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Old December 10 2012, 05:26 AM   #111
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UT:TFV - Part II - Scorched Earths (Chapter 4 continued)

Chapter 4 <cont'd>

Observation Lounge, USS Europa

T’Ser and Lar’ragos arrived a full five minutes late for the senior staff meeting, which was unusual enough. A recon probe dispatched outside the nebula to relay Europa’s mission logs to Command had returned barely a half hour earlier, and the bridge officers speculated something gleaned from the comms probe might be the reason for their tardiness. When the two officers entered together, the carefully neutral expressions they both wore stoked further curiosity, albeit of the silent variety.

T’Ser opened the staff meeting and immediately deferred to Verrik for a report on the results of his team’s forensic investigation into the attack on Galaxy. Sandhurst sat quietly at the far end of the table, watching and listening, but having apparently decided not to actively participate in the exchange. It was the first time anyone had seen him in his duty uniform since his abduction by the Amon. Though he wore a command red undershirt, the collar was noticeably absent any rank insignia.

“The impact patterns on Galaxy’s dorsal saucer surface are indicative of the pulse phasers of a Defiant-class starship, and the warhead that detonated near their engineering section was, by all indications, quantum based. Given that we’ve confirmed the presence of the rogue starship Masada operating in this region, it is reasonable to assume it was responsible for this attack. We also have reason to believe that the ship was boarded, as there were evident small-arms related casualties on the main bridge.”

“Additionally,” Lar’ragos cut in, “it seems that whatever device was used to mutilate the crew only worked on living tissue. Those killed in the initial attack were located below decks, unchanged from whatever condition they died in.”

Verrik resumed his assessment, giving no indication of annoyance at the interruption. “Which brings us to the matter of Vice Admiral Jellico. We found three personnel in close proximity to his office that had been killed in close-quarters combat, one of whom was his adjutant. There was no sign of Jellico found aboard, and his combadge was located in the office, which had been ransacked.”

“Couldn’t he have been one of those hundreds that were…” Lightner struggled to find a suitable word, “…turned inside out?”

“Negative,” Verrik answered. “All living crew members on board that were recovered have been positively identified by DNA profile, regardless of their level of deformity.”

“He’s been abducted, then,” Counselor Liu stated matter-of-factly from farther down the table. “That’s the only alternative explanation.” He shook his head as a heavy sigh escaped him. “The task force’s highest ranking officer is now in the hands of someone unafraid to butcher Voranti and Starfleet alike.”

“So it would seem,” Verrik agreed.

“Forgive me for not knowing this already,” Ashok rumbled from the far end of the table where his hulking form towered over the others, “but who does that leave in command of the task force?”

Tellingly, T’Ser almost winced at the question. Lar’ragos shot the captain an expectant look, the two of them clearly aware of something the others weren’t.

She sat forward in her chair, placing her elbows atop the table. “It would have been Rear Admiral Kevard, but the comms buoy we sent outside the nebula to check in with the task force has returned with more unfortunate news.” T’Ser pursed her lips briefly, her reluctance evident. “A joint Starfleet and Romulan force attempted to intercept and destroy the Kothlis’Ka Armada approximately fifty light-years from the empire’s border. Though the attack squadron did succeed in causing moderate damage to two of those enormous ships, four starships and nine warbirds were destroyed with another half-dozen seriously damaged. Kevard’s missing and presumed killed in action.”

Around the table, faces fell and expressions hardened as yet another catastrophe befalling Vanguard was brought to light.

T’Ser sought to change the subject by looking towards an exhausted looking Taiee. “What’s the condition of Captain Scott and Commander Worf?”

Taiee fixed her bleary eyes on T’Ser, stifling a yawn as she did so. “Captain Scott has been stabilized, but remains in a medically induced coma. She sustained severe cranial-neural trauma from shrapnel on the bridge during the attack. I’m going to give her a week to heal sufficiently that she’s able to handle being placed in cryo-stasis until we can get her back to Bastion.” She paused to take a sip of coffee, the only thing keeping her awake after spending the past twenty hours in back-to-back surgeries and autopsies.

“Commander Worf is still alive, though I’m not sure how. He took a direct disruptor blast to the abdomen and suffered some kind of high-velocity impact with a bulkhead that broke nearly a quarter of the bones in his body. Leave it to those redundant Klingon autonomic systems to keep a person breathing long after they should have expired. He’ll be able to return to duty, but he’ll need months of physical rehabilitation before he can walk unassisted again.”

“Captain,” Sandhurst spoke up from the far end of the table. “Admiral Jellico left contingency plans in case he was killed or incapacitated. All the captains in the task force would have access to those as soon as he was officially listed as missing in action.”

T’Ser held up a hand. “Respectfully, Commodore, I think there will be time for that lat—“

“I disagree,” Sandhurst said insistently. “Please make an official entry to that effect so that we might have clear guidance as to the admiral’s wishes for the task force.”

An uncomfortable silence followed as T’Ser and Sandhurst stared at one another down the length of the table. “Captain,” T’Ser said in a consciously measured tone, “you’ve not yet been officially returned to duty. I will take your suggestion under advisement.”

Sandhurst looked to Taiee and Liu. “What are your recommendations regarding my fitness for duty, Doc? Counselor?”

The two officers glanced at one another before looking to T’Ser for guidance. She gave them a minute nod of approval, her eyes still fixed on Sandhurst.

Taiee cleared her throat before saying, “Physically, Captain Sandhurst is ready to resume his duties. His biometrics have all returned to normal, and his tissues no longer show any signs of exposure to the Amon energy pattern.”

“I’d concur in respect to the captain’s mental health,” Liu offered. “He’s quite self-aware in regards to the effects on his psyche from his time with the Amon, and he’s able to place the experience in the proper perspective and context. I’d have no objections to his resuming his duties as a Starfleet officer.”

“Captain,” Sandhurst said, mustering his most diplomatic tone. “I’d very much like to continue this conversation in private, if you’d be so inclined.”

T’Ser held Sandhurst’s gaze for an achingly long moment before ordering, “Clear the room, please.”

The senior staff rose as one and filed out of the compartment, exchanging a flurry of worried glances with each other.

Leaning forward to brace her elbows atop the table again, T’Ser massaged her temples and closed her eyes briefly. “Sir… what the hell?”

“You’re not seeing the big picture, T’Ser. You’re too focused on the trees to see the forest.”

She gave him an exasperated look. “Meaning… what?”

“Vanguard’s second wave is due to arrive within a matter of weeks. So much has happened since they departed Federation space six months ago that they’ll be behind the eight-ball already, playing catch-up in a dynamically evolving crisis. We can’t compound that with a leadership vacuum, too.”

“Fine,” T’Ser replied, throwing up her hands. “So why push declaring Jellico missing right this moment?” She inspected him carefully for a few seconds, then her eyes widened. “Wait… do you think Jellico would have recommended command of Vanguard fall to you in the absence of a flag officer?”

“It’s not out of the realm of possibility,” Sandhurst replied evenly.

“There are other more senior captains in the task force. Hell, even in IG-3, Captain Lobanov of Giacobini is senior to you by nearly a decade.”

“Lobanov’s never commanded a task force before,” he countered.

“Captain Endilev of Ascendant, Hobson of Perseus,” she rattled off. “Shall I continue?”

“Thus far, despite incredible heroism on the part of thousands of our comrades, Vanguard has been an unmitigated disaster. Counting Galaxy, the task force has lost eight starships, nearly a third of Vanguard’s original number. You tell me anyone who’s going to want to jeopardize their career by stepping forward to take charge of that sinking ship?” Sandhurst stood, placing his hands atop the table as he mustered every bit of conviction he could into his next statement. “All the captains you’ve mentioned are damn fine officers or they wouldn’t be out here. Nevertheless, only one of us has first-hand knowledge of the Amon, experience leading an operational task force in a war zone, and has the added advantage of being politically expendable.”

T’Ser had no answer for that.

Sandhurst made his way over to the briefing room’s replicator and typed in a series of commands, reaching a hand into the delivery slot to retrieve a collection of newly materialized rank pips. He turned a serious expression on T’Ser as he began affixing the insignia to his collar. “I’m back in the game, Captain. I’m sorry if you’re not completely comfortable with that, but it is what it is.”

She stood as well, her own expression pinched. “You’re asking me to surrender my captaincy?”

“Not at all,” he corrected. “Valiant will arrive here shortly to join IG-3, and the woman who was supposed to command her is now dead. You’ll take the Valiant commission, and I’ll keep my flag aboard Europa. Besides, they’ll need me here to finish building this damn ingenious drive I can’t remember designing.”

T’Ser blinked, clearly falling behind the curve of the conversation. “Your… flag?”

He turned to face her as he finished attaching the fifth pip to his collar. “You’ve all been calling me commodore for a while now. Time to make it official.”

“But…” she stammered. “There’s no such rank. Not anymore.”

“There is now,” he replied with an enigmatic smile as he headed for the door. “Carry on, Captain.”

“Aye… sir,” she replied automatically as the doors hissed closed behind him.

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