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It fled in a panic.  It had been so engrossed with tormenting the corporeals on the planet's surface that it nearly hadn't registered the arrival of its former captors.  It had foolishly believed that wherever it was, no matter that it remained linked to its prison, that it was somehow out of reach of those who had confined it for countless centuries.

It rocketed out of the gravity well with the Sentinels in pursuit.  As it ran it turned its senses back on its hunters.  It hoped to divine what their plans might be, and it was unprepared to find fear among its jailor's emotions.  If they feared it, it must have the power to hurt them.  It had never considered that possibility.

The creature slowed and gathered its strength as it marshaled its anger.  As they approached, it turned suddenly to attack…

*****

Ramirez, Juneau, Tark and three others stayed behind as the last of the surface team to beam out.  As they waited for the transporter cycle to initiate, Juneau surreptitiously moved a hand to activate a control on the interface bracelet attached to her wrist beneath her uniform sleeve.  A cascading field of transporter energy descended over Ramirez and the other three to sweep them away, but Juneau and Tark remained.

Tark grimaced.  "What now?"  He moved to activate his compin, but instead slumped insensate to the floor, victim to Juneau's concealed stun field.  She knelt beside him and unfolded a small device that had been housed in the bracelet that she then placed on the unconscious Tellarite's forehead.  The engramatic purge took only seconds to completely erase the master chief's short term memory for the past two days.

Her compin chirped, "Ramirez to Juneau, report."  The lieutenant did not reply.

She removed her interface bracelet and set it to self destruct while simultaneously emitting a thoron field that would serve as part of the real Olivia's unwitting cover story.  As the bracelet vaporized, Juneau laid down next to Tark as she prepared to sublimate her consciousness and wake Olivia after a brief delay.  The real Juneau would have no recollections of the past two days during which the operative had been in control of her body.  Thus, both she and Tark would exhibit the same symptoms, apparent victims of some mysterious thoron-based energy discharge on the surface.

As she slipped into oblivion, the Gibraltar's transporter sensors finally managed to cut through the localized thoron interference and the ship's two remaining personnel were whisked home.

*****

Ramirez stepped onto the bridge to find an invisible pall of melancholy hanging over the crew.  People manned their stations dutifully, but the anguish and trials of their mission to this damnable planet had taken their toll.  Nearly everyone aboard had a friend who'd been injured or killed in the past three days.

Before leaving the transporter room, she had watched tight-lipped as Tark and Juneau, both unconscious, had finally materialized on the transporter pad.  It was as if the planet below just couldn't see fit to let them go without extracting another pound of flesh, this time in the form of the two inexplicably comatose crew.

A battered Pava Lar'ragos sat in the center seat, his left hand encased in an ostio-regenerator cuff.  His shoulders sagged with exhaustion and defeat, and as he looked up to greet the exec she could read both the physical and emotional pain in his eyes.

"Status," she ordered crisply.

Lar'ragos slid out of the command chair and stood shakily.  "Sir, long range scans haven't turned up any signs of the captain or the Baron.  Repairs have been completed on all shipboard systems.  Transporter room one reports that both Lieutenant Juneau and Master Chief Tark have been recovered, though both are unconscious and non-responsive.  They're on their way to Sickbay, Commander."

Ramirez shook her head in dismay.  "I was there."  She gestured to the ready room, poised to ask Lar'ragos to join her, but the warble of the Ops panel cut her off.

The petty officer at the Operations board announced, "Incoming subspace transmission, Commander."  The young man scrutinized his readouts and then added, "No identifier on the message, sir."

As she turned to face the viewer, Ramirez queried, "Type?"

"It's a request for visual communication, sir.  Source is unknown and I'm unable to trace it."  He engaged a series of subroutines, then finally concluded, "Wherever it's coming from, it's close.  Definitely from within this star system, sir."

Ramirez set her shoulders.  "Set our communications viral filters to maximum, and put it on screen."

It seemed everyone on the bridge jumped simultaneously as the bright crescent of Pierosh II on the viewer was replaced with the naked, bloodied, and screaming form of Captain Sandhurst.  Lar'ragos stood transfixed as he struggled to integrate the image on the viewscreen with the man he knew so well.  His blood turned to ice in his veins, and he fought back waves of intrusive memories of the atrocities he himself had inflicted on others in his youth.  One small part of Lar'ragos wondered selfishly if his friend's ordeal was yet another penance for him to pay.

The only one who seemed largely unaffected was Ramirez, though her jaw set and her eyes grew hooded.  On the screen, Sandhurst sobbed, begged for mercy, and implored his torturer to tell him what it would take to make the pain stop.  Suddenly, the image was gone, replaced with the countenance of the Baron, a dark backdrop behind him.  "Now that I have your attention, I would like to discuss terms for the release of your captain."

Ramirez's reply was brutally succinct.  "We don't negotiate with terrorists and kidnappers."

The Baron smiled fearsomely.  "Really?  Shall I arrange for the transfer of your captain's body, then?"

Unable to stop himself, Lar'ragos spoke out of turn and earned a rebuking glare from Ramirez.  "Wait!  What is it you want in return for his safety?"

The Baron appeared to savor Lar'ragos' discomfort.  "My time is growing short, and I must move to capture the entity within the next five hours.  Loath as I am to admit it, I require your help in order to snare the beast."

She held up a hand and Ramirez interjected, "Just a moment, Baron.  Anyone can fake an image of a man being tortured, and I have difficulty believing that you've broken Captain Sandhurst in the mere three hours you've had him captive."

The Baron laughed coarsely and his words dripped with disdain.  "You forget, Leftenant Commander, I am in possession of a time machine.  I can not only navigate the currents and eddies of all history; I can also control its flow aboard my own ship.  The temporal chamber in which Donald is housed allows me to slow the passage of time to suit my whims."  There was a delighted gleam in the man's eyes that convinced Ramirez that his assertion was absolutely true.  "Though mere hours have passed for you, Donald and I have had weeks together."

That proved too much for Lar'ragos to bear, and the man became unhinged.  "You monstrous son of a bitch," he raged.  His hands clenched into claws with which it seemed he might tear the fabric of the universe apart to get at the Baron.  "When I find you, I will kill you slowly with my own hands!"

Ramirez wheeled on the El Aurian.  "Lieutenant, you're relieved.  Get off the bridge now."  She didn't raise her voice.  She didn't have to.

He regained some small measure of control and Lar'ragos strode mutely into the turbolift.  Ramirez turned back to the screen and acted as though the interruption hadn't occurred.  "Let's say for the sake of argument that I'm prepared to entertain this idea.  What would you need from us?"

The Baron acted as if Ramirez's grudging cooperation had been a forgone conclusion.  "On my command, you will direct a power transfer beam of thirty megawatts per minute to these coordinates," the image was overlaid by numerical equations which quickly vanished.  "Once completed, you will immediately initiate a static warp shell at a frequency of thirty-seven point one Cochranes and hold it for a period of two minutes."

"And these tasks would accomplish what, Baron?"

The man assumed an even more feral grin.  "You do not need to know the reasons behind these actions.  It is only necessary that you comply."

Ramirez stood firm.  "And if we do as you require, and you manage to trap this creature, what then?  What's to stop you from unleashing this thing on any number of unsuspecting worlds nearby?"

"I have no designs on anything or anyone in your reality, Leftenant Commander.  My quarrel is with the denizens of my home dimension."  He smirked, as if entertaining some amusing thought.  "And if I do not gain control over the dragon, the portal will close and it will be loosed upon you and yours.   Believe me when I say that no weapon or defense that you possess can affect the creature in the slightest.  If by some chance you're fortunate to survive its initial rampage, you will have the dubious honor of witnessing the destruction of countless worlds across this quadrant of your galaxy."

Ramirez countered, "And we have only your good word to rely on, Baron?  Why not return Sandhurst to us as a gesture of goodwill?  I would be much more inclined to cooperate without the Sword of Damocles hanging over our heads."

"You will cooperate regardless.  You simply have no other alternatives."  And with that the transmission terminated.

Ramirez stood there, arms folded across her chest, deep in thought.  The others on the bridge shifted uneasily in their seats, unsure of what was to come.  Most among the crew had learned through the grapevine of Ramirez's objections to her current assignment.  Would she leave Sandhurst to his fate, as Starfleet guidelines would seem to dictate?  Or would she take the bolder road of those officers who threw the rulebook aside at such times to strike out and make their own plans?  The XO could easily remedy her current circumstances, right here, right now, and do so within the bounds of official conduct.

Finally, Ramirez toggled her compin.  "Commander Plazzi and Lieutenant Ashok, report to the briefing room.  We're going to be making some modifications to the ship."

*****

Sandhurst awoke and bobbed to the surface of consciousness like a Terran pearl diver who had been submerged too long.  He gasped and sputtered, then urinated on himself as he fought to focus his vision long enough to look the Baron in the eyes.

It took him a long moment to realize that the figure situated in his swimming vision was not the Baron, but a burly Orion clad in the trappings of a merchant prince and ship's captain.  He struggled with a dim memory from his time at the academy… an ahmet was their culture's title for such a leader.

He took in a deep, rattling breath and willed his uncooperative mouth and larynx to form the semblance of words.  "Good mor-- ning Ahmet.  To what do… I owe…" he was wracked by a bought of coughing that subsided after a moment.  "…the pleasure?" he finished.

The Orion merely studied him for a time as he drank in the man's broken body and tried to take some measure of the spirit still lodged within the casing of maltreated flesh.  "It would appear, Captain, that we have both run afoul of a particularly malevolent force."

"B—Baron," Sandhurst wheezed.

"Yes."  The Orion clasped his hands in front of him.  "He has made you his prisoner, and he has transformed me into a destitute underling."

"Trade you," Sandhurst offered.

"I think I'll pass, thank you."  The Orion stood quietly for another few minutes, clearly giving something a great deal of thought.  Eventually, he broke his silence.  "If I were to help you to escape this place, could you guarantee me safe passage out of Federation space?"

"Yes."

"Do not answer too quickly," the ahmet cautioned.  "I led my ship in an attack on your vessel, then boarded it with the Baron's help and killed several members of your crew.  I do not apologize for my actions, or seek to excuse them.  I also do not want a simple change of scenery to lead you to alter your decision about this.  If we can escape, have I your word that you won't turn and see me incarcerated like some common thief?"

"I'd k—" Sandhurst struggled to maneuver his thick tongue.  "I'd kiss… your ass to leave… this place," he said simply.

Kutav bobbed his head back twice, the Orion variant of a nod.  He turned wordlessly and left.

Sandhurst could not trust his own senses to tell him if the Orion had even been there.  Perhaps this was his mind playing cruel tricks on him, or yet another of the Baron's sick torments.  As he considered these options, he slipped once again beneath the waves and sank into the cool, painless abyss of unconsciousness.

*****

Executive Officer's Quarters, USS Gibraltar
In geo-synchronous orbit of Pierosh II


After meeting with Plazzi and Ashok to set the necessary systems modifications in motion, Ramirez had rewarded herself with twenty minutes dedicated solely to her before their common predicament came to a head.  Just time enough for a quick sonic shower and something to eat, to buoy her ebbing strength.

Her spacious quarters were still Spartan and largely undecorated.  She didn't intend for this to become a long term hitch; just a year's time aboard the Gibraltar and she could get on with her career.

After she pulled on a fresh uniform, Ramirez grabbed a plate of Andorian taaftan bread, a bowl of Vulcan plomeek soup, and a New York cut sirloin steak from the delivery slot of the replicator.  She had moved her computer terminal to sit atop her dining table, and sorted through her correspondence as she ate.  Ramirez sought anything to free her mind from the portentous thoughts that plagued her.

The messages were a mix of subspace communiqués from friends and colleagues, and the typical variety of administrative busy work mandated by Command.  She paused as she spotted a missive that had been sent both to Captain Sandhurst and herself, although she had received it on an intentional twenty-four hour delay.  Apparently, the captain's inaction on this message had exhausted his window of opportunity, and the message had been activated on Ramirez's terminal.  She toggled an audio version of the notification.

"To Lt. Commander Liana Ramirez, executive officer, USS Gibraltar.  Effective this date you are hereby promoted to the rank of Commander, with all the duties and privileges thereto.  Your dedication and professionalism have been in the finest tradition of Starfleet.  Congratulations."

Signed,

Vice Admiral Lewton Westerly
Starfleet Personnel Division
Starbase 27, Morab Sector


Ramirez stared numbly at the screen, a half-eaten piece of taaftan bread dipped in soup suspended in her hand.  The terminal dispatched a signal to her replicator station, and the device hummed to life.  It produced a full rank pip to replace her brevetted one.

Unbelievable, she thought.  This promotion had been in the works since Ramirez had been scheduled to transfer from her post as XO on the starship Tempest, presumably to Admiral Covey's staff.  Once she'd been shuffled off to the Gibraltar, she had assumed the promotion would be delayed a year until she finished her commitment to Sandhurst's command.

Here, now, amidst all the chaos and heartbreak of this mission, even her long awaited promotion tasted like ashes.  Considering their current circumstances, she wouldn't dare change her rank insignia until the captain had been recovered.  It would be an affront to the crew, who would doubtless take it as an attempt to capitalize on Sandhurst's hostage status.

Ramirez's door chimed, but she was still so sidetracked by the unexpected announcement that it took a second chime for her to respond.  "Who is it?"

"Lieutenant Lar'ragos, sir."

She sighed.  "Do I really want to talk to you at this moment, Pava?"

He hesitated a beat.  "I… would hope so, sir.  I'd like to apologize for my earlier actions, if you're prepared to hear me out."

She closed her eyes briefly.  "Enter."  The doors parted and a regretful looking Lar'ragos walked into the cabin.

"This had better be good after the stunt you pulled, Lieutenant.  And I'd remind you there's an airlock on this deck, so don't tempt me."

He nodded as he moved to the couch.  Lar'ragos nearly sat, but turned instead to seek permission.

Ramirez motioned curtly for him to be seated.

Lar'ragos made himself comfortable.  "I am sorry, Commander.  Seeing the captain like that was…"

"Beyond horrible, I know."

"Yes."  He frowned and lowered his head to look at his clasped hands.  "I know I didn't help matters any, and I hope you can find it in yourself to trust me to help you resolve this situation."

Ramirez sat forward, suddenly overcome by an urge to be uncommonly candid.  Part of her realized that was probably the result of one of Lar'ragos' special gifts, but she found that she didn't care.  "Pava, you of all people should have realized where I was going with that line of questioning.  If I'd had immediately capitulated to the Baron, he'd have smelled duplicity and would have either killed the captain straight away or attacked the ship again out of sheer desperation."

Admonished, Lar'ragos sat silent as he digested that.

"I want the captain back as badly as anyone," she continued, "but we're dealing with a megalomaniacal crazy with his finger on the trigger of a super-weapon.  I will not, under any circumstances, help this man capture the creature.  The Baron claims that the thing has destroyed entire star systems, and if he's telling the truth I'll bet it was done on his orders."  Her eyes registered Lar'ragos' dour expression.  "I won't trade Donald Sandhurst for the lives of billions, nor would he want me to.  Not in this universe, or any other."

"We could get help," Lar'ragos offered.  "The Sutherland is en route to Setlik III to help rebuild the colony.  She could be here in less than fifty hours."  He smiled and tried to turn on the charm.  "I've served with Captain Shelby, Commander.  If I tell her we need backup, no force in the universe would stop her from coming to our aid."

Ramirez refused to budge.  "Pava, we lost a lot of good people at Lakesh because Command couldn't see what it was we were actually up against until it was too late.  If this creature is as powerful as the Baron insists, it could destroy a fleet of starships effortlessly.  I won't put another ship in its crosshairs unnecessarily."

Lar'ragos tensed.  "So, what now?  We simply do this by ourselves?"

"No.  Command has ordered the Sovereign here to assist, and she's reportedly carrying a team of experts in this sort of cross-dimensional incursion.  We're going to wait for them."

"How long?"

Ramirez settled back in her chair and looked pained.  "Four days until they arrive."

That would be too late, and they both knew it.  Lar'ragos let it go unsaid.

"I can help you here, Commander.  We have to save him."

She smiled without enthusiasm.  "That's certainly my goal."  She gave the Security chief an appraising look as she queried, "What can you bring to the table?"

His haunted eyes bore into hers.  "The Baron's a monster, isn't he?  Well, I've been one, too."  With absolute sincerity he murmured, "Perhaps it takes one to catch one.  Let me get inside his head."

*****



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