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Ramirez watched silently through the operating theater’s observation window as Taiee and her medical team labored.  They had been attending to Captain Sandhurst’s injuries for well over two hours now, and if Ramirez had correctly gauged the urgency of the surgical team’s actions, they had much work yet to do. 
 
She watched the careful precision of the EMH, the hologram disconcertingly uncovered in the presence of Taiee and the other nurses, clad in blood red surgical smocks and masks.  Exhausted as she was, Ramirez found she had to remind herself repeatedly that the artificial doctor was only photons and forcefields; it exuded no bacteria, carried no viral agents with which to infect the patient. The EMH led the repair of Sandhurst’s major organ systems while Taiee and her assistants attended to bone fractures and worked to stabilize his cellular chemistry.
 
As she reflected on the events of the past few days, Ramirez found herself wondering what she would do should it fall to her to lead these people on a permanent basis.  She had assumed the responsibility without thinking in the cascade of crises that had enveloped them.  Now, however, faced with the possibility of Sandhurst’s death or permanent incapacitation, Ramirez discovered that she was beginning to doubt her desire to fully take command of this ship.  She had wanted to earn a captaincy on her own merits, not inherit one by default.
 
She had been tested on this assignment as never before, and some small part of her grudgingly acknowledged that she had doubtless learned more about the realities of command aboard Gibraltar than she would have setting appointments and fetching coffee for a member of the admiralty.  Ramirez had suffered the loss of a starship under her command, struggled with the morality of the Federation/Klingon occupation of Cardassia, and had withstood the abduction and torture of her commanding officer.  These were the kinds of ‘adventures’ that many younger, more naive officers craved.  Right up to the moment when they actually happened.
 
Her troubled reverie was ended when Ramirez felt a whisper of air ruffle her hair.  She frowned and turned to determine the source just in time to see a dark doorway close into nothingness.  Pava Lar’ragos now stood with her in the viewing gallery.  Ramirez was surprised, but not shocked at the unorthodox officer’s unexpected entrance.  She managed a wry smirk.  “About time, Lieutenant.”  She looked the man over and added, “You’re out of uniform, mister.”
 
Lar’ragos was clad in the fashions of some long bygone age, a worn leather jacket over a threadbare tunic and loose slacks.  His hair had grown noticeably, and the presence of a well kept beard spoke of weeks, perhaps even months away from the ship.  He inclined his head towards Ramirez by way of greeting. “Sorry, sir.  It took me a while to learn how to pilot the Baron’s ship.”  He returned her smirk and held up a yellow, tear-drop shaped crystal in his hand.
 
The exec cast a glance at Sickbay’s entrance.  “Does Temporal Investigations know you’re back?”
 
“No,” he shook his head fractionally.  “This was my first stop.”  Lar’ragos stepped forward to join her at the window.  “How’s he doing?”
 
She crossed her arms and rubbed her eyes tiredly with her thumb and index finger.  “I’m not entirely sure.  Taiee’s initial report was that he’d suffered a great deal of damage, some of which had been rather clumsily repaired.  That, plus evidence of his having been placed in prolonged post-traumatic stasis has thrown off his cellular chemistry and exacerbated his injuries.”
 
Lar’ragos’ expression hardened.  “I did what I could for him, Commander.”
 
She reached out a hand and placed it on Pava’s arm as she directed a concerned look his way.  “I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to criticize your efforts.  I’m sure you did everything possible.”
 
Lar’ragos was silent for a long moment, his eyes fixed on the efforts of the medical team.  “I never wanted this for him.  He shouldn’t have to know this kind of darkness.”
 
Ramirez gave him a curious glance that begged elaboration.
 
“When Donald and I first met, we were both in our plebe year at the academy.  I was a hardened, cynical old wanderer.  I’d swore to myself that I’d never put on another uniform, and yet when I got my Federation citizenship I signed up anyway.”   He smiled at the memory. “I found myself surrounded by the pampered, idealistic children from dozens of planets who hadn’t tasted real war in generations.” 
 
Ramirez blew out an amused breath.  “Sounds like your version of Hell, but you managed to stick it out.”
 
The El Aurian nodded slowly.  “I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t I stumbled upon this painfully shy, awkward young man who was more comfortable field stripping a warp coil than he was conversing with other flesh-and-blood people.”
 
The exec looked at him incredulously.  “What could the two of you possibly have had in common?”
 
Without meaning to, Lar’ragos reached out and touched the transparent partition separating them from the operating theater.  “He reminded me of myself as a young man.  Before the Borg.  Before the wars.  Back when I still had faith.”  He retracted his hand to stare down at the deceptively youthful looking appendage.  “I took it upon myself to bring him out of his shell.  In turn, he renewed my belief in the basic goodness of people, though he was unaware he’d done so.”
 
“And now?”
 
“Now?”  Lar’ragos closed his eyes as if shielding them from a sight too terrible to behold.  “Now I’m afraid he’ll have lost that innocence, that purity of spirit.  The last thing I’d ever want is for him to end up like me.”  He sighed and opened his eyes as if forcing himself back to the here and now.  “What have I missed?”
 
Ramirez recounted everything that had transpired since the final battle with Parlan and the ship’s plunge into the planet’s atmosphere.  Lar’ragos absorbed the information with detachment, remarking, “So, what this all boils down to is that TI is looking for a new toy.  They could care less about thwarting the Baron’s plans or rescuing the captain.”
 
“That’s a fair assessment.”
 
Lar’ragos looked at Ramirez appraisingly.  “And this Agent Ixis of theirs; she’s trying to torpedo your career?”
 
The exec’s jaw tightened at the mention of the other woman.  “Not trying, Pava.  After she files her report, I’m done for.  At best I’ll end up riding a desk for the remainder of my career.”
 
As he pondered that Lar’ragos mused, “Perhaps not.”
 
Ramirez turned to face him.  “You think you could stop her?”  She frowned as she realized to whom she was speaking and her mind conjured dark thoughts.  “Don’t you dare…”
 
He held up a hand. “Nothing like that, Commander, though it’d be no less than she deserves.”  A smile spread across his features.  “I was thinking more along the lines of leverage, sir.”
 
“Leverage?”
 
***** 
 
Ixis ran her hand across the anachronistic looking control console and marveled at the mix of absurdly outdated switches and levers integrated into a mechanism so advanced that it would take the department decades or longer to decipher its secrets.
 
From behind her, Field Agent Rupert Barnaby looked on with a mix of excitement and apprehension.  He wasn’t sure which unnerved him more; their presence within an actual time machine, or the avaricious expression that radiated on Ixis’ face.  That the young woman was driven and ambitious didn’t bother him per se, but the fact that she had no moral reservations with discrediting or destroying anyone or anything that stood in her path did.  He had joined the DTI out of a sense of scientific wonder and service to the Federation.  Barnaby thought Ixis saw her position within the department as a means to an end.
 
She glanced back at him and deliberately ignored the silent form of Lar’ragos, who observed her exploration of the timeship from near the entrance.  “What do you think, Barnaby?”
 
The older man quirked an eyebrow, reticent to share in Ixis’ gloating.  “I feel like a cave man who’s been handed a tricorder.”  He thrust his hands deeper into the pockets of his jacket as he warded off an ominous chill.  “It’s going to take us a century to reverse engineer this thing.”
 
“Perhaps,” she said as she craned her neck to observe the spiraling pillars that arched up into the darkness overhead.  “But imagine the benefits, Barnaby.  We could field fleets of temporal starships, patrolling time as well as space.”
 
Barnaby cocked his head.  “Swell.  Yet another front for us to police.”
 
Ixis wheeled around to glower at the older man. “There’s a time war on, or hadn’t you heard?”
 
Barnaby met her venomous stare evenly.  “We’ve no concrete proof of that.  You and the others in your ‘time war’ camp point to ancient fables, temporal echoes, and a thin scattering of conflicting artifacts and call them evidence.”
 
She appeared about to launch into a diatribe, but he held her in check with mollifying raised hand.  “And if… if there is a time war, who’s to say we didn’t start it,” Barnaby gestured to the surrounding craft, “with this?”
 
Lar’ragos interrupted their little quarrel with all the subtlety of a used spacecraft salesman.  “So, I take it you’re interested?”
 
She shifted the focus of her ire and Ixis scowled at the El Aurian.  “What do you mean, interested?  We’ve just taken possession.”
 
He had deliberately refrained from putting his uniform back on in case of just such a confrontation.  Lar’ragos frowned menacingly at Ixis from within his beard.  “Says who?”  He held up a glowing crystal control module in his hand.  “This seems to indicate the vessel is mine.”
 
“I order you to release this vessel into our custody!” she seethed. 
 
Lar’ragos gave that about two second’s worth of mock consideration. “Mmmmmmm… no.”
 
“I’ll have you thrown out of Starfleet and jailed!”  Her face had contorted into a mask of rage, her usually attractive features colored by an unnamed darkness somewhere within.
 
He shrugged theatrically.  “Don’t care.  I’ve got a timeship.  What the hell do I need Starfleet for?”
 
She withdrew a small disruptor from within her coat and aimed it at Lar’ragos, which prompted Barnaby to throw his hands in the air in a gesture of utter frustration.  “Oh, for Pete’s sake, Ixis!”
 
The crystal glowed briefly in Lar’ragos’ hand, and his eyes took on a steely glint.  “Be my guest.”
 
The weapon clicked uselessly in her hand as she depressed the trigger repeatedly.  In response, she screamed in frustration and threw the disruptor at Lar’ragos.  It missed his head by just a few centimeters, but he refused to give her the satisfaction of flinching.

“My terms are fair,” Lar’ragos began.  “You write a nice, flowery report that praises the crew of Gibraltar, and Ramirez specifically, for single-handedly preventing what could have been a catastrophic breach of Federation security.  In return, once I’m certain you’ve fulfilled your end of the bargain, I’ll release the timeship to you.”
 
Ixis calmed and appeared to mull this over.  “And the Baron?”
 
“The Baron will be rendered into the custody of the Sentinels.”
 
“Then no deal,” she sneered.
 
“Okay,” he raised the crystal as his thumb traced a specific pattern across its facets.  “The vessel’s transporter works on somewhat different principles than our own, but it’s just as effective…”
 
“No, wait!” she cried out, unprepared for her bluff to be called.  “Why the Sentinels?”
 
“Because I don’t trust you, Ixis.  You don’t have the patience to wait twenty or thirty years for TI’s engineering branch to figure out exactly how this ship works.  In frustration, you’d cut some kind of idiot deal with the Baron in order for him to help you.  Odds are he’d find a way to double-cross you and make off with this ship.  And then he’d come looking for me and mine.”
 
She held up her hands in an uncharacteristic gesture of surrender.  “Okay.  All right.  We’ll play this your way, Lar’ragos.”
 
“Good.”  Lar’ragos stepped forward and smiled disarmingly.  He walked to within a few paces of Ixis as he lowered his voice so that only she could hear him.  There was no trace of menace in his voice as he spoke, as if it were simply a recitation of facts rather than a mortal threat upon her person.  “I promise you that if you break this arrangement or seek any kind of retribution upon Liana Ramirez or any other of my crewmates, there is no place in time or space that I cannot find you.”
 
She swallowed and tried valiantly to maintain her proud demeanor.  “Is that so?”
 
He nodded definitively.  “It is.”  His eyes bore into hers to convey a sincerity that she felt all the way down in her marrow.  “I know you, Maya Ixis.  I know that as much as you may pretend otherwise this iron maiden persona that you’ve created for yourself is nothing more than a fiction.  I know what it was you saw your father burying behind the shed at your family’s homestead, Maya.  I know that it’s why you’ve never felt like a complete person since that day.  It’s why you cloak yourself in anger and aggression, and it’s exactly why you’ve spent your life looking for some way to turn back the clock.”
 
The color drained from her face as the darkest recesses of her soul were laid bare by a man who shouldn’t… who couldn’t know such things.  Her mouth opened but no words would form on her lips.
 
He continued in the same calm, implacable fashion.  “I vow that if you cross me I will hunt you down and end you, and I will do it with no more hesitation than a man would crush an irritating insect.”  His disarming smile morphed into a blood chilling sneer.  “Because while you play at being a stone cold killer, my dear, I am the genuine article.” 

Like a prey animal caught in the trance of a predator, she looked deep into his eyes.  And she believed.
 
***** 
 
Warp 5 was the best speed the starship Sovereign could make while towing the smaller ship back to Deep Space Nine.  Ramirez mused that it was at exactly this velocity that barely two and a half weeks earlier she’d wished for something to break the monotony of convoy duty.  ‘Be careful what you wish for’ just doesn’t seem adequate in this circumstance, she thought as she arrived at the door to the captain’s cabin.
 
Sandhurst called her in at the prompting of the door chime, and Ramirez found him bent over his bed as he packed a hard-shell carryall case with civilian clothes.  The transformation was startling.  The captain had been carrying at least twenty unnecessary pounds when they’d arrived in the Pierosh system, but now his frame was rail thin.  His once heavyset, jovial face was now drawn and gaunt, and his sallow skin now seemed to hang off of him.  It was his eyes that were the most difficult for Ramirez. They bore a haunted look as if he were plagued by scores of demons only he could perceive.  Sandhurst’s hair, which had been graying at the temples, was now shot through with random streaks of white. 
 
It was still difficult to believe that in the dozen hours that he’d been held captive by the Baron, over three weeks had passed for the captain and his tormentor.  The physical changes to his person were proof enough that the Baron’s assertions had been true.
 
Sandhurst glanced back as Ramirez entered the cabin’s sleeping cove.  “Good evening, Commander.  I’m guessing we’re getting close?”
 
“Yes, sir.  We’re about thirty minutes out from DS9.”
 
He nodded amiably then closed the case and turned to face her.  “You have my travel itinerary?”
 
“I do, sir.”  She handed him a padd as she summarized its contents.  “The Enterprise will pick you up at DS9 and ferry you to the rendezvous with the Ijav’Re.  They’ll take you the rest of the way to Betazed.  You’re scheduled for six weeks of treatment at the Nimrian-Sodl Clinic in Tinasse.  Rumor has it that’s it’s a lovely hamlet that escaped any appreciable war damage.”
 
He smiled humorlessly.  “Well, that’s a relief.  We wouldn’t want the traumatized human causing the traumatized Betazoid war survivors any additional angst.”
 
Ramirez didn’t know how to respond to that, and so remained silent.
 
Sandhurst grimaced.  “I’m sorry, that came out… ah…” he sighed.  “I’m sorry.”
 
“No need to apologize, sir.”
 
He picked up the carryall and walked into the main cabin with Ramirez following.  “Why the Enterprise?  I thought they were going to be hosting the Federation delegation to the treaty negotiations with Cardassia’s new government?”
 
“They still are, Captain.”  Ramirez remained standing as Sandhurst set down the case and sank tiredly onto the couch.  She noticed a set of rumpled sheets and a blanket adorned the couch while the bed had been untouched.  “The first phase of your treatment will be with Commander Deanna Troi.  She’s an acknowledged leader in the field of post-traumatic recovery, and she’s helped numerous people who’ve been through similar ordeals, including Captain Picard himself.”
 
“And when I get to Betazed?”
 
Ramirez assumed a somber tone.  “The experts at the clinic will help to try and recover and reconstruct your altered memories, sir.” 
 
Conflicting emotions warred on Sandhurst’s face, which eventually settled on a bland expression designed to mask the raging turmoil just beneath the surface.  “That’s all well and good, but how the hell are they going to be able to tell which memories have been altered when I don’t even know!”  He winced, having startled and embarrassed himself by shouting the last words.  “God, I did it again, I’m sorry.”
 
His exec offered a supportive smile.  She tried to steer the conversation toward less troubled waters.  “Ashok estimates that repairs to the ship will take the better part of five weeks.  By the time you return we should be finishing the trial runs with our new nacelles.”
 
Sandhurst sat forward and gripped the hair on the sides of his head.  “This is just… insanity, Liana.  I don’t know who or what I am anymore.  If a person is the sum of their experiences, how can I ever be whole again if can’t differentiate between which of my memories are real and which ones that son-of-a-bitch planted in my head?”  A shuddering sigh escaped from him.  “My emotional reactions to things are all over the grid.  I can’t find equilibrium; I can’t function.”
 
“That’s why we’re getting you help, sir,” Ramirez said quietly.
 
He looked up at her with those tortured eyes.  They seemed to beseech her understanding.  “Promise me, Liana.  If they can’t fix what’s in here,” he rapped his knuckles against his temple.  “If they can’t fix me, you’ll take command of the Gibraltar.
 
She felt a part of her heart wither at the idea of stepping into the shoes of yet another fallen captain as she replied, “Of course, sir,” with all the conviction she could summon.
 
***** 



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