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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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Old February 10 2010, 12:37 PM   #32
Gibraltar
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Embers of the Fire - Chapter 9

Chapter 9 <cont'd>

The blossoming explosion on his view screen heralded the end of the starship Phoenix, and although it had not been Gul Panor’s intent to destroy the vessel completely, he was far from disappointed. His attack force was taking more damage than anticipated. However, with the Nebula-class ship finished, the battle would soon be over. “Bring us about, 301-mark-187. Route auxiliary power to shields and wea…”

Vintar bucked violently as another broadside of four photon torpedoes hammered her aft and starboard shields, followed by a phaser beam that punched through the Galor’s failing starboard grid and scythed across her engine blade.

*****

Gibraltar had landed a solid blow on the enemy, but Sandhurst took no satisfaction from it. He had just witnessed Phoenix torn asunder with what appeared to be ridiculous ease.

From behind him, Plazzi remarked, “Registering dimensional rebound deflection, Captain. That cruiser’s equipped with a DST.” Admiral Salk’s classified data on the dimensional shift transporter had come complete with the techniques pioneered by Enterprise-D’s crew to track and pinpoint the use of the device.

“Keep up the fire, Mister Lar’ragos. I don’t want to give them opportunity to use it on us.”

“Aye, sir.”

*****

Vintar wheeled about to turn her wounded flank away from the oncoming starship and expose her most robust shield grid. Her Hideki-class escorts raced to her aid and battered Gibraltar’s defenses with a sustained fusillade of disruptor fire. This forced the Starfleet ship to break off its attack run and reposition for a follow-up assault.

As she withdrew, Gibraltar launched a salvo of torpedoes at the three corsairs from her aft torpedo tube, an advantageous addition of the recent overhaul. Two of the torpedoes struck their targets, destroying one Hideki and damaging the other.

Panor studied Vintar’s damage control board and noted that they would have to finish this battle quickly. The insurgency’s available resources for ship repair were minimal, and the damage accrued by the cruiser thus far would take weeks to fix. He read his tactical display and felt a vague sense of relief that the Hidekis had driven off Gibraltar for the moment. For a relic, the Constitution-class ship was proving surprisingly tenacious. He would have to do something about that.

“Charge the DST for another transport. I want you to put a torpedo onto their bridge with a five second delay.” He knew it was both petty and tactically unsound, but Panor wanted Gibraltar’s captain to have time to recognize his terrible fate before being consumed by the violent matter/anti-matter reaction.

*****

Ramirez had been thrown from the captain’s chair by the unexpectedly ferocious impact, only to crash head first into the base of the Operations console. Although still conscious, she was dazed, and didn’t immediately recognize the face that now appeared over her, its features distorted by her swimming vision.

“Sir, we’ve got to go.” Lieutenant Faltyne pulled her to her feet and allowed Ramirez to steady herself against him as she struggled to regain her equilibrium.

“Go? Where?” She was confused. The bridge was bathed in blood red emergency lighting, with intermittent strobe-like flashes from shattered, sparking consoles. The air was an acrid mix of smoke and the smell of charred flesh. Faltyne began directing her towards the emergency access hatch located behind a wall panel at the back of the bridge.

Ramirez struggled weakly against Faltyne’s grip. “I don’t understand. Why aren’t we returning fire?”

The lieutenant remained calm as he continued to assist her and guided her over the body of a fallen crewman whose features had been wrecked by an exploding console. “Sir, the ship is gone; we’re going to the escape pods.” He paused at a wall-mounted comms panel and activated the ship’s public address. “This is the XO. All hands, abandon ship. Report to designated evacuation areas and board the escape pods.”

The Andorian had lost a ship once before, in a doomed attempt to re-take Betazed from the Dominion’s clutches just hours after the Jem’Hadar had seized the planet. It wasn’t proving any easier the second time around. He took some small solace in the fact that most of Phoenix’s crew who had been struck down by the contagion days earlier were safely encapsulated within cryogenic stasis chambers aboard a the civilian relief ships. At least Sandhurst had possessed the forethought to remove the injured from the two starships, the most likely targets of further attacks.

He helped Ramirez through the hatch and into the lifeboat access compartment. The lieutenant urged her towards the closest pod and then sealed her inside the tiny craft. Faltyne quickly input commands into the touch-pad beside the hatch and set the escape capsule for atmospheric entry and landing. The way this battle was going, a Federation lifeboat drifting helplessly in orbit might soon become a tempting target for victorious insurgent ships. Phoenix’s survivors would have better luck on the surface.

He pulled on the manual release lever which caused the explosive bolts holding the escape pod in place to discharge. This initiated the thrusters on the pod and launched the lifeboat away from the wreckage of the doomed ship. His task complete, Faltyne turned back towards the bridge. There were still others there too injured to reach the pods themselves, and he would be damned if anyone was going to be left behind.

*****

Gibraltar continued to spar with the more nimble Hidekis, exchanging fire with the corsairs as she turned to make another run at the Vintar.

Sandhurst gripped the armrests of his seat as the ship was buffeted by disruptor impacts. They were outnumbered, outgunned, and the momentum of the fight was shifting in the Cardassians’ favor. He stole a glance over his shoulder at Lar’ragos, who was working his Tactical console like a concert pianist, targeting and firing weapons, modulating shield strength, and generally giving a better account of the old ship than anyone had a right to expect. The captain noted that Pava was smiling to himself. The silly bastard’s actually enjoying this, he thought with grim amusement. Sandhurst envied the El Aurian’s ability to lose himself in his duties despite the direness of their predicament.

He turned back to the viewer and forced himself to concentrate on their plight. Sandhurst crunched the numbers in his head, but repeatedly drew the same conclusion. Not enough time, not enough firepower, not enough speed. There were no easy answers here. If we had another ship. If only Sojourner hadn’t been…

The idea occurred to him like a lightening strike, a blazing white-hot kernel of inspiration. Sandhurst stood. “Helm, initiate evasive maneuvers. Tactical, keep up the fire on those pursuit ships.” The captain staggered across the trembling deck plates and seated himself at an unoccupied auxiliary console. He accessed Sojourner’s command codes and linked to the wounded starship’s main computer. He called up a quick diagnostic on the vessel’s operational systems which caused his heart jump in his chest as the screen indicated that the Nova-class ship could still move under partial impulse power. Sandhurst silently thanked the engineering teams from Phoenix who had restored some of Sojourner’s key systems.

Sandhurst started a slow power buildup in Sojourner’s impulse engines and hoped that the Cardassians would be too fixated on his ship to notice. He tied in the smaller ship’s reaction control thrusters, planning to squeeze every ounce of propulsion that he could out of the craft. He looked to Helm. “Mister Lightner, bring us within one kilometer of Sojourner’s bow, then hard turn to 42-mark-320 and reduce speed to one-sixth impulse. I want them in tight behind us.” After he routed the other starship’s helm control to the interface on his command chair, Sandhurst resumed the center seat. “Lieutenant Lar’ragos, I want a full spread of torpedoes in the aft launcher. We’re going to employ Tanner’s gambit.”

“Aye, sir. Programming torpedoes now.” Lar’ragos didn’t bother to look up from his console. He set the warheads so that their detonation would translate mostly into electro-magnetic shockwaves, rather than kinetic force. This technique had first been used by a United Earth starship captain in the late 22nd century, Irene Tanner, in order to blind a pursuing Romulan warbird. The lieutenant deduced that it was the captain’s intent to confuse the Galor’s sensors for a few seconds, though he couldn’t guess why. “You’ve got a plan?” Lar’ragos asked. He sensed a surge of confidence in the captain’s tone and demeanor.

A grim smile took shape on Sandhurst’s lips. “Indeed I do.”

****

Gul Panor watched Gibraltar flee before him. He surmised that her captain must have finally realized the seriousness of his position. The starship could still escape, of course, but what ship’s commander would be allowed to retain his rank after leaving helpless civilians behind to be slaughtered? No, Panor thought, this one would stay until his defenses had been whittled down and his options exhausted. The Cardassian had seen it before, during the war. Starfleet captains who, in their final moments, succumbed to panic and fear after running out of clever ideas.

Men and women who had made perfectly competent explorers and diplomats had been reduced to flailing like wounded animals because in the end they had not known when to cut and run. The gul could now see the telltale shimmering of Gibraltar’s weakening shields as a Cardassian torpedo punched into the retreating starship’s aft grid. “Status of DST?”

“Almost there, sir. Eight seconds remaining on the recharge cycle.”

*****

“Elisto, focus all sensor jamming capacity we have back at the Galor, every watt you can give me.”

“Aye, Captain.” Plazzi routed all available sensor power to the aft arrays and prayed quietly that the new captain knew what he was doing. The battle hardened Cardassians they were facing didn’t seem the type to show leniency to an inexperienced captain and crew.

Sandhurst watched the hulk of Sojourner grow larger on the main viewer. “Pava, aft torpedoes on my order…”

*****

“Gul, recharge cycle complete. Standing by to initiate transport!”

“Do it.” Panor felt the accumulated tension in his body ebb, and he settled back into his chair to watch the fruition of his efforts. He only wished he could see the Starfleet captain’s facial expression when their surprise package arrived.

“Transport complete.” A pulsing alarm at the weapons officer’s station caused Panor to look askance at the man. The younger officer’s face was a mix of disappointment and disbelief. “Sir… it looks like our transport has somehow been refracted away from the starship's hull!”

The combat information officer announced, “They’re trying to jam our tactical scans.”

Panor’s neck ridges tightened as his face contorted into a mask of dark rage. Not a miscalculation, he seethed. They have a defense against our most potent weapon. This ends now. “Weapons, all batteries forward." He leaned forward and raised a clenched fist. "Fire!”

*****

With surprisingly little force behind the words, Captain Sandhurst uttered, “Fire aft torpedoes.”

Lar’ragos gladly compensated for his friend’s lack of enthusiasm. He grinned wickedly as he announced, “Torpedoes away.”

Lightner tapped the conn control pad which initiated a nearly ninety degree turn, “Coming to 42-mark-320, decelerating to…” His sentence terminated abruptly as Brett was thrown forward against his console in an impact that drove his breath from him. The deck lurched and bridge lighting flickered as a cacophony of thunderous impacts shredded what remained of their aft shielding. Crew went sprawling across the bridge, consoles sparked and died, and a clamor of panicked voices filled the compartment.

Somehow, Sandhurst managed to stay upright in his seat, his eyes fused to the abbreviated helm controls and sensor window displayed on his armrest console. Oblivious to the frenetic activity surrounding him, he watched the three torpedoes flare dazzlingly as they radiated interference across the electromagnetic spectrum. Sandhurst counted to five; the seconds ground past in an excruciating torpor. Finally, he depressed forward thrust tab and sent the starship Sojourner on her final mission, in valiant defense of her older sister.

*****

Gul Panor braced himself as Gibraltar launched three torpedoes aft towards the Vintar, an instant before the Cardassian cruiser’s salvo bludgeoned the old starship and sent her careening off course in a lateral spin. To his surprise, the missiles did not impact their forward grid, but instead erupted some hundreds of meters ahead to wash out the view screen and tactical sensors in a storm of electrons.

“Direct hit, sir. Their aft shields have failed.” The weapons officer shielded his eyes against the glare before the screen automatically adjusted to compensate. “We’ve lost sensor contact. Reading partial depolarization of the main sensor array.”

Panor leaned further forward in his seat as his taut muscles unconsciously yearned for some kind of physical release. This was it. The Starfleet captain’s final ruse. It was an old trick, one practiced by every star-faring species bred to war. Blind your opponent, then run like hell.

Gibraltar intended to confuse their sensors, cut behind the drifting hulk of the Nova-class ship, and accelerate away. Apparently, he hadn’t given the human commander enough credit; the man did know when to quit. Panor hoped Vintar’s last strike would delay the starship’s escape until his sensors cleared. “Conn, maintain course and speed.” He looked to the combat information officer. “Shut down the primary array and begin immediate restart cycle on the sensors. Uncover the auxiliary sensor node and power it up.”

A gasp from somewhere in the command center sent an unexpected chill through him. Gul Panor turned to the crackling, static filled view screen. A shadow loomed there, taking shape with frightening speed. Just as his mind identified the specter for what it was, a starship on a direct collision course, he was thrown off his feet by an impact that washed away all consciousness.

*****
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Old February 10 2010, 07:17 PM   #33
unusualsuspex
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Re: Embers of the Fire - ST: Gibraltar

Now THAT'S how to describe starship combat! Breathtaking Gib, well done!

Ramirez's first command, albeit temporary, ripped apart beneath her and the Cardassians using technology that shouldn't be theirs!

The mystery deepens and the threat multiplies x amount!

And inspired thinking by Sandhurst! Looks like the Sojourner is about to reap her revenge posthumously!

Once more I'm engrossed and impressed simultaneously which gives me a very odd expression!
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Old February 20 2010, 10:21 AM   #34
Gibraltar
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Re: Embers of the Fire - ST: Gibraltar

unusualsuspex wrote: View Post
Now THAT'S how to describe starship combat! Breathtaking Gib, well done!

Ramirez's first command, albeit temporary, ripped apart beneath her and the Cardassians using technology that shouldn't be theirs!

The mystery deepens and the threat multiplies x amount!

And inspired thinking by Sandhurst! Looks like the Sojourner is about to reap her revenge posthumously!

Once more I'm engrossed and impressed simultaneously which gives me a very odd expression!
Thanks!
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Old February 20 2010, 11:12 AM   #35
Gibraltar
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Embers of the Fire - Chapter 10

Chapter 10

The crippled starship and the Cardassian cruiser had met almost head on. Sojourner’s mass proved more than sufficient to pierce Vintar’s already battered shields. The science vessel’s duranium hull plunged into the larger warship’s interior as it crumpled, shearing away load bearing struts and opening deck after deck of the cruiser to vacuum. Gouts of flame boiled from Vintar’s catastrophic wounds, and were quickly suffocated for lack of oxygen. The combined momentum of the two ships very nearly cancelled each other out, leaving the fused spaceframes, wed in devastation, to spin slowly in the penumbra of the tortured planet below.

For a brief moment, silence reigned on Gibraltar’s bridge. Sandhurst sat motionless in the captain’s chair, head bowed as he struggled to reign in the torrent of conflicting emotions that threatened to overwhelm him. Part of his mind acknowledged the sound of someone weeping nearby, but he found himself momentarily unable to focus completely on anything exterior. He wanted to laugh. He wanted to cry. Neither urge was appropriate under the circumstances.

Sandhurst found his reaction strange because he had been in combat many times before, and this was not his first narrow escape. Being in command, however, had somehow changed the timbre of the experience dramatically. Someone, perhaps Lightner, called for medical assistance to the bridge. Sandhurst struggled internally to rouse himself. Come on. Pull it together. You just snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. What the hell’s the matter with you?

Olivia Juneau sat mutely at the Ops station as her console displays flickered randomly. Tears streamed down her face as she cradled her visibly broken left arm in her lap. Her breath came in great juddering sobs.

Ensign Lightner deftly brought the ship back on course as he stopped the lateral spin that had resulted from Vintar’s final attack. “Helm control reinstated, Captain. Back on previous heading, speed holding at point-one-six impulse.”

Plazzi pulled himself back up into his chair at the Science station with assistance from another crewman. The older man’s hand was pressed firmly to his forehead to staunch the blood seeping from a gash he had suffered when he was tossed to the deck. He looked at his console and squinted to try and clear his blurred vision as he checked the readings. He cleared his throat and announced, “Captain, the cruiser has been neutralized. They’ve lost main power, and all weapons and defenses are offline.”

Plazzi winced and bit back a groan as his head pulsed with pain. “Looks like auxiliary power is failing over there, sir. I’m picking up approximately fifteen life signs aboard, most of them quite weak.” His report complete, Plazzi pushed back his chair, leaned forward, and vomited loudly beneath his console. As he tried not to spatter his boots, the scientist reflected mordantly that he’d not had a single such concussion during his years away from Starfleet.

At the engineering station, Ensign Audette reported on their status. “Captain, we’ve sustained moderate damage to the dorsal section of the secondary hull and the starboard nacelle and strut. Lieutenant Ashok reports we’re still warp capable, but we won’t want to push it above four-point-five or so, sir. I’m also showing three of our four shield generators for the aft grid have overloaded and will need to be replaced.”

Sandhurst didn’t respond, so Lar’ragos broke the silence. “Can we compensate for the shortfall in the aft grid by overlapping the laterals?”

“Yes, sir. However, I estimate we’ll get less than thirty-percent coverage on our aft quarter.”

“Do it, then,” said the El Aurian.

The roar of a fire extinguisher discharging finally snapped Sandhurst back to life, and he craned his head around to see Lar’ragos spraying down the smoldering remains of a ruined console. The lieutenant glanced up at him to give the captain an inscrutable look as he handed the extinguisher off to a crewman, then moved to resume his post at Tactical. He assessed his board, “The two remaining corsairs and seven fighters are withdrawing, sir. Shall we pursue?” His message was clear. The fight’s not over, Captain.

Sandhurst hesitated. The Cardassians were vulnerable. He wanted to chase them down, to capture or destroy the remaining ships and spare anyone else the misfortune of an insurgent ambush. However, he felt his first responsibility was to the survivors of Phoenix and his own wounded.

Finding his voice once again, he queried, “Status of the civilian ships?”

Lar’ragos answered crisply, “Reading light to moderate damage on a number of the civilian ships, sir, but they’re all intact. It appears some of the larger cargo ships may have bloodied the interceptors’ noses.” He touched a series of controls and noted, “Sir, I’m picking up multiple distress transponders from Starfleet lifepods. I’m scanning upwards of twenty escape vehicles in orbit and on the surface.”

Two medical technicians carrying a backboard and loaded for bear with several satchels of first-aid equipment arrived from the turbolift. The captain stood, his legs feeling decidedly rubbery beneath him. He moved down into the well and gently turned Juneau’s chair so that she could more easily be removed from her station. Sandhurst called back to Lar’ragos, “Negative on the pursuit. Track their progress; I want to know where they’re going to ground. Helm, plot a course that will allow us to rescue the Phoenix survivors in the least amount of time and execute.”

“Aye, sir.“

As he braced himself against his console with one hand in between bouts of nausea, Plazzi asked, “What about the Cardassian survivors aboard the cruiser, sir?” One of the med-techs swept the gray-haired scientist with the sensor wand from a medical tricorder while injecting him with an analgesic.

Sandhurst answered coldly, “If they’re still alive when we’re done recovering our people, we’ll pick them up as well.” The captain assisted the other med-tech in placing Juneau atop the backboard as gently as possible. He gestured to a nearby crewman, who then picked up one end of the board as the med-tech lifted the other. The two men carried the lieutenant into the turbolift, then paused to wait for Plazzi as the second medic escorted him into the car.

Sandhurst turned back to Lar’ragos. “You have the conn. Carry out recovery operations, and oversee the reformation of the task force. Make sure they circle the wagons, Lieutenant.” The captain stepped up to the upper deck and through the parting doors to the ready room, “I’m available if needed.”

*****

He had been expecting the chime. Pava had given him nearly thirty minutes. Sandhurst had expected him in half that time. “Enter.”

Lar’ragos stepped into the ready room and moved just far enough into the compartment to trigger the doors to close behind him. “I have a status report, sir.”

Sandhurst reached out and toggled his computer terminal off. He’d been assiduously avoiding writing the report detailing Phoenix’s destruction. The event was too fresh in his mind. He needed both time and emotional distance from the incident before he could chronicle it in the sterile prose of a Starfleet missive. “Proceed.”

“We’ve begun recovery ops for the escape pods, and we’ve identified a largely intact section of Phoenix’s primary hull that was thrown clear of the explosion. Science’s life scans of the wreckage are indeterminate, so I’ve ordered search and rescue teams beamed over.”

The captain’s expression was unreadable, but to Lar’ragos’ ear his friend’s vocal inflections were saturated with competing levels of angst and regret. “What of the surviving Cardassian ships?”

“Sensors tracked them to the Crolsa system’s asteroid field, where we lost contact. I don’t know if the interference was a natural byproduct of the asteroid debris, or if they’re employing more sensor countermeasures.”

Sandhurst nodded distractedly, turning away in his chair to look out the large circular viewport behind him. “Any word on Commander Ramirez?”

Lar'ragos remained at parade rest, feet shoulder width apart with hands clasped behind him. “No, sir. None of those rescued from the pods so far were from Phoenix’s bridge. However, it sounds as if her exec was the one who gave the order to abandon ship.”

Sandhurst closed his eyes tightly, then opened them to find Lar’ragos scrutinizing him. He swiveled back towards his security chief and said, “Casualty report?”

“Eight injured; two of them seriously. Sickbay reports that all are expected to recover fully.”

Even that news seemed to bring Sandhurst little relief. “Thank you, Lieutenant. Is that all?”

There was a barely perceptible hesitation before Lar'ragos responded. “That’s all I have to say in my capacity as the ship’s Tactical officer, sir.”

Sandhurst shook his head. “Pava, I really don’t have time for…”

The lieutenant cut him off. “We lost you for a little while out there.” He smiled disarmingly.

Sandhurst met Lar’ragos’ eyes tentatively and looked pained. “Yeah. Not quite sure what that was about.”

The El Aurian’s smile transformed into a conspiratorial smirk. “Well, if you’re going to freeze up, I’d rather it be after the crisis has passed than squarely in the middle.”

“I didn’t say I froze up, Pava,” the captain bristled.

Lar’ragos inclined his head, as if conceding the point. “Perhaps not. I’ll say it, then.”

Sandhurst stood suddenly and brought his hands down on top of the desk with sufficient force to make his computer terminal jump. “Is there a point to this conversation, other than intentionally pissing me off?”

“Good, there you are. Glad to have you back.” Lar'ragos looked strangely relieved.

Sandhurst exhaled loudly as he visibly deflated. He sat back down in his chair. “I don’t know what the hell happened. It’s as if I didn’t expect to live through that engagement. When it ended in our favor, it caught me off guard.” He glanced at his data terminal, where Ramirez’s image and service record had been displayed moments before. “That poor woman didn’t have a chance. It was bad enough that I shanghaied her into this assignment, but I’ve taken every opportunity available to place her squarely in the enemy’s sights.”

Lar’ragos relaxed his stance and stepped forward to pull out a chair and seat himself. “She did her duty. Liana knew the risks of wearing the uniform. You delegated necessary tasks to your first officer; don’t beat yourself up because things didn’t turn out the way you’d hoped.” He steered the conversation back to the incident on the bridge. “I don’t think anybody else really caught on to your little ‘episode.’ Nevertheless, if you want this crew’s confidence and respect, you have to play the part of the captain, regardless of what you’re actually feeling.”

Sandhurst pursed his lips and looked as though he’d just tasted something especially unpalatable. “Thank you for that brief yet oh-so timely refresher from Starfleet Command Officer’s training.”

Lar’ragos glowered at his captain. “Don’t. Don’t dismiss what I have to say. I’m speaking from experience. No one really knows how much of the aura of command is pure theater until they’re sitting in the big chair.”

“Your point?”

Lar'ragos looked as though he were addressing a particularly dense pupil. “You just saved the ship against incredible odds by pulling that stunt out of thin air. What you should have done was acted as though you never had any doubt that it was going to work. Swagger off the bridge like an anointed demigod for all I care, but don’t you dare let those kids out there know how close we just came to cashing it in!”

Sandhurst folded his arms across his chest as he fought the instinct to toss Lar’ragos out of his ready room. He weighed their years of friendship in the balance and forced himself to listen to the other man, as damning as his words were. “So it’s supposed to feel like this? Command, I mean?”

“Absolutely.” Lar'ragos nodded. The lieutenant’s features softened and his voice assumed that easy, conversational tone that he reserved for his pep talks. “Look, your problem is that when you were serving with Captain Ebnal, you always had a safety net. Sure, you had to make some tough calls on your own on occasion, but you knew you’d have his backing when the dust settled. Now, you’re truly on your own for the first time.” Pava leaned across the table, his expression conveying an unusual amount of earnestness for the typically lighthearted officer. “You’re out there, hanging in the proverbial wind. I know it’s scary as hell, having to play the part of someone you’re not. In time it’ll be easier, but until that time arrives you’re going to have to paint on your best captain’s face and be the man your crew expects and deserves.”

Sandhurst digested this. Lar'ragos had more than his share of quirks, but unwarranted candor was not in his repertoire. Sandhurst had been coming to the slow realization that since he’d accepted Admiral Covey’s offer of the Gibraltar commission, he’d been waiting to become ‘the captain.’ It was as if he expected to suddenly undergo a miraculous transformation whereby the confidence and knowledge exhibited by those captains from his past that he so revered would be bestowed upon him.

“I should see to the crew.” Sandhurst stood abruptly. He rounded the desk and moved towards the door. He broke stride to pat his friend on the shoulder. “You’re a good man, and I value your advice.”

Lar’ragos, still seated, grinned up at him. “But?”

“But if you come in here aiming to set me off again, I’m going to have Tark shoot you." Sandhurst very nearly smiled. "A lot.”

“Yes, my captain.”

*****

Standing on the surface of Lakesh for the second time in less than a week, Liana Ramirez wondered what she’d done to anger the fates so. Most of her harrowing escape from the burning remains of Phoenix was a jumbled blur, which she attributed to the head injury she’d sustained in the explosion. Five hours and three hyposprays later, her vision had cleared and her searing migraine had subsided to a dull ache.

Her life pod had set down on a small but verdant island somewhere in Lakesh’s equatorial region. The skies overhead were choked with clouds, and a light rain of soot and ash filtered down from the beleaguered grey mass above. It was clear that although she might go undetected by the Cardassians for some time here, she would not be able to survive on the island for more than a few weeks at best. The foliage was already beginning to brown and wilt with the reduced sunlight caused by the growing layers of dust and smoke in the planet’s atmosphere.

Ramirez was in pure survival mode. When, on occasion, her mind wandered to the topic of Phoenix’s destruction, she found herself largely numb to the event and its repercussions. Instead, she focused exclusively on the matter of endurance. She had assessed her emergency survival supplies, and determined that with strict rationing, she could stretch her water and foodstuffs for a month. Unfortunately, the escape pod had no refrigeration or stasis capability, so it would be impossible to gather and preserve any of the island’s edible fruit or vegetables to stave off the inevitable demise of the local flora.

As far as Ramirez could tell, she was the only person on the island. The lifepod’s sensors failed to show anything else of note except several varieties of small marsupial and avian analogues. She didn’t know if her apparent isolation was by accident or design, but surmised that whoever had programmed the final destination of the lifepods might have wanted them scattered as widely as possible across Lakesh, to better increase the odds against their all being wiped out by a single attack.

She carefully packed up her survival rations as she resisted the urge to finish off the energy bar she’d consumed half of. Unexpectedly, her compin crackled to life; “This is the Gibraltar hailing any survivors of the USS Phoenix on coded emergency channel 38.7. Please respond on this channel, utilizing encryption matrix Zed-Alpha-1.” Ramirez froze, uncertain if she was hearing something genuine, or a ploy by insurgent forces to locate any survivors. It seemed unlikely that Gibraltar might have survived the pitched battle in orbit. The message repeated, and Ramirez decided it that she would have to take the chance that it was real.

Forgoing the delicate task of opening and reconfiguring her combadge, she climbed back inside the escape vehicle and accessed the pod’s communications system. She set the appropriate encryption and pressed the transmit toggle. “This is Lt. Commander Liana Ramirez to Gibraltar. Repeat, this is Ramirez, do you copy?”

“We read you, Commander. Good to hear your voice. Standby for transport.” She recognized the voice as belonging to Ensign Browder, the Beta-watch Operations officer.

“Hang on, I’ll need to gather my things and set the pod’s self destruct.” Ramirez didn’t want Federation encryption ciphers falling into the hands of the enemy. She quickly gathered up the pod’s ration stores and then set the destruct mechanism on a five minute delay. Her task complete, she tapped her compin. “Ramirez to Gibraltar, one to beam up.”

Ramirez vanished and left the slowly dying island behind.

*****

<cont'd>
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Old February 20 2010, 11:13 AM   #36
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Embers of the Fire - Chapter 10

Chapter 10 <cont'd>

Sickbay was once again a crowded place. The most recent upsurge in the facility’s cycle of feast or famine owed to the destruction of Phoenix, many of whose survivors now rested in the bay’s bio-beds.

Sandhurst entered only to pause just inside the door at the unsettling sight of nearly every bed occupied. He had made a habit of avoiding Sickbay in the course of his career, as a trip to Sickbay that didn’t involve a routine checkup usually meant that somebody somewhere had screwed up. Now, he was expected to perform an obligatory good-will tour through the bay. Sandhurst quashed his own discomfort as he caught the attention of a nearby nurse from whom he inquired as to the general well being of the patients.

The Bajoran man smiled diffidently. “They’re doing well under the circumstances, sir. The Phoenix survivors are still shaken up, but that’s to be expected after all they’ve been through.” The nurse gestured behind him to one of the ship’s two medical holograms, currently with its back to them as it studied something on an oversized medical padd. “Old Doc Photonic isn’t much of a ship’s counselor, as you might imagine. I guess their psychological needs will have to wait for a starbase, sir. Physically, though, they’re on the mend.”

Sandhurst thanked him and moved on. As he wound his way between the beds, he made idle conversation with those patients who were awake and tried not to disturb the others. He spotted Juneau who slept peacefully with her left arm encased within an ostio-regenerator cuff. The device hummed softly as it worked to knit her fractured humerus back together.

The captain found Plazzi resting idly beneath a neural scanner. The device hung above his bed on an armature and emitted a greenish beam that swept back and forth across his forehead. “Elisto, how’s the head?”

The geologist grinned. “Apparently composed of duranium, or so they tell me. My brain, alas, seems to be somewhat more fragile.”

“So I see. Any idea when we’ll have the honor of your presence back on the bridge?”

The older man attempted a shrug and winced with the effort. “Tough to say. I guess I don’t heal as quickly as I used to.”

Sandhurst nodded amiably. “I’ll tell the medical staff to hurry up. We need you back.”

“Thank you, Captain.”

A few beds further, Sandhurst happened upon Taiee. The Chief Medical Officer was sitting up in bed as she pushed against an isometric pulley system as part of her physical rehabilitation. Her expression brightened as she saw the captain. “Hello, sir.”

“Evening, Lieutenant. Good to see you up and awake.” Sandhurst seated himself somewhat awkwardly at the foot of the bed. “Interesting strategy you’ve come up with for observing your staff at work.”

Taiee laughed. “Getting shot, you mean? And here I was hoping nobody would catch on.” She fell silent long enough to finish off a set of five isometric presses. “I like that idea much better than the thought of needing remedial training on away team survival skills.”

Sandhurst shook his head. “There’s no shame in being caught up in a bad situation, Lieutenant. I’m just relieved that you pulled through. The EMH said it was touch-and-go there for awhile.”

Taiee glanced over at the hologram, her expression thoughtful. “The Mark-I’s are competent surgeons, I’ll give them that. Obviously, in that regard I’m grateful to have them. As a resource, they’re terrific. I’m less comfortable having them running the whole show in my absence. If the nursing staff doesn’t up and quit en mass, it’ll be a miracle.”

Sandhurst raised an eyebrow. “You want me to modify their interpersonal communications subroutines? I could make them as meek and compliant as you’d like.”

The lieutenant flashed a devious grin. “I’m tempted, sir, but no. The consensus among the Fleet’s medical community is that the longer you leave them running, the more their adaptive programming has a chance to learn. It’s better if we let the holograms and the nursing staff work this out on their own; hopefully their dispositions will be better for the experience.”

The captain stood. “Suit yourself, Lieutenant. Just remember, the offer stands.”

“I will, sir. Thank you.”

“Take care… Doc.” Sandhurst walked on and mused that it sounded strange to call the CMO anything other than that. He made a few more stops along the way to visit with some of Phoenix’s crew, but as a group they gave him a reticent reception. He couldn’t be sure if that was because he wasn’t their captain, or simply due to the recent trauma they had all shared.

“Transporter room three to Captain Sandhurst.”

Sandhurst toggled his compin. “Go ahead.”

“Sir, we’ve located Commander Ramirez. We’re beaming her up right now.”

“Fantastic, I’m on my way.” Confident that he’d at least made the attempt, he stepped out of Sickbay and left the medical professionals to their work.

*****

The captain entered the transporter room to find both medical and security personnel giving Ramirez thorough examinations. She appeared to be suffering them patiently, and the exec directed a raised eyebrow at Sandhurst as he stood by for the specialists’ results.

“She’s cleared security screening, Captain.”

The medic, however, was less obliging. “I’m reading a low-grade concussion, sir. She’ll need to been seen in Sickbay. Shouldn’t take long, though.”

Sandhurst nodded. “Very well, I’ll walk her down there.” He turned to the XO and inquired, “You up to it?”

Ramirez grinned, still reeling from the relief of her unexpected liberation. “I think I can manage that, Captain.”

The two stepped out into the corridor. As they walked, Sandhurst glanced over at her, his expression pensive. “It’s good to have you back, Commander. We thought we’d lost you.”

He registered that the two of them were momentarily alone, and Sandhurst stopped. Ramirez went another few steps, then turned back with a confused look.

“Sir?”

“Ramirez, all evidence to the contrary, I want you to know that I’m not trying to get you killed.”

She chuckled. “Tell that to our Cardassian friends. They seem to have it out for me.” She took a moment to fully register Sandhurst’s earnest expression. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”

“Yes. Every time I give you an assignment it seems that you just barely survive it.” He frowned, not liking how that had come out. “I don’t… what I mean to say…”

Despite the fatigue that had arrived on the heels of her ebbing adrenaline she mustered a smile. “It’s alright, Captain. I know what you’re trying to say.”

Sandhurst rubbed the back of his neck absently with one hand. “Look, you’ve already endured more on this assignment than anyone could have expected of you. Whatever the outcome of our mission here, I’ll get you back to Starbase 71 and Admiral Covey. You’ve more than earned it.”

She nodded. “Thank you, sir. I’ll hold you to that.”

*****
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Old February 20 2010, 08:02 PM   #37
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Re: Embers of the Fire - ST: Gibraltar

It seems Ramirez has tweaked a little conscience in Sandhurst but she's more than earned the centre seat already it seems.

Lar'ragos and Sandhurst's obvious deep friendship allows the mentor type approach that age brings even with the apparent reversed rank disparity and I like how that works.

Of course the Cardassians are still out there!!

More Sir, more!
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Old February 21 2010, 08:14 AM   #38
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Embers of the Fire - Chapter 11

Chapter 11

The headquarters of what Legate Urlak had christened the Crimson Order had begun as a Cardassian military ordinance depot. Constructed beneath the towering Avendra mountain range and taking full advantage of the region’s fistrium-laced geology, it had been designed to be both undetectable and impenetrable. With the coming of the Dominion and their wondrous engineering aptitude, the Vorta had expanded the facility and turned it into an advanced weapons research outpost.

Dominion engineers had installed an experimental interphase generator, which shifted the entire facility point-zero-four millicochranes into the subspace realm. A series of complicated interphasic ‘airlocks’ had been created in order to transition persons from the base to the outside world safely. Without them, the abrupt transition from one dimension to another would have been instantly lethal. Submerged as it was in the nearer layers of subspace, the base was now completely hidden and utterly impervious to attack.

The cavernous chamber that held the facility’s meeting hall roared with the dissonant clamor of angry voices. The whole of the Lakesh insurgency’s leadership had gathered to discuss not only the aftermath of Gul Panor’s failed attack, but the larger issue of the movement’s future outside the confines of the Crolsa system.

Legate Urlak presided over the ill-tempered crowd with a sense of barely contained fury. He harbored no illusions as to the true agenda here; his enemies wished to debate his continued leadership of the movement. Panor’s defeat had done much to undermine Urlak’s position, and those who desired to challenge his authority were now capitalizing on his lack of active military experience.

Although Urlak had attended the Union’s most prestigious military college in his youth, he had been recruited away from a more mundane career by the Obsidian Order. He had become a spymaster, with vast knowledge of intelligence procedures and planning, but little experience with more standardized military operations. His current rank had been awarded him when the Dominion had selected Urlak to co-administrate the Lakesh research facility. As such, many of the hard-core militants accepted his leadership only grudgingly.

Gul Javin En’Roel, potentially next in line to command the movement’s military wing, had the floor. Decades Urlak’s junior, En’Roel had been a promising young warship commander at the outset of the Dominion War. In the intervening two years he had become something of a legend among the rank and file in the armed forces, a man who led from the front, unafraid to confront any threat himself that he would send his men against.

En’Roel’s personal charisma was something Urlak couldn’t match, as he had made a career of blending into the background and presenting himself as more average than the median. The legate could be sufficiently menacing when necessary, but he possessed little in the way of the kind of appeal that would inspire men to throw themselves into battle with his name on their lips.

“We have followed the dictates of Legate Urlak since the inception of this rebellion.” En’Roel turned dramatically to engage his audience as he mixed oratory and movement in a stylish synthesis that the assembled insurgents found captivating. “And while I agree that the legate cannot be held totally accountable for Gul Panor’s disastrous failure, Urlak was the one who selected the officers responsible for planning and executing the attack!”

En’Roel scanned the faces of his fellow soldiers, his expression beseeching them to hear his words. “He has chosen to keep us confined here, limiting the scope of our operations and denying our brethren the fruits of the wondrous technology left to us by the hated Dominion.” The gul reached out his arm to point an accusatory finger at Urlak in a gesture so theatrical it made the legate’s stomach turn. “Instead, he uses the quantities of bio-memetic gel and ketracil-white we took from the Founders by force, and uses them to bargain with the likes of Ferengi and Lissepians. He squanders what should be the birthright of a new, more powerful union! Our union!”

Arms outstretched, En’Roel turned a complete circle and looked every bit the ringmaster of a Ravalian Carnival. He called out to the audience in barely tempered desperation. “I ask you to walk with me! My path will lead us to victory! His path has been proven one of half-measures and compromise, ultimately leading to defeat and supplication before the Federation and their Klingon dogs! Are we to become brothers to the Bajorans? Cousins to the Vulcans? Are we simply one among many as the Federation would have us believe, or are we as a people destined for something greater?” Murmurs of assent rippled through the crowd.

The hint of anguish in his voice lessened, and En’Roel’s features hardened. “Others have already tried to unite the scattered bands of resistance fighters. The True Way movement was once our greatest hope, yet now it clings to life by a thread. Gul Keshet’s cell of brave soldiers will be sacrificed on the altar of greed and deception unless we take up the banner of their cause! No other groups possess our resources, our courage, or our determination to see the enemy driven from our homeland finally and forever!”

A respectable wave of applause met the conclusion of En’Roel’s presentation, and Urlak took some relief that the crowd had not roared in approval. Gul En’Roel yielded the central podium to Urlak, and the legate took his time in mounting the steps to take his place at the rostrum.

This would not be any easy or pleasant task. He used an intentionally somber tone and sought to differentiate his performance from that of his melodramatic challenger. “Although I take exception with the quality of Gul En’Roal’s performance, he does make some salient points which I will attempt to address.”

As he looked out across the auditorium, he yearned to feel some deeper sense of connection to the people he had led, and hoped to continue leading. Instead, he felt nothing. For all his words, these men and women were little more than ciphers to him. The idea of a strong and united Cardassia was the only thing that warmed his heart, much as he might wish otherwise. If En’Roel experienced some manner of genuine camaraderie with these men, then he was to be envied as well as despised.

“Do not forget that it was I who led our successful rebellion against Dominion control of this facility. It was my planning that allowed us to overwhelm our supposed allies with minimal casualties and collateral damage.”

The legate held himself fully erect and tried to eek out every millimeter of height. “I acknowledge that these actions alone are not sufficient to warrant my continued leadership. Instead, you must take into consideration who has the more realistic vision. Gul En’Roel speaks of great victories against the enemy and the unquenchable fire of the martyr’s spirit. These are poetic notions that bear little resemblance to the realities we face.”

“I will not fill your heads with such foolishness. I offer difficult, dangerous work that may see the end of many of us. Mine is the more demanding road of hard won, incremental gains. We will fight when it is to our advantage, striking our enemies when and where they are weakest. When we are not engaging the enemy on our terms, we will hide. This is not glamorous or noble, but it is how insurgencies are fought.”

Urlak paused to assess his audience, most of whom seemed to be paying close attention to his words. “We will not seek great victories against our enemies, for we haven’t the resources to engage them in bold frontal attacks. Instead, we shall prey on their vulnerable underbelly, bleeding them when they can least afford it until they have grown so exhausted of wasting lives and treasure on us that they will declare victory and leave.

“And although we will be both valiant and vicious when engaging our foes, I cannot and will not promise you victory in every battle. As soldiers in this cause, you deserve to be told the truth, and those of you with military training will doubtless know the old axiom that no plan ever survives contact with the enemy.” Urlak noted the nods and murmurs of assent in the crowd.

“The gul is correct when he accuses me of ‘conspiring’ with the likes of the Ferengi and Lissepians. I have used them as intermediaries in the spread of our resources to our countrymen. I have purchased ships and weapons that will be distributed not just on Lakesh, but throughout the worlds of Cardassia! Schematics and samples of the devices we have captured from the Dominion will accompany these arms, so that others may join our cause. These actions were taken in great secrecy, as the very future of our race may depend on their success.

“Let me say in closing that I understand your frustrations. We are a great people facing the darkest of times. The old guard betrayed us to the Dominion, and as a result we now face slavery, perhaps even genocide, at the hands of the Federation, the Klingons, and the Romulans. So long as you and others like you refuse to bow before our enemies, Cardassia will remain forever strong. I ask only that you help me lead us to the day when we may stand and gaze upon the flag of the Union and know that every meter of our soil has been freed from oppression and occupation!”

The legate finished and his body trembled with the effort. A moments silence reigned before the crowd seemed to rise to their feet in unison. Some clapping and a few cheers met his conclusion, but nothing like the thunderous ovation he’d hoped for. The assembled leadership moved en mass towards the privacy cubicles where they would cast their votes.

So it will be decided, he observed gravely.

*****

A sensor contact alert beeped at the Operations console. Ensign Browder called back to Lar’ragos, who was seated in the command chair. “Lieutenant, a Klingon warship has just decloaked twenty kilometers from the hulk of the rebel Galor-class ship.”

Lar’ragos sat forward. “Identify.”

Browder tapped at his console. “Vor’cha-class… receiving transponder ident code now.” The ensign glanced back at Lar'ragos. “It’s the Kang, sir. General K’Vada’s flagship.”

Lar’ragos grimaced, and then announced with a decided lack of enthusiasm, “Yay. The cavalry’s here.”

“Now reading transporter activity, sir. It looks like the Klingons are sending boarding parties over to what’s left of the Galor.”

The lieutenant frowned as he reflected that Gibraltar should have done the same thing hours earlier. Donald needs to start thinking with his head instead of his heart, he assessed. “Hail the Kang and welcome them to the scenic Crolsa system, where no good deed goes unpunished.”

“Aye, sir.”

Lar’ragos said, “Bridge to Captain Sandhurst.”

“Go ahead.”

“Captain, we’ve got company.”

*****

<cont'd>
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Old February 21 2010, 08:15 AM   #39
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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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Old February 21 2010, 01:54 PM   #40
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Re: Embers of the Fire - ST: Gibraltar

Well that explains the Cardies abundant supply of technology they shouldn't have!

Plus Urlak being on the verge of demotion with En’Roel in ascendance!! Internal strife among a race already devious and plotting really muddies the waters!

And Sandhurst feels the heavy hand of being made subservient as well. K’Vada's intentions don't bode at all well.

I had to put this (and your other stories) into the recommended thread as an example of how fanfic writing works at it's best Gib.

Inspiring mate, well done.
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Old February 23 2010, 06:07 PM   #41
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Re: Embers of the Fire - ST: Gibraltar

unusualsuspex wrote: View Post
Well that explains the Cardies abundant supply of technology they shouldn't have!

Plus Urlak being on the verge of demotion with En’Roel in ascendance!! Internal strife among a race already devious and plotting really muddies the waters!

And Sandhurst feels the heavy hand of being made subservient as well. K’Vada's intentions don't bode at all well.

I had to put this (and your other stories) into the recommended thread as an example of how fanfic writing works at it's best Gib.

Inspiring mate, well done.
Thank you very much!
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Old February 23 2010, 06:31 PM   #42
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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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Old February 23 2010, 06:32 PM   #43
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Embers of the Fire - Chapter 12

Chapter 12 <con'td>


A stiff breeze blustered across the plains of Ensid, sending additional ripples through the already undulating fields of uebwi grass that seemed to stretch for endless kilometers in all directions. The sun crested the distant mountain range to bathe the scenery in the surreal golden glow of a new day. The village of Kendarsi appeared placid, if not entirely deserted. It was for perhaps that reason that Kendarsi had gone untouched during the Breen orbital bombardment of larger population centers.

The township was unremarkable in most respects, and consisted of a collection of off-white or gray structures ranging from one to three stories in height. The community’s only recent notoriety had come as the result of being selected by the Federation relief teams as an excellent location for a food and medical distribution center. Those plans had been delayed indefinitely when the relief operations were rolled up and evacuated by Starfleet following the attacks on the orbiting starships.

Covert surveillance sensors left behind by Phoenix’s withdrawing security personnel had registered several instances of anomalous activity. Upon further scrutiny, this activity seemed to be consistent with the movement of resources and personnel in support of insurgent operations.

QaS DevwI’ M’Sharv was the equivalent of the Klingon ground force’s Sergeant Major. He was clad in traditional Klingon battle armor whose tones had been muted to more reliably approximate the color of the ubiquitous uebwi grass. The bulky optical scanner clutched in his gloved hands was a source of constant irritation for him because it stubbornly refused to reveal anything not already known about the village and its occupants. Even at five hundred meters, the device should have been able to tell him something about what they were facing. As he turned to look askance at Lieutenant Lar’ragos, the old warrior grumbled, “Nothing. Passive scans indicate the village is deserted, and yet we’ve seen movement among the buildings.”

Dressed in a covering of mimetic holomesh over a suit of Starfleet Class-4 combat armor, Lar'ragos’ furrowed brow was clearly visible through the raised faceplate of his helmet. “The people we’ve seen scurrying between buildings could be holograms, trying to draw us into an ambush. Or they could be employing that sensor dampening field again.” He glanced at M’Sharv, smirking as the impatient Klingon struggled with the resolution on the field glasses. “Only one way to be sure.”

M'Sharv sputtered with barely contained frustration, and tossed the binoculars over his shoulder as he turned to inspect his troops. Fifty of Kang’s finest warriors knelt among the grass, their disruptors and bladed weapons held at the ready. Accompanying them was a small detachment of security personnel from Gibraltar, led by Lar’ragos and Master Chief Tark. Everyone, Klingon and Starfleet alike, carried backup projectile sidearm and edged weapons, ever mindful of the potential for the enemy to employ their power nullifying field.

The QaS DevwI’ bared his teeth at Lar’ragos, sneering. “What? More probes? Perhaps you’d like to sneak up and poke the nearest building with a stick?”

Lar’ragos returned his stare impassively, ignoring the quiet snorts and guffaws of those Klingons within earshot. “I was actually going to suggest that we attack. Whatever awaits us in that village, sitting here any longer won’t help us figure out what it is.” He flipped the faceplate of his combat helmet down and his voice took on a distant, digitized quality. “But, if you feel an assault on the target is too bold a plan, I’m familiar with any number of Romulan youth brigade camping songs. We can join hands and sing to the Praetor’s health.”

“Bah!” M’Sharv’s eyes bulged as he forced himself to refrain from rushing the El Aurian. The shoulders of several nearby warriors shook with silent laughter. “When this is over, little man, I think you and I will come to an understanding. If you are fortunate, it will not involve my feasting on your heart.”

Lar’ragos turned away from the burly Klingon to communicate his intentions to his security team with a flurry of quick hand gestures. “Hate to disappoint you, QaS DevwI’, but ask any of my subordinates; a heart is something I’m lacking.” The security team, still crouched low, moved to climb aboard five two-seat combat SWIFTs.

The Special Warfare Interceptor/Fast Transport was a large, shielded hover cycle that had been fielded near the end of the Dominion War. Fast, quiet, durable and well armed, the transports had found favor among Starfleet’s Special Forces community. Just prior to their mission to Lakesh, Pava had managed to appropriate five SWIFTs in the eventuality that the mission required a quick response platform for surface patrols. Each unit boasted two forward facing phaser emitters, controlled by the pilot. The cycles then supported either an under slung gatling-style pulse phaser cannon, or an automatic photon grenade launcher operated by the passenger in the rear seat.

Lar’ragos turned back to M’Sharv as his armored personnel quickly carried out pre-mission checks on the cycles. “If you’ve no objections, we’ll flank the village from the east. I’m correct in thinking you’re going to use a two-prong frontal assault with a diversionary feint to the west?”

The QaS DevwI’ growled, his mustache and beard flecked with spittle. “Yes, damn you! Go, before I forget who my allies are supposed to be!”

He offered M’Sharv a jaunty salute, then moved to his SWIFT at a low crouch, sliding up and onto the pilot’s seat. Lar'ragos initialized his helmet’s communications and engaged the short range, heavily encrypted transmitter that allowed him to speak to his team covertly. “Strike Group Alpha, saddle up. Vector approach to the target, formation Theta. I want to hit them just as they’re getting their first glimpse of the Klingons.”

As he throttled up, he kept the SWIFT no more than a meter off the ground as he led the other four craft plunging through the sea of grass towards the enemy.

*****

Glinn Trevar was sweaty, dirty, and exhausted. He and his thirty-seven man contingent had just completed moving nearly two tons of weapons and supplies into the rural Kendarsi village. The powered sleds that had carried the men and cargo through more than two-hundred kilometers of underground tunnels from the insurgency’s primary base had offered little in the way of creature comforts.

Trevar’s advance party had set up one of the portable sensor inhibitors which created a disruption field that extended out for five kilometers from the village. Within that area scanning devices would not function beyond a few meters. The glinn had requested to bring one of the insurgency’s invaluable area-effect energy siphons, but his superiors had denied him. Thus, if attacked, he would have to weather the full force of his enemy’s ranged weaponry.

He hoped that the sensor inhibitor would be enough. With the Klingons now in orbit, the possibility of an engagement with the fearsome warriors was a distinct possibility. In Trevar’s view, fighting Starfleet was bad enough, but the Klingons were another matter. Federation forces could at the very least be counted on to show a modicum of civility to their prisoners. In Klingon hands, at best he might suffer a quick end fighting the brutes for sport or training purposes. At worst he would be slowly tortured to death for information.

Now he sat atop a crate of photon mortar tubes on the ground floor of some displaced family’s home, sipping water and taking his first real break of the morning.

Sed Grinnt ducked through the low doorway of the structure behind him, and called out in a subdued voice. “Glinn, we’ve spotted movement outside.”

Trevar took a long draught from his canteen and inquired, “Where and how many?”

Grinnt stooped to pick up another energy cell for his rifle from an open crate. “Not certain, sir. The sentries on the western wall reported what looks to be organized movement among the grass. Too ordered to be a herd of animals.”

Klingons… and so soon. Trevar toggled his wrist communicator. “Zandol, close and secure the entrance to the tunnel, make sure the holoemitter camouflage is functioning. If we’re overrun, detonate the charges and collapse this end of the tunnel.” As he received an affirmative from his second-in-command, Trevar quickly scooped up his phaser rifle, flipped off the safety catch and checked the charge. He followed Grinnt back outside, shielding his eyes against the glare of the rising sun. The glinn sensed movement around him an instant before he perceived his own soldiers, crouched low and moving for cover, filtering silently into this quadrant of the settlement.

As Trevar moved to a firing position behind a low mud brick wall, he caught a glimpse of motion from within the sea of grass. Then a series of greenish flashes danced among the swaying blades. Disruptor bolts whipped past him, ripping into stone, wood, and flesh. Those of Trevar’s men left untouched by the Klingons’ opening volley returned fire, their bright yellow beams reaching out towards the enemy. Klingons fell from the ranks of the charging warriors, some pin-wheeling backwards as others vanished entirely as their bodies were consumed by swirling eddies of molecular entropy.

Trevar took aim at one of the advancing Klingons, his sights set on the soldier’s armored breastplate. Without warning, the earth around him and the wall he sheltered behind seemed to explode with cacophonous sound and blinding light. The glinn was thrown into the air, then landed with a bone-jarring thud that drove the air from his lungs. He coughed spasmodically, momentarily unable to catch his breath as the cloud of dust around him began to settle. Something roared past him through the veil of drifting soil, and Trevar registered a glimpse of some kind of cycle-like conveyance, two bodies crouched low atop its back.

Starfleet. They had been flanked by Starfleet. He reached for the comms transmitter on his wrist, wheezing into it ineffectually as he tried to order his men to fall back and regroup. He mustered what strength he could and rose shakily, croaking orders into the communicator as his breath returned to him.

Petty Officer Dunleavy, seated behind Lieutenant Lar’ragos on the team leader’s SWIFT, pressed down on the firing stud as she locked her firing solution in her helmet’s heads-up display. She sent a stream of pulse phaser blasts screaming into the midst of a group of Cardassian soldiers whose attention was centered squarely on the approaching Klingons.

The walls, buildings and trees they were using for cover exploded in a wave of withering shrapnel. Lar’ragos increased the SWIFT’s forward shields, and plunged ahead through the swirling cloud of dust and debris while firing phasers to clear his path. As the SWIFT shot through the haze, he caught a fleeting image of an insurgent lurching unsteadily to his feet, screaming into a comlink affixed to his gauntlet. The rear stabilizer fin from Pava’s cycle sliced cleanly through the man, who fell backwards before parting ways with the other half of his body.

Master Chief Tark, seated on the back of Ensign Diamato’s SWIFT, peppered the southeastern quadrant of the village with a flurry of photon grenades set for airburst stun detonation. A rippling wave of concussive blasts rocked the target area, sending insurgents reeling. Those not rendered immediately unconscious were so disoriented that when they were finally able to function, they found themselves staring down the barrels of Klingon disruptors.

The Klingon warriors, heedless of their reputations as dull-witted thugs, searched the structures of the village with a quickness and precision that left even the highly trained Starfleet security detachment impressed. Rapidly frisking any civilians for weapons, they left them bound but otherwise unharmed. Within a matter of minutes the village had been swept and cleared. Those remaining insurgents who chose to resist were dispatched with relish by the Klingons, who favored bladed weapons for the Cardassians’ last, desperate engagements.

*****
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Old February 27 2010, 11:26 AM   #44
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Embers of the Fire - Chapter 13

Chapter 13

Ramirez looked over the large-screen medical display, and then directed an impatient frown at Lieutenant Taiee. “Okay, I give up, what am I looking at here?” She was standing in one of Gibraltar’s operating theaters, which also doubled as an isolation exam room. On the two tables behind them lay the Cardassian survivors of the Vintar, rescued a day earlier by Klingon forces during their search of the vessel’s hulk.

The nurse practitioner stepped forward to point to several locations of the Cardassian’s scan highlighted on the display. “The other patient’s injuries appear consistent with exposure to rapid decompression and prolonged oxygen deprivation, but this one’s a different matter.” She tapped at the display’s control interface. “This is a cross section diagram of his prefrontal cortex. The spots that I’ve marked in orange are regions of synaptic degradation.”

“That a result of head trauma?”

“No, sir. Blunt force trauma would show up differently.” Taiee turned to fix a concerned expression on the XO. “If I had to guess -- and mind you the EMH agrees with me -- what we’re seeing here is the result of exposure to direct synaptic stimulation.”

“So, some kind of brain scan?” Ramirez looked bewildered.

Taiee nodded. “Yes, a very specific kind. The technical term for it is ‘invasive neuro-synaptic induction,’ more popularly known as the Klingon mind sifter.”

Ramirez’s expression darkened. “I thought use of that device was outlawed in the Khitomer Accords.”

“It was, sir.”

The exec turned to look at the Cardassian, feeling an unaccustomed swell of pity for the man. Even for a Cardassian, for an insurgent fighter, to have your intellect ripped asunder… layer by layer, memory by memory. “They’ve tortured them. They’ve tortured them, and now they want us to patch them up and send them back for more.”

“So it would seem, sir.” Taiee was no stranger to the many kinds of cruelty sentient species could visit upon one another. During the war, her mobile surgical unit had been the closest facility to a liberated Cardassian prisoner-of-war camp. The Starfleet personnel and Federation civilians that she treated had been horribly brutalized. At the time, Issara had secretly wished to see such violations inflicted upon the Cardassians in return. That she could have harbored such thoughts, however fleeting and understandable given the circumstances, shamed her now. “I won’t allow it, of course. I don’t care if the head of Starfleet Medical herself orders them released to the Klingons.”

Ramirez’s eyes narrowed. “Not going to happen.” She moved for the exit. “Do what you can for them, Lieutenant.”

*****

QaS DevwI’ M’Sharv walked along the line of kneeling prisoners, his d’k tagh clutched tightly in his left hand. “You are now prisoners of the Klingon Empire!” he bellowed. The burly warrior paused at the end of the line just long enough to belt one of the Cardassians across the back of the head with the spike studded end of the blade’s handle. The man fell forward with a grunt, arms still secured tightly behind him.

Lar’ragos looked on, his security team arrayed behind him. The lieutenant held up a hand, stopping the team’s medic in his tracks as he had started towards the now injured Cardassian. The rest of the Starfleet contingent shifted uneasily in their armor, less from rising heat of the midmorning, he imagined, then from what they were observing.

For Lar’ragos the scene held a powerful sense of nostalgia. How many cities, towns, and villages like this one had he conquered or laid waste at the behest of his former masters? He realized with a sudden thrill of familiarity why he loathed M’Sharv so potently, despite having just met the man. Four hundred years earlier it had been Lar'ragos giving this rousing little speech, or one very much like it.

The grizzled Klingon continued, “For those of you who do not understand the concept of empire, allow me to explain. You and your fellow Cardassians are now servants to the Klingon race. You are now and for all time jeghpu’wI’. Serve us well, and you will survive to enjoy some semblance of the lives you once knew. Disobey us… or worse, and you will be slaughtered like livestock, your bodies and those of your loved ones left for carrion birds!” He walked to a position from where the ranks of kneeling insurgents could all see him. “So there is no misunderstanding, you are less now than the Bajorans once were to you.”

One of the prisoners spat loudly towards M’Sharv, his effort falling short by meters. The man’s expression radiated a hatred so visceral that the air around him almost seemed to oscillate with it. The QaS DevwI’ drew his disruptor pistol with blinding speed, vaporizing the offending insurgent where he knelt. M’Sharv holstered his weapon slowly. “Let that be your first lesson.” The eyes of the other Cardassians lowered, none among them willing to chance M’Sharv’s wrath.

It took every ounce of control Lar'ragos possessed to stay his hand. He ached to intervene, to step up and confront M’Sharv. He seethed with the desire to humiliate the QaS DevwI’, to break the man in front of his warriors. But Lar’ragos knew that Klingon honor would demand satisfaction for such an act. The likelihood was that after Pava and his team had been dispatched by M’Sharv’s men, Gibraltar and his crewmates would end up paying the remainder of the tab.

Instead, he flipped his helmet faceplate shut, activating the long range comms. “Lar’ragos to Gibraltar, I need to speak with the captain immediately.”

*****

“Enter.”

The door to the captain’s ready room opened to admit Ramirez. As soon as Sandhurst glanced up, he could tell she was angry. He waved her towards the chair sitting opposite his desk. “Have a seat.” She clearly would have rather remained standing, but sat anyway.

“The Klingons have been torturing those prisoners.”

“I know.“ Sandhurst met her gaze evenly.

Her eyes blazed. “And you’re just going to hand them back? Knowing what they’ll be subjected to?” The challenge in her tone was unmistakable.

The captain leaned back in his chair, content to keep his own counsel for the moment.

“This is outrageous! I can’t believe you’re going to allow the Klingons to walk all over us!” The expression on her face was a mix of disbelief and contempt.

He observed her silently for another moment, trying to decide how far he should push this. “You’re talking about the people who shot Phoenix out from under you, Commander. Are you so sure you want to defend their rights as prisoners of war?”

Ramirez sat forward, her anger palpable. “How dare you ask me that! Nobody’s more aware than I what these people have cost us. That doesn’t excuse our turning a blind eye to these prisoners being tortured by our honorable allies. I swore an oath on the day I earned this uniform, the same oath you took…”

She came up short as Sandhurst began laughing spitefully.

“You really don’t understand me at all, do you Commander?” He shook his head, his disappointment evident. “I’ve no intention of allowing those Cardassians to be transferred into Klingon custody. In fact, Starfleet regulations specifically prohibit rendering prisoners to the supervision of any third party who isn’t a signatory to the Seldonis Convention governing treatment of detainees.” He moved forward suddenly to stand and brace his arms on the desk as he glared across at Ramirez. “But you just assumed that I’d knuckle under to K’Vada.” He sneered, “I’m so glad I’ve earned your confidence.”

In response to Sandhurst’s aggressive posture, Ramirez rose to her feet as well. Despite his size advantage, Ramirez was undaunted. “Maybe I’d know that, Captain, if you’d spend any time at all talking with your first officer! Whenever you want to bounce ideas off somebody, instead of looking to me you lock yourself away in here with Lieutenant Lar’ragos.” A flicker of uncertainty shone in the captain’s eyes, and sensing vulnerability, Ramirez forged ahead. “What happened to your needing me on this mission? You’ve asked for my input on the insurgency exactly once. The rest of the time you seem content if I stay out from under foot.”

His malicious reply evaporated on his tongue. Sandhurst’s shoulders sagged, and he pushed back from the desk, resuming his seat heavily. “Touché, Commander.”

Caught off guard by Sandhurst’s abrupt change of mien, Ramirez nevertheless held her ground.

Sandhurst rubbed the back of his neck absently as he muttered, “For what it’s worth, Ramirez, I’m glad you haven’t let your personal feelings about the Cardassians influence your ethics.”

She regarded him warily. “And you feel you have?”

Sandhurst fought back a defeated sigh. “I think that I’ve made far too many compromises here, while failing to do anything proactive. We came here to help these people. Now, their planet is burning down around them, and all we’ve to show for it is hundreds of civilian and Starfleet dead.”

Ramirez offered, “Our own personal Kobayashi Maru?”

“Something like that.”

“Bridge to Captain Sandhurst.”


“Go ahead.”

“Sir, priority message from Lieutenant Lar’ragos on the surface.”

“Acknowledged, put it through.”

There was a brief pause before Pava’s voice announced, “Captain, we’ve got a situation developing down here. Our attack on the suspected insurgent position was a success, and we’ve netted seventeen prisoners. However, the commander of the Klingon contingent has already executed one of them, and if we don’t act soon there’s sure to be more unnecessary casualties among the POW’s.”

Sandhurst stood, rounded the desk and made for the door. “Understood, Lieutenant. Are the prisoners in an area where we could beam them all out at once?” He passed through the parting doors and onto the bridge, Ramirez on his heels.

“Negative, sir. The POW’s are all in one location, but we’ve yet to pinpoint the sensor jamming device that prevented us from scanning the village prior to our assault. It’s very doubtful you could get a transporter lock on any of us.”

Sandhurst murmured, “Of course,” under his breath as he took his place in the center seat. “Transporter room one, can you get a positive lock on anyone inside the village?”

“Stand by, sir. Scanning… No, sir, sensor interference at those coordinates is preventing us from getting an accurate lock.”

“Acknowledged.” The captain looked to Ramirez, who had assumed her seat in the well. “Thoughts, Commander?”

She pondered the question for the briefest of moments, then replied, “I’d recommend a two part strategy, sir. First, we have Lar’ragos and his team look for the sensor scrambler. Meanwhile, we talk with K’Vada, try and get him to reign in his people. If nothing else, we might stall them for a bit.”

“Good idea.” Sandhurst tapped at his armrest display. "Commander, you get in touch with Lar’ragos and relay his new orders.” He stood. “Open communications with the Kang.”

“Aye, Captain. Channel open.”

His guts knotting with tension, Sandhurst wondered how he might sway the imposing Klingon general. K’Vada shouldn’t give a damn what a Starfleet captain’s opinion was of his tactics, but perhaps there was some way he could make the man see reason.

General K’Vada appeared on screen, looking dour. “What do you want, Captain?”

And here we go, Sandhurst steeled himself. “General, it appears we have a developing situation on the surface. Some of your ground forces are abusing the prisoners in our joint custody. This makes our participation somewhat problematic.”

K’Vada looked pained. “Speak plainly, Captain. I have no stomach for subtleties.”

Sandhurst pursed his lips. “Fine. I request you order your troops to stop killing the Cardassian prisoners, sir.”

“You’ve made your feelings clear on this matter, Captain. If you are uncomfortable with how we treat those we’ve conquered, I suggest you withdraw your surface team.”

Sandhurst felt a growing surge of anger. "The Cardassians aren't a conquered people, General. If you'll remember, they joined our cause and helped turn the tide against the Dominion at the last minute, paying a terrible price in the process. Our occupation of their territory is merely to help stabilize their government and economy."

"That makes them all the more dangerous, Captain," K'Vada growled. "I would have more respect for the Cardassians had they not betrayed their alliance to the Dominion. They proved beyond all doubt that they cannot be trusted, and will turn their backs on any pact if it suits their whims."

Sandhurst floundered, fighting for purchase in the face of K'Vada's indignation. "I believe we can still work together to accomplish something on Lakesh, General… salvage something worthwhile from all this chaos.”

He poured every ounce of conviction he could into the next statement. “But as long as your men continue to torture and execute helpless prisoners, I can’t offer you any further assistance.”

K’Vada sat back slightly in his throne-like command chair and inclined his head. “Your actions at Lakesh have been duly noted. Your continued presence here is not required.”

"I'm sorry?" The captain frowned uncertainly.

“You are ordered to withdraw from the Crolsa system, Captain. You may gather your civilian transports and depart.”

His face reddened, and Sandhurst countered, “I thought we had addressed this issue, sir. I’ll need confirmation from Starfleet Command before I can--”

K’Vada cut him off. “It would be a mistake to treat this as a request, Captain Sandhurst.” He gestured sharply to someone off screen.

An alert warbled at the Operations station. Ensign Browder announced, “Sir, a Klingon K’Vort-class cruiser has just decloaked directly astern.”

The general looked entirely too satisfied as K’Vada observed Sandhurst with detached amusement. “I am certain confirmation from your admiralty will be forthcoming. In the meantime, the Grolkam will provide an escort to the edge of the system.”

“General, we still have Starfleet personnel unaccounted for on the surface. I would ask for time enough to recover our people.” Sandhurst’s expression hardened.

“Request denied, Captain. You may be sure that if we find your missing crew, they will be well cared for and returned to you as soon as is practical.” K’Vada seemed to consider something for a moment. “Before you depart, you will beam the two prisoners aboard the Kang.

“With respect, sir, I will do no such thing.” Sandhurst’s reply was immediate, and he took pleasure in standing his ground.

For an instant it appeared as though K’Vada would press the issue. Then he smiled that same unnerving sneer that Sandhurst had seen in his ready room. “No matter. We have others now who will give us the information we need.” He waved a hand dismissively. “I bid you farewell, Captain.”

As he considered the dwindling options open to him, Sandhurst weighed taking a stand on moral grounds against starting an interstellar incident with the Klingons. It was a battle he was sure to lose. Both his crew and the survivors of Phoenix had been through enough. This planet and this mission had already bled Captain Awokou’s original task force white.

Sandhurst refused to sacrifice anyone else on the altar of his own pride. He gradually became aware that the entire bridge crew awaited his next command with baited breath. “Commander Ramirez, recall our away team. Ops, order all relief ships into convoy formation and have them standby for departure.” He turned back to the view screen and the captain frowned at the image of K’Vada. “It appears I have little choice other than to comply with your instructions, General. For whatever good it does, be advised that I take this action under protest, and will lodge a formal complaint with Starfleet Command regarding your treatment of prisoners of war.”

“Words, Captain. Merely words. On the day the Federation comes to realize that a single decisive act is more potent than all the words ever spoken… on that day you will become worthy allies of the Empire.” The Kang terminated the comlink, leaving Sandhurst staring at the blank viewer.

As he sat back down in his command chair, Sandhurst muttered, “I really dislike that man.” He took measure of his bridge, and the captain saw that the assembled officers and crew were beginning to relax now that the chances of an armed confrontation with the Klingons appeared to be dwindling.

*****
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Last edited by Gibraltar; February 28 2010 at 03:22 AM.
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Old February 27 2010, 07:39 PM   #45
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Re: Embers of the Fire - ST: Gibraltar

You know, I was starting to like Klingons for their honour!

K'Vada is hopefully an aberration as far as the Empire is concerned, though the old saying "one bad apple" springs to mind.

Sandhurst, like many military commanders before him, is caught between a rock and a hard place. Let's hope there's some redemption.

Ramirez made a nice stand with Sandhurst there and I thought it developed her character nicely.

Lar’ragos certainly has some history too. Hmm, I suspect I have some reading up to do!

Well paced, nice angst, compulsive reading!
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