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Out of his peripheral vision, Sandhurst saw someone else rushing to the arms locker.  A moment later, he perceived Ensign Kuenre Shanthi of the late USS Brahmaputra with phaser in hand as he took up position beside him.  Now three armed men stood opposed to the Baron’s would-be rescuer, with Lar’ragos locked inside the secured ward with the prisoner.

“Mr. Parlan, we have you at a disadvantage.  I don’t want to see you or anyone else get hurt here; enough people have died already.”  Sandhurst fought the urge to ramp the phaser’s power setting beyond heavy stun.  “Stand down, and we can work to sort out this whole tangled mess.”

Parlan appeared unmoved by the captain’s words.  He began walking towards the door to the secured ward.  “You have been warned.”

The captain, Shanthi, and the security man opened fire simultaneously.  Their beams, however, terminated at the threshold of Parlan’s defensive forcefield.  The behemoth plowed on and reached out a hand to swat the security specialist across the ward, where he slammed into a computer workstation with a meaty thud.  Sandhurst witnessed this, and had the presence of mind to duck as Parlan swung on him.  The man’s massive hand carved through the air centimeters above the captain’s head as Sandhurst rolled beneath the nearest biobed.

Shanthi increased his phaser setting to maximum and fired again.  The scream of his phaser competed with the shriek of rending metal as Parlan peeled the door to the secured ward apart as if it had been made of paper.  From the other side, Lar’ragos added his beam to the maelstrom of energy that now surrounded the enormous man.

Parlan strode unhurriedly into the ward and casually slapped the phaser from Lar’ragos’ grip, breaking the El Aurian’s hand in the process.  He then pushed Lar’ragos against the far wall where the lieutenant bounced off the bulkhead and slid to the floor unconscious.  Using only the bladed edge of his hand, Parlan scythed through the base of the biobed and severed the EPS leads powering the restraining field.  As the bed toppled over and the field collapsed, the giant scooped the Baron up in his arms and cradled him protectively

After he regained his feet, Sandhurst joined the fight and added his phaser’s maximum power discharge to the effort.  The forcefield bubble around Parlan and the Baron started to shimmer and oscillate as it began to show the strain of dissipating such concentrated destructive energy.

In response, Parlan aimed a single hand palm-out towards his attackers.  A purplish bolt of energy lashed out from that hand to strike the deck between Sandhurst and Shanthi.  The resulting explosion threw both men off their feet and peppered them with searing metallic shrapnel from the savaged floor plating.

Parlan moved with greater alacrity now and made for the pillar.  The Baron growled, “Put me down.  I will walk out of captivity on my own two feet.”  The enormous man complied instantly as his pale blue eyes darted in search of additional threats.  As they passed the writhing, semi-conscious form of Sandhurst, the Baron smiled.  “Bring him along, I simply must return the favor of my incarceration.”

The colossus knelt to gather up the broken form of the captain and followed the Baron through the dark membrane and into his mysterious craft.  The portal closed soundlessly behind them.

In the wake of the division’s recent losses, a security non-com now led a makeshift response team cobbled together from various crew with prior combat experience.  They had waded through the crowd of medical personnel and patients choking the corridor outside to finally execute a hurried tactical entry into the Sickbay.  They rushed into the compartment just as the black pillar vanished, once again accompanied by its eerie pulsing screech.

*****

Shuttlecraft Kon-Tiki
En-route to Meteorological Research Station Aristotle from USS Gibraltar


Even with the shuttle’s inertial dampeners set to maximum, it was proving to be a rough ride down to the surface of Pierosh II.  A storm front had inexplicably materialized over the plateau on which the survey station was located.  Anomalous storm activity was nothing unusual on this planet, however, and Lightner had adjusted his course to try to minimize the amount of wind shear and turbulence the shuttle would encounter.

Despite Lightner’s efforts, the size of the storm had swelled, and it proved necessary to fly through it in order to reach their destination.  The Kon-Tiki shuddered violently as the craft punched through a compact cloud formation and threw Ramirez against the restraint straps keeping her in the co-pilot’s seat.  Her stomach was doing its level best to crawl up inside her esophagus, and by way of distraction she glanced over at the youthful pilot.  The injuries Lightner had suffered at the hands of the Orions were fading, and only some light bruising around his right eye attested to his presence in the pitched battle for the bridge.

She mused that the ensign wasn’t a bad looking kid, and he had certainly handled himself well since his posting to the Gibraltar.  He still possessed that endearing fresh-from-the-Academy earnestness that all newly minted ensigns seemed to exude for their first year of service or so.  Often they were simply thrilled just to be aboard a starship, no matter how routine or unimportant the tasks they were assigned to perform.  Ramirez had noticed that it was only when he was piloting in stressful circumstances that the ‘real’ Brett Lightner appeared.  The hesitation and uncertainty of a first-tour junior officer vanished, and in their place were the focus and composure of a superior pilot.

At twenty-one, he was a graduate of the academy’s accelerated wartime curricula with only three years of academics under his belt instead of four.  Ramirez felt the young man had been cheated out of much more than just a year’s education.  During the war, courses such as history, philosophy, and ethics had been discarded in exchange for those skill sets more apt to help a person survive in a combat environment.

In her opinion it was exactly those courses that differentiated a Starfleet officer from a Klingon warrior or a Romulan centurion.  Any thug could hold and fire a weapon.  Starfleet taught their people how to think, how to analyze a situation from multiple angles, and gave them the empathy to view a scenario from someone’s perspective other than their own.  Most importantly, the academy taught its graduates the moral context within which they were allowed to operate.

As the executive officer, Ramirez was responsible for the continued training and education of the ship’s compliment of junior officers.  She would help guide and groom them for greater responsibility as she gave them the tools they needed for eventual promotion.  She had already lost two of them, Browder and Qawasimi, both promising young men who hadn’t lived to see even a tenth of the wonders she had witnessed in her career.  Ramirez vowed that she would strive to do better by the others, Lightner included.

Another jolt washed away Ramirez’s reverie as the shuttle lurched through an air pocket.  She craned her head around to glance back into the passenger compartment.  Ramirez smirked at the sight of Plazzi’s death grip on the armrests of his chair.  Ensign Diamato, the sole surviving commissioned officer from Gibraltar’s security division aside from Lar’ragos, appeared immune to their bumpy ride.  Diamato studied a padd containing schematics of the surface installation.  Two enlisted security personnel sat facing one-another against either wall, seated on the bulkhead mounted benches in the cargo area.

Ramirez called out to Plazzi, “Everything okay back there, Elisto?”

Plazzi gave her a forced smile and a half-hearted thumbs up that made her laugh despite her airsickness.

She turned back to address Lightner, “Please tell me this little ship is up to the task, Ensign.”

Lightner grinned, his concentration consumed with navigating the treacherous storm cell.  “Oh yeah, Commander.  No worries.  These Type-8’s can take a pounding.”

I certainly hope so, she thought grimly, who knows what the Baron’s ‘dragon’ is capable of inflicting on us.

Something loomed suddenly in the cockpit windscreen, a dark, massive shape abruptly visible through the surrounding miasma.  Ramirez and Lightner both caught the briefest glimpse of something with an enormous wingspan, and of vicious talons that raked across the shuttle’s forward shields.

To his credit, the ensign maintained their angle of descent.  His face betrayed confusion, but his hands were steady on the controls.  “I… was that… that couldn’t be…”

Ramirez reached out to the console at her station and charged the shuttle’s phasers.  “I’m not sure what that was, Mister Lightner.”  She suppressed the shiver that sought to arc down her spine and replied coolly, “Just keep flying, Ensign.  I’ll worry about our hyper-thyroidal avian friend out there.”  And then it hit her.  She had been thinking about dragons.  Oh, goody, she mused, perhaps it reads thoughts, too.

As she turned back to see Plazzi’s wide-eyed, ashen face, the first officer raised her hand sheepishly.  “Sorry, my fault.  That was me.”

*****

Pierosh II
Meteorological Research Station Aristotle


Juneau and her team scrambled to seal the doors leading to the secret laboratory.  The entire Starfleet contingent had retreated to the reinforced lab to escape whatever nightmarish thing had breached the building’s defenses.

Tricorders had proved to be of only questionable use.  The creature alternately registered on scans as being a field of energy, or a swarm of giant Plavian arachnids, or any number of equally unpleasant alternatives.  Thus far, however, the attacks had amounted to mere harassment.  For the time being, the thing seemed content to frighten them and drive them farther underground.  Juneau had no intention of allowing it to take more lethal actions against them.

The lieutenant had moved to a secluded corner of the lab as crew busied themselves welding additional barriers in front of the doorway and setting up a secure perimeter.  She opened her tricorder and tried again to make some sense of the jumbled readings their attacker was giving off.  Juneau observed Tark walk up, padd in hand.  As he stepped beside her, she felt a pressure in her side that she knew instantly to be a phaser.  Tark whispered, “Now that you’ve led us down here to a dead end, I’m very interested to know just who you really are.”

As she lowered her tricorder, Juneau weighed her options.  She could try to disarm him, but that would likely result in her being stunned or killed.  Last time she had overwhelmed the master chief, she’d had the advantage of surprise.  Now Tark had the upper hand.  She decided that the circumstances warranted a novel approach, the truth.

Juneau kept her voice low as she replied, “I won’t insult your intelligence by trying to convince you what you’ve seen and heard isn’t true, Master Chief.  There is, in fact, more than one person in here.” She touched a finger to her temple.  “But I assure you, I’m no shape-shifter or enemy agent.  I’m Starfleet too, and I’m far more qualified to help you here than Olivia would be.”

Tark still looked grimly skeptical.  “How are you tied up in all this?”

“I wasn’t.  Let’s just say that ninety-nine percent of the time I’m simply an observer in Olivia’s head.  Only when I come across something which could be considered a serious threat to Federation security or our national interests do I take the reigns.”  She gave Tark a hard look.  “And our present circumstances definitely amount to a dire threat, wouldn’t you say?”

“And the lieutenant?  Where is she right now?”

Juneau watched as the crew welded a metal table to the growing pile of debris in front of the pressure door; embers of molten metal rained down onto the floor.  “Asleep, actually.  When I take over, she goes into a kind of mental hibernation.”

Tark muttered, “I don’t understand.  Why would Starfleet do such a thing?”

Juneau shook her head.  “The Obsidian Order, the Tal Shiar, the Klingon So’Taj… you don’t think we have our own version of a ‘dirty tricks’ branch, too?  You’re not so naive as to believe that we allow all those other powers to play by their own rules while we adhere to the strict letter of the law?”

The master chief sighed, “I suppose not.”

“I’m the dark underside of the Federation’s moral high road.”  She smiled harshly.  “So, what’s it to be?  Do you want my help here, or shall I bring Olivia back?  I’m sure she’d be a terrific asset to you.  You could use her for cover when that thing starts beating down the door and she curls into the fetal position.”

As he lowered the phaser, Tark hissed, “Fine, for now.  This isn’t over, though.”

Just then an unearthly yowl issued from behind the pressure door, accompanied by the sounds of manic scratching on metal.  Juneau stepped out and prepared to take command of the situation.  She glanced at Tark as she replied, “Not by a long shot, Master Chief.”

*****

Donald Sandhurst floated in agony, suspended in a shaft of white light.  His legs were badly mangled, and his wounds had received little in the way of treatment from his captors.  He groggily recalled a small human man using a device to staunch the bleeding, but the wounds remained open to fester and he had been given nothing to dull the blazing pain.

He passed in and out of consciousness for a period, but he couldn’t say how long as he’d lost the ability to judge the passage of time.

The Baron’s face swam into focus, accompanied by a wave of misery as the older man gripped Sandhurst’s torn thigh tightly with one hand to bring him around.  The captain coughed, sputtered, and finally rasped, “I’d like to lodge a complaint with the concierge.”

As he smiled wolfishly the Baron purred, “I’m sure.”  He took a moment to appraise Sandhurst.  “You’ve certainly looked better, Captain.  I’d very much like to offer more medical treatment, but that will be dependant upon your level of cooperation.”

Sandhurst coughed again.  “My command codes won’t do you any good.  The moment I was abducted the crew would have locked those codes out of the system.”

“No, no, I’m done mucking about with your damned computers.”  He crossed his arms impatiently.  “I need your ship, Captain.”

“Wh—“ Sandhurst winced and drew in a sharp breath.  “Why?  You have this vessel, and we suspect the ability to travel through time and space.  I can’t imagine what you’d need a mere starship for.”

The Baron glowered.  “All my ship’s power is being utilized to keep the portal on the surface open.  My reserves are dwindling, especially after expending additional resources to rescue myself from your captivity.”

“Why are you keeping it-- “ Sandhurst groaned suddenly and writhed in the clutches of the suspensor field.  He took a steadying breath and continued.  “Why hold it open?”

“Closing the wormhole will severe the creature’s connection to the prison dimension.  Once free, the difficulty in capturing it increases exponentially.”

He fought off another wave of pain and Sandhurst asked, “You created it?”

“In a manner of speaking.”  The Baron took the captain’s silence as a request for elaboration, and he began walking a slow circuit around Sandhurst.  “There are beings in the multiverse that move about the cosmos as gods.  I have had chance to encounter them on occasion, but I’ve found them to be selfish, arrogant, and capricious entities.  They flit about, meddling in the affairs of lesser species for their own amusement, wielding their awesome powers like fickle children.”

Sandhurst cried out, then bit down on his lower lip until the wave of suffering passed.  Something that felt broken shifted in his chest and burned like a hot knife twisting.  “Yes, we have them here, too.  We call them Q.”

The Baron continued without acknowledging Sandhurst’s statement, clearly indifferent to the man’s agony.  “Centuries ago, while traveling the periphery of the Keng-Ceri Cloud, I discovered the remains of one of these beings, cocooned within a protostar.  It must have been injured in some great cataclysm, though I shudder to think of what weapon or event could fell a god.  Its energy matrix was intact, but its intellect had been rent asunder.  It was essentially an animated corpse, a hollow shell of its former glory.”

Sandhurst struggled to remain conscious as he fought to grasp and retain everything the Baron was revealing to him.  There was no telling what would be of use to him later.

“So I painstakingly rebuilt its neural state, giving it the semblance of consciousness, but leaving it very amenable to direction.  My direction.”

As he strained to get his head around what he was hearing, Sandhurst asked, “That thing out there… it’s a Q?”

“It used to be a Q, as you call it,” the Baron corrected.  “Now it’s the perfect weapon of terror.”  He had now circumnavigated the suspensor field, and the Baron found himself facing Sandhurst again.  His features beamed with haughty pride.  “I used it to cut a swath of destruction across my dimension the likes of which had never been seen.  Seventeen populated star systems obliterated.”  His eyes took on a far-away cast.  “Entire civilizations lay prostrate before me, and for a time, I commanded an empire of untold billions.”

“And then?” Sandhurst croaked.

“Then a supposedly ‘enlightened’ coalition of species conspired to overthrow me,” the Baron spat bitterly.  “It was a horrific war, countless millions slaughtered in order to end my benevolent rule.  The creature was captured, but even the combined intellects of these races could not design a method capable of destroying it.”  The Baron paused to pull a crystal from the folds of his cloak.  He touched its facets and beckoned a small pedestal to rise from an opening in the floor.  Upon the pedestal were arrayed a gleaming assortment of metallic devices, blades, spikes, flails, and other accoutrements of torture.  “The creature was locked away in a dimensional schism that I could not access from my quantum reality.”

“Ah,” remarked Sandhurst, his eyes glued to the instruments of pain.  “That’s why you created Benghazi.”

The Baron nodded as he picked up a wicked looking scalpel-like implement and held it up to the light to admire its fine edge.  “Yes, Benghazi, and a host of others.  I littered them throughout several dimensions with a similar quantum variance to yours.  Dozens of men, all in my image, all programmed to be obsessed with the idea of breaching the dimensional boundaries between universes along a very specific seam.”

“And our Dr. Benghazi was the first one to successfully tunnel into your creature’s prison.”  Sandhurst coughed wetly and blood flecked his lips from a lung punctured by a fractured rib.  “Lucky us.”

“Just so.”  The Baron grinned cruelly.  “Tell me, Captain, you’re not a hemophiliac by any chance?”

“And if I say yes?”

“Then I’ll administer a clotting agent prior to our conversation, Donald.”  The Baron stepped closer and used the scalpel blade to slice away the captain’s uniform top.  “Can I call you Donald?”

“Sure,” Sandhurst stammered as he tried desperately to think of something to dissuade his captor from what was to come.  “I’d remind you that you were not mistreated as my prisoner, Baron.  You were given medical aid, food… you were merely restrained.”  A few precise cuts of the blade and Sandhurst’s remaining clothing fell away.

The suspensor field lowered Sandhurst to where his feet almost touched the floor.  The Baron rose from the ground on similar energies and leaned in to whisper intimately to his victim as he made the first of many incisions.  “Consider this payment with interest.”

*****



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