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Old February 23 2010, 06:31 PM   #42
Gibraltar
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Embers of the Fire - Chapter 12

Chapter 12

Jonin Faltyne hated water. He had come from the sub-arctic world of Andoria and had learned from an early age to swim as a matter of course. Despite his racial heritage, he despised the liquid medium. The feeling of his body gliding through water was more alien to him than soaring through the cosmos at warp speed. Streams, rivers, lakes or oceans, it made no difference.

Faltyne had found the mandatory swimming courses at Starfleet Academy’s enormous aquatic facility outside Tokyo to be a particularly arduous portion of his training, one he’d swore never to repeat if it could be helped.

As he clung to the side of the mortally wounded escape pod, bobbing helplessly in the coastal waters off one of Lakesh’s Cirensa islands, Lieutenant Faltyne had plenty of opportunity to reflect on his hatred of water. After leaving the stricken wreckage of the Phoenix, Faltyne’s life pod had collided with a debris field, causing serious damage to the vehicle. It had held together just long enough to survive atmospheric entry, veering off course and slamming into the ocean in a superheated state that had sent great plumes of steam thundering into the air. It had begun taking on water immediately, which forced the lieutenant to scramble out of the pod with those few survival supplies he could gather amid the rising water.

The Andorian figured he was perhaps two kilometers from shore. The water temperature hovered at about seventeen degrees Celsius, and Faltyne judged by the creeping numbness in his limbs that he needed to get the rescue raft inflated, and soon. The raft’s auto-inflation mechanism had been damaged in the crash, and with deadening fingers, he struggled to join the gas cylinder to the receiver port. Jonin fought back a sense of panic as he wrestled with the mechanism, treading water frantically as the life pod began to sink beneath the waves beside him.

I survive a space battle, the destruction of my ship, burning into a planet’s atmosphere out of control, he lamented, and now I’m going to drown?

With a final desperate burst of energy, he forced the cylinder into the port and held it there as the air screamed into the raft, filling it rapidly. His task complete, Faltyne used his remaining strength to push his survival pack into the small craft and pull himself in after. Exhausted and freezing, he wrapped a thermo-blanket from the survival pack around himself. He rifled through the survival pack and found the emergency subspace transmitter hopelessly shattered. He reached for his compin, only to discover it missing, undoubtedly torn away in his hurried egress from the pod. Facing a deficit of options, he slept. For how long, he couldn’t say.

Faltyne awoke to the sounds of voices and water lapping against a wooden hull. He roused himself with great effort and tried to steal a quick glance over the edge of his raft, cursing his obviousness of his antennae. He was relieved to see what appeared to be a small fishing boat, crewed by men who looked to be Cardassian civilians.

Within moments, Jonin was safely aboard their craft, a metal cup of hot fish juice in hand. As they headed back towards the nearest island, the captain of the fishing trawler told Faltyne that the people of his village had observed his escape pod’s fiery descent, and had launched their boats in hopes of rendering what assistance they could. The lieutenant thanked them profusely.

Suddenly a dark shadow fell across the small boat with a roar, and Faltyne dropped to the deck as a Cardassian military skimmer hove into view above the trawler. Even with his reflexes slowed by cold and exhaustion, Jonin managed to ramp his phaser to maximum and let go a sustained burst that sizzled harmlessly off the skimmer’s shields. As the stun beam engulfed him, Faltyne knew that worse things than water would soon be in store for him.

Much worse.

*****

Pava Lar’ragos was addicted to the Starfleet TacNet. On average, he spent at least an hour every other day interfacing with the interactive tactical network utilized by security personnel throughout the Fleet to communicate and disseminate information. Officers needing ideas on anything from finding a cloaked Romulan warbird to how to deal with an obstinate subordinate could post their queries on the TacNet and avail themselves of their peers’ collective knowledge and experience.

Lar’ragos had posted a ‘hypothetical’ query on strategy and tactics based on the circumstances they’d faced here at Lakesh. He’d just been reading a flurry of interesting responses; unfortunately, the consensus of his colleagues was that there was no easy way out of their current predicament.

The door to his quarters chimed, rousing him from his correspondence. “Come in.”

The door slid open to reveal the disheveled form of Liana Ramirez, hair in disarray, clad in a rumpled uniform that had clearly been thrown on as an afterthought. “I’m sorry to bother you, Lieutenant.” She remained standing in the doorway, looking very much like she might bolt at any second.

Clad in a loose fitting tunic and pants, Pava stood, looking curiously at the exec. “Something I can help you with, Commander?”

“I… “ She sighed, “I’m not sure.”

“Well, I don’t think we’re going to find out with you haunting my doorway. Why don’t you come in?” He gestured to a sitting chair across from the cabin’s couch. Ramirez moved slowly, taking the proffered seat with an air of hesitancy.

Lar’ragos moved to the replicator, recycling an empty mug and withdrawing an identical one filled with steaming chamomile tea. “Something to drink, sir?”

Ramirez shook her head, her tousled hair waving vigorously.

Lar’ragos couldn’t remember seeing Ramirez this vulnerable before, it was like observing an entirely different person.

He took a seat on the couch facing Ramirez. Lar’ragos sipped at his tea while focusing his senses on the younger woman. “Trouble sleeping?”

“You could say that.”

Lar’ragos offered a friendly smile. “You’ve come to the right place. Rumor has it I’m a good listener.”

After a moment’s silence, she raised her head and trained her gaze on the El Aurian. “In the past two days I’ve survived losing a starship and hundreds of crew under my command, and yet all I can think about is…” she fell silent, struggling with the next words.

“…the boy.” Pava finished for her. Her eyes widened and she stole a glance towards the door, fighting the urge to flee. “No, I can’t read your mind, Commander,” he said soothingly. “Think of it as… acute intuition.”

He set the mug down on an end table. “Something about that incident is still bothering you?”

She nodded. “He was just a kid. About the same age I was when I ran away from home.” She ran a hand through her hair, brushing it away from her eyes. “Who knows. Under different circumstances, he could have been headed to the academy. He might have had a future.”

“Maybe so. “ He leaned forward, encouraging her to reestablish eye contact as her head dropped. “Life is choices, sir. That boy made a series of decisions that led him to confront our away team on that day. He’s responsible for his own fate.”

“I know that. Rationally, I know that.”

Lar’ragos observed her silently for a moment. “But emotionally…”

“I can’t get his face out of my head. Every time I close my eyes, he’s there.” She rubbed her eyes, as if trying to extinguish the image. “I probably killed a dozen people that day, and the only one who’s giving me trouble is one I didn’t.” She took in a deep breath, trying to steady herself. “At first, he was so angry. After I tackled him and we were fighting, he just seemed… terrified.”

“That terrified boy knocked you unconscious and then tried to stab you.”

That caught Ramirez’s attention. “He did? I didn’t know that.”

Lar’ragos sat back. “Yes. After you fell off of him, he pulled out a rather wicked looking knife and was about to drive it into your chest.”

The exec took a deep breath and wiped her eyes. “Did you shoot him?”

“No," the older man shook his head fractionally.

“What happened to him?”

Lar’ragos tried to sidestep the question. “Look, I really don’t think going into the details is going to hel—“

“I have to know, Lieutenant.”

Lar’ragos sat still for a moment. “If you must know, I broke his neck.”

Ramirez shuddered, overwhelmed by the events of the past few days. “Such a waste. All of it. After everything these people have been through, that they should have to suffer this.” She wiped away another tear. “And the crews of Phoenix and Sojourner. To have survived all the death and devastation of the war, only to be killed on a mission of mercy.”

“That’s why our task is so important, sir. We have the opportunity to at least try and improve their situation. The Federation doesn’t always succeed, but at least we have the moral wherewithal to try. That’s more than can be said for most governments in this quadrant.”

In a small voice she murmured, “I couldn’t save them, Lar’ragos.”

He resisted the urge to lean across and touch her. They weren’t friends. They were barely shipmates. Nonetheless, he sought some words of comfort that might help the younger woman put her recent experiences in perspective. “You know, the captain who delivered the commencement address when I graduated the academy gave us a quote that’s stayed with me. He said, ‘It’s possible to do everything right, and still lose.’”

The lieutenant knew that all the logic in the universe couldn’t salve the pain of losing a ship and crew, but if Liana could hang on long enough to get time and distance from the incident, there was hope for her and her career. He continued, “They had a weapon we couldn’t defend against. Even if you’d been equipped with one of those mysterious plasma modulators, it would only have prevented torpedoes from being placed inside the ship, not inside the shield grid. The result would have been the same.”

She nodded weakly. “I suppose.” She sat in silence for a few moments, Lar’ragos leaving her alone with her thoughts. Then, slowly, a determined glint took hold in her eyes. The tears stopped, and she straightened. Ramirez stood, looking embarrassed as her hands tried valiantly to smooth the wrinkles from her uniform. “Thank you for your time, Mister Lar’ragos.”

Picking up his tea and padd, he smiled amiably. “Any time, Commander.”

Ramirez made a hasty exit, still very self-conscious but feeling better for having given voice to her fears. She hoped that the lieutenant could be trusted to keep his mouth shut. The last thing she needed was the crew laughing about her insecurities behind her back. On top of all the other humiliations she’d been forced to endure on this assignment; that would simply be too much.

She returned to her quarters and slipped into a fitful sleep that promised neither rest nor escape from her nightmares.

*****

Sandhurst stepped onto the bridge from the turbolift and was pleased to see that Plazzi had resumed his post at the Science station. As he moved around to the geologist’s seat, the captain greeted the older man warmly, “Elisto, good to have you back.”

Plazzi smiled. “Thank you, sir.” On his display, a sensor overlay of Lakesh’s northern continent was highlighted in primary colors.

Sandhurst gestured to the screen as he queried, “Any luck?”

The older man shook his head. “Not as such, Captain.” He tapped at his console, enhancing the image of the Avendra mountain range. He pointed to the formidable crests and the scientist noted, “I’ve been trying to scan for any kind of geological formations which could help disguise a subsurface installation, batholiths and the like. Unfortunately, there are high concentrations of fistrium in the rock strata that inhibit sensors.”

Sandhurst looked perturbed as he asked, “Something like nature’s own cloaking device?”

Plazzi nodded glumly.

“Is there anything else we can try? Could we modify some of our sensor probes to penetrate the rock?”

The commander frowned. “Negative, sir. I’ve already crunched the numbers for that. Even heavily shielded, a probe wouldn’t be able to dig deep enough for our purposes. And even if it could, the fistrium in the soil would prevent our getting any meaningful data.”

Sandhurst leaned his back against the edge of the console. “What about… using our phasers to burrow beneath the fistrium layers, sort of like drilling test wells?”

Plazzi turned in his chair to face the captain, chuckling lightly. “The Avendra range is still volcanically active, though it hasn’t had an eruption in close to two centuries. It’s tectonically unstable, Captain. Using either phasers or torpedoes to punch into the strata could set off some very severe seismic events.”

Sandhurst pondered that with a deep breath. “Right. Not really what they need down on the surface at the moment.”

“My thinking as well, sir.”

As he pushed away from the console, Sandhurst patted Plazzi on the shoulder. “Keep on it, Elisto.”

“Aye, sir.”

*****

<cont'd>
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