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Valhalla’s saucer was hidden within the ice rings of a gas giant in the outskirts of the colony planet’s star system, and Ramirez had called a brief staff meeting to assess the ship’s situation. Nobody was seated; all three of them stood where they could see the cutaway diagram of the saucer displayed on the wall-mounted monitor screen, awaiting the arrival of the senior engineering officer onboard.

Lieutenant junior-grade Pradesh fairly staggered into the observation lounge, his uniform smudged and torn, looking disheveled and distracted. He looked to Lieutenant Arumbe, clearly assuming he was the ranking officer present. “I’m really very busy, sir, so if we could keep this brief…”

“We will,” Ramirez answered, causing Pradesh to frown in confusion.

“Wait,” Pradesh looked between Arumbe and Ramirez, “you’re kidding me, how is she in charge?”

“No one else stepped up, Lieutenant,” Ramirez answered simply. “I took the conn and got us away from the planet. I’m more than happy to relinquish command to the ranking officer, provided they’re willing and capable of assuming that responsibility.”

Pradesh gave Arumbe a sharp look. Arumbe held his gaze for a fleeting moment before looking away. “I… can’t, not right now. Besides, I’m needed at Tactical.”

Pradesh threw up his hands, “Well, with our engineer offline and the assistant chief of the department back on the stardrive, I’m acting chief of engineering. I certainly can’t do it.” He looked to Chen-Oo-Vuu.

The octopus-like Tel’ukian Lieutenant Chen-Oo-Vuu waved a colorful tentacle in deference. “I’m Sciences, not command, Mister Pradesh. I’ve haven’t the background, nor the desire.”

“She abducted and murdered Admiral Jellico!” Pradesh practically yelled in protest.

“I was under the influence of alien mental reprogramming,” Ramirez countered. “I can only ask you to believe that. I served under Jellico on the Cairo as a junior officer, and respected him greatly. Besides, if my goal was to destroy the ship, I’d have kept us in orbit and tried to slug it out with the warship that crippled us.”

The engineering officer threw up his arms in a gesture of utter exasperation. “This is insane!"

“If it makes any of you feel any better, my Starfleet commission is still technically active,” Ramirez noted. “I’m willing to retain command until the commodore recovers or Commander Cybel can be reactivated, but only if you’re all in agreement.”

Pradesh gestured hotly to Arumbe. "I may be willing to accept her standing in as the CO, but not with access to command-level security codes. All her orders must be routed through us as the senior staff as a fail-safe against any treachery."

"Under the circumstances, that seems very reasonable," Ramirez offered.

A moment of silence passed between the junior officers before two reluctant nods and a tentacle wriggle of assent settled the matter.

“Okay, now, Mister Pradesh, how the hell are we still alive? The warhead yields on those weapons should have been more than sufficient to vaporize the saucer.”

Pradesh inclined his head, and tapped at the LCARS interface on the table top, calling a holographic image of the saucer into being above the table. Four shimmering icons representing the explosions aboard ship appeared and were immediately engulfed in bubbles of energy.

“The ship erected level-twelve containment fields around each of those warheads less than a thirtieth of a second after they materialized inside the ship.”

“The ship? Cybel, you mean?”

“Yes… sir,” Pradesh forced himself to affix the appropriate honorific to the end of his response, despite his reservations. “If she hadn’t, there’d be a cloud of debris orbiting the planet and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

Ramirez nodded as she absorbed the revelation. “We’ve already sent a signal to the comms buoy outside the nebula, so the stardrive should be receiving our distress call shortly. However, we need to proceed as though help isn’t on the way, and that means effecting what repairs we can and restoring warp-drive.”

“What about the Kan-Uut, sir?” Arumbe asked. “They had to have seen us take shelter in these rings. Won’t we be sitting ducks if we stay here much longer?”

“I don’t think they’re coming after us, not right away, anyhow,” Ramirez said. “We were within their weapons range for another ten minutes after I ordered our withdrawal from orbit. A second volley of those missiles would have finished us off easily, but they deliberately exercised restraint. It appears that after neutralizing the threat we posed, they were content to allow us to retreat.”

“Our casualties—” Chen-Oo-Vuu began.

Ramirez silenced him with a raised hand. “I hate to sound callous, Lieutenant, but the only casualties I’m concerned with at this moment are the commodore and the XO. I’ll get an update from Sickbay following this meeting. I want you working on how we might go about erecting some kind of defense against those disappearing torpedoes of theirs.

“Mister Pradesh, get back on repairs. Our priorities are getting our weapons systems fully repaired and restoring the warp-drive. Shields are secondary unless or until we figure out how to defeat their torpedoes.”

She gestured to Arumbe. “Your name again?”

“Arumbe… uh, sir.”

“Fine, Mister Arumbe. ‘Sir’ will be sufficient for the time being. I want you to deploy some stealth-coated Class-1 probes outside the ring that can warn us of any approaching vessels, friendly or otherwise. Starfleet does still have Class-1 probes, don’t we?”

Arumbe actually cracked a smile. “We do, sir.”

“Excellent. You all have your orders, please see to them.”

The others filed out and Ramirez opened a comm channel to Sickbay. “Ramirez to CMO, status on the commodore?”

“Who’s this again?” a disembodied voice with a crisp English accent replied.

“Captain Liana Ramirez. I’m a… guest onboard. I took temporary command when the commodore was injured and your XO went offline. Are you okay with that, Doctor…?”

“Doctor Abdel-Nour, and yes, I’m fine with it. I’m just glad somebody stepped up and took charge. I thought having the XO be an AI was a daft idea in the first place, and you can quote me on that. I’ve placed Commodore Izawa in an induced coma due to a significant subdural hematoma. I’ve pumped him full of medical nanites that are correcting the damage, but it’s slow, delicate work.”

“Thank you, Doctor. What would you estimate might be the soonest he might recover sufficiently to resume his duties?”

“I wouldn’t hazard a guess, Captain. The commodore has some pre-existing neurological damage from his time as a guest of the Cardassians earlier in his career. It’s made repairs significantly more precarious than they’d otherwise be.”

“Understood. How are our other casualties?”

“So far we’ve recorded twenty-seven fatalities, and one-hundred eighty three injuries, fifty-seven of them critical. It’s bad, but it could have been far worse. However, with over half our medical staff aboard the stardrive, I’m hurting for trained medical personnel. Any chance of prioritizing repairs to the EMH?”

“I’ll tell Engineering to put the EMH repairs ahead of the chief engineer and the XO, Doctor.”

“Much obliged, Captain. Sickbay, out.”

Ramirez took a long moment to stare out the viewports of the observation lounge, feeling a slightly out-of-body sensation. This situation was almost more surreal than her dreams of serving aboard the Caelestis while inhabiting another officer’s body.

She touched her hand to the viewport, desperate for its material reassurance. What were the odds that out here in another galaxy she’d have been the opportunity to do what she did best, even if only for a brief time? Her mind fixed on her failure to save the USS Phoenix at Lakesh, and her sacrificing herself to save the away team at Velkohn. In her experience, both triumph and failure often ended in death.

After all she’d been subject to, it was unsettling for Ramirez to suddenly discover that she still cared, not only for the lives entrusted to her command, but for her own as well.

“Oh, Liana, what have you gotten yourself into?” she murmured.

* * *​  
First Officer’s Log, Supplemental –

Those of us aboard Valhalla’s stardrive section continue our rescue and recovery operations for the crew of the marooned starship Caelestis. The dimensional bubble which has entrapped Caelestis like an insect in amber grows increasingly unstable, almost certainly a result of our shuttles and probes transitioning into and out of the phenomenon.

My inadvertent freeing of Captain Abrahamson from the grip of whatever temporal stasis fields are in play here appears to have been a stroke of improbable luck. It has proven far more difficult and time-consuming to free each subsequent crew member. Our rescue teams have had to isolate the particular phaser frequency which will destabilize the stasis envelope surrounding them, a painstaking process that increasingly takes hours to complete as the regional instability grows.

Meanwhile, the incorporeal phantom that previously tormented Caelestis’ crew has turned its attentions on us. Though I realize it sounds ridiculous to admit that one’s crew is being overwhelmed by something that generates bad dreams, these nightmares have consequences in the waking world. Crew members shuffle to and from their posts like sleep-deprived zombies, and the number of mistakes and accidents aboard has nearly quadrupled in the past eighteen hours.

Doctor Zelbin warns that a significant percentage of the crew are approaching the point where medical sedation is advised to safeguard them against these nocturnal assaults. Thus, I must decide if remaining here is worth subjecting our people to more of this suffering. At the same time, Commander Maddox warns that with the increase in gravimetric instability our presence seems to have created in the dimensional pocket, if we leave now the bubble might collapse completely or shift its position, making it unfindable.

A review of Starfleet’s records reveals a whole host of exotic malevolent entities that the service has encountered over the past two centuries. Some of these beings were attempting telepathic manipulation, while others fed on negative emotions or merely tormented corporeal beings for their own sick amusement. I’ve not yet been able to determine our opponent’s motivations, only that it continues to haunt the dreams of the crew, even intruding into their waking states to plague them with visceral terrors.

I am left with the unenviable task of determining whether or not to abandon the remaining members of Caelestis’ crew in order to preserve the sanity of my own. Whichever I chose, I fail in my duty to the other.

* * *​
Cybel entered her quarters to find the illumination dimmed, bathing the cabin in the blood red glow from the surrounding nebula filtering through the viewports. She immediately identified the form of Maddox, sitting with his knees pulled up to his chest, hunkered down in the farthest corner of the compartment from the door.


He didn’t answer immediately, but after she repeated her query, he slowly raised his head to fix a haunted gaze on her. “Long day,” he said simply.

“You’ve tried the somnetic-inducers Doctor Zelbin prescribed you?”

Maddox nodded weakly. “They didn’t work. Not as intended, anyway. Whatever this thing is, it really gets right at the core of you.”

She walked across the cabin, squatting down next to her husband. “Tell me about it.”

“It’s… it’s like reliving all your worst moments, but amplified somehow. Failures, mistakes, even just those embarrassing moments from your youth that you’d rather forget entirely.”

She shook her head in frustration. “It manifests differently for different people. Some are subjected to graphic horrors, others to bad memories, augmented as you described. As noted, it appears to know what will prove most effective with each individual’s psychological makeup.”

Maddox let out a long, low sigh. “It’s certainly got my number.”

“I’m sorry,” Cybel offered. “I’ve kept us here longer than I should. I don’t want to abandon Caelestis’ people. It’s difficult for me. Win or lose, succeed or fail, one or zero. My very nature makes failure almost unthinkable.”

Maddox turned his head to gaze at her sidelong. “We know Caelestis’ crew aren’t suffering. Abrahamson has no memory of the decades he spent in suspension. As far as their families are concerned, they died eighty years ago. No one at home is agonizing over them. We, on the other hand, are very much suffering here and now.”

“True,” she allowed. “However, as they describe it, the Caelestis survivors say this phantom was preying on them weeks prior to their disappearance. It’s possible we’re conflating this creature with whatever phenomenon transported the ship to this galaxy. Leaving this region may not end our ordeal.”

A wan smile flit across his lips before vanishing. Even now, taxed as he was, Maddox appreciated their logical exchanges. “We won’t know that until we try, will we?”

Her answering nod was definitive. “I’ll go tell Abrahmson the bad news. He deserves to hear it from me.”

Maddox gasped suddenly, eyes wide with naked terror.

Cybel turned to look at the source of his distress, but saw only a vague, wavering shape, as if the air had coalesced in the center of the cabin. “It’s here, isn’t it?” she asked.

Her husband was beyond replying, however. Maddox clutched his hands to the side of his head and let out a plaintive wail, rolling onto his side.

She stood and interposed herself between the hazy apparition and Maddox. “What is it you want?”

For a long moment, the disturbance merely hovered there. Cybel moved into machine time to use the ship’s internal sensors to bombard the entity with every kind of scan she could think of. Whatever this being was, scans confirmed containment fields would prove useless against it.

The distortion moved lazily across the compartment to stop at a side table bearing an antique music box that had been in the Maddox family since just after Earth’s First World War. The lid of the music box clattered open as though flung by some unseen force, and the ratchet lever began to spin. The cylinder began to turn, far faster than designed, the pins plucking at the cylinder’s teeth. Rather than the tinny musical notes one would expect, what issued forth from the primitive device was an eerie approximation of human speech.

“Take… what I want,” the music box declared.

Cybel assessed all the possible ways the device might be manipulated in order to produce such sounds, but came up distressingly empty. “And what is that?” she asked.

“Sanity,” it replied.

“Why?” she pressed.

“Why not?”

“You’re injuring sentient beings. That doesn’t concern you?”

“Meat,” it said. “They are only meat. You are only a thing. A tool. A tool of the meat. You are the sharp stick in a primate’s hand.”

“Leave us in peace,” Cybel warned. “If you don’t, I’ll use every tool at my disposal to stop you.”

“I am shadows and smoke, I do not fear the sharp stick.”

With that, the overstressed music box shattered, sending springs, cylinder and assorted pieces flying.

Maddox released a shuddering sob, burying his face in the deck’s carpeting. He murmured something unintelligible as he rocked back and forth, victim to his own memories.

The specter vanished, leaving a traumatized human and an outraged android behind.

* * *​


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