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Old February 21 2010, 08:15 AM   #39
Gibraltar
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Embers of the Fire - Chapter 11

Chapter 11 <cont'd>

The column of energetic particles coalesced into the imposing form of General K’Vada, undisputed leader of the Allied 8th Task Force, Cardassian Administration Command. He wasn’t especially tall for a Klingon, nor was his Defense Force uniform adorned with the various medals and emblems customary for one of his rank. Nonetheless, from the moment he regained corporeal substance he took command of the room and those within it.

Master Chief Tark blew a piercing tone on the boatswain’s whistle, and Lar’ragos issued a terse, “Atten-shun!” that brought the assembled honor guard snapping into formation in unison.

The Klingon’s eyes searched the compartment as he scanned for unseen opponents and dangers despite the obvious presence of his allies. K’Vada was a creature of habit, and the warrior’s training could not be undone. His gaze finally settled on Captain Sandhurst, who, like his officers was standing at attention. K'Vada decided impulsively to invoke Klingon tradition for the sake of nothing other than his own amusement. He growled, “Who is master of this vessel?”

Sandhurst was caught flat-footed. He tried to keep his expression neutral and he replied with as much passion as he could manage. “I am, sir.”

From beside him, Ramirez managed to address the captain sotto voce without breaking ranks. “…I yield to you, General.”

“But I yield to you, General.” Sandhurst parroted as he stared at the back wall of the transporter pad, careful to avoid eye contact with his belligerent superior.

K’Vada grunted, secretly amused that the humans had enough presence of mind to cope with his mercurial nature... thus far. He stepped down off the pad unbidden to take measure of the crew of the only Starfleet vessel to survive the perils of the Lakesh operation. He scrutinized the senior officers present and finally set his unyielding gaze back on the captain. “So, you are the one who allowed our enemies to escape.” K’Vada then swept past Sandhurst declaring, “I would speak with you alone, Captain.” With that, he strode through the parting doors and into the corridor.

Unable to maintain his poker face, Sandhurst blushed fiercely as he followed the general out of the compartment. He looked mad enough to chew neutronium, and Ramirez and Lar’ragos exchanged worried glances before falling into step behind their CO.

As he stalked down the corridor behind K’Vada, Sandhurst asked in a tone tight with emotion, “Does the General require an explanation?”

The Klingon wheeled around, his hand instinctively moving to grasp the handle of his d’k tagh blade, sheathed on his uniform belt. Sandhurst came up short, uncertain if an attack was forthcoming. K’Vada spoke calmly, but the menace in his voice was unmistakable. “If and when I require an explanation, Captain, you will know it.”

Lar’ragos stepped forward to stand abreast of Sandhurst as his eyes took in all of K’Vada at once. Sandhurst could sense his friend’s anticipation, the man’s body coiling like a spring. The Klingon and El Aurian locked eyes and gauged each other in a long moment of tense silence.

Sandhurst smiled wanly, and said by way of introduction, “This is my Chief of Security and Tactical, Lieutenant Lar’ragos.” To Pava he murmured, “At ease. Everything’s fine here.”

K’Vada scowled; the expression accentuated his prominent cranial ridges. “If your man does not yield, I will soon take offense.” The hiss of his d’k tagh sliding halfway out of its scabbard raised the hairs on the back of Sandhurst’s neck.

Sandhurst offered Lar’ragos the slightest of nods and the Tactical officer stepped back a pace. “With your permission, Captain, I’ll resume my station on the bridge.”

“Granted.”

Lar’ragos about-faced and left, very much against his better judgment. Ramirez remained a few steps behind and tried to look as innocuous as possible under the circumstances.

After he had regained some of his composure, Sandhurst began again. “You said you wished to speak with me, sir. I’d suggest my ready room, unless you’ve any objections?”

He drove his blade back into its sheath and K’Vada said, “Lead on.”

*****

Sandhurst had spent the better part of forty-five minutes reporting on the current situation in the Crolsa system, largely the same report he’d given to Admiral Salk less than forty-eight hours earlier. As luck would have it, K’Vada’s expression was almost as inscrutable as the Admiral’s, which left Sandhurst to deliver his account in the absence of feedback.

He decided to hold nothing in reserve, and so the captain delivered the most accurate description possible, blemishes and all. “…and we were able to arrange a collision between the cruiser and Sojourner. I then ordered a recovery operation for the survivors of the Phoenix.” The captain hesitated, despite his wariness of overemphasizing his next statement. “I felt it more important to rescue our people than hunt down the remnants of the insurgent attack wing.” Sandhurst met K’Vada’s stony visage and finished, he thought, rather lamely. “And that’s where you arrived.”

K’Vada sat in silence for a full minute, clearly mulling over all he’d heard. When the general was finally moved to speak, Sandhurst found himself unable to read the Klingon with enough accuracy to prepare for praise or damnation. “You and your crew fought well, Captain. That is no small thing.” He rose unexpectedly from his chair and K’Vada loomed over Sandhurst. “However, allowing your enemies to escape the field of battle to fight another day is inexcusable. Were you one of my captains, my blade would now be buried to the hilt in your chest.”

Sandhurst cleared his throat. “Then I’m thankful I’m not a member of the Defense Forces, General.”

Ignoring the captain’s glib reply, K’Vada continued. “I am also displeased with your lack of foresight. Despite telling me that you knew there was an interdimensional transport device aboard the Cardassian cruiser, you’ve taken no steps to secure anything that might remain of it.”

Sandhurst’s face colored but he held his tongue, as much because of his concern for the Klingon’s reaction as for the fact that the general’s words rang true.

The warrior’s arms were folded across his chest and the full weight of his glare was directed at the human. “In spite of your neglecting the Vintar, my soldiers have managed to recover not only the remnants of the ‘DST’ as you call it, but two survivors from the ship’s wreckage. I am informed that both require more medical care than our doctors are capable of providing.”

Without thinking, Sandhurst quickly snapped at the bait. “I’m sure we could be of assistance in that matter, sir.”

A brief smile was all that announced K’Vada’s pleasure at the small victory. “It will be so. The prisoners will be transported over shortly. It would have been a shame for them to expire before having been thoroughly interrogated."

I stepped right into that one, Sandhurst fumed. We fix them up so he can torture them for information. Lovely. I’ve got to stop thinking of this guy as some half-witted thug.

Out loud, Sandhurst merely said, “Indeed.” The captain stood and moved to the replicator station recessed into the ready room’s wall. “Would you care for a beverage, General?”

The Klingon refused with a terse grunt as the captain fiddled with the replicator controls manually. Sandhurst stalled and tried to make his next question sound as inoffensive as possible. “Have you decided on our next course of action, sir?”

“I have.” With Sandhurst out of his chair, K’Vada took the opportunity to move behind the desk and look out the viewport at the shadowy disk of Lakesh’s night side. “I am a believer in the old ways, Captain. My people were subjugating alien worlds when humans still fought with swords and primitive firearms. We will take and fortify a foothold position on the surface, and then expand our sphere of influence incrementally. I will install a planetary overseer who will implement martial law among the civilian populace.”

Sandhurst turned back towards the general, cradling a mug of Rigellian spice coffee in his hands. “And the insurgency?”

Still examining the faint outline of the planet through the transparent aluminum partition, K’Vada smiled darkly. “Such movements do not exist in a vacuum. The rebels undoubtedly draw resources from the general population, including new converts to their cause.” The general turned to look at Sandhurst, clearly intending to measure the captain’s reaction. “We will identify those civilians with ties to the insurgency, and we will apply the necessary pressure to exploit that information.”

Sandhurst carefully controlled his facial expression, determined not to show further weakness in front of this man. “And how will you respond to additional attacks?”

“That is a simple matter. For each of my warriors killed by the cowards’ hands, I shall terminate a hundred civilians. If that proves insufficient, I will increase the number of retaliatory casualties until I achieve positive results."

And there it is, Sandhurst sighed inwardly. He couldn’t have drawn a clearer line in the sand had he wanted to.

The captain steeled himself for the next exchange. “With due respect, General, the Khitomer Accords specifically forbid mass retaliation against civilian populations, even in wartime. Such policies are the underpinnings of the alliance between our peoples.”

K’Vada laughed; a harsh sound devoid of humor. “Perhaps the Starfleet captain who laid waste the surface of the Cardassian colony on Loval was unaware of this?”

Sandhurst blanched. Not only did he know of the incident K’Vada alluded to, he was personally acquainted with the captain who’d given the horrific order during the waning days of the Dominion War.

“That was wartime, General. It was spit second decision that saved the lives of tens of thousands of allied soldiers.”

Captain Terrence Glover of the starship Cuffe, aboard which Sandhurst had once served, had led an allied attack group which had been caught in the crosshairs of a giant planet-based vadion cannon. An abortive attempt to knock out the weapon with tactical fighters had failed, and in a last desperate gambit, Glover had invoked the infamous ‘General Order 24’ that had reduced the surface of Loval to scorched rock and carbon.

Despite the personal enmity that existed between he and Glover, Sandhurst had often wondered if he himself possessed the necessary fortitude to have issued such a command under the circumstances.

“Yes, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of ‘innocent’ Cardassian lives. It proves that your own people have committed similar acts when such measures were warranted, Captain. That officer was cleared of any wrongdoing by your own admiralty, so do not presume to flaunt your human morality at me.”

Sandhurst shook his head slightly, the gesture so minute as to almost go undetected. He set the untouched cup of coffee on the corner of his desk, his thirst now forgotten. “I won’t stand here and debate such actions on a case-by-case basis, General. I can only say with conviction that war crimes of that nature go not only against my training as a Starfleet officer, but every fiber of my being.”

K’Vada smiled and his mouth contorted into a toothy grimace that merely hinted at the horrors the general was capable of inflicting. “Then it is fortunate that I have no intention of ordering you to participate in this operation. As far as I am concerned, Captain, your responsibilities here at Lakesh have been fulfilled.”

He glanced down at the carpet for a long moment before he raised his eyes to once again meet the general’s. Sandhurst felt what little control he had over the present situation slipping away from him. “Those orders would need to come from Starfleet Command, sir.” That was a formality, a stalling tactic, and it was blatantly obvious to both of them.

“And so they shall.” K’Vada turned his back on the planet to grip his uniform belt as the well worn leather of his uniform creaked. “Before you leave, I require the schematics of the plasma modulating device that you discovered aboard your ship.”

Sandhurst was still trying to wrap his head around his summary dismissal from the crisis that had so enveloped he and his crew for the past week. He replied in an absent murmur, “I can do one better, sir. We’ve put together a prototype copy of the device that I’d intended to put aboard Phoenix.” He fought to regain focus and added a bit more forcefully, “Of course, it would need to be modified to adapt to your systems, but that shouldn’t take long.”

“Very well, Captain.” The general stepped out from behind the desk and moved toward the door. He paused on the threshold to turn back towards Sandhurst. “The mission to rebuild Lakesh may have ended in failure, but you have survived everything the enemy has thrown at you. It does not taste like victory, to be sure, but it should give you some solace.”

With that, K’Vada stepped out onto the bridge while the captain followed behind. “Commander Ramirez, please escort the general to the transporter room.” Sandhurst looked to Lar’ragos, "Lieutenant, a moment of your time.” He turned and stepped back inside as Ramirez and the Klingon entered the turbolift.

Lar’ragos found the captain in the same position held by K’Vada moments earlier, his back to the door as he examined the bright crescent of the planet’s impending sunrise. “As bad as I think?” the El Aurian posited.

“Worse, probably.”

“What’d he say?” Lar’ragos looked skeptical.

Without looking back at the Tactical officer, Sandhurst sighed. “Take your pick of the most notorious Klingon occupations of the 23rd century. He’s a fan of the classics.”

Lar’ragos blew out a breath. “Great. Where’s that leave us?”

Sandhurst was silent and continued to stare out the viewport. After a few moments he replied, “K’Vada will contact Starfleet and inform them that he’s taking command of the situation here. Admiral Salk will be only too happy to wash his hands of this mess, and will order us out of the system. We’ll either be replaced by the Soval and her compliant Vulcan crew, or Starfleet will abandon the Crolsa system altogether, leaving these people to the tender mercies of their Klingon overlords.”

“When you say it like that, you make it sound so sinister,” Lar’ragos noted dryly.

Sandhurst laughed despite himself, but the gesture was weighted with irony. “Don’t I, though?” He turned back to pull out his chair and settle into it. Hands clasped over his lap, the captain scrutinized his friend for a long moment. “So, you think you could take him?”

Lar’ragos appeared surprised by the question. “K’Vada? I don’t know.” He side stepped and took a seat on the small couch facing the desk. “Maybe not.”

Genuinely shocked at the admission, Sandhurst looked nonplussed. “You’re kidding. You’re the most dangerous man I’ve ever met.” He cocked his head to one side thoughtfully, and Sandhurst amended, “Alright, second most dangerous after Terry Glover. He kills planets.”

Lar'ragos smirked as he shrugged lightly. “Hey, I spent my youth studying painting, poetry, and philosophy. The general spent his youth with a bat’leth in hand, kicking the shit out of friend and foe alike.” Pava leaned back to drape his arm over the couch. “I’ve done my share of scrapping in the interim, but that man’s bred to battle.” He gave Sandhurst a suspicious look. “Why, you want me to challenge him to a duel?”

He shook his head and Sandhurst gazed down at his hands. “I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t considered it.” He turned to look out the viewport again. “He even got me to agree to treat the two Cardassian prisoners they fished off that Galor. Even latinum says he’s looking to us to render them hail and hearty enough for a good bout of agonizer assisted questioning.”

“That sounds right.” Lar’ragos trained his inherited senses on the captain, prepared to dissect every nuance of Sandhurst’s reply. “So what do we do about it?”

“I don’t know that there’s anything we can do, Pava.” Sandhurst glanced up at his friend, looking self-conscious. “Remember my Directive Number One from the academy?”

“Of course. Birds fly, fish swim… and Donald follows orders.”

Sandhurst bobbed his head, looking morose.

“Personally, I think you need to bring Monica in on this.”

Sandhurst’s head snapped up as his expression shifted at near light speed to one of alarm. “Admiral Covey? Why? She’s got nothing to do with this sector.”

“Perhaps, but unlike Salk she’s got a conscience she’ll admit to. If nothing else, she can let the rest of Command know what’s going on out here before Salk and the Security Council wrap this sector up in so much ‘eyes only’ secrecy that you’d need a presidential order to admit that we were ever here.”

“I’ll… think about it.”

Lar’ragos stood. “Good. In the meantime, I’ll start coordinating with my Klingon counterparts, let them know everything we’ve discovered about our enemy so far.”

As he directed another glance out the viewport, Sandhurst mused, “You think K’Vada can wreak so much havoc with one ship?”

Lar’ragos gave Sandhurst a dubious stare. “That ‘one ship’ has over a thousand battle hardened Klingon ground troops aboard, and that’s aside from the vessel’s own crew compliment. And I’d remind you, we only see one ship in orbit. I’ve always believed you have to worry more about the Klingons you can’t see than the ones you can.”

“You’re saying the Kang isn’t alone?”

Lar'ragos nodded curtly. “Count on it."

*****
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