy somewhere beyond the stars, which had focused the sum off all the torment the Cardassian Union had caused the rest of the galaxy back onto his people. He could more easily believe that than the more mundane notion that the agony he and his countrymen were suffering was a result of something as obscure as galactic politics.

He found a shovel, clutched in the hands of a Betazoid medic. Hizeal wrenched it free of the man’s death grip as he silently apologized to the recently deceased for the horror that had been their reward for their good works. He began to dig a grave, the first of many. As he slung scoop after scoop of dirt, Tel swore to himself that the deaths here would not be in vain. Cardassia must have a future in which personal freedoms and peace were things to be embraced rather than shunned. When the insurgents next appeared, he vowed, they would find themselves facing at least one more enemy.

*****

“Bridge to Comman… uh, bridge to Captain.”

Ramirez was at her desk in the ready room, deep into a Starfleet Tactical primer on counterinsurgency operations. She rubbed her bleary eyes. “Go ahead.”

“Incoming message from Captain Sandhurst, sir.”

“Put him through.”

Sandhurst’s face sprang to life on her viewer. He inclined his head. “Morning, Captain.” Ramirez was momentarily flustered. Sandhurst had said it without a trace of sarcasm or irony.

“Good morning, sir.”

“How’s the decon coming?”

She reached for her mug of coffee and took a swig . “Better, actually. We’re close to being six hours ahead of schedule. Seventy-six percent of the ship is now habitable.”

“Good to hear. Anything else you need from me on this end?”

Ramirez said, “Not that I can think of, sir. Any luck with your new toy?”

Sandhurst smiled. “Yes. That’s one of the reasons I called. We’re putting the finishing touches on it right now. I’ll be sending Ashok over to assist with its installation.”

“Are we absolutely sure there’s nothing buried in the programming that we don’t know about?” Ramirez’s expression was tinged with concern.

“I’ve had Plazzi and Ashok sift through the programming line by line," Sandhurst replied. "It’s a complex code, but they haven’t seen anything that would indicate a booby-trap.” The captain leaned closer to the screen in an unconscious attempt to convey sincerity through proximity. “I wouldn’t dare place this device aboard Phoenix if I had any doubts as to its safety.”

The acting captain of the Phoenix found herself nodding, “Understood, sir.”

Sandhurst sat back and his mood grew visibly more somber. “Seeing as you’re our resident expert on the Cardassians, I wanted your opinion of our current predicament. Who are we dealing with here? What’s their endgame?”

Ramirez pondered the question for a long moment before answering. “My experience would lead me to believe that we’re dealing with military holdouts. Extremists who can’t stomach the idea of Cardassia existing under the authority of any foreign power.” She took another sip of coffee. “As for their endgame, that’s easy. They want control. They refuse to live in a free society where they don’t get to make the rules. They don’t want the Federation or Klingons in charge, and they don’t want to see a civilian government put in place. These guys are traditionalists, and in Cardassian society nothing is more traditional than despotism”

“They don’t care about the consequences of their actions for the rest of their people?” Sandhurst shook his head in near disbelief.

Ramirez chuckled darkly. “These monsters don’t think like rational sentients, Captain. In their eyes, the average Cardassian citizen is chattel. They’ve no compunctions about sacrificing as many of their people as necessary if it gets them what they want.”

Sandhurst winced at the assessment. “Nice.” He glanced at a padd on his desk, which contained the latest updates from Medical on the state of Phoenix’s injured crew. “Any ideas as to how they got their hands on all the hardware they’ve been using against us?”

She looked less sure of her answer this time. “That I can only guess at, sir. I doubt they’re producing the weapons and countermeasures themselves. What industrial capacity the allies didn’t destroy during the war, the Jem’Hadar were more than happy to finish off. Somebody must be funneling these weapons to them, except I’ve never seen anything like these systems offered on the interstellar arms markets. I’ve been pouring over everything Intel has on weapons brokers and mercenary groups, but I haven’t found any matches.”

The captain shifted in his chair, frowning. “Conjecture?”

Ramirez gave a barely perceptible shrug. “Under normal circumstances, I’d say that maybe the Romulans were responsible. But I can’t see where supporting a Cardassian rebellion would help them, especially now. They’d have to know anything they started in our zone of control would only spill over into the areas of Cardassian space they’ve annexed.”

“I see. Well, maybe we’ve got a new player somewhere behind the scenes.”

“That’s always a possibility, sir.”

The red alert klaxons on both Phoenix and Gibraltar began to sound within seconds of one another. As both ship commanders rose from their seats, they shared a resigned look before they terminated the connection.

*****

Sandhurst stepped onto the bridge and moved to the command chair. Lar’ragos had already left it in favor of his post at the Tactical station. “Report.”

His friend responded, “Sensors just detected multiple threat vessels emerging from the far side of Lakesh’s larger moon. We are at red alert. Shields are up, all weapons standing by.”

“Type and number?”

“Reading one Galor-class cruiser and three Hideki-class pursuit vessels.”

Sandhurst sat forward slightly in his chair. “Helm, place us between the threats and the civilian ships.”

Ensign Lightner sprang from the turbolift. He maneuvered past the captain’s chair and hurried down into the well, where he seamlessly replaced the duty helm officer as he called out, “Aye, sir. Coming to 272-mark-41.”

“Tactical, issue challenge. Warn them off.” Sandhurst looked to Plazzi at the Science station. “Elisto, where did they come from?”

The older man appeared genuinely perplexed. “Unknown, Captain. We’ve scanned that moon at least a dozen times since arriving in orbit. Unless they’re equipped with cloaking devices, the enemy’s done one hell of a job of hiding them.”

From Operations, Juneau announced, “Now reading additional targets inbound, Captain. Looks like… seventeen single-seat fighters… Cardassian design, Ordis-class.” She checked her readings again. “Phoenix is matching our course and speed.”

At Tactical, Lar'ragos called out, “All inbounds running with shields up and weapons hot. They’ve received our challenge hails, but are still closing.”

A warning chimed at Lar’ragos’ station. “They’re locking targets on Phoenix.”

The captain toggled a control on his armrest to open a channel to the other starship. “Sandhurst to Phoenix, you are weapons free. Repeat, engage enemy targets at will.”

Sandhurst watched the approaching ships on the view screen as his mind racing with various tactical calculations. Closing speed, maneuverability, pull from the planet's gravity well, shield power, competing weapons yields and ranges. Though not a terribly inventive student of space combat, he had always found tactical simulations to be relatively straight forward. They were equations of a sort and contained a limited number of variables in a given situation. “Mister Lar’ragos, set photon torpedoes to proximity detonation, maximum dispersal pattern. Let’s take out those fighters before they can get at the civilians.”

“Aye, sir. Firing.”

Gibraltar’s opening salvo sent four photon torpedoes into the formation of interceptors. The projectiles blossomed brightly as the fighters executed violent evasive maneuvers in an attempt to avoid the detonations.

Phoenix took advantage of her superior weapons range to loose a volley of five torpedoes at the enemy before she herself was in range of their guns. Two torpedoes flared briefly against the forward shields of the Vintar, while the other three tracked towards the more maneuverable Hidekis, registering one hit and two misses.

Lar’ragos assessed, “Three enemy fighters destroyed, two disabled, and four others with varying degrees of damage.”

Sandhurst gritted his teeth. His blood pounded in his ears as his pulse increased in tempo. “Concentrate phasers on the fighters when they come in range. Target the Galor with torpedoes.”

*****

The Galor and Hidekis opened fire in unison, their destructive energies targeted exclusively on the Phoenix. Multiple disruptor blasts and two torpedoes slammed into the Nebula-class starship’s shields. From somewhere on the bridge, a voice brittle with tension said, “Shields holding at eighty-three percent.”

Ramirez clung to the command chair as the ship jolted from enemy fire. She watched as the Hidekis maneuvered to envelope Phoenix while the Galor continued to bear down on them, trading blow for blow. She looked to her tactical officer, previously the ensign who manned the late watch, now the senior member of his department. Ramirez spoke to him in her most reassuring voice, “Keep up the fire on the cruiser, we’ll worry about the corsairs later.”

Sweat glistened on the ensign’s forehead, but he nodded and maintained his concentration. From somewhere off-screen, two photon torpedoes from Gibraltar flashed past and pummeled the Galor’s starboard shields.

*****

Gul Panor opened a channel to his fighter squadron and directed them to make a strafing run on the old Constitution-class, then break off and make a dash for the civilian relief ships. He surmised that should be enough of an inducement to draw Gibraltar away from the main fight long enough for them to finish Phoenix.

Panor grunted as Gibraltar’s torpedoes struck and threw him sideways against the armrest of his command seat while further sapping their precious shield strength. The warship trembled under Phoenix’s withering phaser fire. On his viewer, Vintar’s spiral wave disruptors answered in kind and lashed out at Phoenix again and again. Just a bit closer, he urged silently. “Prepare to engage the dimensional shift transporter,” he ordered.

“Target now in range,” his weapons officer declared.

“Forward and starboard shields are weakening,” proclaimed the engineer as his voice betrayed a hint of alarm. The new regenerative Son’a shields were a vast improvement over standard Cardassian technology, but repeated hits from high-yield Starfleet torpedoes and the constant phaser barrage were taking their toll.

Panor smiled mercilessly. “Initiate transport.”

*****

The Cardassian fighters swarmed over Gibraltar and peppered her shields with a fusillade of plasma blasts and guided missiles. The older ship’s phaser banks did not cycle as quickly as Sandhurst would have liked, and in the rapid exchange of fire Gibraltar only managed one kill and another fighter disabled.

From Ops, Juneau noted, “Sir, the attack squadron is breaking off and heading for the civilian ships.”

Sandhurst was momentarily torn. He wanted desperately to pursue the fighters in order to prevent any further civilian casualties, but he knew that the Galor must be dealt with first if they had any chance of surviving the engagement. “Ops, hail the task force. Order the most vulnerable ships to run while those with weapons keep the fighters busy.”

“Aye, sir.”

He turned his attention back on the Galor and ordered, “Target all weapons on that cruiser and fire.”

*****

Two torpedo casings emerged from within brilliant white flashes of light to materialize inside the perimeter of Phoenix’s shields. The first detonated just meters away from the ship’s triangular dorsal-mounted weapons pod. The resulting explosion decimated both the fore and aft torpedo launchers. The second device exploded on contact with the starship’s navigational deflector, and the initial blast reacted with the negatively charged anti-protons on the surface of the dish. The secondary hull of the Phoenix vanished in a concussive detonation that sent the vessel’s severely mauled saucer section spiraling away like a broken discus.

*****

<cont'd>
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