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Ahmet Kutav punched the control interface in aggravation, but accomplished little more than bruising his fist. He and his last remaining crewman, Mutwen, had scrambled to stay ahead of the security teams hunting them throughout the Jefferies tubes on Deck 12. Kutav’s attempt to access the ship’s systems via an LCARS panel in the tube junction had proven futile; he had never possessed whichever gene regulated technical savvy. Now they were simply stalling for time, attempting to delay their inevitable capture by a vengeful ship’s crew.

He had been betrayed. First by whatever malignant force had spurred him to attack the Federation starship with Sethret, and then by the Baron. The man had obviously overestimated his ability to thwart Gibraltar’s defenses. Kutav had wrongly identified the man as being powerful and dangerous, and having been duped by a fool was not improving the ahmet’s mood any.

Kutav felt the air shift, the breath of a cool breeze whispering past him. He whirled around and brought up his rifle, only to find himself facing a familiar black portal. It was exactly the type he had used to board the ship in the assault on the bridge. Kutav grabbed Mutwen by the shoulder and rushed towards the now wavering apparition. The two passed through it and into a large, dimly lit compartment.

In the middle of the sizable room stood an octagonal control dais which served as a central focus to a space that appeared more museum than command center. Large, swirling arches of intertwining metal spiraled up from floor to ceiling, encircling the control table like some kind of psychotic rendition of Stonehenge. Exotic looking alien artifacts stood atop pedestals scattered throughout the compartment, bathed in pools of light from above.

A man stood at the improbable looking control station. He was a human male of small stature, clad in what to Kutav’s eyes appeared to be some manner of formal human attire from ages past. He had medium length brown hair, parted in the middle, and wore glass-lens spectacles that gave him a strange, anachronistic appearance. The man did not seem the slightest bit surprised at their arrival.

A polite smile took shape on the man’s thin lips and he inclined his head in greeting. “Ahmet Kutav, welcome back. I’m pleased to see you’ve survived the mission unscathed.”

Kutav was flummoxed. “Who are you?” It was meant more as challenge than query, but the Orion was still reeling from recent events, and his own voice sounded damnably tremulous to him.

“I am Parlan,” the man answered simply. “I am servant to the Baron, and steward of his vessel in his absence.”

Now certain of the man’s affiliations, Kutav raised his rifle menacingly. Mutwen followed his lead and also took aim at the man as he moved to flank the thin human. Kutav raged at Parlan, venting his frustration and loss, “What was that? Were my men and I sent in there simply to die?”

Parlan turned to face Kutav fully, unfazed by the ahmet’s mounting anger. “Hardly. Your mission proved a resounding success. You are to be congratulated.”

That proved too much for Kutav to take. He rushed the man as he wielded the rifle like a cudgel. A forcefield of some kind repelled Kutav who reeled backwards an instant before he landed his blow. The big Orion staggered clumsily and crashed into a display pedestal as Mutwen opened fire with his assault weapon. The field rippled as ricochets snapped and whizzed throughout the compartment but Parlan remained otherwise unaffected.

His anger and aggression having come to nothing, Kutav waved off Mutwen as the man began to load a fresh magazine into the smoking rifle. “Enough.” As he pulled himself back to his feet, the ahmet looked again to the implacable Parlan. “What now, human? Will you kill us too, and finish the job?”

“Nothing of the sort,” Parlan smirked. “Nor should you be unduly grieved by the capture of your crew.” He paused to toggle some switches on the archaic control console. “Thanks to your efforts, the starship will soon be ours to command. Your people will be liberated once we’ve moved to seize it.”

Kutav looked away as he digested this. “Where is the Baron?”

“He too was taken prisoner aboard the starship.”

Kutav’s head snapped around to examine Parlan carefully. “And why do you not seem overly concerned by this turn of events?”

“He is in less danger than you might imagine.” Parlan pulled a small lever on the control dais which opened a doorway leading to a long corridor. “Now, if you’ll come with me, I will provide you with some refreshment and show you to your sleeping arrangements.”

Still unconvinced, Kutav hesitated before following Parlan through the doorway. "If you’re now capable of taking over the starship, what was the point of our attack?”

The lithe man turned back and directed a patient smile at the Orion captain. “You provided a splendid diversion, Ahmet.”

*****

Ready Room - USS Gibraltar
In geo-synchronous orbit of Pierosh II


Sandhurst sat behind his desk in the small compartment where he conferred with Ramirez, Plazzi, and Ashok. The two department heads sat in the chairs opposite the captain, while the XO occupied the couch along the far wall.

Ramirez’s injured arm was suspended in a sling, but apart from that she seemed none the worse for wear from the brutal fight on the bridge. The final tally from the Orion assault on Gibraltar was eight dead, fifteen others injured, three of them critically. On the other side of the ready room door, engineering teams scrambled to patch the damaged bridge back together.

As he cast a glance across at Ramirez, Sandhurst asked, “Anything from the Orions so far?”

The exec frowned, clearly displeased with the meager results from her interrogations. “Not much, I’m afraid. All we’ve been able to get from them is the fact that they call the Benghazi double ‘the Baron’ and that they staged the assault from his ship.” She shifted uncomfortably, then moved to tighten the strap on her sling. “To be honest, they know at worst they’re looking at a few years in a cushy Federation penal settlement, so we don’t have a lot of leverage to encourage cooperation.”

“And what about Dr. Benghazi?”

Ramirez shook her head. “Unfortunately, Benghazi’s condition has continued to deteriorate. We might have been able to revive him for questioning prior to the attack, but no longer.”

Plazzi sat with his ubiquitous padd in hand. Sandhurst turned to him next. “And what do we have on this ‘Baron?’”

The science officer referenced the padd and recited, “Taiee reports his condition has stabilized, and he’ll likely regain consciousness within the next few hours. We’re still unable to identify his species, but we have determined that he’s not from our time/space continuum.”

Sandhurst sat forward in his chair, his curiosity piqued. “How do we know that, Elisto?”

“The Baron’s quantum resonance doesn’t match that of our universe, Captain.” Plazzi brought his eyes up from the padd to meet the captain’s. “All matter generated in a particular dimension resonates at a specific frequency unique to that universe. He obviously originates from a different reality than the one we know.”

Ramirez looked contemplative as something occurred to her. “If I may, sir?” Sandhurst nodded, and Ramirez continued. “Elisto, do we have readings on the quantum resonance of the Q-particles emitted from the portal?”

Plazzi glanced over his shoulder at the exec. “We do.”

“How closely do they match the Baron’s resonance?”

The science officer tapped at his padd, running a quick comparison. He quirked an eyebrow and gave Ramirez an appreciative look. “They match exactly, Commander.”

“So, now we know that our new friend is from wherever the other end of that wormhole leads to.” Sandhurst nodded approvingly. “Okay, we’re making some progress.”

Sandhurst addressed Ashok and queried, “Any luck locating the Baron’s ship?”

The Bolian was his usual stoic self. “No, sir. We’ve scanned the system repeatedly and have yet to find any indicators of a spacecraft.”

Sandhurst addressed both men, “Anything yet on his hand device?”

Ashok spoke first, “Again, no success yet, sir. Scans indicate a complex crystalline structure, but no obvious data storage or computational components. It appears to be a highly advanced piece of technology.”

Plazzi added, “Crew had observed him using it both as a computer interface as well as a weapon, but it now seems to be completely inert.”

“Alright.” Sandhurst sat forward to brace his elbows atop the desk. “I think it’s time for me to meet this Baron.” To Ramirez he instructed, “Have Taiee alert me when he regains consciousness. Continue your interrogations of the Orion prisoners, Commander. I’d like to know what their relationship is with the Baron.”

“Aye, sir.”

“Thank you all, you’re dismissed.”

The others filed out, but Plazzi lagged behind, clearly wanting to address something in private.

Sandhurst looked up. “You need to speak with me, Elisto?”

The older man looked uneasy. “Yes, sir.” He took a breath. “Captain, I realize now probably isn’t the best time to address this, but it’s come to my attention that within a month or two the Federation Security Council will likely repeal the stop-loss order and end the call-up of the Reserves. I just wanted to give you some lead time to find a replacement, as I’ll be resigning at that time.”

The captain looked surprised. “I’m sorry to hear that. You’re a valuable member of this crew, and your years of experience have been enormously helpful.”

“Thank you, sir.” Plazzi shifted nervously. “I’ve got a wife, three children, and four grandkids. Before they reactivated my commission during the war, I hadn’t been in a uniform in nearly two decades. I feel I’ve done my duty, and to be perfectly honest, sir, at this stage in my life this job’s too damn dangerous.” He looked pained and added, “I just can’t shake the feeling that if I stay, sooner or later my number’s going to come up.”

Sandhurst smiled as he stood. “No explanation is necessary. You’ve more than met your obligations, Elisto. As far as I’m concerned, the Federation owes you and the other Reservists a debt of gratitude.” He extended a hand to the scientist. “You give me the word when it’s your time, and I’ll have you at the nearest starbase so fast you’ll think we’ve broken the Warp 10 barrier.”

Plazzi shook his hand gratefully as he returned the smile. “Thank you, Captain.”

*****

Royal 51st Forward Combat Hospital
Planet Makshar, Trabe Confederacy
Delta Quadrant
Circa 1994 A.D., Terran Calendar

So much for the privileges of command, Subahdar-Major Lar'ragos thought mordantly as he counted the ceiling tiles for the umpteenth time. Pava's hospital bed was only one among dozens, arranged within flimsy pre-fab buildings designed more for logistical necessity than the comfort of the patients.

They had been ambushed. It hadn't even been that well organized an attack, really, but it had been effective enough to shoot down one of his insertion team's two heavily armored skimmers. They crashed in the stinking, hellish bogs outside of the capitol city. In the dead of night, the injured survivors had slogged through marshes of chest-high water, cloying mud, razor-grass, and colonies of sting-beetles, all the while locked in a running skirmish with Trabe guard units.

The Trabe themselves were only middling soldiers, vacuous nobility playing at army life. Their Kazon vassals, however, were another matter entirely. The barbarian tribesman had been enslaved by the Trabe generations ago, and were used as both an involuntary labor force and as front line shock troops. The Kazon hunting parties had pursued the Hekosian team relentlessly, and only their amateurish Trabe leadership had allowed Lar'ragos' people to eventually outmaneuver their enemy.

Now Lar'ragos waited. It wouldn't be long until the commandant's internal security apparatchiks arrived to take him into custody. He had disobeyed orders after all. Without prior approval Pava had scrubbed the original insertion plan and changed targets in mid-mission. As a result he'd led his team right over a previously unknown Trabe firebase.

The airlock door at the far end of the medical ward cycled open, admitting Na-Vizier Nellit. Lar'ragos' old protégé looked unaccountably dashing in his formal dress uniform, his red baldric complementing his dark blue tunic which was adorned with medals, ribbons, and the accouterments of royalty. Nellit scanned the rows of beds, finally setting his gaze on Lar'ragos.

He pulled up a stool to Pava's bedside, then removed his campaign hat and tucked it neatly under one arm as he sat. Nellit cleared his throat and glanced around to assure their relative privacy. "Major, you're looking well, considering the extent of your injuries."

Lar'ragos smiled, drinking in the irony of the moment. "Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."

Nellit leaned in closer and his expression grew hard. Voice barely above a whisper, the nobleman hissed, "Ten dead, seven more wounded? What the hell were you thinking, Pava?"

Lar'ragos tried to shrug, but his bandages wouldn't allow it. "I made a command decision, sir. I'm certain you're familiar with the necessity of changing—"

"Do not exercise that attitude with me, Major! You are speaking with a crown prince of the realm; one who has the power bury you so deeply no one would ever think to find you." Even without his innate senses, Lar’ragos could tell Nellit was deadly serious; it was in his eyes.

Pava's jaw muscles twitched. "You sent me to blow up a school."

Nellit's head dropped in exasperation. "Not just any school, and you know it. It was the Trabe's top military academy."

Bile rose in Lar'ragos' throat, "Semantics. Our righteous sovereign, your uncle, ordered us to kill innocent children."

Nellit raised his head and gave Lar'ragos a disbelieving look. "And when has that ever stopped you before?" He gestured to their surroundings. "We're on the cusp of victory here, Pava! The Trabe Confederacy is the last obstacle to the Empire controlling everything within sixty lightyears of the homeworld." He rubbed his face with one hand, his exasperation cracking his reserved noble façade. "Everything we've fought for, sacrificed for in the past fifteen years… it's all come to a head. If you'd successfully planted explosive devices of Kazon design, it might have caused a rift between them and the Trabe."

Pava turned his head away; his El Aurian bred principles warred with his sense of duty.

"Gods, man, you were the one who taught me to harden my heart in preparation for what our duty required of us. I wouldn't be the man I am today without your iron will to guide and mold me." Nellit sighed, pushing back from the bed in frustration. "You've picked one hell of a time to find your moral compass." The airlock cycled again, and two field medics entered carrying an empty litter between them. The prince glanced up at them, then turned back to Lar'ragos. "I can't protect you any more, Pava. Even my influence has its limits. Commandant Shuvan's drafting an arrest order for you as we speak. A perfunctory tribunal should take perhaps a day at most, and then you'll be shot."

Lar'ragos turned his head to meet Nellit's eyes. "I'd often wondered how this would end. I suppose it's long past time for me to join my family." As ridiculous as it seemed, he found himself fighting back tears, "You don't know, Nellit. You'll only have to live a lifetime with the burdens of what we've done. I might have suffered those memories for millennia."

Nellit gestured the medics over, who then transferred Lar'ragos onto the litter. As they did so, the prince smiled darkly. "You're not going to get off that easily, old friend. I owe you my life a dozen times over. Lest you forget, I always pay my debts."

As the medics carried Lar'ragos to an awaiting transport, Nellit offered him a final salute. "I shall reluctantly inform the commandant of your unfortunate escape. It's been an honor serving with you."

Pava raised one hand with great effort, calling out… but the airfield was gone – he blinked – the glare of Sickbay’s overhead lights startled him.

A nurse called Taiee over to Lar’ragos’ bedside. She gave him a subdued smile. “So there you are, Pava. We wondered when you were coming back. How was the trip?”

*****

Pierosh II
Meteorological Research Station Aristotle


Juneau sprinted towards the entrance to the building with two armed crew nipping at her heels. Their footfalls thundered through the empty labs and living quarters as they scrambled to respond to their comrade’s call. It wasn’t the fact that Tark had requested Juneau’s immediate presence outside that spurred their pace, but the fact that the old curmudgeon had actually sounded rattled.

She drew her phaser as she approached the doors the away team had breached days earlier. Juneau slowed and motioned for her escorts to do the same. As she paused at the threshold to reconnoiter, Juneau was met with the unexpected sight of Tark and one of his security people standing idly on the outside steps. They sheltered under the parsteel awning from the rain that pattered noisily against its metal surface. A quick tricorder sweep confirmed nothing appeared amiss, and with her curiosity outweighing her irritation, the junior lieutenant stepped out to join them. “Something wrong, Master Chief?”

Only once she had moved out from the dimly lit entryway did she notice that the hair, faces, and field jackets of both men were wet, soaked a deep burgundy. She stepped closer. “What is that?”

Tark gestured numbly to the vacant panorama. “Rain.”

“I don’t understa—“ Juneau trailed off as she eyed the open tricorder in the Tellarite’s hand.

The master chief’s voice was tight, a hoarse echo of his usual timbre. “Blood, Lieutenant. It’s raining blood.”

Juneau focused on the surrounding vista. She had to squint in the fading twilight to discern that the sea of rocks was in fact awash in a field of red. “That’s… not possible.”

Tark raised his tricorder; the scanning display clearly read the precipitation as an amalgam of humanoid blood types. Juneau’s alter ego quickly assessed that the species represented in the mixed blood types were identical to the racial cross-section of Gibraltar’s crew.

She was momentarily speechless. Neither her training, nor her augmented intellect could help her process what was most certainly an illusion. “This has to be some kind of projection. Holographic, or perhaps direct telepathic manipulation?” Juneau wished she sounded more certain. Regardless, they would have to act. “Alright, gentlemen, let’s get inside. Help me seal up this door.”

All three of them flinched simultaneously as Juneau’s compin chirped. She tapped it as she shepherded the two men back inside. “Juneau here, go.”

“Dunleavy here, sir. You’d better get down here. Something just emerged from the portal.”

*****



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