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Her eyes fluttered open then snapped closed immediately at the bright lights overhead.  A familiar voice called to her soothingly, “It’s alright, Lieutenant.  You’re back aboard Gibraltar.”  It was Lt. Taiee.

Olivia Juneau tried to sit up, only to find she was secured beneath a restraining field.  She opened her eyes again cautiously against the glare and saw Taiee’s face appear above her, smiling warmly.  “Don’t struggle, Olivia.  Everything’s fine, you’re home.”

Her throat was dry, her mouth parched, but somehow Juneau managed to form the word, “Crew?”

A brief flicker of concern passed over Taiee’s face.  “We can discuss that later.  For right now all you need to be concerned with is that you’re alright and in good hands.”

Juneau nodded weakly, and ceased straining against the field.  She couldn’t recall anything after the shockwave had struck Brahmaputra.  She wanted to insist that Taiee tell her the fate of her crewmates, but she was so exhausted that it took every ounce of strength she could muster to even remain awake.

Just beneath the surface of her conscious mind, her alter ego lurked, watching and waiting.  There was an opportunity here, something much more suited to her abilities than planting experimental devices in the ship’s engineering section, as she had been tasked to do prior to the Lakesh mission.  Whatever was happening in the Pierosh system was clearly a threat to Federation security.  When the opportunity arose, she would contact her handler and request instructions.  Until then, she would play her part, and allow the angst-ridden Olivia to wrestle with the aftermath of her first, abortive command.

*****

Taiee injected Juneau with a mild sedative that sent the young woman to sleep.  Her injuries were serious, but not life threatening.  Smoke inhalation and some bruised organs were the worst of it, and she was in far better condition than her two surviving comrades from the runabout.

Fortunately Taiee was not only good at her job, she was practical enough to call for help when someone’s condition was beyond her capabilities.  She had activated one of the ship’s two Emergency Medical Holograms, and assisted as the photonic doctor had repaired the more severe injuries sustained by Ensign Shanthi and CPO Osterlund.  Every time she worked alongside the EMH she learned something new, and today had been no different.  She pitied those physicians who were so insecure that they could not bring themselves to activate the holograms for fear of calling their own abilities into doubt.

She walked over to another biobed, this one containing the enigmatic Lar’ragos.  He had collapsed along with ninety-five percent of the crew following the subspace shockwave that had engulfed Gibraltar.  Despite the best efforts of the med-techs on the bridge as well as her own attempts, Lar’ragos had resisted being revived and was now under observation in Sickbay.

Taiee had checked the Starfleet medical database, the interlinked archive accessible by every ship and outpost in the Fleet.  El Aurians were a mysterious people, and although the workings of their various internal organs were known to medical science, their special psionic abilities were still an unknown variable in their makeup.  She found a single reference, from a Doctor Beverly Crusher of the Enterprise-D, that suggested the El Aurian civilian assigned to that ship may have been hypersensitive to changes or disruptions in the immediate time/space continuum.  The notation had been flagged for future inquiry by Starfleet Medical, but it appeared that no further research into this area had ever been done.

Her scans of his brain indicated that his neurotransmitter levels had increased by twenty-percent, but she couldn’t localize the activity to any one section of his neural structure.  The EMH had recommended a broad-spectrum anti-inflammatory and a mild neurotransmitter inhibitor.  Taiee loaded a hypospray and injected Lar’ragos, then patted his shoulder gently.  “Pava my dear, you are a mess.”

She hoped that some prolonged rest might give the El Aurian’s body a chance to decompress from its hyper-vigilant state.  Whatever was tormenting him, Taiee surmised that it had surfaced recently after Gibraltar’s first mission.

As Lar’ragos slept, he dreamed.

*****

Vot’u-Shay City
Planet Dabroth, Ig’Vean Principalities
Delta Quadrant
Circa 1983 A.D., Terran Calendar


It was the textbook definition of a backwater planet, the fifth such world that the 507th Royal Fusiliers had been assigned to in the past three years.  A technological mélange of the ancient and state-of-the-art, Vot’u-Shay City was the headquarters for Dabroth’s merchant warlords.  These men trafficked in all manner of goods: narcotics, weapons, slaves, and even did a brisk business in the sale and transport of humanoid organs into the quarantined and blockaded Vidiian Sodality.

The subahdar leaned against the side of the crumbling tenement, shrouded in the suffocating multi-layered robes that were worn by the natives to protect against Dabroth’s glaring sun and churning sandstorms.  He was hot, itchy, and irritable.  His plasma pulse rifle was dangling from a shoulder harness beneath his robes, but even if the locals could have seen it, they’d have given him little notice.  Everyone here was armed; it was a society whose only laws flowed from the gun barrels of the warlord elite.

The city stretched out to the horizon.  It was a decaying, fetid mishmash of multistory mud-brick hovels interspersed with stark glass and metal towers which looked as though they had been intentionally misplaced here by some capricious deity.  There were few straight avenues, and much of the city was a rabbit’s warren of interconnecting roads and alleyways.  Some of the streets had been paved centuries earlier, but now they consisted of dirt and the ever-present blowing sand.  Above the buildings was a crazed web of electrical power lines that crisscrossed the skyline and created a confusing buzz of electromagnetic interference that played hell with Hekosian scanners.

The people here, clad in the ubiquitous shaura robes moved with the slow deliberation of those without hope for the future.  Chaos and squalor was all they knew, and for them there could be no other way.

The Empire had come to change all that.

“Unit One to Lead, we’re in position.”  The message crackled in the earpiece of his comms headset.

The subahdar accessed the chronometer displayed across the special contact lens in his left eye.  T + 1 minute.  They were running late.  He keyed his mic, “Copy, standby.  Awaiting confirmation of target’s presence.”

“Boss, the skimmer’s idling.  They can’t hang there much longer without attracting attention.”

His voice took on a stern edge.  “Copy.  I said standby.”

He sensed someone approaching and instinctively grasped the handle of his combat knife in the sheath on his leg as he turned to confront the new arrival.  It was only Nellit.  The man waggled his eyebrows expressively at the subahdar; the gesture spoke volumes even though only his eyes were visible through his layered shaura.  “Greetings, boss.  Aren’t we about due to start spreading hate and discontent?”

“We’re on hold,” the subahdar hissed.

Nellit’s impatience was evident in his stance.  “He’s not in there, Pava.  We’ve got hard intel that he’s spending the night in Lort, and you damn well know it.  Wishing on all the stars in the night sky won’t make it otherwise.”  Nellit reached out a hand encased in a thick tactical glove and grasped the subahdar’s arm.  “I know you were hoping for a shot at the old man himself, but that’s not the Op.”  His grip hardened, conveying conviction as well as mounting anger.  “Either give the word or scrub the mission.”

After a moment, 1st Subahdar Pava Lar’ragos gave a terse, reluctant nod.  In response, Nellit fumbled with something bulky beneath his robes and began moving towards the main entrance of the warlord Jebrosk’s multistory compound.  He keyed the comms and Lar’ragos barked, “Sandstorm!  Repeat, Sandstorm!  All teams go!”

Instantly, a dozen of the shrouded, shuffling figures in the streets surrounding Jebrosk’s dilapidated palace surged into action.  They cast aside their robes in favor of the desert patterned camouflage and ballistic armor hidden beneath.  The soldiers charged the building as they freed their plasma rifles and laser carbines and scanned the vicinity for prospective targets.

A series of loud snapping noises overhead heralded the deaths of the warlord’s rooftop spotters on the surrounding buildings, eliminated by the 507th’s pre-positioned snipers.  One of the spotters, felled from the roof above Lar’ragos, thudded into the dusty street just meters away from the subahdar.

Nellit dropped to one knee in the middle of the street, flinging his shaura away from him and hefting a menacing looking tetryon cannon to his shoulder.  He took careful aim and fired.  The weapon sent a white hot bolt of energy into the main entryway of the building, obliterating the massive and ornate wierwood doors, as well as the four bodyguards the team knew to be stationed on the other side.

The scream of the skimmer’s engines announced its arrival as the squat craft, bristling with weapons ports and studded with missiles, flared out to a hover above the target building.  The aft hatch dropped open, and a squad of fusiliers jumped down onto the roof and engaged the few surviving roof sentries with short, controlled bursts of fire.  Using shaped demolition charges, they blew their own entry points through the ceiling and stormed the top floor, catching the defenders who lurked near the stairwells to the roof by surprise.

The ground level assault team blasted through the building’s reinforced first story windows, then hurled concussion grenades inside that detonated with muffled thumps.  The raiders lined up in entry team formation to one side of the now shattered main doorway, then rushed inside, covering pre-assigned quadrants of fire.

The fight for control of the compound was brief, and ridiculously one-sided.  They took the structure floor by floor, exercising speed and violence to overcome the remaining guards.  Within five minutes it was over.  The sounds of battle from within the building began to wane, and moments later Lar’ragos observed a line of civilians, hands atop their heads, being marched out of the entryway and into the street.

The fusiliers had them kneel in the street, dropping reluctantly to the scorching sand and gravel.  These were Jebrosk’s wives, children, cousins, courtesans, retainers, and a handful of his security detail who’d chosen the humiliation of capture over certain death at the hands of the 507th.

Lar’ragos motioned to one of his men, who lowered his rifle and raised a holocamera.  He focused on the subahdar with the captured civilians arrayed behind him in the background.  Pava pulled the hood of the shaura back to expose his face to the camera.  “Iton-mai Jebrosk, the Hekosian Empire approached you with the hand of friendship.  We offered you trade and the promise of greater influence for your clan with the offworld commerce guilds.  In return for your fealty, the Empire would have awarded you the protection of our laws and the soldiers who enforce them.”  Lar’ragos spat theatrically into the sand at his feet.  “You dismissed our entreaties, and executed our envoy.”

He stepped aside to allow the camera to pan across the faces of the prisoners.  “Now your family and loyal followers are in our hands.  They shall remain safe and healthy, so long as you sign our treaty in good faith and abide by its provisions.”  The camera zoomed in on the El Aurian’s severe expression.  “If you refuse, we’ll send them back to you, a piece at a time.”

Lar’ragos made a cutting motion at his neck, and the soldier ceased recording.  He activated his comms and the subahdar ordered, “Fusiliers, we are leaving!”  He swung his arm in a circular motion above his head as a sign for his men to assemble for exfiltration; it was an anachronistic gesture, a throwback to the days when the Hekosian military used rotary aircraft for troop transport.  The skimmer roared overhead and then settled slowly into the street to collect the platoon and their prisoners.

Taking the camera’s holodisk from his subordinate, Lar’ragos stalked across the road to the side of the building.  He pulled a plasma flare from his tactical vest and ignited it.  With swift, brutal strokes he carved a crude representation of the Hekosian Royal Crest into the wall, and then dropped the holodisk on the sand beneath the smoldering graffiti.

The departing platoon hustled the prisoners aboard the skimmer, pushing or dragging those who resisted.  Lar’ragos lagged behind to cover their egress with a handful of troopers until he was the only one remaining.  He took a last look around, then spat again into the shifting sands of Dabroth as he bid the miserable planet farewell.  He stepped up onto the landing ramp as he shook his head.  For honor… for Empire, he thought wryly as the whine of the powering engines drowned out the sounds of whimpering hostages.

*****



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