Chapter 1 <cont'd>
Captain T’Ser was three-quarters of the way done with the fuel consumption report she was reading when the lights flickered and the deck beneath her feet shuddered.
Careful to suppress the frustrated sight that threatened to escape her lips, T’Ser lowered the padd to her lap and glanced at the now embarrassed looking crewman seated at the bridge’s Engineering console. “Report,” she ordered, already knowing the response.
“Another power spike, Captain,” he replied sheepishly. “Lieutenant Ashok says we’ve had to throttle back to warp nine to maintain crystalline integrity in the reaction chamber. Automation systems are adjusting power distribution to the main deflector and the structural integrity grid to compensate.”
“Acknowledged,” she said tersely, trying not to growl the words. She took a deep breath in through her nose and released it through her mouth, murmuring a calming mantra she’d learned ages ago. Sufficiently centered, she looked up towards the Flight Control board. “Brett, are we there yet?”
“Not yet,” the lieutenant replied with a hint of mischievousness in his tone. “ETA to the Ledolian system and In’Drahn station is now four hours, twenty-one minutes at our reduced velocity, sir.”
T’Ser nodded her head fractionally in response, working heroically not to allow her impatience and frustration to boil over in front of the crew.
Their overall mission to the nearer reaches of the Delta Quadrant was stressful enough in and of itself. Adding to that burden, the crew had been forced to sit idly by while the atavistic En-Il-Que species had overrun a populated star system. Then, to make matters worse, Europa
had been called upon to jump to the defense of a stricken Romulan warbird in that very same system. And in the midst of that rescue, an unknown alien threat flying a Borg cube had attacked and abducted Captain Sandhurst.
The whole scenario was so laughably implausible that it would never have been accepted as a potential worst-case training scenario at the Academy.
A text message scrolled onto the display on her chair’s armrest: Let’s go chat for a bit, preferably before you blow an injector.
She glanced over to her left and observed Counselor Liu looking straight back at her expectantly.
On a whim she stood suddenly, nodding to Liu and heading for the ready room. “Commander Pell, you have the conn.”
Liu rose to his feet and followed her through the doors into what was now her office, forgoing any pretense of their leaving the bridge in close proximity being coincidence.
“What am I supposed to say?” T’Ser began, her tone vaguely hostile. She stood facing the aft viewport with her arms crossed defensively.
“That’s entirely up to you,” Liu replied.
“The captain’s been taken, the engines don’t work, and only the most blindly optimistic would call our mission here anything close to a success.”
Liu bobbed his head agreeably. “All true.” He moved to take a seat on the couch set against the inner bulkhead. “Can I get you a tissue?”
T’Ser spun around, her expression one of mounting anger. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
“Our situation is bad,” Liu answered. “But the ship’s intact, the engines can be fixed, and life goes on, regardless of who the captain is.”
“So my feelings are… what? Inconsequential?”
“Not at all,” Liu allowed. “But they need to be experienced and expressed in private, Captain. You’re carrying your emotional burden around with you publically, and it’s starting to affect your subordinates. They need to be able to look to you for direction and strength, just as you looked to Captain Sandhurst.”
“But I’m not feeling any of those things right now!” she exclaimed.
“Then fake it.”
She glowered at the flippancy of his response. “And if I can’t?”
“Then surrender command to Pell,” he suggested.
T’Ser laughed without humor. “She doesn’t want it any more than I do.”
She shook her head. “I wouldn’t let that cold-hearted bastard command a shuttle.”
Liu raised an eyebrow in an intentionally Vulcan-like expression of disapproval. “Say what you will about the man, his record indicates that he gets the job done.”
“Never mind the collateral damage,” she retorted.
Liu stood unhurriedly, taking a moment to stretch out a kink in his back. “The collateral damage we suffer out here is measured in the hundreds, perhaps thousands of lives, Captain. If these fleets make it to the Alpha Quadrant, the casualties could be in the billions.” He looked at her with a neutral expression that nonetheless somehow conveyed absolute sincerity. “We’re all expendable. With all due respect, sir, you would do well to remember that.”
He moved toward the door, only pausing when she directed an acidic, “Thanks for the pep-talk, Counselor,” in his direction.
“Captain, I would be more than happy to talk with you about your feelings any time. However, I’m practiced at telling people what they need to hear, not just what they want to hear.”
“Your message is received, Counselor. Dismissed.”
“Aye, sir.” He nodded gently and exited the cabin.
She looked out at the meandering river as it snaked its way though the moonlit landscape under the twilight cast by the planet’s two waning satellites.
From the veranda high atop the great citadel, Liana Ramirez could see all the way to the peaks of the distant mountains, now bathed in the orange half-light of the twin moons. It was a view that she suspected would once have filled her with agoraphobic anxiety. Now, however, she could appreciate the beauty of the panorama with a kind of muted approval. It was not joy or wonder, though, for such emotional highs were largely denied her now.
The people of the villages below knew next to nothing about their mysterious overlords, only that they commanded great energies and that opposing their will was tantamount to suicide. They were sufficiently primitive that they had not warranted the Baron’s special attentions, so long as they kept the citadel supplied with whatever its inhabitants desired.
His piteous wailing had subsided to a keening that she could only occasionally discern over the clicks, whistles and croaks of the insect and amphibian analogues of this region. It had been another difficult night for him, yet another significant loss of self, and try as she might, Ramirez found it harder and harder to shepherd him through these increasingly frequent bouts.
The very same engramatic modifications he had subjected her to in order to make Ramirez into the perfect companion ironically also served to dissuade her from being a doting caretaker. Yes, she loved him, after a fashion, but as she had never known true love in her earlier life, she had no basis for comparison. She was loyal to him and to his goals, and perhaps that was the best that could be said.
Finally unable to hear any more of his weeping, she turned back and entered the extravagant sleeping chamber through the great glass doors.
There atop a massive bed, the Baron lay curled up in the fetal position, finally asleep. The bed sheets were gripped tightly in his balled fists, and the mattress beneath him was soaked with the evidence of his incontinence. The Regression had come for him, as it nearly always did, in the late evening. Tonight amid the multiple seizures and the ranting, he’d relived some ancient conflict from his distant past, plagued by it for the last time as the Sentinels’ retribution tore the memories from his mind forever.
The Baron had never fully explained to Ramirez how he’d managed to escape imprisonment by the Sentinels following their first encounter with him. However, his captors’ parting gift to the Baron had been an ingeniously crafted bit of poetic justice. It was known simply as the tapeworm. Ultimately, it could best be described as some manner of multi-dimensional Higgsware, a hyper-submicron construct that existed, and yet did not, both here and elsewhere simultaneously.
The tapeworm could not be located, or isolated, or treated or destroyed. All manner of imaginative countermeasures had been employed by the Baron and others to thwart it, and all had met with failure. The tapeworm slowly but irrevocably hunted down and deleted the Baron’s long-term memories, eating away at his past, his very sense of self, and leaving him an increasingly confused and irrational wreck of a man.
He had tried to regenerate, that wondrous ability of his species by which the memories of all his former selves were delivered into a new body, a process not unlike that of Trill symbiosis, but altogether more elegant somehow. It had only made matters worse, accelerating the process, and leaving the Baron with agonizing gaps in his memories and personality that had rendered him progressively more unpredictable and if truth be told, pathetic.
The man who had once ruled an empire of trillions with an iron fist had been reduced to sobbing uncontrollably and pissing himself in his own bed.
Ramirez watched him sleep, and dreaded the coming of morning when she would have to hold him, and reassure him that all would be well. She would have to remind him of his righteous anger towards those who had wronged him, many of whom he could no longer remember. She would have to tell him the tale of Sandhurst and the captain’s transgressions, and the intricate web of plots the Baron had spun in order to exact his revenge.
It would not be long, Ramirez realized, before the Baron was left a catatonic shell, a drooling automaton bereft of thought. And then it would fall to her alone to exact penance from the Baron’s enemies in his name.