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Death was rather different than Saihra Dunleavy would have imagined.  Never having held fast to any particular spirituality, she had really not given the idea of an afterlife much consideration.  In her present circumstances, she supposed that might have been a mistake.

She was relatively sure that she had no eyes, and yet she was able to perceive her surroundings in all directions simultaneously.  She had no mouth, no lungs, no larynx that she could detect, yet strangely she felt no compulsion to speak.  All around her was a dimension of violent color and motion

From the chaotic palate something took shape.  The object was either approaching or growing in size, but without any reference points Dunleavy had no source to judge perspective.  It took a moment for her to identify the thing.  A human embryo.  The magnified life-state increased in size and complexity with great speed.  She watched it develop, the maturation of months taking place in mere seconds.  As the embryo became a baby and continued to grow into a small child, Saihra recognized it as herself.

And then, with increasing swiftness, she witnessed her full life cycle, followed by successive generations of what she assumed to be offspring.  The images came with escalating speed, as if some unknown force was mapping the potential of human evolution, the various forms that earth’s distant descendants might assume.  Spindly multi-armed humanoids flashed past, followed by cybernetic neo-hominids with their organs encased in decorative neutronium shells, then beings of pure energy… she witnessed it all in the blink of an eye that she no longer possessed.

A spark of hope flared in what would have otherwise been Dunleavy’s heart.  Perhaps this was not death after all.  She surmised that maybe, just maybe, she… and by extension the rest of humanity… were being studied.

*****

Sickbay, USS Gibraltar
In geo-synchronous orbit of Pierosh II


Sandhurst directed Lar’ragos carefully to a nearby chair, the captain’s expression tinged both with concern and curiosity.  He looked to his friend with a wry smile and Sandhurst said softly, “I think that’s a statement that bears elaboration.”

Lar’ragos sank gratefully into the chair.  His hands trembled so much with the effort of moving that he had to clasp them tightly together to make them stop.  “It’s… nothing specific, I’m afraid.  I monitored your conversation with the Baron.  When he speaks, there’s a sense of…” Lar’ragos groped for the right words, “…he’s on the cusp of achieving something very important to him.”

The exec cleared her throat.  “You said he’s a time traveler?”

Lar’ragos sighed.  “Yes.  He’s old.  Older than me.”  He raised his eyes to meet Ramirez’s.  “Many names, many faces, but his experiences are out of order.  I see him in places and times that he couldn’t possibly occupy, unless he possessed the ability to move beyond normal space/time constraints.”  Lar’ragos turned his gaze on Sandhurst.  “He’s no agent come to save us.  Whatever his role in all this, it’s for purely selfish ends.”

Ramirez knew from experience how prescient Lar’ragos’ intuition could be, but Taiee appeared skeptical.  The CMO gave the El Aurian a dubious look and gently urged, “Lieutenant, you’ve just recovered from a serious neural fugue, one that I’m still unable to explain.  Your senses, however they work, may not be firing on all thrusters at the moment.”

Lar’ragos, however, appeared not to hear her.  Instead, he was focused like a laser on the captain.  ”You know more about parallel realities than you let on.”

Sandhurst frowned.  “How so?”

“Pell,” Lar’ragos replied, looking tired.  “Tell them about Pell.”

The color drained from Sandhurst’s face.  “Ojana?  What about her?”

“You know what I’m talking about, Donald!” Lar’ragos snapped irritably.  “I’m too damn exhausted for games.”

Sandhurst looked away uncertainly, then his shoulders set and his resolve firmed.  He turned to the others and said, “Eight years ago, while serving aboard the Cuffe under Captain Diaz, we encountered a dimensional rift in the Tong Beak Nebula.”  He rubbed the back of his neck as he often did when under stress.  “We discovered a Bajoran national from an alternate reality, one who mirrored a Starfleet officer I’d known.”  The captain sat heavily on a chair.  “The entire mess was classified by Command.”

Ramirez watched Sandhurst with a guarded expression.  “So, are we talking about another intrusion from the same dimension?”

“No.”  Sandhurst stood.  “I compared the quantum resonances of both incidents, they don’t match.”  He looked to Taiee.  “Doc, I need to speak with the commander and Lar’ragos in private.”

Taiee nodded obediently and left.  Sandhurst toggled the door closed behind her.  As soon as the portal was shut he rounded on Lar’ragos and seethed, “You don’t get to pull your parlor tricks on me, goddamn it, Pava!”  Sandhurst clenched his fists, clearly holding himself in check, but just barely.  “I’m the captain.  There are going to be things only I know about, and I won’t have you playing twenty questions to fish for classified information, regardless of what it is you think you know.”

Lar’ragos’ face sagged and he looked genuinely repentant.  “I’m sorry, Captain.”  He swayed in his chair, then grabbed onto a nearby table to steady himself.  “As the doc said, I’m not exactly at my best right now.”

Sandhurst turned to Ramirez.  “I wasn’t holding anything back, Commander.  I promise.”  He worried about having alienated his first officer even more through perceived omissions of vital information, compounding his earlier sin of having shanghaied her into this post in the first place.  “If there had been some correlation between the two dimensional ruptures, I’d have mentioned the Cuffe incident.”

She smiled wistfully and said, “No explanation necessary, Captain.  It’s not your judgment I’m questioning.”  She shot a sour look at the lieutenant to underscore her point.

“Bridge to Captain Sandhurst.”

As he still struggled to reign in his emotions, Sandhurst paused a beat to leach the tension from his voice before replying.  “Go.”

“Sir, we’re getting multiple distress calls from the surface.  The away team is reporting some kind of creature is attempting to gain access to the facility at the main entrance, and Lieutenant Juneau says that one crew member has either been killed or abducted by a probe sent through the portal.”

“Acknowledged.”  Sandhurst tapped his compin to open a channel to the transporter room.  “Can we beam the away team back?” he inquired, dreading what would almost certainly be the response.

“No sir,” the transporter chief said regretfully.  “Some kind of energy field is masking the away team’s signatures.  I can pinpoint their locations, but I’m unable to get a solid lock.”

“Would pattern enhancers help?” Sandhurst offered.

“They might, sir.”

“Commander, take a rescue team down by shuttle, and bring the transport pattern enhancers with you.”

Ramirez nodded curtly and activated the door as she tapped her own compin.  “Ramirez to Commander Plazzi and Ensign Diamato, report to the shuttle bay for a surface mission immediately.”  She isolated Diamato’s compin and added, “Ensign, I know you guys have taken a beating, but I want you to assemble whatever security team we can manage.”

As the exec stepped out into the main ward of Sickbay, she pointed to Lightner who was sitting idly atop one of the many biobeds as he awaited his discharge.  “Quit lollygagging, mister.  Rumor has it this planet has some of the worst weather ever recorded on a Class-M planet.  And that means I need our best pilot.”  She spared him a quick smile as she headed out the main doors leading to the corridor.  “Move with purpose, Ensign.”

*****

Sandhurst directed Lar’ragos to replicate a uniform and make himself presentable.  His anger at Pava’s impertinence had subsided, and the captain decided he’d still rather have Lar’ragos’ abilities working for him in the coming encounter.

As the two men entered the secured ward, the Baron remained restrained to the biobed.  He looked at the Starfleet officers questioningly.  “Back so soon, Captain?”

“The creature you spoke of… the ‘dragon’ as you call it.  It’s attacking my people on the surface.”  Sandhurst moved closer to the bed to project as much severity as he could manage.

“Then I pity your people, Captain.”  The Baron appeared passably sincere.

Lar’ragos was still shaky but determined to help.  He stood by and observed as he drank in every word, expression, and nuance of their prisoner.

“How do I stop it?”

The Baron looked troubled.  “You can’t. Not without my help.”

“I don’t trust you.”  Sandhurst had no time for niceties.

The Baron smiled, and despite his being arrested, contained, and confined, Sandhurst felt a nagging chill at the mysterious man’s expression.  “Trust isn’t the issue.  Necessity is.”  He craned his neck to inspect Lar’ragos curiously.  “Your people don’t have much time.  The creature could consume them, that installation, and this ship in an instant if it chose.  Fortunately, it was designed as a terror weapon.  It will assault those men and women with horrors beyond their darkest imaginings, savoring every moment of their fear and agony.”

Sandhurst scowled.  “It feeds on fear?”

The Baron chuckled.  “It doesn’t feed on anything.  It requires no nourishment, no rest, nothing aside from entertaining itself by torturing and killing every living sentient creature it can find.”

Lar’ragos’ eyes widened, and what little color he retained seemed to drain from him.  He stepped forward and placed his hand against Sandhurst’s back to steady himself as he whispered in the captain’s ear.  “It’s his, Donald.”

Sandhurst turned, clearly perplexed.

The El Aurian raised his voice.  “He created the damn thing.  It’s the way he talks about it, like some kind of twisted parental pride.”

The Baron’s face became a mask of deadly earnest, his voice heavy with menace.  “This charade has gone on long enough.  It is time for you to decide, Captain.  Help me capture this creature of your own volition, or I’ll take your ship from you and cast you and your crew aside like so much refuse.”

He shook his head at the Baron’s audacity, and Sandhurst replied, “And how do you expect to do that?”

“You see, dear Captain, during our assault on your ship, I had one of my operatives sneak into your computer core and corrupt your protected backup files.”  The Baron’s tone conveyed an assurance that froze Sandhurst’s marrow.  “Bit of an insurance policy, you see.  When my attack failed, and you uploaded the backups to repair the damage my computer virus had wrought on your systems, you inadvertently gave me complete control of the Gibraltar.”

Sandhurst slapped his compin so fiercely he nearly tore it from his uniform.  “Sandhurst to bridge, shut down the prim—“

The Baron roared over him, “Computer, release the restraining field on my bed!”

It took both men, charged as they were, a moment to comprehend the computer’s response.  “Unable to comply due to insufficient authorization.”

The Baron became apoplectic, screaming and thrashing against the restraining field.  “Computer, release me this instant!  Acknowledge my order!”

“Bridge to Captain Sandhurst, please repeat your message.  You were cut off.”

Sandhurst appeared confused.  “Bridge, this is the captain.  Standby to initiate a complete shutdown of the main computer and all ancillary functions on my order.”  Almost as an afterthought, he added, “And get me a security team down here.”

“Aye, sir.”

Lar’ragos moved to the opposite side of the bed, prepared to help restrain the Baron should he suddenly break free.  The adrenaline coursing through his veins helped to offset some of his fatigue and disorientation.

“Sandhurst to Lieutenant Ashok.”

“Ashok here, sir.”

Sandhurst briefly outlined the Baron’s threats for the chief engineer, followed by a question. “Lieutenant, did you restore the computer as I’d ordered?”

There was a pregnant pause.  “Not entirely, sir.”

His jaw clenched as he idly watched the Baron’s antics, and Sandhurst replied icily, “How so, Mister Ashok?”

The Baron raged, “Parlan, you are needed!”

“Owing to the nature of the computer attack on the ship, I had reservations about rebooting our systems from the protected archives, Captain.  Instead, I requested an upload of those files via compressed subspace transmission from DS9.”  Ashok’s voice seemed brittle, as if he half-expected to be relieved of his post at this revelation.  “It took a bit longer for full systems restoration, but I thought it would be safer.”

Sandhurst was stunned.  He murmured absently, “You saved the ship.”

“I’m sorry, sir?  I didn’t copy your last.”

Both Sandhurst and Lar’ragos slowly became aware of a new sound, something discernable over the Baron’s outburst and the captain’s conversation.  A grinding, screeching, thumping sound emanated from the main Sickbay ward.  Sandhurst stepped to the door and opened it to find a black cylinder approximately three meters tall and meter and a half in diameter materializing in the middle of Sickbay.

The security officer posted to the Baron’s door drew his sidearm and called out an intruder alert that set off a ship-wide red alert klaxon.

Sandhurst moved quickly to the Sickbay arms locker, a box protruding innocently from one wall amidst a host of medical displays.  He took a phaser pistol for himself, and then moved to the doorway to the secure ward, throwing the other phaser to Lar’ragos.  “Pava, we’ve got company.  I’m locking you in!”

He located Taiee amid the busy crowd and ordered, “Doc, get everyone out of here!”  Medical staff scrambled to evacuate patients into the corridor, which inadvertently clogged the ship’s arterials and delayed the arrival of the ship’s responding security staff.

A portal, even blacker than the outside of the pillar, appeared in the side of the structure.  Out stepped a gargantuan humanoid, a hairless male clad in a tan, form-fitting jumpsuit that seemed designed to broadcast his inhumanly developed musculature.  As he brought his phaser up, Sandhurst found himself musing that this individual made Ashok look small.

“Stop right where you are!” Sandhurst ordered, in what he hoped was a sufficiently authoritative voice.  To his surprise, the mammoth actually stopped in his tracks and turned to face him.  This prompted the captain to add, “Identify yourself and your intent.”

An incongruously unremarkable voice emerged from the giant’s mouth.  “I am Parlan.  I am here for the Baron.  Assist me, and you will live.  Interfere, and I will kill you.”

*****



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