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USS Valhalla
Observation Lounge, Deck 1

William Wescott’s image stared back at Cybel from her padd. The service record head shot of his youthful, hopeful face seemed to mock her.

She sat alone in the conference lounge, staring at the padd without knowing exactly why. She had full access to the ship’s personnel records in her head, but having something tactile in her hands that she could hold and examine somehow made this more real to her. It needed to be real; this death needed to count for something.

He had been an honorable Starfleet officer, the type of person whose character and training demanded that he give an enemy the opportunity to surrender. Tactically, she knew, he should have simply stunned the Romulan, but in addition to being gallant Wescott had also been young and inexperienced.

The Romulan, conversely, was a hardened soldier. His service record, what they knew of it, was that of a veteran of the Dominion War and the sundry peace-keeping actions that followed. He had not hesitated to kill, acting on impulse with practiced speed and accuracy.

Despite all of her formidable mental and physical advantages, Cybel had had failed to save Wescott. In fact, her running off on her own after the mystery android likely contributed to his death. Cybel reflected that she could have stunned the Romulan herself as she made her way down the staircase after having captured Ramirez, but it never occurred to her that Wescott would hesitate.

“Wool gathering?” Izawa asked from behind her. She wasn’t startled by his nearly silent arrival, as she knew the whereabouts of every crew member aboard at every moment.

Cybel looked up from her padd as Izawa propped his cane in the corner and settled gingerly into the chair across from her. “Pondering imponderables,” she replied in a heavy voice that she hadn’t intended to sound thus.

The older man gave her an inscrutable look, his wizened face bearing testament to decades of starship service. “I hardly need remind you that people die in the line of duty, York.”

“No, sir,” she sighed. “During the war I planned fleet operations that led to the deaths of thousands, and vital intelligence missions with a high fatality rate.” She set the padd down and met Izawa’s eyes. “I don’t understand why this one feels so different.”

“Operational planning is one thing,” Izawa replied, “an away mission is something else entirely. You saw Mister Wescott killed right in front of you. That has a visceral impact that a cold, impersonal after-action report from a distant mission or battlefield lacks.”

A moment of reflective silence followed.

“I messed up,” Cybel said succinctly. “A good man died because of it.”

“Yes on both counts,” Izawa agreed. “Now the trick is learning from that mistake, and endeavoring not to make it again. Honor and Mister Wescott’s memory demand as much.”

Cybel gestured to the padd, noting, “William’s older brother was a Marine who was killed in the war liberating Eustice Secundus from the Breen. His father was a chief petty officer aboard the Amberjack, killed just after the war during a skirmish with the Maquis. William was the first member of his family to earn an officer’s commission, and now I get to tell his grieving mother that she’s lost the final living member of her immediate family in service to the Federation.”

Izawa closed his eyes, murmuring a prayer in his native Japanese so faintly even Cybel couldn’t make out the words. Then he offered humbly, “As our Vulcan friends so eloquently say, ‘I grieve with thee.’”

There was another long moment of quietude before Izawa asked. “Any luck with Ramirez?”

“Not as yet, sir. Dr. Zelbin’s kept her unconscious while he completes a thorough medical workup on her. Our initial scans showed some interesting anomalies with her physiology that we’re having difficulty explaining.”

Izawa braced himself and then stood slowly in deference to his problem knee before moving to the replicator. “For instance?”

“Chronologically, Liana Ramirez should be forty-one years old, based on her date of birth. Medical scans put her age at closer to sixty. She also has a host of exotic nanites throughout her body, the purpose of which is still unknown.”

He cradled a cup of coffee as he returned to the briefing table. “Some kind of RNA re-sequencing virus, one of those rapid aging variants?” he asked.

“Not from what we can tell, sir. Our Intelligence briefs on her indicate that she had access to highly advanced chronometric technology, perhaps even temporal dislocation capabilities.”

“Time travel, eh?” Izawa frowned. “I’ll try not to mention that to Admiral Janeway, she’ll have a fit.”

Cybel managed a weak smile at that.

“And what of our Romulan guests, Commander?”

“Stony silence so far, though Dr. Zelbin’s been able to confirm both of them have undergone significant genetic modification to enable them to survive the standard Class-L atmosphere that appears to dominate the LMC’s life-bearing planets.”

“Very well, keep at it.” Izawa logged into the LCARS interface set into the tabletop at his seat and called a holographic screen to life in front of him. He began to sort through his daily command data-work, reviewing and filing departmental reports and the like.

"Do you..." Cybel began before falling silent.

"What is it?" he asked.

"Sir, Wescott's reaction to the Romulan was the one of an explorer. It killed him. Commander Wu and the crew of Europa came out here as soldiers. Do you think that given what we've found here so far, that they just might have had the more prudent mindset?"

"York, I have faith that the ideals and principles that Starfleet and the Federation were founded on will see us through."

"Yes, sir," she replied without much conviction. After another moment, it occurred to her that Izawa was continuing work that would usually have been addressed in his ready room. Cybel cocked her head and gave him an appraising look. “May I ask what you’re doing, sir?”

“My friend is grieving,” he said simply. “I am keeping her company.”

* * *​


USS Valhalla
Ship's Brig, Security Section

Deck 7

The prisoner lay atop the slide-out bed of the brig cell, staring at the ceiling. She didn’t react to Cybel’s arrival until the security field flickered off just long enough for Cybel to enter the cell before reactivating.

Liana Ramirez glanced up at Cybel as the ship's XO activated a slide-out seat across from her and sat down. “I’m Commander Cybel, first officer of the starship Valhalla. How’s your hand?”

Ramirez raised her right hand, opening and closing it repeatedly. “None the worse for wear, now. My thanks to your ship’s doctor.” She gave Cybel the faintest hint of a smile. “You’ve got a hard jaw.”

“I should think so,” Cybel answered noncommittally.

Ramirez appeared to size Cybel up, taking full measure of the woman who was nearly twenty centimeters taller than her. “You aren’t afraid to be in here with me? There's no security detail at the door. After all the trouble you’ve gone to in order to capture me, I think you’d be more cautious.” Ramirez's subsequent threat was offered casually, “Rumor has it I’m a dangerous person.”

Cybel held her hands up in front of her, palms facing. Blue electrical current sizzled and snapped between the fingertips of both hands. “I’m in no danger,” she said. There was no arrogance in this declaration, merely the fact of the matter.

Ramirez sat up slightly, showing the first sign of real emotion since she’d come aboard. “What are you?”

“I’m an android.”

“Like Data?” Ramirez pressed.

“Similar enough,” Cybel allowed.

Ramirez appeared genuinely impressed. “Wonders never cease. Do all starships have one assigned now days?”

Cybel smiled patiently. “No. Speaking of androids, what can you tell me about the one that was following you aboard the station?”

Ramirez brushed her greying hair back behind one ear and sat up fully to face Cybel. “It had been following me for a number of days, long enough for me to fashion some rudimentary countermeasures.”

“Do you know who sent it, or why?”

“No,” Ramirez answered plainly. “I have no idea. I do know this is a dangerous region with lots of piracy, kidnapping, and a brisk slave trade, so the ‘why’s and wherefores’ don’t tend to concern me so much. I see a threat, and I neutralize it.”

“May I ask how you knew it was an android?”

“I conducted counter-surveillance on it as it was observing me. In all the time it was tracking me, I never saw it take a break to use a bathroom, or to eat or drink anything. Whenever I’d check to see if it was there in the middle of my sleep cycle, it was still standing watch outside my hostel, no matter the hour. It was too perfect a tail, nearly flawless in its tradecraft. On a hunch I had it follow me down to the lower levels where some of the older, more exotic field generators are. I hacked an engineering diagnostic scanner so I could observe it when it walked through a polarizing EM field generated by a zero-point energy module. The interference caused the sensor-blind it was using to mimic biological life-signs to crash for a few seconds. Voilà, android identified.”

“Clever,” Cybel remarked. “Your service jacket indicates you had high marks in combat strategy and tactics.”

Ramirez fluttered her hands theatrically. “I am delighted to impress.”

“When you were able to scan the android, did you detect any anomalous energy signatures?” Cybel inquired.

“Aside from it being an artificial construct, you mean? Nothing that I can recall. Why do you ask?”

Europa’s Chief Medical Officer is a non-corporal Medusan who utilizes an android body as a containment vessel. I suspect that the android following you was from our home galaxy, but it wasn’t dispatched by Starfleet as far as I know. I was curious if the android you observed might have been Dr. Reskos from Europa with his body cosmetically altered.”

“I saw no indications of that,” Ramirez provided. Her brave façade seemed to falter, and just for a moment an expression of uncertainty flit across her features. “I’ve answered your questions, Commander. May I ask a few in kind?”

Cybel gestured her assent.

“What year is it?”

“2384, Terran Julian calendar. Stardate 60344.1.”

Her eyes widened in realization and Ramirez’s breathing increased fractionally along with a detectable rise in her pulse rate. “And are we in the Small Magellanic Cloud? That’s the entire damn Milky Way we can see from here, isn’t it?”

“It is,” Cybel confirmed. “But you’re off slightly. This is the Large Magellanic Cloud. One-hundred sixty thousand light years from home.”

“How did I get here?”

Cybel observed Ramirez, utilizing both her avatar’s own internal sensors as well as the ship’s, looking for any sign of deceit however minute. She detected none.

“You came through a transit portal from the Delta Quadrant of our galaxy, allegedly leading a Romulan strike group against a joint Federation/Klingon taskforce sent to locate and destroy the Skorrah.”

Ramirez blinked, her expression troublingly blank. “May I presume people were killed and wounded as a result?”

“Yes, a good many.”

The older woman closed her eyes tightly and bent forward, as though wracked with pain.

“Those aren’t the only ones, of course,” Cybel added. “You led attacks on the starships Challenger and Europa, among others, and are suspected of abducting and later murdering Admiral Edward Jellico. You were witnessed executing Lieutenant Olivia Juneau, a former subordinate of yours. She was serving as the acting first officer of Europa when you and your merry band of blood-thirsty pirates seized the ship. Apparently, you slit her throat from ear to ear.”

Ramirez moaned as if someone were twisting a knife deep in her innards. She rocked back and forth, murmuring, “No, no, no, no!”

“May I presume from your reaction that you regret these events?”

“Regret?” Ramirez shouted in disbelief. “Regret? I don’t remember them! I don’t remember anything!”

Cybel was unmoved. “I’ll grant you it’s not the most original defense, but you sell it rather well. I’d wish you luck with that, but it would be disingenuous.”

Ramirez shook her head lightly, her formerly luxuriant black hair now grey and brittle. “I don’t expect you to believe me, Commander. I certainly wouldn’t if our positions were reversed.” She took a deep, centering breath and focused on Cybel. “I think that’s what I’ve been running from since he left me… the thought of what I might have done. He said… said I’d done terrible things, that it would have been more merciful to wipe all my memories, leave me tabula rasa. He told me that I should avoid Starfleet if I ever encountered you out here.”

“Who is the ‘he’ in that statement?”

“Sandhurst. Or whatever the hell he’s become now.”

“You’ve had contact with him,” Cybel noted. “Tell me about that.”

“It’s the first thing I remember. Waking up in some back alley neuro-clinic with someone who looked like Donald Sandhurst. Only he was bigger, taller and better built, like he’d been heavily augmented somehow. I was scared, confused… he explained that he’d wiped my memory, and that it was for my own good. I’d committed many crimes, but he claimed it wasn’t my fault.”

“Whose fault was it, according to Sandhurst?” Cybel pressed.

“An old enemy of ours, someone who’d used me to get at him.” Ramirez’s eyes took on a faraway cast. “Someone who cheated me out of a good death, and gave me this… this shit existence, instead.” Tears welled in her eyes.

“What happened to Sandhurst after he woke you?”

“He stayed with me for a few days, helped me get my bearings. He was vague with his answers to most of my questions. It wasn’t just the physical changes… he was different from the man I’d known. Stronger and more confident, but more aloof. Less… human. After he determined I was stable, he just left. Gave me some local currency and some food and was gone.”

Cybel leaned forward fractionally, her interest piqued by Ramirez’s unlikely tale. “What’s the last thing you remember before waking up here in the LMC?”

There was a moment’s pause before Ramirez answered. “Dying. Or waiting to die, really. Diplomatic mission gone really wrong. I was in an underground bunker in the Gamma Quadrant, wounded and pinned down. I couldn’t deactivate the transport scrambler in time, and our away team was several floors above me, about to be overrun and massacred. To get the rest of our people out, Sandhurst had to blast the scrambler from orbit, and I was right next to it. No choice, really, I’d have…” she trailed off, her eyes fixed with the proverbial thousand-meter stare.

Cybel sat back, giving the story consideration. “That jibes with the mission record from Velkohn. However, how do you explain apparently dying in the Gamma Quadrant, only to show up commanding a hijacked Defiant-class starship in the Delta Quadrant eighteen months later?”

“You’d have to ask the Baron,” Ramirez answered tiredly. “Sandhurst said the Baron abducted me an instant before my death, and then brain-washed me into a weapon of vengeance.” She slowly lay down on the bunk on her side, hugging her knees into her chest.

“Anything else?”

“That’s all I know,” Ramirez offered in a small voice.

Silence followed and Cybel eventually rose and exited the cell, leaving Ramirez alone with her anguish.

* * *​

Zelbin stood before a holographic representation of a human brain, highlighting the prefrontal cortex with a touch of his finger. “You can see evidence of synaptic degradation all throughout this area, which has been extensively repaired by the nanites we found in her cerebrospinal fluid. It’s akin to someone rebuilding a city after a catastrophic seismic event. Some of the foundations remain, but everything else has been laid waste and reconstructed from the ground up.”

The Tiburonian doctor was briefing the commodore, Cybel and Raffaele on Ramirez’s medical situation in Sickbay’s primary exam theater.

“So, she could be telling us the truth?” Izawa asked.

“Yes, or a partial truth, or a complete fabrication. There’s no way to be certain without engaging in other, potentially more invasive measures,” Zelbin explained.

Raffaele’s interest was piqued, “Such as?”

“We have a Betazoid and two Vulcan crewmembers serving aboard, all of whom are qualified in telepathic veracity confirmation and memory retrieval.”

“No,” Izawa waved a hand dismissively, “out of the question.”

“Really, sir?” Raffaele was incredulous. “You’re just going to reject that without even asking her? She might very well agree to it.”

“I will not compel someone to bare their most private thoughts and dreams to us, no matter what crimes they’re accused of.”

“Respectfully, sir,” Raffaele pressed, “Ramirez may want to provide us verifiable proof that she’s telling the truth. What’s the harm in asking her?”

Izawa raised a finger in a gesture of warning. “If and only if she volunteers for such an undertaking, Lieutenant. I will not tolerate threats or other coercion being used on a detainee. She has legal rights that will be respected.”

“I don’t believe anyone’s arguing that, sir,” Cybel spoke up in Raffaele’s defense.

“Very well, you may ask,” Izawa emphasized.

“Bridge to Commodore Izawa,” Beresha’s voice announced from overhead.

“Go ahead,” he responded.

“Sensors have detected three vessels on a direct intercept course with us, sir. They match the profile of the rocket-type vessels that Task Force Vanguard initially encountered and engaged near Shul’Nazhar when they arrived in the LMC.”

Izawa stood stiffly, wincing with the effort. “On our way. Izawa, out.”

* * *​

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