After a catalogue of mistakes, perhaps there is hope afterall?
Episode 6: War Crimes
Location: Starbase 72
Timeline: MD135, 1500 Hours
Wardroom Three on Starbase 72 had been in use for most of the last week as the inquest into the events involving the starships Nogura and Ulysses took place. The station had been a hive of activity with starships from far and wide stopping by as senior officers from across the sector and beyond had stopped by to partake in and listen to the evidence and testimony by all those involved. Among the honored guests were Admiral Zachary O’Connell (Commander Task Force 72 of the 4th Fleet), Vice Admiral Noah Ramsey (the Deputy Director of Starfleet Tactical), Vice Admiral Mitchell Hanson, Rear Admiral Vasoch Gor, Rear Admiral James Ryan (the former Executive Officer of Task Force 9 of the 4th Fleet) and the Nogura’s former commander, Commodore Nilani Azulas. Perhaps the most important of all the guests were Vice Admiral Sitak, the deputy Starfleet Judge Advocate General and Rear Admiral Jamtod Kriheg, the Bajoran who was the recently appointed Director of Internal Affairs at Starfleet Command. It was, perhaps, the largest gathering of top level brass outside of the core worlds since the war, such was the level of significance the inquest held.
From the perspective of Captain Colby Drayton and the crew of the Ulysses, the inquest had looked into the failure of the ships Quantum Slipstream Drive and the ships subsequent involvement in the events that had led to her destruction. The fact that the Galaxy-class starship had been lost was cause enough for a court martial, as was standard procedure after the loss of a starship, but again, these proceedings had an even greater significance.
That was all down to one man, Captain Thalek th’Zorati, and the events that had transpired aboard the Nogura. What had happened in the days following his taking command of the Nogura had been nothing short of catastrophic in the eyes of Internal Affairs and Starfleet Command. It had called into question a great many things.
Whilst Admiral Hanson, Rear Admiral Ryan and Commodore Azulas had all been cleared of having any involvement in the leak of classified information to the Consortium agents, with the blame there being laid at the feet of the Andorian who had been in command of the Nogura. The appointment of the Azulas’ successors had been nothing but a catalogue of failures. First there had been Lapzik Ghein, the man who had been swiftly replaced due to unforeseen circumstances. Then there had been Thalek th’Zorati, the man who had been appointed, ironically, due to the fears of Starfleet Command regarding the Nogura’s former executive officer, Audrid Kane.
Of course, there were other matters on the agenda such as the fact that the Consortium agent Monhok had been able to escape and presumably make his rendezvous with the Order of Twelve; the fact that th’Zorati had been able to sabotage the Nogura to such an extent that facilitated the aforementioned man’s escape, not to mention the murder of the intelligence asset and former commander of the Nogura himself, Captain Nathan Hunter.
Today was the day of the summing up; the time when the Judge Advocate General would offer her thoughts and opinions on the inquest and deliver her verdict and guidance for moving forward. The fact that the JAG was a Vulcan was seen as a positive - at least decisions would be made without the burden of emotion and based entirely on logic. Vice Admiral Sitak was highly regarded at Starfleet Command and was seen as a future candidate for Commander in Chief. Her promotion at the start of the Dominion War had catapulted the young Vulcan to fame. For now though, she sat behind a desk at the front of the room, the eyes of everyone assembled in the room focused on her as she sat in deep contemplation.
The entire senior staff of both the Nogura and the Ulysses were in attendance, along with various dignitaries and officers. At a smaller table between the Vulcan and the audience, the two senior most officers, one from each of the two ships, sat anxiously waiting to hear from the Vulcan.
To the right, Captain Colby Drayton, the former commander of the Ulysses, sat with his hands clasped together on the surface of the table, dressed in his fancy new dress uniform, as had been procedure throughout the inquest. To his left, Commander Tara Neprem, the acting commander of the Nogura, sat motionless, still.
Tara felt numb. She was still reeling from recent events, especially learning that Nathan Hunter had been killed; she knew in everyone else’s eyes that he had been a traitor and always would be, but he had still been her friend and he had managed to redeem himself somewhat by helping, and she’d had little time to grieve his loss.
Reaching out at last, the Vulcan took ownership of a small wooden gavel and gently tapped it on the side of a silver bell three times to call the proceedings to order and silence the waiting crowd. Once the hushed conversations had died down, the Vulcan looked towards the two seated officers before her. “Captain Colby Drayton. Commander Tara Neprem. Please rise,” she ordered politely, perhaps more politely than any other Vulcan would have.
Colby took a deep breath and pushed his chair back with the backs of his legs, his hands absentmindedly pulling on the bottom of his dress uniform jacket in order to smooth out any creases that had formed.
Tara rose in a likewise fashion, and after straightening out her duty jacket she folded her hands behind her back. She looked up at the Admirals with just the tiniest hint of disgust on her face; she did not recall any sort of inquest being called over Hunter’s betrayal and subsequent escape, why now was one being called for th’Zorati?
“This inquest has heard the testimony and evidence of countless personnel from both starships and beyond. It is clear that there have been a catalogue of errors leading up to the events that transpired on stardate ___, errors that directly link all of the events caused by Thalek th’Zorati,” the Vulcan began as she looked out at the audience and then between the two officers on their feet before her.
“Captain Drayton; it is clear that, after looking at the evidence, the failure of the slipstream drive aboard the Ulysses was precipitated by an act of sabotage that could not have been foreseen. You later rendered aide to a fellow Starfleet crew in a bid to capture a terrorist, a man who would have put many more lives at risk, and in doing so, you risked your ship and crew in the defence of the Federation,” Sitak explained in her quite, almost seductive voice.
Colby gave the Admiral a curt nod of understanding whilst remaining silent. She clearly wasn’t finished though.
Sitak changed her focus now. “Commander Neprem. As the senior most representative of the USS Nogura, it is pertinent that I apologise to you on behalf of Starfleet Command. The crew of the Nogura were placed in an extremely volatile situation through no fault of your own,” the Vulcan spoke much to everyone’s surprise. Was she demonstrating empathy?!
Some of the tension in Tara’s face finally began to melt away, as she nodded in acknowledgement of the Admiral’s words. “Thank you, ma’am,” Tara said humbly.
“The catalogue of errors relating to the appointment of a commanding officer for the Nogura directly led to these events. If Thalek th’Zorati had never been in command, then it is almost certain that none of the subsequent events would have occurred. I believe the negligence of your superiors put you and your crew at risk. You are to be commended for your ability to remain calm under such unusual circumstances,” Sitak declared in a rather public rebuke of the command officers who had appointed the very man who had caused the chaos of recent weeks. “I must also acknowledge the efforts of yourself and Commander Garen Romaes in your attempts to bring Thalek th’Zorati to justice. It is regrettable that he was able to escape custody, but that, again, is no fault of yours,” the Vulcan added with a stern nod to the woman opposite her. Nothing if not firm and fair in her summing up so far.
“With all due respect, ma’am, I still feel responsible; perhaps if I had been able to act just a little more quickly, maybe he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to escape,” Tara spoke up. “He is free to cause trouble for Starfleet in the Corridor, and that is my failing.”
“It is the failure of many more, including some in this room, rather than just you Commander,” Sitak assured her before leaning forward in her seat and placing her hands clasped together on the table top again. “There is, however, one event that I must regretfully attribute to your actions. Nathan Hunter’s death was entirely avoidable had he again been placed in custody in another facility on the ship. Your decision to let him remain in the Brig, as trusting as you were and how surprisingly loyal he was at the time, directly contributed to his death. As acting Commander of the Nogura, Nathan Hunter was your prisoner and your responsibility,” the Admiral informed sternly, a harsh lesson in command to be sure. “At this time, I feel it important to break with convention somewhat and disclose some information that has, until now, been classified. With the permission of the Director of Starfleet Intelligence, and no doubt to the annoyance of Admiral Kriheg, I must inform everyone that Nathan Hunter was a very misunderstood individual,” that was a phrase that resulted in a few murmurs around the room as officers in attendance wondered what she could possibly have to say about the notorious traitor. “At the start of the Consortium surge, then Captain Hunter was assigned to Starfleet Intelligence as an operative. He would later, as part of his cover, be granted command of the Nogura. During his first mission in command of the Nogura, Hunter was deemed to be a traitor and a Consortium agent. In truth, he was an undercover asset for Starfleet Intelligence,” the Vulcan revealed, to a sea of audible gasps and shocked faces from those around the room. The aforementioned Rear Admiral swiftly vacated the room, no doubt to lodge a complaint with Sitak’s superiors about her disclosure.
This revelation nearly broke Tara, and she took a measured breath to maintain her composure. It was comforting to know that her faith in Nathan had not been entirely misplaced, but the fact was that at some point the Consortium had managed to get through to him for real, because the real Nathan would have never risked the well-being of an innocent child, regardless of what his cover demanded. Swallowing past the lump in her throat, Tara nodded in acceptance of this truth, urging the Admiral to continue.
Colby stood beside his colleague and had to resist the strong urge to place a comforting hand on the woman’s shoulder. He’d learned a lot in the last few days about her troubled history with Nathan Hunter and knew this would have hit her hard.
“It is unclear when the Captain truly fell to the Consortium and whilst he did commit crimes, it is so often the case with undercover assets that they find themselves either believing in the cause of the very people they were sent to ensnare or having to carry out unspeakable acts to maintain their cover. There have been many claims about his actions, often with little more than circumstantial evidence, but it is my belief that in the days prior to his death, the old Nathan Hunter began to resurface. He provided evidence to bring down the downfall of Consortium agents and was playing a key role in the apprehension of a known asset. At a time when he was provided with both a means of escape and the means to kill again, Hunter rejected both. In doing so, he gave his life, once again, in service to the Federation. It is therefore my recommendation that his official record be restored and he no longer be considered a traitor. He was a lone Starfleet Officer who, at some point, seemingly lost his way. Eventually, he found his way home,” the Vulcan spoke meaningful words, words that evoked emotion and even she was able to ‘feel’ for the man.
A composed Admiral Sitak sat bolt upright as she prepared to deliver her final words. “Captain Colby Drayton,” she declared loudly, “It is my judgement that you are cleared of any wrongdoing in relation to the loss of the Ulysses. Commander Neprem; the death of Nathan Hunter and the escape of Consortium agents are all unfortunate events, but it is my belief that none of them were entirely preventable and certainly not by an officer propelled to command after the betrayal of her commanding officer. Therefore, it is the judgement of this inquest that no charges of any kind be brought. Whilst there are many lessons to be learned, by a great many people, no charge of any kind would provide those lessons.”
There was a cacophony of noise as whoops and cheers accompanied vigorous clapping at the conclusion of the Vulcan’s findings. Colby finally placed a gentle hand on the woman’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze of reassurance, along with a kind smile.
“This inquest is hereby adjourned,” the Vulcan called out over the noise as she drew attention back to herself one final time, almost with an air of pride in her voice as she again lifted the wooden gavel and tapped it against the bell three times to signal the end of proceedings before swiftly departing the room, followed by several aides.
Tara finally looked up at Drayton, a meek smile on her face as she gingerly touched the hand on her shoulder. It was a huge relief to know that neither of them were under any further scrutiny.
“So, what now?” the Trill mused aloud with a sigh. She supposed they would have to wait for their reassignments; Drayton needed a ship, and the Nogura needed a Captain, but would the two be placed together or would this reunion be short-lived?
Drayton shrugged as he made note of several people headed their way. “I guess that’s up to Starfleet,” he spoke quietly as he watched Admiral Hanson and Commodore Azulas swiftly leave the room, drawing the Commander’s attention to them. “That’s nice. You save her ship and crew and she can’t be bothered to even say congratulations,” he frowned.
“She might still be a bit miffed at me for a show of disrespect when we last spoke,” Tara admitted with a wince. “We were starting to become friends, good friends, but I knew something was going on, something bigger than what I was being told, so I felt the need to put some distance between us, emotionally speaking. I was just trying to protect her, but I get the feeling she doesn’t see it that way. I know she’ll come around once I explain thing, so truth be told, I’m more concerned with how Admiral Hanson is faring in all this; hearing that the man who kidnapped his son was in fact a compromised hero is probably not sitting well with him. Not to mention the fact that this whole ordeal could have easily crippled his career, if not ending it outright.”
“Still… respect is earned and you’ve done more than enough to warrant a pat on the back from the both of them…” he trailed off as he caught a glimpse of several Admiral’s in deep discussion. “Wonder what’s going on over there?” he queried as he nodded in their direction.
“I have no idea, but I now have the sudden urge to go get a drink once we’re out of here,” Tara blurted out, then flinched. “I am so sorry, sir, that sounded terribly unprofessional, I have no idea where that came from, I don’t even drink,” she apologized in a rush, blushing slightly. But she knew where the urge had come from, and his name began with an ‘A’ and ended with ‘rjin’.
The court martial being held aboard Starbase 72 had conveniently given Admiral Zachary O’Connell access to the proceedings and an unprecedented access to several key members of the top Starfleet brass. He’d even been questioned a few times by JAG officers to help them understand the Consortium as Zachary had played a key role during the original crisis in the Gamma Quadrant. He’d also taken the opportunity to brief the available brass on the situation with the Alrakis Pact and even this emerging Legion to see what sway they could have with the Federation Council.
With the brass now departing, Zachary was left to finish the final rounds of cleanup from the incident, which included issuing the orders to get several hundred Starfleet personnel and at least one starship back into service. With that mission as his directive, he approached the defendants. “Captain Drayton. Commander Neprem.”
“Admiral O’Connell Sir,” Drayton smiled as he went to a form of attention, his frame stiffening and his eyes locked on the superior officer.
“Sir,” Tara greeted as she straightened up as well.
“I’m impressed with your resolve, both of you,” the Admiral answered. “To me, that demonstrated that not only were you confident in your actions, but also the gravity of the situation as well. Congratulations.”
Colby exchanged glances with the Commander beside him and then back at the Admiral. “Well, thank you sir. It was the Commander mostly. She was right on the money and I followed her lead. Tara is to be commended, not me,” he told selflessly and every word true.
“Indeed she is,” Zachary said, turning to look at Commander Neprem. “This court martial provided a unique insight to your capabilities. I could certainly use another Commanding Officer in the Task Force. I have a couple ships in need of a solid command crew. One of them is yours.”
“Commanding Officer?” Tara replied with worry in her eyes. “No sir, I am not ready for Command just yet! Give me another year to gain some more confidence, but for now I am content to be right where I am; the Nogura is my home and I’m not ready to leave it just yet.”
The Admiral did his best to hide his frown, though he was less than successful. He did, however, understand her motives completely. “But we’re still left with a problem,” he observed. “The Nogura can’t leave dock without a CO. If you’re not ready for the center chair, I don’t suppose you know someone who is?”
“If I may be so bold, Admiral?” Drayton smiled as he held up his hand a little like a tentative school child. “I feel that Commander Neprem and I have struck up quite an understanding in recent weeks and would make an effective command team for the Nogura if she is not ready to take the chair herself and has no objections?” Drayton looked at the Trill then back at the Admiral, “unless you have other plans for me?”
Zachary turned to Captain Drayton and raised an eyebrow. “You sure, Captain?” he asked in a tone that lacked assurance. “Losing a starship is a traumatic experience, even for the most seasoned of officers. No one would blame you if wanted to take a desk job for a few months, or even a bit of leave.”
Colby shook his head and clasped his hands together behind his back. “Respectfully sir, now is not the time to wallow in self pity. There is work to be done,” the Captain declared proudly. He hadn’t served as long as he had to fall at the first major hurdle of his career.
The Admiral considered the Captain’s words for a brief moment. “Very well, Captain. I’ll have the orders cut within the hour. You’ve also got about three hours to select any crew from the Ulysses to join you on the Nogura. After that, I’ll have to start distributing personnel throughout the sector.”
“As you wish Admiral,” the Captain grinned, looking between his commanding officer and his new partner in crime.
“Congratulations again, Captain, Commander.” Admiral O’Connell gave them both a nod before backing away and leaving the new command duo of the Sovereign-class Nogura to it.
A delicate brow was raised at Drayton’s suggestion, but Tara said nothing until Admiral O’Connell was out of earshot. “I know we’ve been getting along well, but are you sure this is what you really want? I mean, won’t it be awkward for you after I’ve been giving you orders these past few weeks? Quite a bit like kissing one’s sister…” When she realized what had managed to slip out of her mouth, she blinked rapidly with flustered blush. “I-I’m sorry sir, it seems your presence brings out the worst in me, and by ‘me’ I mean Arjin,” she said as she tugged at her duty jacket to try to regain her composure; it surely wasn’t the first time something like this had slipped out around Drayton.
Drayton couldn’t help but let out a sudden burst of laughter at the womans comment and subsequent awkward apology. In a friendly gesture, the Captain slapped the woman on the back and gestured with his head for the door. “If you can adjust to taking orders from me, I can adjust to giving you them. Besides,” he gave her a cheeky grin at this point, “surely it’s a case of ‘better the devil you know’ at this point?”
Tara nodded in agreement as she began walking with Drayton to leave the conference room. “Based on Arjin’s memories of you, I feel reasonably certain that you will never betray Starfleet, and how you responded during th’Zorati’s betrayal was further assurance,” the Trill remarked as she folded her hands neatly behind her back. “I hope you’ll forgive me for having to consider such things, but it’s inevitable after watching two Captains betray their oaths.”
“Those scumbags destroyed my starship. I won’t rest until justice is served,” Drayton’s facial expression changed as he became more serious all of a sudden. She had been betrayed and he had suffered every commanding officers nightmare. Together, they had suffered greatly. “But before we can ensure justice is served, we must get our girl running again. I’d like to meet in, say, thirty minutes to discuss the merger of the two crews, then we can submit the final crew roster to the Admiral. How about a celebratory drink in my fancy new quarters?” he asked, his original demeanour returning as he thought about how to move forward.
Normally, Tara didn’t drink, but this was a special occasion and she understood the human need to commemorate this new relationship with a drink, and surely he would not encourage her to imbibe to embarrassment as Azulas had done… “Yes, that is acceptable,” Tara replied with a sure nod. “But first, I would like to check in with Engineering to see how repairs are going, so can we make this ‘date’ in an hour?”
“I’ll see you in an hour Commander,” Drayton nodded before disappearing off down one of the Starbase’s many corridors.
“I’ll be there,” Neprem said as she too turned down a different corridor. Time would tell if her decision to turn down Command was a good one or not, but she was already feeling confident that her new CO was a good one at last.