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Lt. Commander Liana Ramirez liked it quiet.  The normal, subdued atmosphere of daily bridge operations was much preferable, in her opinion, to the din of alarms and flashing alert lights.  That being said, five weeks straight of convoy duty had Ramirez yearning for something to break the tedium.  She sat in the captain's chair, idly inspecting a padd containing a multitude of fuel consumption logs, division status reports, personnel fitness reports, and anything else anyone aboard had thought necessary to forward to the command division.

Gibraltar was part of a three ship contingent assigned to escort a flotilla of gargantuan Continent-class supply ships to and from occupied Cardassian space.  The ungainly behemoths had been utilized during the Dominion War to transport ground troops into battle, and to ferry civilian refugees away from planets in the path of the Dominion's advance.  Now laden with medical supplies, foodstuffs, and industrial replicators, these vessels spearheaded Starfleet's growing humanitarian relief effort for the Cardassian people.

Though undeniably boring, the relative peace of their ongoing escort duties had given Ramirez the opportunity to reflect on the recent loss of her first command, the ill-fated starship Phoenix.  She had been assigned by Captain Sandhurst as the vessel's acting commanding officer after Phoenix's captain and two-thirds of his crew had been struck down by a neuropathogen visited upon them by Cardassian insurgents.  Ramirez's command had been short lived.  Two days after assuming the post, the starship had been destroyed in combat with insurgent vessels.  Her escape from the collapsing bridge in a life pod had been a very near thing.

Six weeks later, Ramirez was still experiencing sleepless nights, and a gnawing, nameless anxiety.  On those occasions when she was fortunate or exhausted enough to succumb to sleep, her dreams were haunted by the dead.

On any other assignment, these obstacles would be difficult enough to overcome.  Here, onboard a ship she didn't feel she belonged on, Ramirez felt as though she had nowhere to turn.  She had been strong-armed into the executive officer's post aboard Gibraltar, victim to the machinations of Captain Sandhurst and his old friend, Rear-Admiral Monica Covey.  At first it was only to be a single mission; then Covey had dangled the carrot of her own command in front of her to compel Liana to agree to a year's tour aboard the old Constitution-class.

What's next? she fumed internally.  If Covey doesn't keep her word, do I end up spending the rest of my days here, momentum stalled, watching my career slip through my fingers like so much sand?

"Incoming message from Trafalgar, Commander," announced Ensign Browder from the Operations station, interrupting Ramirez's morose reverie.  "It's Captain Littlefoot."

Ramirez smiled at the mention of the acclaimed captain's name.  "Put him onscreen, Ensign."  She stood in deference to her superior and raised her diminutive frame from the command chair.  Despite being small in stature, she had a reputation for being both tough and decisive, and woe be unto anyone who dared underestimate her abilities.

The image of heavily laden supply ships in tight formation was replaced on the main viewer by the impressive form of Captain Marcus Littlefoot, CO of the Akira-class starship Trafalgar.  The giant, barrel-chested Native American looked uncharacteristically somber.  "I'm afraid I've got a new mission for you, Commander.  Is Captain Sandhurst about?"

Ramirez unconsciously brought herself to her full height in the presence of the prominent officer. To her, Littlefoot represented the kind of legendary captain she would relish serving with. "He's otherwise occupied, sir.  May I be of assistance?"

Littlefoot bobbed his head once in assent.  "I'm tasking Gibraltar to investigate the possible disappearance of a Starfleet runabout.  One of our sector patrol ships, the Brahmaputra, reported detecting some anomalous energy signatures emanating from the Pierosh system.  They were dispatched to reconnoiter the situation, and haven't been heard from since.  As of now, they're a little over five hours late for their scheduled check-in."

Damn, Ramirez thought darkly.  That's Olivia's runabout.  I recommended her for that command…  Outwardly she replied, "Understood, sir.  I take it we're the closest ships in the area?"  Ramirez was uncomfortable with the idea of abandoning the convoy.  Three starships as escort was already an insufficient number to protect as inviting a target as twenty-one of the mammoth supply ships.  For all they knew, the mysterious energy signature and the disappearance of the runabout were insurgent tactics designed to pry one of the escorts away from the convoy.

"Unfortunately, yes.  With the recent insurgent attacks on Epsilon station and Starbase 375, we're stretched even more thinly than usual out here."

To his credit, Littlefoot didn't voice the obvious conclusion.  Of the three starships escorting the convoy, the ninety-year old Gibraltar was the least well armed, and thus the most logical to be spared for the new mission.  "I'm sending over all the data we have on this so far.  Hell, I wish we were going.  It's got to be more interesting than slogging along the trade routes at warp five."

Ramirez nodded curtly.  "We'll get the job done, Captain."  As an afterthought she added, "Nia'ish," in Littlefoot's native Cheyenne.

The large man cracked a smile and allowed himself a moment's amusement.  "I'd forgotten you were a linguist, Ramirez.  You're welcome."  And with that, the transmission ended.

She settled back into the command chair as ominous scenarios spun in her mind as to what could have happened to Juneau and her tiny crew.  If she got in over her head and made the wrong decision, I'm ultimately responsible.  Not just for her, but for all of them.

She turned to Ensign Lightner at Helm and ordered, "New course…"

*****

Captain Donald Sandhurst was in agony.  The lungs within his heaving chest burned without respite and he had lost nearly all sensation in his legs.  Sweat coated his body and his parched throat begged for reprieve.  Despite the worst his enemy could throw at him, Sandhurst refused to surrender.  He would not and could not back down.  He was a starship commander, a man responsible for the lives of one-hundred seventeen people, and he would be damned if he allowed his present circumstances to best him.

With a torturous slowness, the counter on the treadmill ticked away the meters towards his goal of five kilometers.  Cursed by an aging body of average height, Sandhurst yearned for the days when he could eat and drink with impunity, confident in his body's metabolic prowess.  Those days were long over.  He was carrying at least twenty-five unnecessary pounds, weight that Gibraltar's chief medical officer had told him needed to come off.  And so, with the towering Bolian engineer Lieutenant Ashok as his personal trainer, Sandhurst had embarked on a fitness regimen designed to reduce his waistline and improve his health.

"Can I…" he huffed, "…stop now?"  Four-point-six kilometers was sufficient, wasn't it?  He felt his resolve begin to waver.

From an old-fashioned free weight bench nearby, the booming voice of Ashok replied in absolute deadpan, "Pain is weakness leaving the body, sir."

Sandhurst gasped noisily in response as he soldiered on and only just bit back a reply that involved a fervent wish that Bolarus IX had been a priority target for the Dominion.

"Bridge to Captain Sandhurst."  He had rarely been as happy to hear his exec's voice.

Sandhurst planted his feet on either side of the still moving treadmill and tapped the compin affixed to his workout shirt.  He tried not to sound out of breath and failed miserably.  "Go… ahead."

"We've new orders from Captain Littlefoot, sir.  I've adjusted our heading and increased speed to Warp 7.  Our destination is the Pierosh system."

"Acknowledged.  On my way."  Sandhurst stepped gratefully off the sadistic device and grabbed his towel.  He wiped down his head and neck as he made a beeline for the exit.  "Apologies, Lieutenant.  We'll have to pick this up later."

As he stepped out into the narrow corridor, Sandhurst nearly stumbled into Lar'ragos.  It appeared the lieutenant was in the middle of dressing down one of the junior-most security officers aboard, Specialist Sharpe. 

"The next time you sweep the back of another team member's head with your rifle's emitter during a tactical exercise, I'm going to have you pulling armory detail for a month!" Lar'ragos snarled.

The younger man stood ramrod straight, eyes locked ahead of him.  "Yes, sir!"

"Each member of this team has to depend on one another.  They have to trust one another.  Part of that trust is the absolute knowledge that the person behind you in a tactical formation isn't going to blow the back of your head off."  Lar'ragos glanced over his shoulder at the captain, and waved the specialist away.  "Go and sin no more," he growled.  Sharpe moved off down the curving corridor at a brisk pace.

Sandhurst raised an eyebrow that prompted Lar'ragos to set his jaw tightly.  "What?" The El Aurian's tone was very similar to the one he'd used with Sharpe.

"I wasn't aware I'd said anything," Sandhurst said with a frown.

"Didn't have to."  Lar'ragos gestured to his ears.  "Remember?"

As he draped his towel over his shoulder, Sandhurst made a point of scrutinizing his old friend.  "Have we been infiltrated by doppelgangers again?"  The captain leaned in and appeared to study the smaller man's facial features.  "Really magnificent work, though.  If it weren't for all the yelling and frothing at the mouth, I'd really have believed it was my security chief."

Lar'ragos rolled his eyes and muttered, "Please desist, sir, lest you wound me further with your rapier wit."

"Seriously, Pava, what's going on?  I've been hearing mutterings that your department is about ready to stage a revolt.  Mind you, most of those complaints get filtered out at Ramirez's level, so that fact that I'm hearing anything about this means it must be bad."

Lar'ragos cocked his head to one side and frowned.  "We're not dealing with the cream of the Fleet here, sir.  Some of those in my department seem to be under the impression that a posting to Gibraltar was going to be a pleasure cruise.  Now that I'm working them hard, they're whining to whoever will listen."

Sandhurst nodded.  "I give my senior officers wide latitude in how they run their departments, Pava; you know that.  I'm willing to give you the benefit of the doubt.  However, I seem to recall that many of these people that you're accusing of being dead weight were also the ones that rescued the away team from Lakesh and carried out a successful assault on an insurgent firebase."

"I'm not concerned with what they did last month, Captain," Lar'ragos answered as he stood his ground.  "I'm worried about tomorrow."

Sandhurst shook his head in resignation.  "Suit yourself.  Just be careful you don't alienate your whole department while you're whipping them into shape."

Lar'ragos offered him a little salute.  "Aye, aye, my captain.  Will that be all, sir?"

A mischievous smile formed on Sandhurst's lips.  "As a matter of fact, no.  Lieutenant Taiee sent me a memo this morning saying that you still haven't reported for your initial medical screening."

"I've been busy."  It sounded petulant, even to Lar'ragos.

"How nice for you.  Make yourself un-busy and report to Sickbay immediately."

Lar'ragos crossed his arms.  "And that would be…"

"Yes, Pava.  That would be an order."  Sandhurst came about and started off down the corridor the other direction.  He slowed his pace and called back to his friend, "And I want you to calculate the odds that I'm going to follow up on this to see that you got there."

With a weak smile, Lar'ragos murmured, "Naturally."

*****

One quick shower and clean uniform later, Sandhurst strode onto the bridge.  Ramirez moved to rise from the command chair but the captain waved her off.  "I'm just here for an update, Commander."

"Yes, sir."  She resumed her seat and handed him a padd.  "This is the mission order brief from Trafalgar."

As he scanned the contents, Sandhurst's brow furrowed.  "Brahmaputra, isn't that—"

"Juneau's ship," she finished for him.  "Aye."  She pointed to the padd.  "And it gets better.  Check the names on the crew manifest."

Sandhurst scrolled down.  "Shaver, Osterlund, Shan—oh, frinx!"

Now it was Ramirez's turn to be impressed at another's linguistic proclivity.  Despite the seriousness of the situation, she smirked. "Sir, the Bajoran Prophets would be appalled."

His eyes still fixed on the padd, Sandhurst nodded glumly.  "So would my ex."  He sighed deeply, handing the padd back.  "This complicates things."

"Just slightly."

Sandhurst stepped back and leaned against a support for the bridge well's safety railing.  "ETA?"

"Thirteen hours, twenty-six minutes at present speed."

He pondered that for a moment.  "Step it up to Warp 8.2 for as long as the engines can handle it.  I know it'll only buy us a few hours grace, but if this proves to be something other than a comms failure…"

Ramirez inclined her head.  "Understood."

He moved to the upper deck and spared a glance at the ship's chronometer as he headed towards the lift.  "Have the senior staff assemble for a briefing at oh-five-hundred, and keep me apprised of any significant updates."  With that, Sandhurst stepped into the turbolift as he wondered if he would be the one to have to tell the Fleet Admiral that her son had died in the line of duty.

That's right, Donald, he berated himself, make it all about you.

*****

Lar'ragos entered Sickbay with deliberate reluctance.  Like most others, he considered the obligatory start-of-tour checkup to be a burdensome necessity, one best avoided for as long as possible.  However, in his case it went deeper than that.  His medical exams invariably sparked questions from his doctors that were, in his opinion, better left unasked..

Chief Medical Officer Lieutenant(j.g.) Taiee looked up from where she was calibrating a diagnostic sensor wand from a medical tricorder.  Usually, that type of busy work was the province of junior nurses or medical technicians, but Lar'ragos had noticed that Taiee seemed willing to share in the tedious grunt work needed to keep the medical department running smoothly.  She was a compact woman who, with her utilitarian bobbed haircut and matter-of-fact style, somehow generated nearly limitless quantities of cheer.  For a ship with no official counselor or morale officer, Taiee served as both with equal aptitude.

A forced smile plastered to his face, Lar'ragos said, "Good morning, Doc."  The title served as both a running joke with the senior staff, as well as a statement of their confidence in her abilities.  Taiee was a nurse practitioner by trade rather than a full-fledged physician.  Regardless, the crew was more than satisfied with her formidable talents as a healer.

Issara Taiee answered his insincere smile with a more genuine one of her own as she set down the scanner and moved to the exam bed.  She patted the surface of the table.  "Well, you've finally reported as ordered."  Taiee shook her head, her amusement evident.  "And it only took a month and a half."

"I was unavoidably detained?" he offered lamely as he scooted up and onto the biobed.

"Sure, sure."  Taiee gently moved him to lay down with mild pressure applied to his chest.  "C'mon now, Pava.  A big bad security officer like yourself acting as though a routine exam is worse than being sentenced to Rura Penthe."

Lar'ragos grumbled good-naturedly as Taiee initiated a scan via the overhead sensor node recessed into the ceiling.  She moved to the large wall mounted viewscreen and activated a display of the El Aurian's physiology.  Taiee sifted through multiple layers, skin, musculature, skeletal, internal organs and circulatory system, making the occasional notation on an oversized medical padd with a stylus.

Though giving no outward sign, she was startled by the massive amounts of scar tissue and internal damage the scans registered.  Much of it had been cleaned up, fairly recently and by Federation medical science, or so she guessed.  But the sheer volume of evidence indicated that Lar'ragos had been the victim of multiple internal injuries, dozens of broken bones in varying degrees of severity, as well as wounds from an assortment of weapons both primitive and modern.  Who did this to him? she pondered darkly.

Taiee took into account Lar'ragos' extended longevity; his service record listed him as being four-hundred and twenty seven years old.  Still, even compensating for age, most humans never accumulated even a fraction of this kind of trauma and lived to speak of it.

Taiee returned to the biobed and found Lar'ragos looking uncommonly self-conscious.  He glanced over at her.  "So… we done here?"

She smiled patiently.  "Scans can only tell me so much, Pava.  We've got a treadmill stress test and some other hoops for you to jump through before I can let you go."

He nodded hesitantly.  "Sure."

Taiee placed a friendly hand on his upper arm.  "Seriously, this won't be so bad.  A few more things and I'll have you out of here and back to duty."

True to her word, Taiee released him after a brief, monitored run on the treadmill.  After he toweled off, Lar'ragos pulled his mustard hued uniform shirt on over his tank-top undershirt.  Taiee was making a final series of notations on her padd, and glanced up as the lieutenant slipped into his jacket.

"Anything you'd care to discuss, Pava?"

He suddenly appeared to be focusing an inordinate amount of concentration on zipping up his jacket.  Lar'ragos feigned ignorance.  "Such as?"

"Well, offhand I'd say the results of your physical show someone who's in overall good health.  However, you're also demonstrating some conditions which are symptomatic of prolonged stress and fatigue."  She crossed her arms and tapped the padd idly against her side.  "In the short term this won't affect your health to any great extent, but if the root causes of these symptoms aren't addressed, your health will be impacted."

Again, Lar'ragos donned a saccharine smile and shrugged indifferently.  "Things are tense right now, Doc.  Being stuck on convoy duty doesn't help."  He tugged at his uniform jacket, straightening it.  "Why, you trying out for counselor now, too?"  It was a cheap shot, and he knew it.

Taiee met him head-on.  "I don't have to be El Aurian to know bullshit when I hear it, Lieutenant.  If you need to talk, I'm here for you.  If you don't, and you want to let whatever's eating at you affect your job performance, that's on you."  She turned her back on him as she pretended to fiddle with a medical display module.  "We're done here."

Shamed, Lar'ragos wanted to do something to repair the breach his thoughtless comment had made, but he didn't know what else to say.  He strode mutely out of Sickbay, now hating the routine exam process all the more.

*****



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