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The colorful maelstrom surrounding her coalesced into a single shape that left her now in the midst of a black void.  Saihra Dunleavy clung to the hope that this was some kind of psychotropic First Contact experience, and her emotions were buoyed by the aura of munificence being projected by the creature taking form before her

It appeared crystalline in nature, an amorphous construct that seemed all angles and hard edges, which expanded and contracted continuously as its shape changed.  The spectrum of colors that had once enclosed her now washed across the facets of the entity.

"We are Sentinel."  She heard the words in her head, or she would have, had she still possessed one.  "We apologize for the necessity of your being detained, but it was imperative for us to determine your biology, your nature, and your intent.  From your thoughts and memories we have concluded that you were not complicit in our prisoner's escape.  Your people demonstrate a high-level codified ethical structure, and it has been decided that we may enlist your cooperation in returning our charge to its place of confinement."

{* I… um… thank you.*}  Wonderful, she thought dourly, I'm sure my first words to these beings will be immortalized by the Federation Diplomatic Corps.

"One of our number will accompany you back through the conduit and will coordinate the efforts necessary to drive the creature back into captivity."

{* I'm being returned?*}  She asked hopefully.

"Yes, both to your body as well as your native realm.  We have also discerned that your people have made contact with the Betrayer.  He is as intelligent as he is dangerous, and it is vitally important that we not allow him to escape captivity aboard your vessel.  With permission, we will take custody of the Betrayer for the safety of all, as the danger he poses to your dimension is considerable."

{* I'm sure we can work something out.  I can't speak directly for my people, though.  Your representative will have to speak with my captain.*}

"We acknowledge and will abide by your hierarchical command structure."

Dunleavy felt herself being drawn backwards as her unique multi-perspective vision began to wane…

*****

Ensign Lightner's touchdown on the meteorological station's landing platform was not the most graceful of his career, but it got the job done.  Both the buffeting winds as well as the monsters that had begun slashing at the craft from the veil of clouds had conspired to make the last few kilometers to the landing site especially harrowing.

Ramirez pulled off her arm sling and winced as she hefted her phaser rifle and moved to the rear exit ramp of the shuttle.  "Okay, people, we're going to stay close together and provide mutual cover from whatever's out there."

She, Ensign Diamato, and the two security personnel were armed with rifles, while Plazzi was equipped with a hand phaser and science kit.  Lightner would bring up the rear and haul along the transport pattern enhancers.

As Ramirez conferred with the security team, Plazzi moved into the cockpit. He took a moment to access sensor readings at the now abandoned pilot's console.  After a moment he poked his head back into the main cabin as he called out to the XO, "Commander, might I have a moment?"

She was clearly perturbed at being distracted so near to their mission getting underway, but Ramirez spared the science officer a brief audience.  "What is it, Elisto?"

Plazzi jerked a thumb towards the cockpit.  "Sensors are going crazy with the activity outside, sir.  I strongly suggest we use the shuttle's emergency transporter to put us inside the facility, deep as it can get us."

She frowned reflexively.  "I thought the transporters were unable to get a positive beam-in lock due to the interference."

"Yes, sir.  That was from orbit.  Now that we're dirt-side, the shuttle's transporter sensors should have enough power to punch through this soup and put us at least a couple levels down into the structure."

Ramirez was skeptical.  "They should or they do, Mister Plazzi?"

He smiled.  "I'm about a month away from a well deserved second retirement, Commander.  Rest assured I'm not going to start gambling with my life now."

She considered it for a moment and finally acceded.  "Alright, let's do it."  She cast a glance back at the rear hatch and confided, "I really wasn't all that anxious to go running out there anyway."

Ramirez's compin chirped, and she tapped it as Plazzi took a seat at the pilot's station to begin setting up the site-to-site transport.  "Ramirez here, go ahead."

"Commander, this is Lieutenant Taiee.  I'm afraid I have to report that the Baron has escaped from Sickbay an—"

"What?" Ramirez cut her off as her face colored with frustration.  "How did that happen?"

"It gets worse, sir.  They've taken the captain."

*****

Explosions sent concussive waves of force tearing through the lab that rained debris down upon Juneau and her team.  Bursts of phaser fire, both in beam and pulse form scoured the area around the entrance to the lab to burn, blast, and vaporize the ravening beasts that fought and clawed their way atop one another to push through the doorway.

Juneau moved at a crouch to Tark's firing position behind a burned out computer workstation.  She paused to squeeze a burst of phaser pulses into a particularly vicious looking Klingon jackal mastiff that had managed to force its way over the pile of smoldering animal corpses choking the doorway.  "Master Chief," she yelled above the din of combat, "we're going to need to fall back!"

Tark swept the doorway with his phaser set on a high wide-beam setting that incinerated the bodies of the various nightmarish creatures and creating a cloud of putrid but concealing smoke.  "Fall back?  To where?"

She looked over her shoulder at the viewing gallery behind them.

"Oh, no.  Hell no!"  Tark's pugnacious face took on a savage mien.  "You've seen the radiation readings from in there.  There's no way we could survive down there for more than a few minutes."

Juneau shook her head.  "We'd only be in there for a moment."

Tark's eyes widened.  "You're crazy!  You are trying to get us killed!"

"I'd rather take my chances with that wormhole than remain here and get torn apart."

One of the science technicians broke formation to retrieve a new power cell for his phaser, only to have an enormous Seltan carnosaur rush from out of the pall of smoke and pounce on him.  The reptile's wicked teeth ended the man's cries quickly, and as it raised its head to swallow a mouthful of his flesh it was cut down by a fusillade of phaser energy.

Tark studied the man's twitching form for a brief moment before he turned back to Juneau.  "Point taken, Lieutenant."

"Good.  I think that we should…" A peculiar brightness from behind them caught her attention.  She turned to see five orange orbs, each identical to the one that had vaporized Dunleavy, hovering just outside the viewing partition. Juneau nudged Tark with her elbow.  "Chief, the neighbors are back."

He swore colorfully in Tellarite.  "Now we're trapped in a vise."

All five orbs passed through the transparent aluminum.  Before Tark could bring his phaser around, they began to lash out at the predatory animals fighting to get at the Starfleet contingent.  They blasted their way through the hellish chokepoint of the doorway and into the corridor beyond as swaths of golden light vaporized everything in their path.

Tark looked on, clearly amazed.  "That was—"

"Enormously helpful," Juneau finished for him.

They rushed forward to catch a glimpse of the orbs as they ascended the stairway, the death screams of sundry creatures heralding their passing.  "They're clearing a way to the surface, people, let's move!" Juneau shouted to the assembled crew.  People began rushing for the surface, but Juneau remained behind.  Tark turned to see her drop to the floor and maneuver the dead science technician into a fireman's carry.  She struggled to her feet, shifted her burden, and began plodding towards the door.  "Quit gawking and move, Master Chief.  That's an order."

From behind them a voice asked, "That include me, too, Lieutenant?"

Saihra Dunleavy smiled at them self-consciously, one hand held high.  "Everyone here who's made a First Contact, raise your hand."

*****

They clambered up the stairwell until they finally reached the main level.  The other personnel had fanned out to form a perimeter, but there was no longer any sign of the orbs.  As Tark stepped into the room, he was surprised to see Lt. Commander Ramirez and her rescue team talking animatedly with the others.  Lightner and the team's security personnel were setting up the pattern enhancers in a triangular formation.

Ramirez turned to see Tark, her relief tinged with a concern that the Tellarite couldn't place.  "Good to see you, Master Chief.  We thought you were in trouble."

"We were, sir."  Tark assisted Juneau in lowering their fallen comrade to the floor.  "According to Dunleavy here, we appear to have some new friends on the other side of the rift."

"Good, she can tell us all about it when we get topside."  Ramirez raised her voice to get the attention of the others as she announced, "Get assembled for beam-out."

Tark glanced at Dunleavy.  "Didn't you say one of those spheres would be coming aboard as a liaison?"

Dunleavy smiled wistfully.  "Don't worry, Master Chief.  When they're ready, they'll find us."

As Ramirez finalized transport protocol with the ship, Tark looked around the room and then sniffed loudly through his porcine nose.  "Now I remember that smell.  It's been awhile."

Juneau observed him curiously.  "What smell is that, Master Chief?"

"Victory."

*****

He awoke shortly before their next scheduled session.  Sandhurst couldn't say how he knew it, but he did nonetheless.  Despite the grievous damage his body had suffered at the hands of the Baron, he was occasionally able to sleep from sheer exhaustion, regardless of how much pain he was in.

Sandhurst was given regular medical attention, though just enough to keep him from slipping into unconsciousness too quickly during their time together.  He surmised that the Baron must have done this frequently to have become so talented a sadist.  Torture as art, he mused darkly.

How long had he hung here, bloodied, battered, and caked in his own filth?  Days certainly, perhaps weeks.  Sandhurst couldn't tell.  When the seconds between punches or cuts or the closing of an electrical circuit seemed to last an eternity, estimating the passage of time became impossible.

A full two weeks of his rigorous nine-month stint at the Starfleet's Command Officer's Training course had been dedicated to capture and interrogation by hostile forces.  Fearsome questioning sessions at the hands of skilled instructors had given the students a taste of what the real thing might be like.  For his graduation exercise from that class, Sandhurst had been pummeled ruthlessly by an enormous holographic Tzenkethi who demanded to know the Federation's defense plans for the region along their mutual border.  Sandhurst had resisted admirably, and had congratulated himself afterwards for his fortitude.

Such was not the case now.  As his physical and emotional strength were sapped by repeated meetings with the Baron, Sandhurst had eventually broken.  Sleep deprivation, starvation, and constant pain had conspired to shatter his defenses.  He had cried, he had pleaded and begged and howled.  The Baron had used various cutting implements at first, and insinuated that these were a 'warm up.'  He had subsequently moved on to more creative means: fire, water, suffocation, electrocution, and finally direct neural induction.

Sandhurst had not known such levels of agony were possible.  Each session invariably ended with him drifting in and out of consciousness, having shrieked and wept himself to utter exhaustion.  The only times when he felt anything like his real self was just before the sessions began.  His short lived bravado was always stripped away, of course, but those brief moments of defiance were all he had to look forward to now.

The Baron emerged from out of the darkness, his boots clacking noisily on the floor.  Sandhurst's head lolled, and he strained to raise it and look at his tormentor.  "Howdy," he rasped.

"And a good day to you, Captain."  The Baron replied jovially.

"I've been thinking," Sandhurst slurred past cracked and swollen lips, "I think you've got the wrong man."

The Baron busied himself setting up the day's mystery device; it was some kind of apparatus that Sandhurst hadn't seen before.  "Oh, really?"  The older man chuckled.  "And how is that?"

"You want Jean-Luc Picard."  Sandhurst coughed and his chest rattled ominously with the effort.  "Or Captain DeSoto.  Glover maybe.  Those guys get abducted all the time."  He laughed hoarsely, then gritted his teeth at the pain the effort elicited.  "They're in the big leagues.  It—" he was wracked by a spasm that contorted his entire body briefly.  "It's part of the deal.  Big ship, big name, big danger."  He moaned softly as his musculature relaxed and released his weight once again to the suspensor field.  "Me?  I'm nobody."

The Baron smirked as he stepped up to place a small reddish tinted circular device on Sandhurst's temple.  "I disagree, Donald.  Right now, out of all those presumably important captains, you're the only one who can assist me."

Sandhurst's head bobbed.  "Yeah.  Definitely Glover.  He'd eat this stuff up."  Sandhurst giggled irrationally.  "You'd like him, he's got a real dark streak."

"Sounds like a man after my own hearts," the Baron murmured distractedly as he fiddled with his ever present crystal device.  Finished, he turned his gaze back on Sandhurst.  "Well then, Donald.  Shall we get started?"

"Already?  And here I thought we were having a moment."

The Baron's wicked smile returned.  "Moment's over."  He touched the crystal and suddenly Donald was five years old again, sitting in the kitchen of his parent's house in Johannesburg.  It was more perfect than any holo-program he'd ever experienced.  Every sight, smell and sound exactly as he remembered.  Sandhurst could still hear the Baron, whose voice echoed in his head.  This is similar to the neural induction you experienced, only it taps directly into your memories.  It allows me to manipulate your long term memory engrams, to shape your recollections however I please.  I also have the ability to revert your emotional responses to the appropriate age.  It's all rather ingenious, really, perverting your fondest childhood memories to torture you with your own past.

Donald's mother stepped back from the kitchen replicator station, startled by a loud noise in the next room.  That's when the Nausicaans burst in.  Donald screamed as one of them grabbed his mother roughly…

*****



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