Lar’ragos and his team fanned out through the village of Kendarsi, using their tricorders as crude Geiger-counters. They used the sensor interference itself as their guide, moving towards those areas where their devices were less functional in hopes of stumbling across the offending device.
Lar’ragos and two of his officers forced their way in to a small outbuilding adjoining a family cottage. As Petty Officer Dunleavy’s tricorder burned out with a crackling gout of sparks, Lar’ragos noted, “I think we may be getting close.”
From behind him one of the security NCO’s said, “Lieutenant, check our six.”
Lar'ragos turned as a group of Klingon warriors approached, led by an especially severe looking M’Sharv. The lieutenant fought the urge to raise his weapon, his instincts insisting that something was very wrong here. Still, he could not resist baiting the man. “Done playing grand inquisitor, M’Sharv?”
“Starfleet, it appears you will be leaving.” The burly Klingon actually looked disappointed. “And before we have had our reckoning.”
The QaS DevwI’
rested his hand on the grip of his holstered disruptor pistol.
Just then, Lar'ragos’ helmet comm crackled with Ramirez’s voice. “Gibraltar to away team, stand by for immediate beam-out. Move out of the zone of sensor interference double-time.”
“Acknowledged. On our way.”
The Klingon contingent surrounded the Starfleet personnel and shepherded them back to their equipment where they were reunited with the others from the away team. When they were safely outside the scrambling field, the lieutenant signaled their readiness for transport.
As he stood next to his SWIFT, the El Aurian raised his faceplate and fixed his gaze on M’Sharv. “May the gods forgive you for what you’re about to do here.”
M’Sharv’s reply was a coarse laugh. “Fool. Our gods are dead, and theirs cannot help them.”
Pava’s response was lost in the hum of the transporter field that swept the away team home.
The stars fell behind him as smears of light in the blackness. Captain Sandhurst found that he could barely stomach the sight of himself reflected in the viewport. He was running away. There was no other possible explanation, and no rationalization he could find would make the experience any more agreeable.
He sat in his ready room brooding, hating the feeling of failure that seemed to permeate the entire ship. He realized that he had been completely unprepared for that possibility on this, his first mission as captain. Sandhurst had thought that he and his crew would somehow find a way to resolve the situation. Perhaps they might have located the secret insurgent base, enlisted the aid of the remaining civilians to their cause, something. But the miracle solution was not to be, and the mission ended in disaster. Two starships destroyed, hundreds dead or horribly crippled, and for what? The very people he had been sent to help would now be crushed under the boot of a vindictive Klingon military.
Less than an hour after the Federation convoy departed the Crolsa system, Admiral Salk’s orders to withdraw had arrived by subspace. A nice, neat little wrap-up to Starfleet Command’s silent complicity in the Klingons’ actions. Despite Sandhurst’s determination to throw the light of public scrutiny on the situation, he knew no matter how embarrassing the episode proved to be for the Federation, the Council would not risk war with the Klingon Empire. The peace would be preserved, whatever the cost in Cardassian lives.
His door chimed. He turned in his desk chair to face the entrance, but said nothing.
Another chime. He sighed heavily and grumbled, “Come.”
A freshly showered Lar’ragos entered, having spent the past half hour washing away the last remnants of Lakesh from his person. Sandhurst stared at him silently for a moment before practically snarling, “What?”
Lar’ragos quirked an eyebrow as he settled onto the couch. “Word has it you’re in a bit of a snit.”
Sandhurst glowered at the El Aurian. “I don’t remember inviting you to have a seat.”
“Funny, neither do I.”
The captain’s voice was laden with warning. “Really not in the mood.”
Lar’ragos gauged his friend’s candor, then nodded slowly. “I know, so I’ll be brief. You’ve been making some discrete inquiries that are getting some very important people rankled.”
The captain settled back into his chair to fold his arms across his chest in an unconsciously defensive posture. “Regarding?”
“Regarding the device in engineering. I’ve been asked by interested third parties to warn you to back off.”
Lar’ragos scowled. “Don’t be obtuse, Captain. You know precisely who and what I’m talking about. You've set a great many things in motion behind the scenes. Talking publicly about what we found in engineering could endanger those investigations."
Sandhurst’s face hardened, and he leaned across the table. “Pava, did you put that thing on my ship?”
Lar'ragos flinched as if struck, looking utterly incredulous. “You think I’m capable of such a thing?”
Sandhurst smirked wickedly. “Don’t play the wounded bird; you’re not that good an actor. I know for a fact that you’ve done far worse in your time.” His temper rising, he jabbed an accusatory finger in Lar'ragos’ direction. “I haven’t forgotten listening to your impassioned speeches at the academy. On and on about how the Federation was unique in all your travels, how it was the one bastion against the imperialism and chaos that consumed much of the rest of the galaxy. I believe your exact words were, ‘It must be protected and preserved at any cost.’”
Lar’ragos met his captain’s gaze steadily. “Let me make this absolutely clear. I did not place that device aboard the ship. I am not at present, nor have I ever worked for Starfleet Intelligence in any capacity.”
He eased back into his chair and Sandhurst frowned. “I’d almost feel better if you were. At least then I’d know who among my crew was harboring divided loyalties.”
Lar'ragos gave the captain a pessimistic shrug and looked apologetic. “From what little I know about how these people operate, by the time we figure it out, whoever planted it will be long gone.” The old soldier looked down for a moment, rubbing his hands together. “Anyway, the powers-that-be strongly suggest you let this go.”
Sandhurst scratched the back of his neck, observing his friend for a moment. He turned his chair and his back on the Tactical officer and uttered, “Get out.”
Lar’ragos departed without another word, leaving the captain alone with his thoughts and the retreating stars.
Ramirez awoke from a troubled sleep to the insistent beeping of her data terminal, the double chime of the alert signaling a priority communiqué. Bleary-eyed, she staggered over to her work desk and slid into the chair, toggling the viewer on.
Rear Admiral Monica Covey appeared on screen, smiling wistfully at Ramirez’s appearance. “Commander, sorry to have woken you.”
She rubbed her eyes before sweeping her hair back and away from her face. Ramirez muttered, “S’alright, sir. What can I do for you, Admiral?”
“I just received Captain Sandhurst’s request for your reassignment to my staff, and I wanted to discuss it with you.”
Ramirez brightened noticeably. “That’s wonderful news, Admiral. We’re on course for DS9 with a brief stopover at Epsilon. I can catch the next available transport from the station to Starbase 71.”
Covey paused, mulling over her next words. “Liana… I’d like you to consider remaining on Gibraltar
for the time being.”
A look of complete disbelief washed over Ramirez’s features. “I’m sorry, sir… you what?”
The admiral appeared momentarily uncertain, then her resolve seemed to firm. She focused her dark brown eyes on the younger woman. “Donald needs you as his right hand.”
Ramirez’s face colored. “Respectfully, sir, I have no desire whatsoever to continue serving on this ship.”
“I’m fully aware of that, Liana, but sometimes the needs of the service outweigh our personal ambitions.” Covey’s expression softened. “I’m asking for one year. Asking, Liana. I won’t order you to do this. However, at the end of that year, it would be accurate to say that you’d have a flag officer who owes you a favor. A big one.”
Ramirez fought to calm her breathing. “How big?”
“You could come back to my staff, if that’s what you want. Or, I could offer you the first available XO’s billet on a Galaxy
-class ship. Perhaps command of a smaller vessel, an escort or deep space scout?”
Her shoulders slumped in resignation. Ramirez stared at the admiral. “If I’m going to sign on for this, sir, I need to know why.”
Covey gave her a questioning look.
“Why is Sandhurst so important to you? What the hell makes him so worthy of all this effort?”
As she gave the younger woman a wry smile, the admiral replied, “It’s nothing I could explain to you in a few minutes. I very much hope that by the end of this next year, you’ll be able to answer that question for yourself.”
Still looking unconvinced, Liana pressed, “But why me? He’s got Lar’ragos. Hell, he’d be delighted to promote the lieutenant to the executive officer’s post.”
“Lar’ragos is Donald’s most glaring weakness, Liana. As a cadet Donald worshipped the man, and still does in some ways. Pava has his strengths, of course, but he’s a deeply troubled man who refuses to confront his demons. He can’t be trusted with a command level position, and fortunately to some degree he seems to know this.” Covey shook her head in amazement. “I even opened the door for him to the Enterprise
, but he wouldn’t bite. He passed up the flagship to serve with your captain. That, in and of itself should tell you something about Donald’s uniqueness.”
Ramirez closed her eyes as her hopes and expectations for the next year seemed to evaporate.
“And as for you, Commander, you’re exactly what the captain needs in an XO. You’re capable, fearless, and brutally honest when it’s required. Your strengths counteract Donald’s weaknesses. In my book, that’s the definition of an effective command team.”
Reluctant but committed, Ramirez said, “Admiral, sir, you have yourself a deal.”
Captain’s Personal Log, SD- 53172.6
Gibraltar’s first mission has ended in failure. I sincerely hope this ignoble beginning will not effect our future assignments. I’m increasingly pleased with the caliber and fortitude of my crew, despite their being labeled a ‘gang of misfits’ by others in the Fleet. These people might not be the most celebrated officers and enlisted personnel in the service, but they have performed with distinction and do credit to Starfleet.
Starbase Deep Space Nine
Sandhurst found speaking through a Betazoid intermediary to be a uniquely surreal experience. He was drawn to the telepath’s dark eyes as he attempted to speak through him to another who might as well have been a corpse.
Captain Banti Awokou lay immobile, eyes open but unseeing, atop a biobed in DS9’s infirmary. The male Betazoid sat beside him, giving voice to Awokou’s thoughts.
Regardless of his own discomfort, Sandhurst had specifically requested this meeting. Dr. Bashir had brought Awokou out of stasis so that Sandhurst could give him a full report on the fate of his ship and the mission to Lakesh. It had not been easy to tell the celebrated captain that his beloved Phoenix
had been lost, struck from the sky in a single instant of violence.
Nonetheless, Sandhurst felt that he owed Awokou that much. Ramirez had wanted to do it, feeling equally obligated, but Sandhurst had taken up the task himself.
“… regret that it ended this way, Captain. She was a fine ship with a first-rate crew.” Sandhurst fell silent, looking down at Awokou’s inert features. His words, however heartfelt, were totally inadequate.
The Betazoid spoke with a kind of detached calm. “I understand, Captain. Tell Ramirez not to blame herself. This assignment was botched from the beginning.”
“You really think so?”
“Absolutely. These people had an arsenal at their disposal. We’d have needed twenty starships laden with an occupation force to pacify Lakesh. Instead, we had thee and me. Perhaps it’s not politically correct to say so, but I feel I’ve earned the right… I hope the Klingons burn that planet down.”
As Sandhurst rose to leave he murmured, “Of that I have no doubt, Captain.”
“Was your first command what you’d expected?”
The question, posed so innocently, caught Sandhurst off guard.
“No.” He turned back and his eyes tracked from Awokou to the Betazoid intermediary. “I thought the pressure would be nearly overwhelming; the responsibility so awesome as to defy description.” Donald Sandhurst turned and passed through the door onto the Promenade. “I had no