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Sandhurst picked through the unfamiliar technology and tried to differentiate which component did what as he struggled with his trembling hands and increasingly blurred vision.  He could hear the brutal struggle being waged on the other side of the dais, the grunts and gasps of two men locked in mortal combat.

As Kutav’s drugs leached from his system, Sandhurst became conscious once again of the agonizing injuries he had sustained.  His breathing became shallow; it hurt too much to inhale deeply.  His hands grew increasingly clumsy and he found himself fumbling and dropping various pieces of hardware within the console housing.  Sandhurst knew he must act quickly, that time was precious, but his mind kept wandering and he had to fight to maintain his concentration.

There was a series of wet smacking sounds, punctuated by a voice which bellowed incoherently with each fist fall.  Then silence.  Footsteps echoed in the room, and Sandhurst found himself murmuring an ancient prayer from his childhood that somehow the Orion had proved the victor.  A pair of human looking hands grasped Sandhurst roughly and dragged him out from under the control table.  The captain stared up into a youthful but unfamiliar face, now bruised and bloodied following the brutal struggle with Kutav.  Sandhurst winced, coughed and said, “Compliments to… your cosmetic surgeon.”

The Baron roared as he picked Sandhurst up bodily and threw him against one of the spiraling support columns.  Collapsing at its base, the captain struggled feebly to move, but found that he could not.  He watched the Baron’s approach as he readied himself to meet his end.  At least he had gone out fighting.  It wasn’t much, he thought regretfully, but it was something.  "What the hell... are you... anyway?" Sandhurst croaked.

The Baron grinned wickedly as he reveled in his new body, all swagger and arrogance despite the damage inflicted by the now unconscious Kutav.  “Less a man than a god,” he growled and reached for Sandhurst’s throat.

Time froze, or it seemed to.  The Baron’s hands, centimeters from Sandhurst’s neck, were immobilized.  Sandhurst wondered briefly if, on the cusp of death, his brain had short-circuited somehow.  It was then that he spotted the man.

Clad in the strange garb of a 19th century Union soldier from the American Civil War, the man stood outside the inner ring of the command room, backlit by one of the Baron’s pedestal displays.  He stepped forward into the light to study both Sandhurst and the Baron.  The expression on his unremarkable face was one of anguish.

Sandhurst’s head swam and spots appeared in his vision as he battled to remain conscious.  “Here for the show?” he asked.  “You’ve… arrived for the best… part.”  It took every ounce of will Sandhurst could muster to raise his hand and point tremulously at the Baron.  “...'bout to kill me.”

The man dressed in soldier’s garb held out his hand, palm up.  There was a brief flash of white energy that vanished to reveal a miniature light show taking place just above his hand.  It took Sandhurst’s fatigued mind a moment to place the image; a display of the battle raging throughout subspace.  An amorphous blob of greenish energy, presumably the Baron’s creature, was surrounded by a swirling formation of orange spheres.  Tiny pinpricks of energetic aggression lanced between them in a confused ballet of violence.

Sandhurst coughed into his hand, then spit out what looked suspiciously like a clotted piece of lung tissue.  His chest wheezed threateningly as he asked, “Q… I presume?”

The stranger's face was not the one Sandhurst had seen in briefings on the god-like Q, and he wondered idly if this was some other member of the vaunted Continuum.  The soldier appeared to ignore the human’s question and shook his head sadly as he continued to watch the clashing foes.  He murmured, “This is unbearable.  That it has come to this…”

The undulating field of green energy vanished, followed a second later by the rest of the image.  Suddenly, the soldier stood cradling another man in his arms.  The new arrival wore a uniform similar to that of the figure who held him, only his was grayish in color, its chest and shoulders stained with blood from what looked to be a mortal head wound.

The soldier in blue lowered his face.  His eyes glistened and then closed tightly as he kissed the crown of the dying man’s head.  “I’m sorry.”

Sandhurst watched the bizarre reunion, and found himself speaking without intending to.  “A friend?”

The soldier opened his eyes and choked back tears before he replied in a voice thick with grief, “My brother.”

He inclined his head towards them with great effort and Sandhurst asked, “Who… did this?”

“I did,” was his sorrowful reply.  “I killed him.”

“Condolences,” was all Sandhurst could think to say.

The soldier smiled wistfully as tears now coursed down his cheeks.  “It was war.  And he was so damnably stubborn.”  He clutched his fallen brother to him and continued to speak, as if listing his sins to a confessor.  “I cut him down on the field of battle, and thought he was dead.  I hadn’t realized I’d only wounded him, hurt him so grievously that his mind shattered, though his body lived on.”  He shook his head gently, “Killing each other over divergent ideals.  How corporeal of us.”

Sandhurst fought back against a wave of dizziness that threatened to overwhelm him.  He tried to anchor himself as he commented, “Join the club.”  He pressed his hand on one of the more vicious wounds to his leg, the surge of pain helping him to focus.  “Why have you… come for him… only now?”

“Until he was unleashed on your universe through the portal, we didn’t know what had become of him.”  The soldier appeared to gather his emotional reserves and now looked somewhat less grief stricken.  “Your ‘Baron’ tore our brother from his grave, and used him for his own malicious ends”

“He’s… rather good at that.”

“Then it was too dangerous to approach him in his current state.  His higher functions were destroyed; he was acting largely on impulses provided to him by the Baron.  Look at what chaos he’s wrought on this star system in his struggle with the Sentinel spheres.  Had he seen the Continuum’s arrival as a mortal threat, he might have lashed out at us in blind terror, and without the normal constraints on his powers provided by an intact mind-state, he could have easily annihilated your entire plane of existence.”

“That would be... bad,” Sandhurst assessed gravely.

“Indeed,” the soldier replied.  “It wasn’t until your people had drawn him to the surface and the Sentinels' portal had sufficiently weakened him that I could risk recovering him without undue peril.”  He frowned slightly.  “Which reminds me…”

A loud buzzing sound filled the room, followed by a sudden, echoing ‘pop.’  An orange sphere grew from a single speck to its full two meter diameter in an instant.  It hovered directly in front of the Union soldier.

His eyes hardened with resolve as the soldier said, “I’m taking him home.  He deserves to be laid to rest among his own kind.”

The sphere pulsed in quick succession.  Something unspoken passed between it and the soldier.

“I know, and for what it’s worth, I’m sorry for all the torment he caused you.”  He cast a hard look at the Baron’s frozen form before the soldier looked back to the sphere.  “What was inflicted on my brother was a ghoulish crime; he was not acting of his own free will.”

Again, the sphere pulsated.

The soldier nodded slowly.  “I understand.”  He shifted the burden in his arms and looked momentarily discomfited with the weight of the body.  As he clung to consciousness, Sandhurst found that strangely amusing.  The man continued, “Were it not for your efforts and those of the humans, the Continuum wouldn’t have discovered the scope of this tragedy.”  He looked down at the man he embraced.  “Even during his incarceration you were never cruel to him.  You did your duty without malice, and I thank you for it.  That’s far more than can be said for the monster who desecrated his remains.”

The sphere appeared to answer as it simultaneously swept the Baron’s stationary visage with a fan of golden light.

The soldier frowned.  “I’m afraid I cannot allow that.  I brought you here only to explain my actions and convey my appreciation.  As much as I wish all manner of horrors upon this man, you will have to locate him with your own means.”  In answer to Sandhurst’s unasked question, he turned to the captain.  “We’re under new management.  New rules of conduct.  No interference.”

Sandhurst’s heart sank.  His fantasies of a miraculous rescue crashed down around him.  The sphere vanished with another pop of displaced air, and Sandhurst was left staring at the two men.  “I hope… you find some pe— peace,” he offered.

The soldier held Sandhurst’s gaze as he thought hard about something.  “You and my brother are both his victims.  I empathize with your plight.  I truly wish I could help.”

Sandhurst coughed.  “Your people… have broken the rules before.”

“I cannot deliver you from his clutches, Captain.  Stiff penalties will be levied against anyone of us who break ranks among the new order.”

Sandhurst nodded towards the dais.  “Could you push a few buttons for me?”

The soldier considered this.  He shifted his brother in his arms and approached the control station.  He appeared momentarily torn, but then shook his head with finality.  “I cannot.”  As he gave the human a last, remorseful look, the Union soldier vanished in a burst of light that took his Confederate kin with him.

Sandhurst closed his eyes and prepared himself for the Baron’s onslaught.

*****

Lar’ragos typed frantically on a padd with one hand as he struggled to change out his rifle’s power cell with the other.  As Parlan reached back to launch an energy pulse down the turboshaft at him, Lar’ragos managed to erect a forcefield three meters above where he stood atop the damaged lift car.  He flinched involuntarily as the purplish bolt slammed against the field.  He muttered to himself as he drove the new power clip home, repeating over and over, “Lucky old man, lucky old man…”

He attenuated the field to the frequency of his phaser rifle and fired up through the now permeable barrier.  His blasts struck the android’s fluctuating defensive shield as the juggernaut began to climb up through the shattered lift doors and onto the main bridge.

As he sensed the machine’s growing weakness, Lar’ragos pressed the advantage.

*****

Ramirez watched in horror as Parlan began to clamber onto the bridge.  The lift-tube behind him was lit with brilliant flashes of light as someone further down the turboshaft pelted the android furiously with pulse blasts.

The surging adrenaline in Ramirez’s system sparked an acute hyper-awareness, and her movements felt unnaturally slow and cumbersome as she struggled to access the phaser housed in a recessed compartment in the command chair.

Before she could bring her weapon to bear, multiple phaser beams from other bridge personnel converged on Parlan to impact his wavering forcefield.  Ramirez added her sidearm’s discharge to the melee, and their combined effort drove him backwards.  Parlan’s protective field suddenly collapsed as the phaser beams scored across his torso to punch through his outer casing and into his internal structure.  The giant was thrown backwards into the void where he vanished soundlessly down the shaft, a puzzled expression etched into his artificial features.

*****

Lar’ragos cursed and threw himself to the side as Parlan’s smoking frame thundered down the turboshaft.  The giant spun wildly and caromed off the walls before slamming into the forcefield just over Lar'ragos' head.  The lieutenant was both amazed and relieved when the field held firm on impact and the colossus’ body began to thrash against the crackling barrier.  Lar'ragos put another dozen pulses into Parlan’s convulsing form for good measure.

He allowed the field another few seconds to further deplete the android’s reserves before shutting it off.  Parlan landed atop the turbolift car with a resounding clang, his body still twitching as the blackened holes in his torso sparked and sizzled.  Lar’ragos stood over him and placed his foot atop the android’s chest as he pointed the rifle’s emitter at Parlan’s head.

Though gravely wounded, many of Parlan’s secondary and tertiary backups were still functional.  At speeds exceeding that of light, his positronic network analyzed his present situation.  He could not self-destruct, for in so doing he would destroy the starship that was acting as bait for his master’s plan.  He could not allow himself to be captured, as that would allow his enemy valuable insights into his functioning should the Baron send his smaller cousin aboard to finish the job.  Instead, he found the only acceptable course of action was escape.  He activated his internal distress beacon that linked to the timeship’s transmat system.  A black wall of energy rose from the floor to engulf Parlan and the unwitting El Aurian and whisked them both away.

*****

The immediate threat having been dealt with, Ramirez turned her attention back to the ship’s dilemma.  The strain on Gibraltar’s spaceframe had become so great that they were losing structural integrity by the second.  Lightner had been forced to stand the ship on its tail to direct the impulse drive downward in order to maximize thrust.  The overtaxed impulse engines screamed in protest as they fought for purchase against the inexorable pull of planetary gravity.

Ramirez had to yell over the growing roar of the engines to be heard as she called back to Plazzi.  “Where’s that energy field coming from?”

Plazzi looked ashen as the clash of artificial shipboard gravity and it’s natural counterpart sent conflicting messages to his inner ear.  He swallowed hard and the older man tore his eyes away from his display long enough to answer, “The meteorological station, sir.  The power readings are off the charts, but it looks like a massive meson field.”

“Commander!” Ashok bellowed from the Engineering station.  “We’ve got thirty seconds to begin our ascent, or we’re going to lose the impulse drive before reaching escape velocity.  The fusion reactors are at critical and I can’t force any more coolant into the system without rupturing a line!”

Ramirez bit unconsciously at her lower lip as she struggled to keep the images of the Phoenix’s shattered bridge from her mind.  Her own voice chanted denials in her head, Not again - not again - not again.  “You heard the man, Ensign!” she called to Lightner at Flight Control.  “Get us out of here!”  She ardently hoped that they had fulfilled the spheres’ requirements, but she wouldn’t sacrifice the ship and crew needlessly.

The starship Gibraltar trembled ominously as it clawed its way back up through the atmosphere of Pierosh II, withstanding stresses that her designers could scarcely have imagined.

*****

The Baron’s hands had just begun to close around Sandhurst’s throat when the sound of a transmat field activating caught his attention.  He looked up in time to see Lar’ragos and Parlan deposited mere meters from where he and Sandhurst were situated.

Lar'ragos glanced around in confusion for a moment, but then quickly absorbed his new surroundings.  His eyes determinedly fixed on the Baron as he ramped his phaser rifle to maximum and incinerated Parlan’s now defenseless form.

The Baron stood to look around frantically for his crystalline hand device.  He would not suffer to be shot down like some animal by an inferior.  It would not end this way for him; it could not.

A strangely peaceful look descended across Lar’ragos’ features as he deactivated the rifle.  He ejected the energy magazine and threw it and the rifle in separate directions as he slowly rounded the dais.  Though he had never before seen the Baron's new face, Lar'ragos evidenced no confusion as to the man's identity as he moved towards his intended target.

The Baron eyed him warily, scarcely believing his luck.  He recognized the man as the officer from the starship’s bridge who had vowed revenge on him.  The fool wanted to engage him in hand-to-hand combat.  Regardless of the injuries he’d sustained in his fight with Kutav, he had a vigorous new body and countless centuries of unarmed warfare training.  He had just bested a man nearly twice his size, and he still had stamina to spare.  The Baron reflected elatedly that this young man’s conceit would spell certain doom for he and his captain.

Sandhurst’s eyes fluttered as he reached the limits of his endurance.  Before he slipped into unconsciousness, he muttered, “Just don’t… kill him, Pava.  That’s all I ask…”

The Baron assumed a defensive stance and took measure of his foe.  He scanned up from the officer's feet to judge weak spots in the man’s physiology that he would exploit.  It was when he reached the man’s eyes that the Baron first experienced doubt.  There was cold certainty there, as if the contest’s outcome was a foregone conclusion.  The Baron sensed then that his enemy was not merely human, as he had assumed, but something different.  Something more.  For the first time in a very long time, fear tickled at the edges of the Baron’s mind.

*****

“WARNING: Structural integrity failure in twenty-six seconds.”  The computer’s infuriatingly calm voice projected their fate with utter stoicism.

Various alarm klaxons yowled, apparently trying to drown one another out amidst the pandemonium that had consumed Gibraltar’s bridge.  All shipboard power, including artificial gravity, had been routed to the impulse drive and the thrusters.  Like the astronauts of yore, Ramirez and the others were pressed into their seats by five standard gravities.  They struggled to breath as their vessel groaned and juddered around them.

As he fought to keep from blacking out, Ashok watched with dread as the microfractures he had detected earlier in the nacelle pylons worsened.  He summoned his voice despite the uncomfortable weight pressing down on him to shout, “Shearing stress on the pylons is too great, Commander.  It’s causing sympathetic vibrations that are carrying into the secondary hull and are compromising our anti-matter containment.  We’re going to lose the engineering section, probably the whole ship!”

Pinned to the command chair, Ramirez fought for enough breath to respond.  “Eject the nacelles and the pylons!”

Ashok’s eyes went wide without the assistance of multiple gravities.  “Sir?”

“Do it!”

The well muscled engineer forced his hand onto the console and grunted with the effort.  He struggled through three separate security overrides before the computer was convinced that he did indeed want to blow the warp nacelles free from the vessel’s superstructure.

Monotanium sphincters constricted to stem the flow of warp plasma to the nacelles seconds before a series of explosive charges detonated in succession that sheared the graceful pylons and their respective nacelles from the secondary hull.  The warp engines blasted free to fall lazily back towards the planet as Gibraltar punched through the exosphere and strained to achieve escape velocity.

*****

The fight unfolded like a painstakingly choreographed dance.  The Baron threw strike after strike, but his blows were deflected by his opponent with unbelievable speed and an uncanny prescience.

Lar’ragos parried the Baron’s attacks fluidly to follow with punishing counter-strikes that took a discernable toll on his foe.  The Baron was good.  Better than good, in fact, the man bordered on fantastic.  But this wasn’t a fair fight.  The words of Pava’s first unarmed combat instructor echoed in his ears.  “Always cheat, always win.  The only unfair fight is the one you lose.”

Lar'ragos delivered a knife-hand strike to the Baron’s throat.  Can’t breath, can’t fight.  He gouged the time traveler’s left eye with his finger.  Can’t see, can’t fight.  He dropped to a crouch and slashed out with his foot to blow out the man’s right knee with a sickly crunch.  Can’t brace, can’t fight.  Lar'ragos then rolled across the Baron’s body as the man collapsed.  He grasped the Baron's left arm and jerked the limb to dislocate shoulder from socket before taking hold of the man's head and slamming it against the floor in a series of concussive blows that finally settled the matter.

As much as he might have wished otherwise, the El Aurian took no satisfaction from his systematic deconstruction of the Baron.  It was pure instinct, channeled impulse.  His senses guided his body to where the enemy's next blow would land.  It was the ultimate perversion of a Listener’s abilities, honed by centuries of hard won survival across the great expanse of the galaxy.

When it was finished Lar’ragos stood over the man as the Baron lay still and blood pooled around him.  He was terribly hurt, broken and contused, but he would live.  Lar’ragos had his orders, after all.

Only then did Pava go to his friend.

*****



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