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The Cost of Failure


Chen

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“The Cost of Failure”

A vivid flower of flame-tinged gold blossomed from the bed of dull metal that was suspended in the view screen. It was an oddly compelling sight; the sudden contrast of light bursting from relative darkness bound their gazes and rendered them silent. Only when further eruptions twisted through the dull metal construct did time resume as the first of the cheers broke through the silence, the bridge mirroring in sound the deed of the satellite that they watched in jubilation.

They were the crew of the USS Vigilant and they had successfully completed their mission.

Stardate 240001.15

It had been almost ten years to the day that the present journey had begun. Every officer could break their career down into a series of such voyages, most coinciding with their placement aboard a new vessel or outpost. For many on the Vigilant, that journey had spanned a decade. They had shared each other’s losses and revelled in each other’s successes. Above and beyond all else, in the estimation of Captain Diego Herrera, they had given of their all to protect the citizens of the United Federation of Planets through the most turbulent period of recorded history.

It had started shortly after the Vigilant’s construction on the Zakdorn homeworld. The crew’s first mission had concluded with the successful aversion of Zakdorn IV’s secession from the Federation and the Vigilant had launched, hoping to act as a stabilising factor on the outermost edge of the UFoP’s Beta Quadrant colonies. For a while, they were. However, not even the Zakdorn master-strategists could have predicted what was happening behind the closed borders of Zalkon, scant light-years away. Fired into hostility by zealot rhetoric, they poured from their corner of the quadrant in impossibly fast destroyers, expanding their power and influence with ease and overriding what little resistance the Federation had to offer. In response, the Zakdorn wasted no time in switching sides, allying with the Klingons before the final unfortunate and [...]ing twist of fate. It had been a dark day indeed when the Zalkonians and Klingons had declared their alliance, and with Zakdorn tacticians to guide their hand, the greatest threat the Federation had ever faced was born. Never before had Federation colonies fallen so swiftly and, as the blue portion of the galactic map was forced into recession, casualties of record proportions were recorded. The Federation was on the ropes.

The doors to the ready room hissed open. Head jerking towards the door, Captain Herrera quickly recognised Lieutenant Paulsen, his ever present PADD tucked under his arm. The captain’s expectant look served as acknowledgement enough for him to begin delivering his report.

“Sir, the destruction of the communications relay is confirmed.” The report seemed superfluous, given that Diego had seen it with his own eyes, but recent experiences had taught them all that looks could be deceptive. The Lieutenant continued, “We’ve received an encoded transmission from Starbase 118 that I thought you’d like to see.”

The war-weary CO nodded his thanks. “I’ll take a look at it now. Thankyou, Will.”

Blinking his attention back to the screen, he refocused on the same puzzle that he had been looking at for the last few years. On one side of his monitor ran 11 sequences of numbers and symbols, representing a tau protein and its encoding exons. On the other, a political map of Federation space, which now extended no further north than Starbase 118, a veritable bastion that as yet had proved impossible for the Zalkonian Alliance to crack. His mind was torn between the two puzzles so perfectly that he found it impossible to view them one at a time. On the right hand side of his monitor he had met with some success in viewing the invading force as a biological agent and attempting to anticipate its response to treatment and head it off, before it could take hold elsewhere. On the left he made slower progress; the latest iteration of the display represented a possible key to the reversal and regeneration of his father’s frontal and temporal lobes as they degenerated progressively as a cause of his dementia. One war was public, shared by those on his crew and those of the other commanding officers now based at the third fleet’s headquarters. The other was internal, private and excruciating.

Tearing himself away from his ongoing quandary, he studied the message from headquarters. The Vigilant’s actions had helped the second taskforce, led by the Tiger and the Thunder, to a victory as they defended the ‘northern’ border from a combined Zalkonian and Klingon assault. The Apollo and Discovery were holding a secondary wave of ships in check along the Klingon border with the third taskforce. An addendum indicated that the Victory stood point with a defensive fleet at Starbase 118, prepared and ready to defend themselves against a counter-attack from phase-cloaked vessels. Such tactics had led to the fall of Starbase 173, the upgraded stealth technology just one of the many spoils from the eradication of the tattered Romulan Star Empire.

The Vigilant’s newly-reported status also appeared in the communiqué; they were now acting on orders to rendezvous with taskforce one. Fleet Admiral Nechayev had laid out detailed plans for a counteroffensive in the last command meeting aboard the starbase and, despite objections from Fleet Admiral Wolf, had insisted in committing a sizeable reserve of ships to the effort. Their target was to be a shipyard that had been constructed some two years ago in the Luxis system. Destroying the communications satellite had given them the rarest window of opportunity in which to strike. Many of the captains had been in agreement with Nechayev; the chance to mount an offensive after being pressed back so hard and for so many years striking a chord with them. Some had been more reserved. Irrespective of their reactions, every piece now stood on Nechayev’s board exactly where she wanted it, ready to press home her advantage.

Closing the report, his screen returned to its bifurcated display. Eyes left and he considered something new. The condition from which his father was suffering was believed to be caused by a mutated gene that produced an overabundance of tau proteins, leading to degradation of neuron function. For a long time now he had been considering ways in which to inhibit the production of those proteins but the problem was so deep-seated that it was incorporated into his father’s DNA. Resequencing had been tried, to no effect; the problem had reasserted itself after a matter of weeks. Eyes right and he remembered to check the chronometer. The time for the rendezvous was fast approaching. His first officer was more than capable of handling it but it didn’t seem right for the commanding officer to be hidden away in his ready room at the start of such an important operation. Whatever else was happening, the crew needed to see him sat in the centre seat. As another famous captain had once asserted, you had to be “larger than life” for the crew and that was just how he would play this out.

The bridge was quiet. Only the infrequent chirp of a readout or keystroke punctuated the assiduous atmosphere. The carpeted floor muffled the sound of Diego’s footsteps as he approached his command chair. His Laudean first officer moved across to his own station, a well-rehearsed response to the captain’s appearance from his ready room. Both men were former counsellors and had been trained to be observant; as the retractable centre-mounted command console began to rotate into position, it became clear that Greir Reinard was by now quite used to Diego’s obsession with that same display. It had been easy to pass off as a minor side-effect of wartime stress. All of the crew had presented various low-level symptoms over the years but they were managing them, keeping them in check. The numerical nature of the protein display had initially been presented as such so that Reinard, who had majored in Psychology and Counselling at the academy, might not identify it immediately. He was a resourceful, intelligent man and a good friend. Most likely, he knew what the series of numbers meant by now but if he didn't then it was only a matter of time.

“Open a channel to the USS Beaufighter. We have an old friend to check in with.”

Strictly speaking, it would have been wrong to attribute an emotion to the computer’s resultant tone but if Diego hadn’t known any better he could have sworn it sounded irritated. He waited for an explanation from Hanson at Ops.

“We’re unable to raise them, sir. Shall I contact Engineering and report the problem?”

There were a few instantly explicable reasons for their failure to communicate. It was possible that comms silence was being preserved as a means of preventing the enemy from listening in on their intentions. Had there been a serious issue with the ship’s comm-system, it would have been flagged up already on Hanson’s console. “No,” replied the captain, calmly, “Dueld and Kael will have enough to do when we cross over into Zalkonian space. We’ll try again when we’re at closer range.” He shot a resigned look over to his Laudean friend, his rich-blue pigmented forehead accentuated by the furrow currently in his brow. “I guess we’ll just have to wave at Leo through a viewport.”

The light-hearted comment was fresh air to the bridge crew. Half a conversation later, they arrived at the rendezvous co-ordinates, the prominent figures of the Achilles and Avandar at the head of a column of ships. As Lieutenant Commander Fox brought them into position alongside the Mercury, Diego looked once more at his screen. Something was tugging at the back of his mind but he was unable to force the thought to coalesce into something tangible. Shaking it off, he called for contact with the Beaufighter once again. He expected that Leo Handley-Page’s indefatigably chipper attitude would lift spirits considerably more. The briefest of calls proved him right and the comm-system functional. All questions about its reliability were answered moments later when a call from the Achilles informed them that there were ten minutes remaining before the operation was to begin. There was definitely something forming in Diego’s mind… if only he could catch it. Drawn as if chasing a will o’ wisp, he tried to follow it, looking under one set of thoughts and behind another. His eyes focused on the right hand side of his display.

The sandbar.

He had served at the Embassy before. The Luxis system was his first officer’s home. For Greir, this was a chance to liberate his people from Zalkonian occupation and he had a personal stake in its success. The more he thought about it, the more the sandbar played on his mind. It turned the Luxis system into a cul-de-sac, allowing entry and egress from only one direction. Unless the Zalkonians were constructing phasing cloaks in that system, or at the very least stockpiling them there, it was going to be very easy for the taskforce to pin down any enemy ships and destroy them before moving on to their intended target. Even though they had needed to remove the communications relay, which served as an early-warning system, in order to make the strike, what if the Zalkonians had developed the technology to navigate the sandbar? That turned an easy win for Starfleet into an ambush. There would be no way to get a clear reading on exactly how many vessels lay in wait for them. Rising from his seat, Diego turned to face the Ops station with a calm, clear instruction.

“Hanson, contact Fleet Captain Turner aboard the Thunder.”

She was close enough to that area of space that she might be able to help him rationalise his concern. Her officers had navigated the sandbar a hundred times. She had even taken Britta Daysa and her children aboard ship during the evacuation of Duronis II at the Prime Minister’s request, although by the time a fielder entered range of the sandbar, the ship they were on would be too close to escape a surprise attack. A frustrated shake of Hanson’s head indicated another lack of success.

“I’m sorry, sir… we’re unable to get through. There’s nothing wrong with the comm.”

Scenarios played through Diego’s mind. Had the Thunder been destroyed? He couldn’t very well proceed under that assumption and instead followed his training. “We’re obviously not under comms silence and we couldn’t have contacted the Beaufighter if our signals were being jammed. What could be stopping us from communicating long range?”

Hanson puffed his cheeks as a precursor to a sharp expulsion of breath. He was noncommittal as he listed random phenomena from the top of his head. “A problem with the subspace antenna, a flotilla of ships generating a jamming frequency at range, any one of hundreds of subspace anomalies including a subspace disturbance, rift… you name… Sir?”

Diego stood looking at him, but his eyes were seeing that display once again. He didn’t need to consult his monitor to know that once taskforce one began to move, it would create a narrow corridor through which phase-cloaked ships could avoid the scant detection grids that Starfleet had managed to erect. And that path led straight to Starbase 118. The Zalkonians had no shipyard at Luxis. This was a ruse, calculated by Zakdorn strategists, that had taken years to come into fruition. They were going to launch a massive assault on the starbase then turn and annihilate the remainder of the third fleet before they could reunite into one cohesive unit. There was no question that Nicholotti and the Victory would give them a hell of a show when they arrived but the recent pattern of assaults indicated that they would be facing insurmountable odds. Even with the Victory’s formidable war record, no-one could be expected to fight against eight to one odds, or worse.

About to take action, Diego found himself frozen in place as the left side of the display muscled its way into the equation. Target the source and destroy all resistance before it has a chance to develop into a problem. That was it! A combination of DNA resequencing with the introduction of a michrochemical agent to inhibit serine and threonine phosphorylation could halt the progression of his father’s frontotemporal dementia. Maybe not reverse it, but…

There was a hand on his forearm. Greir Reinard was standing alongside him. Had he just spoken his name? A chronometer on the view screen showed that the ten minute countdown was well underway. He didn’t have time to stand around thinking about cures while there was so much at stake. It would have to wait. Clearing his throat and turning back towards the view screen, he regained his composure.

“Mr. Hanson, I think you’d better open a channel to the taskforce.”

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The ready room was in darkness. Silhouetted against a backdrop of ornaments and personal possessions by the light of his monitor, Captain Herrera stared on. The unified display was uncomfortable and difficult to process; he kept glancing to one side as though there was more to see.

But there wasn’t.

He had read through the same schedule on autopilot for hours. Since the Vigilant had docked at the Starbase after its successful defence and the reception of a communiqué from Santander, Earth, he had elected to remain concealed there. Commander Reinard’s concern had been clear when Diego had asked not to be disturbed. And yet, there it was as plain as day. A debrief for all commanding officers with Fleet Admirals Wolf and Nechayev, no more than two hours away. There was cause for celebration, of course. Fleet Captain Mar’s taskforce had arrived back at Starbase 118 in time to lend Captain Nicholotti some timely reinforcement. The return of the second and third taskforces had then tipped the scales. And while good people had been lost, while there were memorial speeches to be written, the name of one man turned a narrow escape and a priceless victory into the most bitter defeat of them all.

Carlos Herrera.

A ten year game had finally met its resolution. He had held the means to victory in his hand but his feet had been too slow to carry it across the finish line. Millions would no doubt benefit from his discovery, as was always the case with a new medical breakthrough, but it was too late. Such was the cost of failure.

Captain Diego Herrera

Commanding Officer

USS Vigilant

NCC-75515

 

 

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