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Ahmet Kutav’s return to consciousness was as abrupt as if he had been doused with a bucket of ice water.  He found himself suddenly and inexplicably awake, immobilized and suspended in a shaft of white light in black void whose dimensions eluded him.  Kutav’s first thought was that he fervently hoped this was not the afterlife.  His mortal existence had been a lavish parade of sensuality and excess.  The thought that death might be an exercise in austerity terrified him.

Echoing footfalls presaged the arrival of a human male.  Clad in dark, layered clothing under a flowing cloak of the same color, the man’s shock of white hair was incongruous.  He was of average height, and appeared to be middle-aged, perhaps approaching seventy.

I hope I’ve not blown myself all the way into the wrong afterlife, Kutav was unable to prevent the mordant thought.  Too much trilithium in the destruct charges, perhaps?

After studying Kutav for a long moment, the human was finally moved to speak.  He had a deep, distinctive voice, and spoke in exotically accented Federation standard.  “So, Orion, might I interest you in a second chance?”

Kutav found his voice right where he had left it, though he was briefly startled at the sound of his own words after believing himself deceased.  “I took my own life because I have lost everything of value to me.  Can you suggest a reason that I might choose otherwise?”

The man smiled in response, a peculiarly menacing gesture.  “Why revenge, of course.  You wouldn’t want an opportunity to strike back at those who cost you your reputation and livelihood?”

“I did that to myself.”  Kutav was secretly grateful that he still lived, but it was not difficult for him to see where this conversation was heading.  He would be puppet to no man.

The human looked momentarily perplexed, then increasingly irritated.  “I have need of your help, Orion.  If you were to do my bidding in this matter, I would see you repaid at several times the value of your lost ship.”

Kutav sneered.  “You believe that’s all it would take to buy my loyalty?  The promise of mere profit?  You must have me mistaken for a Ferengi.”

The human feigned sadness.  “Pity.  Over half your crew still lives as well.  I am sure at least some of them will agree to my terms.  Profit is not all a contract with me entails, but it is a good beginning.  Wouldn’t you agree?”

Kutav stalled to bide himself time to consider his dwindling options.  He switched tacks and inquired, “Where am I?”

“Aboard my vessel.”

The ahmet pondered that.  “And how did I get here?”

The human seemed to struggle with his own impatience, but finally deigned to answer Kutav’s questions though it was obvious he was not used to having to answer to another.  “I rescued you and your surviving crew an instant before your ship self-destructed.”

Kutav closed his eyes and willingly let go the illusion of control.  He would play this man’s game for a time.  Doubtless, when his usefulness had been exhausted, this man would kill him.  The trick was knowing when and where that blow would come, and preemptively striking his assailant just a moment sooner.  “What must I do?”

The man’s disturbing smile appeared again.  “A storm is coming.  To prevent our being swept away by it, you and your merry little band of pirates must steal a starship for me.”

*****

Taniss Orbital Station
Demarcation Border, Vidiian Quarantine Zone
Delta Quadrant
Circa 1983 A.D., Terran Calendar


Nellit held the holocam with one hand, sure to keep the subjects in frame despite his vocal reservations with this assignment.  He glanced at the man next to him and noted his furrowed brow and rigid posture.  “You can still change your mind,” he offered hopefully.

“We’re not having this conversation again,” Lar’ragos growled.  The El Aurian’s hands grasped the railing of the observation platform so tightly that they trembled.

Nellit persisted, determined to vent his anger at not only having to watch this travesty, but record it for posterity as well.  “It isn’t right, and you know it.  Better we had shot them down in the street and left their bodies for Jebrosk to find.”

Lar’ragos stood stiffly, eyes focused like laser beams on the tremulous line of prisoners as they were herded towards their destination.  “Better for whom, Nellit?  Each one of those people down there will save countless thousands through their sacrifice.”

Nellit barked out a sarcastic laugh, thankful the audio gain on the holocam had been deactivated.  “I’m pleased you can justify this to yourself so poetically, boss.”

1st Subahdar Pava Lar’ragos turned to face him, eyes blazing.  “Without this gesture, the 507th and all successive Hekosian units assigned to Dabroth would have to repeat this lesson time and again.  How many would die, Nellit?  Five thousand?  Twenty?”  He turned his gaze back to the straggling line, as containment-suited Vidiian guards prompted them onto the gangway leading to the waiting transport.  Children clutched at their mothers, and the terrified men tried desperately to carry themselves with some degree of dignity.

Lar’ragos imagined that even at this distance he could see the avaricious look in the Vidiian’s eyes at the prospect of so many ‘recruits’ to their cause.  The population of the Vidiian Sodality had been infected with a horrific degenerative disease some fifteen hundred years earlier.  Known only as the Phage, the disease’s mutagenic nature made it invincible to medical treatments.  The syndrome consumed the bodies of its victims by disrupting their genetic code and destroying them on the cellular level.  Their decaying, gangrenous bodies were the greatest fear of the local stellar governments, and the Sodality had eventually been cut off and quarantined by their neighbors.

Now, the Sodality harvested the bodies of various humanoids to keep its own infected citizens alive.  They had perfected anti-rejection medicines that allowed them to utilize the organs of other species.  As luck would have it, the Vidiians’ needs were met illicitly by local governments and criminal syndicates who occasionally needed specific individuals or groups of people to disappear.  In return, the Sodality provided their suppliers with a host of advanced medicines researched in their ongoing struggle against the Phage.

Nellit continued to record Warlord Jebrosk’s family and retainers marching reluctantly up the transparent gangway tube and into the hold of the Vidiian ship.

Lar’ragos said quietly, “Jebrosk and the other warlords regularly sell their captured enemies to the Vidiians.  They gave us the idea.  When the other leaders see this recording, they’ll know exactly how serious the Hekosian Empire is about annexing the Principalities.  This one recording will keep us from having to conduct hundreds of raids, and will ultimately save lives, Nellit.”

Nellit switched the recorder off after the last of the prisoners, a woman and her adolescent daughter, were wrestled through the airlock after attempting an ill-fated last-second escape.  He gave the subahdar an icy glare.  “I’m going to have to take your word on that, boss.”  He opened the casing on the holocam, then removed the recording disk and handed it to Lar’ragos.  “Last I checked, I was a soldier, not a slaver and certainly not a murderer.”  Nellit started back towards the Hekosian navy frigate moored on the opposite side of the station.  “Tell me, Pava… which one are you?”

Lar’ragos remained silent and merely watched as the Vidiian transport departed the station and slowly navigated the outpost’s bustling traffic pattern.

“Tell me, Pava… which one are you?”

“Which one are you?”


Nellit’s voice carried across the centuries to echo in Pava’s mind as he slowly drifted back towards consciousness in Gibraltar’s Sickbay.

*****

Sickbay, USS Gibraltar
In geo-synchronous orbit of Pierosh II


By the time the captain had entered the surgical suite, the civilian rescued from the surface was already beneath the raised clamshell support frame on the diagnostic table.  The EMH conducted a thorough examination of the patient as Taiee finished treating his injuries.

Sandhurst stood to the side quietly until Taiee approached to make her initial report.  “His injuries weren't terribly severe when we got him aboard, Captain.  A few broken ribs, a dislocated shoulder, some internal bleeding due to blunt force trauma, but nothing immediately life threatening.  Over all, he should be in stable condition based strictly on the physical injuries he received.”

Sandhurst cocked his head thoughtfully.  “I hear a ‘but’ coming…”

Taiee nodded.  “Indeed, sir.  His autonomic functions are all failing.  Neural activity is decreasing, his blood pressure is dropping, and respiration is becoming labored.  He seems to be heading towards a complete systemic collapse.”  She pointed to what appeared to be a cross-section diagram of a human cell on the wall mounted viewer.  “His body’s biochemistry is off.  He’s producing hormones, neurotransmitters, and enzymes in the wrong quantities.”  She stared at the cellular scan for a moment, then sighed.  “Damned if I know what’s wrong with him.”

The captain quirked an eyebrow.  “Educated guess?”

She shook her head in response and gestured in the direction of the EMH.  “Off hand I’d say something to do with that vortex down there and whatever energies it unleashed.  His symptoms aren’t consistent with radiation poisoning per se, but we’ll just have to wait until the doctor completes his examination.”  She smiled apologetically.  “This could take awhile, sir.”

“I see.  Thanks for the update, Doc.  Let me know when you have some more answers.”  Sandhurst headed for the door and passed into the main Sickbay ward near where Lar’ragos lay atop a biobed.  He paused to examine his unconscious friend, whose eyes moved rapidly back and forth beneath his eyelids as his fingers twitched slightly.

The medical staff hadn’t yet been able to explain why Lar’ragos remained comatose, but so far he showed no signs of any neurological damage.  Their best assessment was that he would wake up when he was good and ready.  Sandhurst desperately hoped they were correct.

He turned to see one of the nursing staff fetching newly awakened Ensign Shanthi a glass of water.  He wandered over as he took note of the pain etched into the younger man’s face.  “Welcome back, Ensign.”  Shanthi, upon seeing him, did an admirable job of trying to sit up straighter in his bed.  Sandhurst motioned for him to relax.  “At ease, Mister Shanthi.”  He pulled a stool over and took a seat.  “I’m Donald Sandhurst, captain of the Gibraltar.”

Shanthi drank the water eagerly then set the empty glass aside.  “This is Lieutenant Juneau’s ship, isn’t it, sir?”

“Correct.”

“Thank you for the timely rescue, Captain.”  Shanthi craned his neck as he looked around Sickbay before he returned his attention to Sandhurst.  “My crewmates?”

Sandhurst held his gaze, determined to deliver the bad news stolidly.  “Juneau and Chief Osterlund also survived.  I’m sorry to say that Petty Officer Shaver did not.”

Shanthi’s face crumbled and became mask of agony so palpable that it managed to evoke empathy from even Sandhurst’s worn heartstrings.  It was immediately obvious to the captain that the men had been much more than mere shipmates.  It dawned on the captain that as a recent academy graduate, this young man had not yet known the bitter taste of war, the loss of friends and lovers and comrades in the line of duty.  For Shanthi, this was likely his first experience with such profound personal tragedy.  At a loss for words, Sandhurst merely held Shanthi’s hand as the man wept.

*****

Pierosh II
Meteorological Research Station Aristotle


Liana Ramirez slipped past the cargo crates that now littered the underground lab, sidestepping a bank of analysis equipment manned by one of Lt. Commander Plazzi’s science technicians.  She found the older man at the large bay windows, a padd in one hand and a steaming cup of coffee from the portable replicator they had brought down in the other.  “How goes it, Elisto?”  Ramirez knew the man practically recoiled at being addressed by his rank.  He had been recalled to duty during the war after a sixteen year absence from the service, and now thought of himself as a civilian merely playing the part of a Starfleet officer.

Plazzi turned and gave her a wary smile.  “Subspace physics isn’t really my forte, Commander, but I’m managing.”  He tapped his finger on the transparent aluminum partition as he marveled at the oddity that lay before them.  “What worries me is that, technically speaking, this shouldn’t still be here.”

Her gaze fixed on the flickering, churning rift as she asked, “How so?”

“The old aphorism that nature abhors a vacuum applies here, sir.  This is an active, stable subspace portal.  They simply don’t occur in nature very often, and when they do, they’re extremely short lived.”

“Meaning?”

Plazzi pointed to the two shattered subspace field coils that bracketed the rift’s open maw.  “It appears to have been opened at this end.  For what reasons, we still don’t have a clue.  Regardless, the laws of the physical universe would naturally work to close such a wormhole immediately, especially in the absence of an energy source employed to hold it open.”

He waved an arm towards the wrecked laboratory surrounding them.  “The initial pulse destroyed everything here, Commander.”

Ramirez digested that slowly.  Her eyes widened after a moment as she concluded, “Something’s holding it open from the other end.”

He nodded somberly.  “That’d be my guess.”

Their mutual discomfort with that idea was interrupted by an energetic voice from behind them.  “Could you use another hand, Commander?”

Ramirez and Plazzi turned simultaneously to see Juneau in full away team regalia.  She stood at attention with a broad smile on her face.

The exec frowned.  “Juneau, I thought you were still under sedation in Sickbay?”

Juneau shook her head as her smile grew even wider.  “Not any longer, sir.  The EMH discharged me an hour ago and confirmed my readiness to return to duty.”

Ramirez didn’t look completely convinced, but relented under the day’s onslaught of unusual circumstances.  “Very well.  It’s good to have you back, Olivia.  You gave us quite the scare when your runabout disappeared.”

Her smile evaporated and Juneau took on a more subdued manner.  “I’m glad to be back, Commander.  I’m just sorry my first time in the center seat ended the way it did.”

Memories of the smoldering, listing bridge of Phoenix flashed through her mind and Ramirez muttered, “I know the feeling.”  She glanced at Plazzi.  “Elisto, any objections to some more help?”

He scratched his beard idly and the science officer grinned.  “None whatsoever.  Let me get you set up here, Lieutenant…”

Ramirez headed out and left the lab as she made her way towards the surface to check in with Master Chief Tark on the ongoing forensic examination of the facility.

*****

The weapons were unfamiliar to him, but they possessed all the necessary accoutrements: handle, trigger, emitter port.  Point-and-shoot.

Ahmet Kutav hefted the bulky rifle as he admired the weight of the thing.  So many advanced personal weapons systems had become so light that, from a psychological standpoint, it felt like carrying a child’s toy into battle.  These guns were solid, with a density that suggested pure carnage at the receiving end of the weapon’s ire.

Kutav looked to his surviving men.  They, too, were in the process of arming themselves for the coming battle.  He took some comfort in the fact that if he should die today, in the company of his men and in the execution of such a bold plan, it would be a far better death than being blasted out of existence by his own hand.

The ahmet still had no idea who they were working for, or what the man’s ultimate goals were.  He had not even given them a name, only a title.  He instructed that if addressed, they should call him Baron.  From what little Kutav had seen of the man’s ship, it was unlike any craft he’d ever been aboard.  The various rooms and corridors were laid out in an irrational fashion, and he had not seen one airlock, or a single pressure door.  The vessel’s interior was decorated in a plethora of eclectic antiquities, many of which Kutav was unable to identify despite more than a passing knowledge with the various riches of past ages.  It felt more like being inside of an ancient castle than a spacecraft, but the strangeness of his surroundings was not Kutav’s greatest concern at the moment.

Within minutes he and the sixteen other survivors from Sethret would board and seize a Federation starship.  Kutav’s arguments that such a small party could not hope to capture such a well defended vessel had fallen on deaf ears.  The Baron had merely stated that he would follow them aboard, and could effortlessly gain access to their internal defenses and operating systems.  Kutav hoped the man’s words were more than idle boasting, for they would soon be put to the test.

*****



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